When the Danish-owned, 225-metre Nordic Orion sailed the Northwest Passage, it became the first fully loaded bulk carrier to complete the route.
The sailing was also a first for Tony O’Connell, a retired Coast Guard who served as ice navigator for the ship on its way through the passage. Mr. O’Connell was recruited by Northwest Passage Marine, a Canadian company that worked with the ship’s owners Nordic Bulk to plan the trip.
He has spent years plying Arctic waters but had not previously shepherded a commercial vessel through the passage. He joined the vessel before it left Vancouver in September and disembarked in Nuuk, Greenland, before the ship carried on to Finland.
How does someone become an ice expert?
I’ve spent my whole career with the Canadian Coast Guard ... you get ice experience in the Coast Guard because for many years, the Coast Guard were the only people who ventured up [to the Arctic]. And since 1983, I’ve been going to the Arctic. I went on an ice interpretation course at the training institute. But the best training is looking out the window.
How many times have you gone through the Northwest Passage?
This was my first complete trip. I’ve been at each end; I work with a Japanese research vessel in the summer.
In your trips, have you seen ice conditions vary from year to year?
Years ago, when you went up there it was a different thing than it is now. Now there’s a lot less ice. In the Northwest Passage, there wasn’t any ice until we got to Peel Sound.
What was your role on the Nordic Orion?
I’m just a passenger until we get to the ice. Then I advise the Captain on how to get through. We had excellent support – we had a [Canadian Coast Guard] icebreaker. The Captain was Russian, he had ice experience. He’d gone through the Northern Sea Route before. A lot of captains that don’t have any ice experience – it’s pretty scary for them.
We had 73,500 tons of cargo on board. Plus the weight of that vessel. So if you’re pushing 100,000 tons through the water too fast and you hit a piece of ice you shouldn’t hit – doesn’t matter how ice-strengthened she is.
How do you do it? Are you eyeballing it?
At night, what helped me through Peel Sound was a full moon. With the type of technology we have now, if you run into an iceberg, that’s your fault. It’s the pieces that come off them you have to watch – the growlers and the bergy bits. You could have a growler the size of a refrigerator go right through your hull.
How fast were you able to go at night?
That depends. This ship is [225-metres] long. You’re trying to wriggle that around ice so you need to have enough speed to steer. Normally between 4 and 5 knots is a good speed for that ship.
Do you spend time outside on the ship? How is that?
At three o’clock in the morning, standing on the stern of a ship with a 40-knot wind – in temperatures of minus-20 – and trying to back it up? Well, that wasn’t on the poster.
The most important thing on your vessel is your rudder, so you can steer, and your propeller, so you can move. And if you’re going ahead, most of the ice will go right past them. But if you’re backing up, you’re putting that right out into the open and don’t want to back into ice. These ships are long. And if you’re stuck and have to back her up, you have to back her up probably two shiplengths and then go full ahead and try to get her going. And to back up those two shiplengths might take three hours. You bring lots of clothes.
Have you ever been stuck in the ice?
Yes, I was stuck for 24 days one time on the [Louis S. St. Laurent]. That was off the coast of Newfoundland in the 1980s.
Do you have any thoughts on what the Nordic Orion’s sailing through the Northwest Passage might mean for the shipping industry?
You can be sure that now that one company has got through, other companies are going to be looking at it, because of the costs. We were burning 36 tons of fuel a day. So if you can save 10 days, that’s 360 tons of fuel at about $800 per ton.
How did you get into this line of work? Is it in your family?
I went to sea when I was 14 and now I’m 59. I’m from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, a little fishing community. Everyone went to sea. I don’t know how we survived sometimes. We would take out rowboats, whatever we could. One time when we were kids, we went floating in a fridge with two paddles. It wasn’t very stable, I remember that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.