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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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Excursion vessels in polar waters

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on February 11, 2014

Should restrictions be placed on operation of excursion vessels in polar waters?

The world was recently witness to a multi-national effort to rescue the Russian excursion vessel Akademik Shokalskiy after it was beset in wind-driven ice off the coast of Antarctica.  The French supply vessel L’Astrolabe turned back from its relief effort.  The Chinese research vessel Xue Long (Snow Dragon) got within about six kilometers before it too was beset.  The Australian research vessel Aurora Australis stayed about ten kilometers away to avoid the same fate, but eventually was able to carry the Russian vessel’s 52 passengers to Australia.  The US Coast Guard polar icebreaker Polar Star was diverted to relieve the Russian and Chinese vessels, but those vessels were able to escape under their own power when the wind shifted, opening up the ice.  Considerable time and effort was devoted to the rescue project, funds were expended, and various research projects were put on hold.  No lives were lost and there was no pollution.  The question arises, though, whether the Akademik Shokalskiy should have been in those polar waters at the very beginning of the Antarctic summer.  The ship was built in Finland in 1982 as an ice-strengthened oceanographic research vessel.  In 1998, it was refurbished to serve as a combination research and expedition vessel in polar waters.  Although at least one cruise line booking service provider states that the Akademik Shokalskiy has been ice-classed as “AS”, research has been unable to find any classification society or other entity that uses such designation.  Records of the Russian Maritime Register of Shipping, with which the vessel has been classed since entering into service, does not use an “AS” classification, but appears to indicate that the Akademik Shokalskiy has been assigned ice category mark “KM UL1”, which is approximately equivalent to Finnish ice class “IA Super” (depending on engine output), which is equivalent to IACS ice class notation “PC6”.    The IMO Polar Code, which is not currently mandatory, indicates that Polar Class PC 6 is assigned to vessels capable of summer/autumn operation in medium first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions.  Based on the very limited information available, it is difficult to come to any definitive conclusion regarding the wisdom of this particular voyage by the Akademik Shokalskiy.  It is apparent, though, that excursion vessels should only enter polar waters (Arctic or Antarctic) if they are constructed, maintained, manned, and operated for navigation in these extreme conditions.  We have witnessed in recent years a number of marine casualties involving excursion vessels in polar waters.  So far, there have been no lives lost, but only due to amazing good fortune.  An excursion vessel in the Antarctic was holed when it collided with hard ice.  Fortunately, a nearby vessel was able to rescue all passengers and crew before the excursion vessel sank.  Another excursion vessel grounded in the Arctic and waited a week before relief arrived.  Fortunately, the weather was good during that entire period.  It is time for the Polar Code to be made mandatory and for cruise operators to carefully examine the vessels that they use to carry well-heeled passengers on these exotic trips.  Personal photographs of penguins and polar bears are not worth the risks involved in dispatching ill-founded ships into harm’s way and prospective passengers are generally unable to determine the stoutness of the vessels being used.

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