At the dawn of expeditionary cruising in the 1960s, explorers, such as Lars-Eric Lindblad, founder of eponymous Lindblad Travel, used old Soviet icebreakers with rickety bunk beds to cut through icy waters in the Antarctic. These days, this small segment of the market still delivers those intrepid adventures, but it can also cater to an affluent clientele. Guests taking a trip with the likes of Ponant or Silversea, for instance, can enjoy luxury suites, five star cuisine and cinema rooms.

It’s no secret that cruise passengers are increasingly showing their appetite for adventure, and few places on earth offer the combination of breath-taking beauty and a sense of challenge as the polar regions. The icy and potentially hazardous waters are drawing an unprecedented number of travellers and expeditionary ships with icebreaker hulls are rolling off the production line to meet that growing demand. This new breed of vessels are a far cry from old soviet bunk ships, equipped with state of the art technology and alternative fuel capabilities. The National Geographic Endurance, which was delivered in 2020 but did not go into service because of the pandemic, and its sister ship National Geographic Resolution are set to traverse the waters of the world’s most remote polar regions for Lindblad Expeditions, parting the waters with their distinctive X-Bow styling to improve handling in heavy seas. The Seabourn Venture, the line’s first purpose-built luxury expedition vessel, is preparing to set sail in December 2021.

This summer, Fincantieri subsidiary Vard announced the delivery of polar exploration vessel Le Commandant Charcot for French cruise company Ponant. The durable vessel has been crafted for rugged polar climes and is equipped with an innovative hybrid propulsion system, burning LNG and running on battery power to keep harmful emissions to a minimum. Soon, it will set forth for the world’s most remote regions, including the Geographic North Pole, Northeast Greenland’s National Park, the Bellingshausen Sea, the Larsen Ice Shelf and circumnavigation of the Svalbard archipelago.

Though travelling to similarly harsh climates, each vessel represents a unique set of challenges and, therefore, a complex and imaginative design process. Designing and building vessels for the polar regions brings along a whole array of new challenges, many depending on a vessel's polar operation profile. Where a vessel is intended to operate – and in which seasons – will have a significant impact on its design parameters.

“The industry started to develop polar ships fi fteen years ago, but they were usually normal small vessels that had some reinforcement to comply with the IMO Polar Code.”

Thibaut Tincelin

Voices in the shipbuilding industry speak of bespoke design processes, starting with mapping out precisely where and when a vessel will travel within polar regions to refine the design and co-ordinate the construction process to deliver a highly customised vessel. For example, cruises in the South Shetland Islands and North Antarctic Peninsula are very different to excursions to the North Pole in terms of the stresses they put on a hull. There is no one-size-fits- all solution for polar regions.

Back to the drawing board

To meet the needs of a new and rapidly growing market segment, Vard was able to marry its long track record in building specialised vessels for polar regions, albeit primarily working ships, with its keen understanding of the cruise market.

A Polar Class PC2 ship, Le Commandant Charcot incorporates all of the latest ‘green’ technologies, including the on-board sorting and treatment of 100% of its waste, and features facilities and equipment for research and analysis of water, air, ice and biodiversity in extreme polar regions. It also incorporates luxurious accommodation for cruise passengers. Thibaut Tincelin, CEO of Stirling Design, whose team was responsible for bringing the vessel from initial concept to the construction phase, informs me that Le Commandant Charcot has just returned from the North Pole and is soon to make harbour in Le Havre. Proven and ready for service, the vessel is seen by many in the industry as marking a new chapter in the design of expeditionary ships.

A few days previously, Tincelin had received a photo from the vessel with the co-ordinates 90º latitude, 0º longitude – the North Pole. The moment filled his team with immense pride and a great sense of achievement, causing him to reflect on how the design of polar vessels has evolved.

“The industry started to develop polar ships fifteen years ago, but they were usually normal small vessels that had some reinforcement to comply with the IMO Polar Code,” he observes. “Our first ships for Ponant were of this kind. With Le Commandant Charcot, we started six years ago with a blank page and asked how it would be possible to go to the North Pole in a safe manner. The ship is designed entirely for that purpose.”

