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“The closer I keep her, the faster she goes.” It’s 8.00, maybe an hour before dawn, and first officer Miikka Ylikoski is steering the icebreaker Kontio away from the Finnish port of Oulu. About 200 metres astern, following the channel that Kontio is cutting through the ice, is Ternsund, a Danish tanker heading for Pori further down Finland’s coast.

Ylikoski is performing a delicate push-me-pull-you act from the controls on the starboard side of Kontio’s bridge. If the 33-year-old keeps Ternsund close, the tanker has clearer water – though if Kontio suddenly strikes thicker ice and slows abruptly, he risks a collision. Then again, if he accelerates Kontio a safer distance ahead, Ternsund might find the going heavier and slower as chunks of broken ice float back into the channel, or Ylikoski might lose sight of the ship behind him altogether if the weather deteriorates. Right now it’s a cloudless minus 20c but fog thick enough to cloak Ternsund could descend within minutes. “This is why icebreaking is interesting,” says second officer Simo Ikonen. “Normal navigation is about keeping ships as far from each other as possible. This is the opposite.”

“And when we have to tow them,” says Ylikoski, “it becomes a contact sport.” (This is, we will learn a few days later, true.) The lights on the bridge are off during hours of darkness. The only illumination is provided by Kontio’s radar and computer screens – and the moon. Kontio ploughs forward another hour until water becomes visible ahead, inky black.

“Yeah, I’ll let this guy go,” says Ylikoski. He calls Ternsund to tell its crew that they’ll shortly be on their own and Ternsund responds with thanks. Ylikoski turns Kontio as Ternsund continues along the path the icebreaker has cleared. “If he can’t hit that,” says Ylikoski, nodding towards the span of open sea, just visible in the day’s first light, “he can wait for spring.”

From December to May, Finland’s ports in the Gulf of Bothnia are icebound – or would be, were it not for craft like Kontio, one of nine vessels operated by Arctia, Finland’s state-owned icebreaking company. While Finland has obvious natural advantages where becoming an icebreaking powerhouse is concerned, the country’s dominance in the field is startling. Roughly 80 per cent of all icebreakers afloat today were designed by Finnish companies, and about 60 per cent built in Finnish shipyards. Russia, unsurprisingly, owns the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, much of it Finnish-built. However, since 2015 the world’s most prolific builder of icebreakers, Arctech Helsinki Shipyard, has been wholly owned by Russia through its United Shipbuilding Corporation, although sanctions against Russia have prompted it to seek buyers.

Icebreaking is poised to become a growth industry. If, as widely anticipated, dwindling Arctic ice opens new sea passages and strategic faultlines, those paths will require clearing; northern nations have their eyes on new trade routes, research possibilities and natural resources. For the icebreakers, there will be plenty of work to do even if there’s less ice to break. In the interests of maximising capacity and minimising fuel consumption, modern freighters and tankers are built larger but with less powerful engines than they used to be and can’t get in or out of iced-over ports under their own steam.

Some countries are struggling to catch up. In late 2018, the head of the US coast guard, commandant Karl Schultz, said that the US needs at least six more icebreakers; the US presently fields two, against Russia’s 40-odd. A US shipyard will get that business but Finland has hopes of meeting other demands: outside Finland’s icebreaking season, Arctia charters its ships for missions elsewhere. Bookings in recent years have seen Arctia’s ships breaking ice for scientific and commercial missions as far afield as Greenland and Alaska. Arctia’s multipurpose vessels, Nordica and Fennica, have performed non-icebreaking work in the Mediterranean and off the coast of west Africa.

Kontio, launched in 1987, is 99 metres long and just over 24 metres wide. Monocle gets on board in Oulu, the docks of which are shrouded in the vapours of the Stora Enso paper mills. For the next 10 days, before returning to port to change some crew and load supplies, Kontio will ensure that ships can get in and out of Oulu’s port.

On the outside, Kontio is handsome, painted in the blue and white of Finland’s flag and emblazoned with a silhouette of a bear between the second and third decks (kontio is a Finnish word for “bear” – as is otso, the name of Kontio’s sister ship, launched in 1986). Inside, Kontio is comfortably appointed, with capacious common areas, a small library, a gym, laundries and (because this is Finland) two saunas. The cabins are snug yet spacious. The 1980s fixtures have endured long enough to acquire a certain retro charm, televisions and DVD players offer means of whiling away the extremely long winter evenings and the wi-fi is pretty good, considering. The food served thrice daily in the saloon is hearty and delicious, and the stewards diligently observe Finnish culinary tradition: pea soup on Thursdays and all meals washed down with kotikalja, a home-brewed (or, in this case, ship-brewed) non-alcoholic beer.

