Earlier this month, the ice-strengthened bulk carrier Nordic Orion was loaded with coal at a Vancouver terminal. From there, it headed to Finland via the Northwest Passage, undertaking a voyage that could make it the first commercial bulk carrier to traverse the route since the SS Manhattan broke through in 1969.
The Northwest Passage sailing marks another milestone for Nordic Bulk Carriers, the Danish company that owns the ship and has staked its future on northern routes. But it is a bigger breakthrough for international trade and for the fabled waterway, which defied early explorers' efforts to map its bays and channels and led many to an icy grave. Now, with its ice cover changing and receding and a bulk carrier poised to plow through it, the Northwest Passage stands to witness history again while potentially becoming a viable route for commercial traffic.
"I think this pretty much cements our position as a world-leading ice operator," Christian Bonfils, managing director of Nordic Bulk, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Denmark. "In four years, we have created history in two new shipping routes – we are a small company and that's pretty special."
Nordic Bulk became the first non-Russian company to sail the Northern Sea Route – which runs across the northern coast of Russia – when it shipped iron ore from northern Norway to China in 2010.
"For some routes, it [the Northwest Passage] can save up to 7,000 kilometres – and that's not just a distance savings, that's a savings in terms of fuel, time and salaries," Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia, said on Wednesday. "Time is money in the international shipping business and a 7,000-kilometre shortcut is of great interest."
Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard are monitoring the journey and the Nordic Orion is required to check in daily with Nordreg, a Coast Guard agency, Transport Canada said. The ship is scheduled to arrive in Pori, Finland, in early October.
"If they are complying with Nordreg, this is good for Canada's legal position," Prof. Byers said. "This is an example of an international shipping company accepting the obligation to register with Canada – essentially recognizing Canada's jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage."
Such compliance would be more significant if it involved an American ship, as Arctic disputes have involved Canada and the United States, not other countries, but it still sets a welcome precedent, he added.
Nordic Bulk complies with the rules of the country in which it is sailing, Mr. Bonfils said, adding that the 25-person crew includes a Canadian ice pilot with a couple of decades' experience in the waterway.
When Nordic Bulk bid on the job to carry coal from Vancouver to Finland, it had the Northern Sea Route in mind. But with its customer's blessing, Nordic Bulk scrapped that plan in favour of the Northwest Passage.
The fabled route has taken the lives of many explorers. But changes in ice cover attributed to climate change, as well as advances in ship design, have opened the prospect of commercial traffic.
The SS Manhattan, undertaken to test the viability of shipping oil from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, was repeatedly trapped by ice and the U.S. turned away from the idea and instead built a pipeline.
The Nordic Orion is carrying B.C. metallurgical coal bound for Rautaruukki Corp., a Finnish steel company. Nordic Bulk beat other contenders for the job with a bid based on savings of about 1,000 nautical miles and four or five days of sailing time. Nordic Bulk was also able to carry more coal – a fully-loaded 73,000 tonnes – than the 60,000 tonnes or so that could pass through the shallower Panama Canal.
Insurance – once difficult to obtain for Arctic routes – has become more readily available as traffic on the Northern Sea Route has increased, Mr. Bonfils said.
In recent years, there has been considerable debate over whether commercial shipping would become a reality in the Northwest Passage, with Prof. Byers among those arguing such traffic was likely to arrive sooner rather than later.
Now proven correct, he worries Canada is short of search-and-rescue and other safety capabilities, including clean-up capacity in the event of a fuel spill or other accident..
"This is the kind of challenge that by all rights should necessitate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars of fairly rapid investment by the government of Canada to ensure that vessels like this … if they come into the Canadian Arctic, they can do so in relative safety."