Stirling has a relationship with Ponant that stretches back far beyond 2009, when Tincelin joined the company, and under the previous owner it had worked on all of the line’s new builds. That on-going relationship provided the bedrock for an ambitious project in which Stirling handled both the concept design and the external styling.

“The idea was to put an icebreaker’s hull and propulsion system together with the features of a cruise ship to create a single vessel,” Tincelin explains. “Our only frame of reference was the ‘50 Years of Victory’, which has a nuclear power plant on board. That would be a disaster for cruise passengers.”

The ‘50 Years of Victory’, which handles polar journeys for Quark Expeditions, is an Arktika-class nuclear icebreaker – the first to have a spoon-shaped bow – that can break through ice up to 2.5m thick. Registered to Rosatomflot in Russia, it has some of the familiar features of a cruise ship – a lounge, a bar, a pool, a sauna and more – but is not on the scale of Le Commandant Charcot in terms of passenger numbers and it does not have comparable amenities.

Though similar in overall size, Ponant’s vessels can cater for 245 passengers, compared with the Victory’s 128, and is styled to provide a higher class of cruise comfort and amenities. Other vessels, notably the Seabourn Venture – which has impressive spaces on board such as the 270º Constellation Lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering unprecedented views of the sea and ice – are also bringing the aesthetics and luxury of the cruise market to polar vessels. That consideration for passenger comfort, however, does bring its own challenges.

“When you start to design a vessel to go to the North Pole, simple features can be difficult,” says Tincelin. “For instance, where to place the helicopter pad and how to operate the helicopter on board.”

“For safety reasons, you have to be able to see where ice has accreted, but we could not put it at the stern where there are passenger areas and balconies,” he adds. “So, we had to move the helicopter forward to keep the passenger areas quiet. Also, we had to be able to fit 100% of passenger capacity in the lifeboats, which are large in comparison to the vessel itself.”

“Things changed fast. To go to the North Pole you need to be using LNG, hybrid electric power and batteries. We need that level of autonomy in case the ship is stuck in ice or there is a need for extreme power.”

Thibaut Tincelin

Green journeys into the blue

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in the design of polar cruise ships, however, is the propulsion system. In environmentally sensitive regions, the need to run green is paramount, but it must be achieved with the ability to harness ice-breaking power. Environmental factors are key elements for in the design of any vessel, whether it is travelling to the tropics or the arctic regions, but for polar excursions they are paramount.

Alternative fuels have become a major focus among cruise lines, as they work to reduce emissions across their fleets, but having a ‘green’ operational profile is essential when travelling to polar regions, partly due to the highly sensitive nature of their ecological systems, and partly because international regulations governing emissions have become more stringent in recent years – a trend that is likely to continue.

It is a big challenge to make a cruise vessel that has minimal impact on the environment, particularly in a highly sensitive region such as the Arctic. For some, an 100% environmentally friendly ship does not exist. Le Commandant Charcot, however, raises that bar in terms of what is possible.

At the heart of the propulsion system lie two vast LNG tanks giving the vessel two months of autonomous capability without the need to refuel. When possible, the vessel switches to its electric motor, bringing down emissions to a minimum but still generating enough power to carve a path through the ice.

“It is obvious now that LNG is the best and only option for such a ship, but six years ago it was a new idea,” says Tincelin. “Things changed fast. To go to the North Pole you need to be using LNG, hybrid electric power and batteries. We need that level of autonomy in case the ship is stuck in ice or there is a need for extreme power.”

“The challenge is that you need to go through thick ice, which changes the engine loads a lot and very quickly,” he adds. “The ship can run on 50% of installed power, but using extreme power it can free itself from 2m of ice.”

Like many of the new breed of polar vessels, Le Commandant Charcot is laying down a new market in the design of ships capable of handling extreme low temperatures and thick ice, while maintaining the level of luxury and amenities cruise passengers have come to expect. It manages to be a true icebreaker while also translating the signature of a premium cruise line into its exterior and interior design.

“It was a steep learning curve for us and for Ponant,” Tincelin stresses. “There is a large technical risk involved in going to the North Pole and it was a tough road. But it has been a massive commercial success in terms of reservations.”

As a new chapter in expeditionary cruises begins, the story of polar excursions will be written by a class of ship the like of which has not been seen before.