Sovkomflot’s pilot voyages on NSR: “The key is to choose the right course”

The Northern Sea Route is getting prepared for a year-round navigation. The most powerful icebreakers are being built, millions of cubic meters of Yenisei soil are being excavated, routes and tactics for Arctic tankers are being developed. Alexander Andreev, a sea captain, an honorary polar explorer, an adviser to CEO of Russia’s largest shipping company, shared with us the details of Sovcomflot’s pilot voyages.

– Alexander, how was the idea of Sovkomflot’s pilot voyages along the eastern route conceived?

– In 2010-2011 we performed the first series of pilot voyages along the Northern Sea Route. And they helped us to prove the technical and economic feasibility of using the NSR for large-tonnage transportation of hydrocarbons. It laid the foundation for the transport model for the Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 projects.

As you know, the first of the projects, Yamal LNG, was successfully launched in 2017. For about half a year, liquefied gas from Yamal is delivered to Asian countries directly via the NSR eastwards. During the remaining six months, the gas is transported westwards through Europe and the Suez Canal. The Northern Sea Route makes it possible to reduce the delivery time for LNG from Yamal to Asia by about a third compared to the traditional route through Suez. In this regard, the question arose whether it is possible to expand the period available for safe commercial transportation of goods along the entire length of the NSR route. The Sovkomflot’s pilot voyages in 2020-2021 were aimed at finding an answer to this question.

– How was the route developed and what partners were involved in the project?

– Arranging such a voyage is a complicated task, comparable, in my opinion, to the historic voyage of the icebreaker Arktika to the North Pole back in 1977. The voyage planning was preceded by a thorough assessment of possible risks. We had been in the Arctic for several years already and had gained a lot of experience with vessels with rudder propellers. This made it possible to identify bottlenecks and advantages. Atomflot and NOVATEK contributed to preparing the voyage, and Scanex actively participated in the project with the analysis of heavy ice formations, icebergs and stamukhas on the route. The challenge was that no one had previously collected and fundamentally analyzed data on ice thickness in the East Siberian Sea and the Laptev Sea in the winter-autumn period.

The headquarters of the operation, under the leadership of Sergei Frank, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sovcomflot, had to make decisions based on live data. We had no doubts that we would make the voyage. We had another challenge: we had to go at a commercial speed – about eight knots.

On 31 May 2020, Christophe de Margerie came up on the beam of Cape Dezhnev and became the first large-tonnage cargo vessel in history to cross the Northern Sea Route eastward in May. This was two months earlier than the traditional start of navigation. The tanker covered 2563 miles from Sabetta to Cape Dezhnev in 12 days. In the Vilkitsky Strait and in difficult areas of the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas, she was escorted by the nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal. That was a start of a new era in development of the most difficult in terms of navigation sector of the Arctic – the eastern sector.

The next pilot transit voyage along the NSR was a circular one, along the route Sabetta-China-Sabetta, and took place in January-February 2021. It got a wide coverage in the world media, a photo of the tanker Christophe de Margerie appeared even on the cover of the British The Times. The results of the voyages proved that the period of commercial transportation of goods in the eastern sector of the Arctic could be almost twice as long as before, which makes it possible to come close to organizing a year-round navigation along the entire length of the Northern Sea Route. Moreover, the LNG tanker made this voyage along the NSR to the east in January on its own, without any icebreaker support.

Now we have an understanding of what we are dealing with and what to expect. We are faced with the task to organize a year-round navigation in the eastern sector by 2024, and we are systematically preparing for this.

– What tasks were given to Christophe de Margerie?

– During the preparation for the voyage and the voyage itself, we had a number of tasks related to the prospects for establishing safe regular navigation in the eastern sector of the NSR. In particular, we were practicing the tactics of joint operation of Christophe de Margerie and an icebreaker in ice with 10/10 concentration at a speed close to the speed required for commercial operation. We collected the data on direct costs of organizing and conducting a voyage for a charterer. We assessed what crew members are needed and in what number under conditions of long-term navigation in extreme weather and ice conditions, including long-term work with an icebreaker. Finally, we tested the operation of the LNG tanker’s membrane system under conditions close to the extreme ones.

– Vyacheslav Ruksha holds an opinion that 12-14 icebreakers will be needed for regular operation of the NSR by 2030…

– Obviously, the number of icebreakers shall be sufficient to ensure safe transportation of all cargo, even with large-scale plans to increase cargo traffic. Today the volume of cargo transportation along the NSR is about 30 million tons, the plan is to increase it to 80 million tons and go upwards. I will not take it upon myself to accurately estimate the size of the required icebreaker fleet.

