Maersk plans its first container ship voyage through the Arctic, with VENTA MAERSK, one of its new ice-class ships, with an intake of 3,600 TEU
An increasing number of non-Russian flag ships have used the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia in recent years, including Hansa Heavy Lift for a shipment of pre-owned container cranes, Cosco for project cargo, and so on.
However, the most important exponent in commercial cargo terms is Russia’s Norilsk Nickel, which operates a fleet of five ice-strengthened container ships as well as an ice-strengthened tanker. These mostly sail on the western part of the route to and from North Sea ports. VENTA MAERSK is believed to be the first cellular ship to use the whole of the route, to or from the Pacific Ocean.
In 2016 commercial traffic on the NSR totalled 7.3 Mt, according to official Russian sources. One Russian Minister has forecast that freight traffic on the NSR could reach 40 Mt by 2022.
From Maersk’s point of view its initiative is very much a trial shipment, to test navigation before the Arctic winter returns. It could sail in the waters without ice-breaker support for about three months of the year. For the rest of the year, voyages would be wholly-dependent on Russian ice-breakers and would not be viable for regular liner services.
The vessel will sail from Vladivostock to Saint Petersburg, carrying frozen fish, and could shave 14 days off the via Suez route, but would still take more time than landbridge rail freight, so it would be priced somehwere between rail and shipping via Suez.
If the trial is success, Vladivostock could be a good place to consolidate exports from Korea, Japan and China to the Russian Baltic, as the journey through the NSR would be between Russian ports.
Maersk has stressed the voyage allows data and information to be collected, including crew performance, and then evaluated. For future services to be viable, transit times have to be reliable and schedule integrity will not be easy in such difficult waters, even at the height of the Arctic summer.