There’s a reason the Urho and Voima – two huge icebreakers bunkered in the docks at Katajanokka – are popular with Helsinkians. It’s not just because their towering hulls make a good picture for tourists to snap. The Gulf of Finland freezes every year and exposure to the harshest winter conditions has bred a deep understanding of ice among Finns.
These two vast ships were built to secure the waterways so vital to the country’s economy – more than 80 per cent of Finnish foreign trade travels by sea – and form a part of what Captain Jarkko Toivola, head of the Winter Navigation Unit at the Finnish Transport Agency (fta), calls his country’s “mature ice system”. “In a hard winter, there are about 5,000 icebreaker assistances,” he says, from his Helsinki offices, where a scale model of the Voima sits proudly in the foyer. “This is a totally different scale of operation from anywhere else in the world.”
As the Arctic ice melts, this deep-seated knowledge is becoming increasingly marketable. The region is subject to a new and intense phase of development and corporations and governments are jockeying for position. Thirteen per cent of the world’s remaining oil and 30 per cent of its gas is thought to exist in the Arctic.
Aker Arctic, Finland’s largest icebreaker engineering company, is responsible for 60 per cent of the world’s icebreakers. Which is why its managing director, Mikko Niini, can count the governments of Canada, China and Russia among his clients, as well as a host of corporate names with a distinctly Russian flavour – including Norilsk Nickel, Gazprom and Rosneft. Niini clearly knows his market.
“Today we are concentrating on Arctic issues only,” he says as he shows monocle around Aker’s Helsinki facility, which overlooks the container port at Vuosaari on the eastern flank of the city. “We are not doing anything else.”
Vuosaari is home to Aker’s ice model basin and some 1,300 tonnes of freezing water, which is key to its global success. Here, extreme ice conditions are recreated on a miniature scale to test some of the world’s toughest ships prior to real-world production. “We build the boats on a 1/30 scale, so we need to build the ice on a 1/30 scale also,” he says.
Niini is happy juggling geopolitics but he is also the sort of executive who moves nimbly around the minus 20c ice-modelling facility wearing a good suit while everyone else is dressed in thick winter jackets. The facility is a hybrid of hi-tech and craft, somewhere between a workshop and a colossal walk-in freezer.
Small, hand-modelled ships wait to enter the vast water tank; soon the space will be filled with a fine mist of water droplets, settling on the surface to simulate snow. Testing here shows how Aker-designed icebreakers, ice-going vessels and structures for Arctic oil and gas field operations will cope in different extreme conditions. They can experiment with the manoeuvrability of a ship and tweak the design of a hull or power thruster accordingly. For example, Aker discovered that when using multi-directional azimuth thrusters (propellers that power the ship but also act as rudders), certain cargo vessels performed better stern-first, smashing into the ice backwards.
“Developing new concepts for new operations is our bread and butter,” says Niini. “We use model testing to verify the novel ideas we develop.”
Aker’s clientele is global but one of its concepts is in production not far away at the huge Arctech Helsinki Shipyard in the centre of the city, where employees traverse the site by bicycle. Here, Arctech’s managing director Esko Mustamäki shows monocle a €76 million icebreaker ship it is building for the Russian Ministry of Transport.
He allows himself a smile at the unusual, asymmetric design of the ship – an angle that will allow it to be piloted sideways into the ice, cutting a wide channel. “Some people think it’s a radical design,” he confides. “This is at the very least an innovative vessel.”
The Russian icebreaker is the latest of more than 400 ships built during a 150-year history at these yards, which have changed ownership and name several times. The current rebranding as Arctech reflects a refocusing of efforts back to the Arctic and a return to what the Finns do best. A glance down the list of ships built here over time shows Arctech has been busy making cruise vessels too and retro-fitting existing ships with everything from oil-recovery equipment to pizza restaurants.
But the boom in cruise vessel and ferry manufacturing that powered the global shipping industry since the 1980s is over, according to Mustamäki. “Even the Chinese are now suffering the same problems as the European yards,” he says. “Simply put, since 2008 there are not enough orders.”
Arctech’s future may well be secured by the thawing north. Ironically, less ice in the Arctic means more icebreaking ships will be required as companies become ever braver in pushing their resource operations into the frozen ocean. Ships have already started to cross the Northern Sea Route and scientists from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center predict that the North Pole itself could be ice-free in summer by 2030.
In a tough but growing international market, Finnish yards now compete for icebreaker contracts with big players from the broader global shipping industry, and must fight to protect their niche. Success for companies such as Aker Arctic doesn’t necessarily translate into success for Finnish manufacturers: ships currently in the design phase at Aker will go on to be built in Canada and China.
The new €125m fta icebreaker, commissioned this year by the Finnish government, will also go out to mandatory EU open tender. Captain Toivola is secretive about who is competing. Will it be frustrating if the build goes outside of Finland? “I can’t give a view,” he says.“It’s a sensitive matter. But the design of it also went to open tender – and was won in competition by Aker Arctic.”
Meanwhile, the surge in interest in the High North is ushering in a new era of international co-operation – both in geo-politics and manufacturing – and Aker is clear about the importance of being in on the act. Back in his office, Niini gives an example of a recent infrastructure project: three 70,000 tonne-capacity ice-worthy oil tankers to serve the new Russian Arctic port of Varandey on the Barents Sea, designed by Aker, built in South Korea and with Russian money – to serve world markets. In part, this is down to Russian pragmatism.
