12 September 2012, 16:19

Piloting vessels in Northern Sea Route: Russia’s practical achievements in Arctic transport development

Piloting vessels in Northern Sea Route: Russia’s practical achievements in Arctic transport development

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is a unique transportation artery between Europe and Asia. It Passes through the Arctic Ocean (Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, Chukchi seas) and partly through the Pacific (the Bering Sea).

The Northern Sea Route is bounded by western entrances to the straits of Novaya Zemlya and the meridian passing north of Desire Cape, and in the east, in the Bering Strait, by the parallel 66 degrees north latitude and the meridian 168 degrees 58 minutes 37 seconds west longitude. The length of the Northern Sea Route from the Kara Gate to the Bay of Providence is about 5600 km. The distance from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok on the Northern Sea Route is more than 14 thousand miles (over 23 thousand km through the Suez Canal).

Active exploration of the NSR commenced in the 20th Century with the advent of the icebreaker. The route was actively used during the Soviet era. In 1987 NSR freight traffic reached its peak, 6.7 million tons. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union the NSR fell into a deep crisis and stayed practically unused. From 1987 to 2011 the freight traffic among the NSR ports decreased over three times, and some of them (Amderma, Dixon) practically stopped functioning. In 2010, NSR transit traffic was a mere 110,000 tons (4 vessels).

The revival of the NSR began with the development of Arctic hydrocarbon reserves and, particularly, the Yamal LNG project. The project involves building an LNG plant in the Yamal Peninsula and delivering liquefied gas via the NSR to the markets of the Asia-Pacific region. Novatek, the company implementing the project, has been working hard to revive the NSR. To this end, it has been piloting tankers in the NSR since 2010 as an experiment. On August 14 Sovkomflot’s tanker Baltika left Murmansk carrying a shipment of Novatek’s gas condensate. The tanker was piloted through the NSR by the icebreakers Taimyr, 50 Years of Victory and Russia. On August 25 they completed their journey and safely arrived at the Port of Pevek in Chukotka. Having been piloted through the Northern Sea Route Baltika proceeded on open water to Shanghai, where the condensate buyer waited, and arrived there on September 6. Thus, it took Baltika 22 days to sail all the way from Murmansk to Shanghai, and only 11 days to cross the stretch directly passing through the NSR (the distance between Murmansk and the Port of Pevek in Chukotka is nearly 2,500 nautical miles).

Sergei Frank, head of Sovkomflot, Novatek’s chairman Leonid Mikhelson and general director of FGUP Atomflot Vyacheslav Ruksha took part in the expedition over the course of nearly two weeks. Ruksha said at that time that the time saved by using the NSR for a one-way cargo transportation would be approximately 20 days. It took Baltika nearly three weeks to reach Shanghai instead of 40 days of transportation through the Suez Canal. It helped reduce the fuel oil costs by nearly $1,000,000 and eliminated the need to pay Egypt $250,000 for the passage through the Suez Canal. Ultimately, a total of $1.2 – 1.3 million was saved. He didn’t reveal the cost of piloting through the NSR. Currently, the maximum fee charged by the icebreaker fleet for piloting tankers through the NSR is RUB 530 per ton of cargo. Thus, accompanying a 145,000 ton LNG carrier will cost RUB 76.85 million. Because a tanker’s stern is too wide one icebreaker is not enough for safe piloting, a minimum of two icebreakers is required.

During the 2011 navigation Novatek’s experimental voyages along the NSR continued. It took the tanker Perseverance (deadweight capacity 73,000 tons) 15 days at the average velocity of 7.6 knots to sail from Murmansk to China accompanied by the icebreakers Yamal and Taimyr. In late July of 2011 the speed record was surpassed by the tanker Heritage piloted by a single nuclear-powered icebreaker Vaigach. It took the tanker with a deadweight capacity of 73,000 tons and loaded with 61,000 tons of condensate as little as 8 days to travel through the NSR with the average piloting velocity of 14 knots.

After the speed record had been set Novatek arranged for the piloting of a tanker with a record deadweight capacity of over 160,000 tons. Sovkomflot’s tanker Vladimir Tikhonov with a deadweight capacity of 162,000 tons and Suezmax dimensions was loaded with 120,000 tons of condensate. It was led by the icebreakers Yamal and 50 Years of Victory. Thanks to good weather and small amount of ice en route it took the tanker seven and a half days to steer through the NSR. The tanker’s average velocity was 14 knots. The vessel which was 280 m long, 50 m wide and had a draft of over 13 m left Murmansk at 800 Moscow time on August 23. At 1655 on August 30 the tanker passed Cape Dezhnev and exited the NSR proceeding by herself to Map Ta Phut, Thailand on open water.

Thus, Novatek’s experiments in tanker piloting has shown that using the Northern Sea Route is not only possible technically but may also be profitable on certain conditions: use of heavy-tonnage vessels, continuous navigation, active use of the NSR and government aid. The NSR may be able compete with the southern shipping route through the Suez Canal.

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