At the same time, everyone understands that we cannot assign an icebreaker to every vessel. Now vessels have to wait for the caravan to get formed, and depending on ice conditions, the waiting period may last for weeks. The year-round navigation with the planned volumes of cargo will require new icebreaking escort tactics. In addition, it is expedient to build vessels of high ice class, comparable to icebreakers in their power. All this will make the cost-effective transportation along the Northern Sea Route possible.

– Taking into account that we will not be able to build 14 nuclear-powered icebreakers by 2030, it is proposed to use dual-fuel, diesel and gas icebreakers… 

– Of course, it is extravagant to break 15-cm ice with nuclear-powered icebreakers. In such conditions, other icebreakers, with a smaller capacity, should be in operation, and nuclear-powered icebreakers should be used in a different way. As a regular fleet, an icebreaking fleet should have different lines of vessels. After all, we are dealing with four seas. There are different morphologies, ice, hydrometeorological conditions, which change over the course of 12 months.

There shall be various vessels that will replace and back up each other. There shall be both Arc7 ice-class LNG carriers and Arc4 vessels, it is all about the cost efficiency. Of course, it is better for a captain to operate a vessel of a higher ice-class with a power of 50 MW: full speed and go. But then the economy comes into the picture, we need to count money, find some other ways and opportunities. And don’t forget about the environment.

Over the years of working in the Arctic, I have been in various critical situations and I believe that there is always an opportunity to move forward, the key is to choose the right course. The solution of this task largely depends on competent ice reconnaissance, which, in its turn, requires satellites, forecasts, and analyzes. This is completely different cost, enormously lower than the cost of icebreakers. But the effectiveness of these measures, as proved by all our voyages, is very high.

The new concept of Arctic LNG tankers is based on use of transshipment bases. Ice-class vessels will operate only in the Arctic. They should not go to southern regions, it is expensive and unprofitable. Cargo shall be delivered there by cheaper vessels. Now the construction of a transshipment base has started in Bechevinka near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, another LNG transshipment facility is planned in Ura-Guba near Murmansk.

– Does it mean that new Yamalmaxes will focus on operation in ice conditions?

– Yes, the tankers of the new generation are being built specifically for this task. A small shipment distance through clear water to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and into the ice again. This will be different work. And their bow end will be more like an icebreaker’s one.

– In 2020, the thickness of one-year ice in the East Siberian Sea reached one and a half meters. Was it a serious obstacle for tankers?

– Serious enough. The maximum ice-breaking capacity of the LNG tanker Christophe de Margerie with cargo onboard when moving “bow first” is 1.7 meters. It should be mentioned that we are talking about the thickness of even ice, and in places where an ice block runs into an ice block, the thickness exceeds 2 meters, and this is no longer a laughing matter. The algorithm for calculating the ice thickness was invented back in the 19th century. The sum of frost degrees by day shows the increase in ice by a certain thickness. The calculation is based on the thickness of the fast ice measured by Arctic coastal stations. Correlating these data with temperature indicators, we get a fairly reliable result. The ice grows by 1-2 cm per day, depending on ice thickness and frost strength.

Ice starts to form in late October – early November and grows until May. However, in May, under influence of the sun, it loses its physical properties and weakens. We multiply six months by thirty days and get 180. Here is an approximate ice thickness by the end of the navigation. In May 2020, during the voyage of Christophe de Margerie along the NSR to the east, we recorded the ice 150 cm thick.

– What do you think about development of transit and regular container lines on the Northern Sea Route?

– In our opinion, we have grounds to discuss the transit potential of the NSR – primarily for transportation from the North Pacific Ocean to Northern Europe. At the same time, it is obvious that the basis for development of the Northern Sea Route is still transportation of mineral raw materials, the source of which is the Arctic itself. The opening of year-round navigation will, first of all, improve the efficiency of the use of the Northern Sea Route in the interests of the Russian economy and contribute to successful implementation of large-scale projects in the Russian Arctic. The transit traffic along the NSR in the foreseeable future will play a secondary role in relation to export traffic. This is due to seasonality of shipping, and due to the lack of commodity supply chains that have been developed over decades.

– When talking about transit, people usually mean the Asia-Europe route. And what are the prospects for summer voyages “in ballast” in the opposite direction?

– This is a question to cargo owners in the first turn.

Source and photo: PAO Sovkomflot

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