Kontio’s captain on this deployment is 46-year-old Veli Luukkala. Like most aboard, he has a background in other forms of seafaring; Kontio’s officers regard an icebreaker commission as the pinnacle, rather than a way station. “It keeps you on your toes and you can only learn it by doing it,” says Luukkala. “You have to learn to see ice, to read ice, to know what’s going to happen. And it’s manual driving. You have to be, well, not crazy but willing to take little risks. If you’re too cautious you won’t get anything done. And you’re doing something powerful, which is kind of rare in this world.”

Kontio’s crew work in rotations of 20 days aboard, 10 days at home. At sea, most stand six-hour watches (it’s different for engineers, who work 12 hours on, 12 hours off; for stewards, whose shifts are geared towards mealtimes; and for the captain, who sets his own hours).

Most of the tasks that Kontio performs on this tour are straightforward: clearing paths for tankers and freighters through the narrow shipping lanes outside Oulu, the largest port in the Bay of Bothnia, is especially important for Finland’s exports of forestry products. About 550 ships visit the port annually, taking 3.6 million tonnes of goods in or out. Without icebreakers, the heftier among those ships might just about hack their way through during the winter months; most could not.

Some jobs are trickier. One afternoon Kontio gets a call from one of two ships following the icebreaker: the scarlet-hulled Swedish cement carrier Furuvik has got stuck, despite Kontio’s best efforts. This is a situation that can become dangerous: if there’s sufficient pressure from converging floes, ice will climb the sides of a ship. The swiftest means of reducing that pressure is smashing the ice enclosing the stranded vessel, and that’s what Kontio does, turning back on its path, steering head on at Furuvik to clear the channel afresh, then pulling starboard to pass a matter of metres alongside.“That’s always fun,” says Luukkala as Furuvik resumes its voyage. “It’s one of those childhood dreams, to be in charge of big machinery.”

Another incident makes national news. One night, Kontio is leading FWN Solide, a Dutch tanker nearing the end of its journey from Rotterdam. Solide is not carrying any cargo, which leaves it too light and its hull and propeller too high in the water to deliver enough power to push thicker ice aside.

Towing is the riskiest of an icebreaker’s roles, likened by Kontio’s crew to pulling a semi-trailer with a minivan. The ships can collide and today they do. It happens so fast that you can barely see it even if you’re looking straight at it, and it doesn’t feel like any big deal: the impact doesn’t cause anyone on the bridge to so much as adjust their footing. But something as massive as the 145-metre Solide doesn’t need to be moving fast to make a dent. From the protruding bulb beneath Solide’s bow, a fountain of ballast water spews through the crack that has been put in its hull.

Solide continues to Oulu and to an appointment with a welder. Kontio, its stern protected by rubber buffers, is undamaged. Within 90 minutes of the collision, a report of the accident appears on the website of Helsinki evening paper Iltalehti; photos of the ding in Solide’s bow are published on subsequent days. This may be symptomatic of a slow news week but it says something about the rarity of such incidents, and the prominence of icebreakers in the Finnish consciousness.

Kontio’s officers enjoy telling the story of one advertisement for four vacancies that received more than 150 enquiries. It’s not difficult to see why. Aside from the self-evident importance of the work, the views from the office can prompt an amount of cursing at the years you have not spent serving aboard an icebreaker. We are predisposed to thinking of ice as lifeless: “frozen” is a word denoting desolate stasis of all kinds. But when there’s this much of it, it comes alive, shifting in the wind to produce anarchic sculptures and strangely symmetrical patterns in shades from silver and aqua to lilac. Some floes are as crisp as hotel bedsheets, some crack like jackhammered paving slabs, others churn like stirred porridge.

And there is actual life out here. Tracks in the snow atop the ice suggest foxes and rabbits; one afternoon, an eagle leads Kontio. As spring nears, say the crew, they will encounter seals by the hundred, as well as otters, reindeer and wolves; the ship’s lore includes one instance of Kontio’s crane being used to rescue a moose that had misjudged the ice’s thickness. We pass a few determined (or perhaps insane) fisherfolk, angling through holes drilled next to where they’ve parked their snowmobiles – or, in one insouciant instance, a car.

Early one morning, first officer Ylikoski is at the controls as Kontio leads Tundraland, a Swedish cargo ship, heading into Oulu after a five-day schlep from Zeebrugge. Overnight an especially thick floe has drifted into the middle of Oulu’s fairways. Kontio has made two passes to cut it up, first turning the bedsheets to paving slabs, then the paving slabs to porridge, to allow Tundraland to get into port and to keep northern Finland connected to the world’s trade routes. Dead ahead, an orange sun rises between a white horizon and a pink sky. Ylikoski is grinning. “Going back to normal ships would feel very boring after this.”


Watch the film now

If you’d like to take a closer look at Kontio you can climb aboard with Monocle Films: watch episode one and two.

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