“They simply don’t have the technology or money to develop the Arctic alone,” adds Niini, who goes on to explain the importance of the port to the future of oil exports. “Varandey has now been in successful operation for more than five years and other oil companies such as Total are joining for these export systems, so that Arctic traffic is increasing and more of these tankers will be needed in the future.”
That the Finns have much to offer internationally is recognised – albeit from a different perspective – by environmentalist Juha Flinkman, from his offices at the Finnish Environment Institute (syke). “We have a lot of know-how here and Finland should be even more active,” he says. “In the future we should be even more involved.”
In typical Finnish style, even Flinkman loves a big ship, and part of his research role at syke involves working on an icebreaker for months at a time. But as a scientist unbeholden to the imperatives of commerce and trade, he is clear about more global challenges ahead. In fact, he’s off to Brussels to address a meeting of the European Defence Agency about navigation and military affairs in the Arctic environment.
“I’m going to say that if the polar ice cap melts, it’s going to change commercial navigation, military operations – everything,” he says. “And that the worst threat to world security is what happens when ocean currents change.”
It’s clear that this changing climate will have an effect on the icebreaking industry. Yet in the harsh and increasingly competitive environment of the High North, Finnish nautical expertise – with its icebreaking heritage – looks well placed to tackle the challenges ahead.
Monocle meets Koji Sekimizu, the man responsible for maritime safety and security in the Arctic. It’s a huge task but thanks to his Polar Code, Sekimizu is confident he can deliver.
Koji Sekimizu is tasked with bringing order to the development of the Arctic high seas. As secretary-general of the International Maritime Organisation (imo), the UN organisation concerned with the safety of shipping and cleaner oceans, he is the driving force behind a new draft Polar Code that will regulate the activities of oil and mining-industry ships as they rush to extend their operations into the Arctic.
With 36 years of working on maritime issues at the Japanese Ministry of Transport and the imo, starting as a ship inspector in 1977, Sekimizu brings considerable experience to his role. We meet him in his London offices overlooking the Thames on his return from a week aboard the Russian state nuclear icebreaker, the 50 Let Pobedy.
M:How was your trip? What is it like to be on an Arctic icebreaker on the Northern Sea Route [NSR]?
KS: There was a lot of sound, noise and vibration continuously. When our vessel encountered a huge mass of ice even an icebreaker as powerful as ours was forced to change course. It was really dynamic. We met the convoy of another icebreaker leading an lng [gas] tanker and they were struggling to get through. Our icebreaker had to help them out.
M:What is the traffic like up there?
KS: This year I was informed there have been more than 400 requests made and Russian authorities have already endorsed more than 350 passages. This has been a dramatic increase over the past four to five years [there were 46 passages in 2012 and only 10 in 2010] and they are expecting more dramatic increases in the coming years.
M:Do you foresee an increase in trade because of this?
KS: That belongs to the future. But the fact is the ice is melting and I’m sure that route will attract interest from shipping – particularly the industry carrying oil and gas from Russia or Norway to Asian countries. The total length of passage is around 6,000 [nautical] miles if you go through nsr; if you choose the Suez Canal route the total length would be doubled to 12,000 miles. If you go round the African continent it’s tripled.
M:How can you ensure that the Russian Arctic infrastructure is capable of supporting an increase in traffic?
KS: There are similar elements when it comes to regulating any support system. First and foremost we need to establish international regulations. This means a robust new Polar Code in 2015, to be implemented in 2017.
M:And this code is mandatory for everybody, including Russia?
KS: This is compulsory. This will cover ship design, structure, equipment, qualifications for seafarers, environmental regulations, communication. Those are fundamental conditions when it comes to the future of this passage.
M:What happens if there is an accident in these sensitive environmental regions?
KS: We need to be prepared for any incident, not only in the Arctic but all over the world. Maritime rescue and coordination centres need to be established [in the Arctic], and supported. The Russian government has already established a centre in Dixon, to be supported by two subcentres. When it comes to the search and rescue operations they need to provide actual resources – boats and other equipment – for operation in what is a very difficult environment.
Most icebreakers are diesel powered and potter around in waterways that freeze for only part of the year but because of the thickness and extent of Arctic ice the Russian government has since 1959 operated nuclear-powered icebreakers. Today, run by state agency Rosatomflot, these icebreakers keep Arctic shipping routes open; they have also been chartered by tour companies running tourists to the North Pole. Their long-term operation, however, has not been without mishap. In 2011 a leaky reactor coolant system caused the Taymyr to undergo substantial repair.
Icebreakers are designed to smash their way around frozen waters, creating channels that more ordinary vessels can follow. The archetypal icebreaker is powerful for its size – and heavy – and can generate a lot of force at low speed. It has a rounded, reinforced bow, which pushes brittle sea ice aside away from its more delicate propellers.
The bow can also be ridden up onto very thick ice, or used to ram it repeatedly, so the heavy weight of the vessel fractures the ice and carves out a clear passage for other ships. Oil and gas companies have recently demanded a more flexible type of ship for use around their new refineries in the thawing Arctic, able to operate in open water as well as ice. From this the double-acting ship (DAS) was born, which operates bow first in open water and stern first in lighter-ice conditions. The DAS model uses powerful multi-directional thrusters, which “mill” the ice and flush it away from the ship.