This September will mark two years since the wreck of HMS Terror, the ship belonging to 19th-century British explorer Sir John Franklin, was discovered at the bottom of an Arctic bay south of King William Island, in the Canadian far north.

The vessel, along with Franklin’s flagship HMS Erebus, believed to have been lost to the annals of maritime history, sank in 1846, during a doomed attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage. All 129 men on the expedition perished.

For the best part of 150 years, the ill-fated voyage was held up by adventurers as a cautionary tale of the unforgiving conditions of the Northwest Passage; a stark lesson in man’s futility when gripped by the teeth of nature.

However, these famed waters, which surround much of the Arctic rim of North America, are changing. While impassable during the depths of winter, the Northwest Passage consistently thaws in the summer months as a result of global warming, opening it up to cruise operators.

According to recent figures, today, there are around ten times as many ships venturing along the straits as there were 20 years ago. And while modern cruise liners are infinitely sturdier than the reinforced wooden ships of the past – such as those used on the Franklin expedition – operators cannot for a second take the safety of their passengers for granted.

Silversea Cruises, based out of Monaco, is one such operator that currently offers passengers the opportunity to take in the Arctic and Greenland. Conrad Combrink, the group’s senior vice-president of strategic development for expeditions and experiences, talks about some of the main contingency measures that need to be put in place when navigating the region.

“Silversea vessels operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters must fulfil the Polar Code requirements in order to navigate safely in those remote waters,” he explains. “Those requirements include detailed risk assessments, contingency measures and procedures to mitigate any emergency situation – as required by the authorities – as well as the storing of additional safety equipment.”

The Polar Code that Combrink alludes to was brought in by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on 1 January 2017. The regulations, geared towards improving safety and environmental protection in Arctic and Antarctic waters, are intended to provide greater clarification for operators as to their safety obligations.

However, this hasn’t quite been the case for other cruise firms, says Markus Aarnio, chairman of Foreship, a naval-architecture and marine-engineering company that offers services for shipowners looking to receive Polar Code recognition for their fleets.

No responsible captain would go to the trouble to enter ice areas that might require an icebreaker’s help. In Antarctica, itineraries are properly planned to avoid areas not suitable for the safe operations of the ship.
– Conrad Combrink

“Based on our experiences, there has been some confusion in the market between Polar Code and Polar Class,” explains Aarnio. The latter term refers to the ice-class regulation developed by the International Association of Classification Societies, governing mainly the steel structures of ice-going vessels. “A ship can be recognised as being a Polar Code ship, without being Polar Class.”

This confusion aside, an increasing number of cruise operators are now venturing into polar waters. They range from some of the industry’s household names, such as Norwegian Cruise Lines and Crystal Cruises, to slightly smaller players, including Norwaybased Hurtigruten and Silversea.

Crystal cleared

In 2016, Crystal Serenity made its maiden – and much-publicised – voyage along the Northwest Passage and completed a second trip in 2017. Speaking to Vice last year, Molly Morgan, a spokesperson for the group, revealed that Serenity was not assisted on its voyages by icebreakers belonging to the Canadian Government. Rather, the sip was entirely self-sufficient, guided by its own icebreakers.

Silversea also has a self-sufficient fleet, although it does have icebreakers on standby depending on ice conditions – provided by the US or Canada in the Northwest Passage, and Russia in the Northeast Passage. Even so, when its Silver Cloud vessel enters Antarctica later this year, Combrink says icebreakers won’t be necessary.

“There certainly won’t be any icebreakers on standby in Antarctica, as no responsible captain would go to the trouble to enter ice areas that might require an icebreaker’s help,” he says. “In Antarctica, itineraries are properly planned to avoid areas not suitable for the safe operations of the ship.

“Our operations do not foresee major ice navigation or navigations in areas where icebreakers are required. It’s only in particular passages, such as the Northwest or the Northeast passages, depending on the ice conditions, that icebreakers may be arranged on standby to mitigate risk and allow safe operations.”

“Our ships have to be fully self-sufficient,” Combrink continues. “Itinerary planning and execution is made so that there are always enough stores, provisions and bunkering to allow a safety margin for the frequent unforeseen changes of itinerary that occur in Arctic areas due to meteorological conditions.”

Ahead of Crystal Serenity’s first voyage two years ago, the operator faced criticism from environmentalists over the vessel’s size – it weighs in at 68,870gt – and will have a potential negative impact on “one of Earth’s last frontiers”, as the author Will Oremus wrote at the time in an op-ed in Slate.

Crystal appears to have taken these concerns on board, having declined to send Serenity to the Arctic this year. Instead, a smaller expedition ship, Crystal Endeavour, which weighs 25,000gt, will take its place in 2019. However, Aarnio isn’t convinced that smaller ships necessarily equate to greater safety.

“We believe there are specific issues related to the smaller vessels that are being designed and built for expedition cruising in polar waters,” he says. “Smaller does not mean that safety or energy efficiency should take a lower priority than is the case for bigger ships.

“Our view is that lack of consistency in some of the initial designs being rushed to market may conflict with established safety and environmental values. In particular, ‘Safe Return to Port’ provisions for cruise ships were developed for very good reasons, and some of the smaller expedition ship designs do not meet them.”

So, what would a solid design constitute? “A good design today would already fulfil SOLAS 2020 [Safety of Life at Sea, an IMO regulation] damage stability requirements, instead of the SOLAS 2009 provisions,” answers Aarnio. “But our view is that these newer requirements are not always being met in the most intelligent way from a passenger-ship perspective.”

Testing the waters

In 2013, the US Coast Guard (USCG), cruise line industry and emergency response teams came together to coordinate ‘Black Swan’, an offshoreemergency exercise for testing and evaluating safety procedures at sea.

The exercise – the largest rescueoperations drill ever conducted by the USCG – involved everything, from testing emergency procedures and search-andrescue coordination, to the abandonship process and the management of landing sites.

Jeff Morgan, CEO of Aviem, a disasterservices group and participant in the drill, recalls it as a clear declaration of intent from the cruise industry as to its obligations in case of an emergency. This, after all, was only a year after the Costa Concordia disaster, in which 33 people lost their lives when the ship ran aground off the Tuscan coast.

“We looked at the example of a ship sinking and how to safely evacuate people,” he says. “It was about safely getting these people to shore and setting up a landing site – the designated location where lifeboats or rescue vessels would make contact with land.

“What follows is passenger and crew accountability, and assessing any immediate needs. Then there’s a standard triage process; from there, people are either transported to hospital or taken to reception centres. It takes that level of detail.”

Generally speaking, wherever they are sailing to in the world, the cruise industry is becoming more attentive to emergency planning, claims Morgan, whose group has been serving the cruise industry since 2005.

“If you look at the top tier of cruise companies, which carry around 80% of traffic, they have more robust plans in place today than they did when we were working with them ten years ago,” he says.

“Having said that, dealing with an emergency is such a great challenge that I don’t think any particular company is truly prepared, because if you’re really training or planning for worst-case scenarios, it usually requires a more vigorous plan than most companies have in place today. The odds of a disaster striking are slim but, at the same time, you’ve only got one opportunity to get it right.”