Passage taken by Sanko Odyssey, 2011
The Northern Sea Route (not to be confused with the Northern Passage, crossing Canada) has become navigable due to the receding polar ice cap and, with the some help from the Russian Navy, has become commercially viable during the northern summer.
'Sanko Odyssey' is an unusual ship in that she is an ice-classed Panamax. She was built by Oshima Shipyard in southern Kyushu and is classed by DNV to operate in ice and extreme cold. While protecting the hull, rudder and propeller are significant design features, the ship's accommodation and equipment also need to be habitable an operable in sub-zero temperatures.
In August 2011, 'Sanko Odyssey' set out from Murmansk bound for Tangshan in the Bohai Sea with a cargo of 70,000 tonnes of iron ore concentrates. How do the numbers stack up? Dataloy marine distance tables calculate the northern route at 6,538 nautical miles. If 'Sanko Odyssey' had transited the Suez Canal, 12,726 nautical miles plus the canal fees and maybe a tangle with Somali pirates or via Cape of Good Hope at 16,146 nautical miles.
It's not all clear sailing - the route encounters ice year round and requires the escort of a Russian nuclear ice-breaker - payable in cash, please. But the shorter route saves a claimed 22 days steaming and 1,000 tonnes of bunkers, enabling a Panamax to be competitive against Capesize freight from the northernmost ports of Europe.
The Russian Navy have realised they are on a winner and, with their geographic advantage, are ready to capture economic and political benefit from China's demand for minerals and energy. As the Russian ice-breaker fleet ages, transit fees are planned to be plowed back into new vessels over the coming decade.
An interesting part of the world to keep a weather eye on as ever-larger vessels are required for the development and extraction of Russia's mineral, oil and gas resources.
The Antipodean Mariner