As Arctic itineraries proliferate, operators and investors with polar ambitions need to know what they're in for. Reko-Antti Suojanen, CEO of Aker Arctic, discusses the challenges of designing ships to make the most of the far north.
The historic voyage of Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage in 2016 was a signal that the Arctic had opened itself to luxury liners as well as purpose-built expedition vessels. More operators are sure to follow as the call of the ice attracts a growing section of the market. However, adding a polar itinerary to one's collection comes with a few extra considerations. Ice-strengthening the hull of a ship is just the beginning; operators must also factor in the unique safety challenges of operating in remote locations with low temperatures and strict environmental regulations.
Based in Helsinki with a portfolio that includes 60% of the world's icebreakers, naval architecture firm Aker Arctic has seen it all. Its services comprise consulting, design, conversion and construction engineering, as well as testing - whether full-scale or using a model in its custom icebreaking test basin. The company's work with polar research vessels and cargo ships, as well as its studies of Arctic operations, makes its architects the go-to resource for cruise lines looking to expand northward.
CEO Reko-Antti Suojanen says the main challenge of designing or converting a polar cruise vessel is the need for versatility.
"If you want to improve the capability for sailing in ice, you decrease the capability for sailing in open water," he explains. To optimise both modes of operation, his team often uses an energy-efficient 'double-acting' design in which a ship moves stern-first in icy conditions and bow-first in open water.
Recently, the team designed an icebreaker for the Finnish Government that consumes 40% less energy than the government's previous ships. The double-acting technique can reduce fuel consumption by 50% in icebreaking conditions, which is especially significant considering recommendations against the use of heavy fuels in the pristine Arctic environment.
"It's a very important factor for the cruise industry," says Suojanen. "Carbon emissions will harm the Arctic environment and white snow will turn to grey - and nobody wants that."
While icebreaking cargo and research vessels might skimp on cosy cabins, a cruise ship can't be quite so Spartan. In Suojanen's experience, the icebreaking itself can be both an attraction and a burden when it comes to passenger comfort.
"It would be of high value for the tourists to get the feel of the ship really going in and breaking the ice, because it's quite a magnificent element," he says about expedition cruises. "But the effect is very heavy loads for the vessels, and vibrations and noise, which may make it difficult for passengers to sleep."
Additionally, ships operating in Arctic waters now need to abide by the Polar Code - a set of regulations developed by IMO that cover marine pollution and safety, and which came into force on 1 January 2017. Among its major requirements are stringent standards for waste discharge, additional guidelines on training and lifesaving, and the rule that each vessel must carry a ship-specific Polar Waters Operation Manual (PWOM), which Aker Arctic develops for its clients.
Part of the reason for this is that an emergency situation in the Arctic can be several times more critical than in warmer climes. Unpredictable weather and low temperatures limit search and rescue capacity - which becomes more serious when applied to cruise liners carrying thousands, while fewer ports or ships are likely to be nearby to help. Suojanen's advice to all his clients is to do their homework.
"Talk to people who have been working in the Arctic before making any decisions for investment. There are safety risks that can arise, but also, from an economic point of view, things can be much more complicated than they are thought to be at the beginning," he says.
The Arctic has undeniable potential as an itinerary, but it requires commitment and thorough understanding to yield safe, profitable operations. Whether as consultants, designers or shipbuilders, the knowledge of experts is invaluable.