From the magazine – Every year, an up to six-month battle against the encirclement of Finland by pack ice takes place. A job the Finns are good at, because they develop and sometimes build icebreakers of all kinds, from cruise ships and tankers to bulk carriers, and ranging from small to very large.

This article was published in SWZ|Maritime’s December 2023 special on the Finnish maritime industry, and was written by SWZ|Maritime’s editor-in-chief Antoon Oosting,

On Friday morning, 6 October, during a guided tour as part of a working visit for a group of international maritime journalists, the icebreakers of the Finnish Arctia are still shining on this last sunny and warm day, but now they will be hard at work to keep Finland’s 29 commercial seaports accessible.

Icebreaking is a matter of life and death for the Finns. Especially now that Russia’s war against Ukraine has reduced relations with the Russians to an all-time low, Finland is more than ever completely dependent on keeping the shipping lanes open; more than ninety per cent of imports and exports take place by sea, from and to nearby Sweden and the Baltic States and from and to the rest of Europe (ex-Russia) and as far away as Asia.

As such, icebreaking has become a typically Finnish specialty that Russian companies also liked to make use of until the sanctions against Russia came into force.

Also read: Shipbuilding in Finland, not the cheapest but the best

Whole value chain

The Finns control the whole value chain of icebreaking, from conceiving the idea, applying innovations, development, testing and construction, to deploying the icebreakers in the most optimal way. A Business Finland publication states that Finland is a global leader in icebreaking design, polar shipbuilding, ice technology and fleet operation.

Finnish companies have designed about eighty per cent of the world’s icebreakers, and about sixty per cent of them have been built by Finnish shipyards. ‘We have a creative and agile polar maritime network that is known for delivering on schedule and on budget. We are also known for delivering sustainable, innovative, and effective solutions for demanding tasks in Arctic conditions,’ Business Finland writes.

The key players in the innovative platform for Finland’s shipbuilding and marine industry are companies, research organisations, internationally recognised universities, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, and the Finnish Meteorological Institute. At the beginning of this value chain, there is the Arctic University with education, research, a school of engineering and testing.

Biggest ice testing basin

Then there is Aker Arctic Technology OY, a private company specialising in development, design, engineering, consulting, and testing services for ice-going vessels, icebreakers, offshore marine structures, marine transport solutions and ports. Aker Arctic operates the biggest ice test basin in the world, which measures 75 metres long, 8 metres wide and 2.1 metres deep. The company does the development, delivers the concept design, performs the model tests and trials, and offers the design and engineering.

The website provides an impressive overview of all the icebreaking shipbuilding projects in which Aker Arctic was involved. One of the most spectacular, more recent (2013-2015) projects is the icebreaker Baltika, which can almost fully use its length of 76.4 metres at an angle of 85 per cent to sail transversely to clear a wide waterway in ice for Aframax tankers with a beam of more 40 metres. Traditionally, you would have needed two icebreakers sailing together to create such a wide waterway.

Aker Arctic operates the biggest ice test basin in the world, which measures 75 metres long, 8 metres wide and 2.1 metres deep.
Aker Arctic operates the biggest ice test basin in the world, which measures 75 metres long, 8 metres wide and 2.1 metres deep (by Aker Arctic).

Icebreaking cargo ships

In recent decades, Aker Arctic has been involved in almost every Russian, Canadian, Swedish, French, and even Chinese project to not only develop and build pure icebreakers, but also icebreaking cargo ships and oil and gas tankers that transport oil, liquid gas and iron ore or nickel out of the Arctic of Canada or Russian Siberia to the markets of Asia and Europe in particular.

In 2018, Aker Arctic also created the design for an icebreaking cruise ship, Le Commandant Charcot for French luxury cruise line Ponant. This expeditionary cruise ship can sail through 2.5 metres of ice. The vessel was delivered in 2021.

Now that the northern sea routes are opening up for longer periods of time every year, especially along Siberia, shipping in the area is on the rise, and with this, a need for specialised cargo ships. The need for icebreaker assistance and control by coast guard ships is growing as well.

In 2019, Aker Arctic was involved in the development of four multi-role corvettes for the Finnish Navy that can also be deployed in winter. These ships are now being built.

Also read: SWZ|Maritime’s December 2023 issue: Finland leads the way in shipbuilding

Innovations in icebreaking

In a brochure of Business Finland, Aker Arctic prides itself on being a forerunner in icebreaking technology and claims several “world firsts”. In the 1950s, the company established a new standard for Baltic escort icebreakers with two bow propellers and developed the first large diesel-electric polar icebreakers.

The construction of one successful icebreaker class after another for both domestic and foreign customers led to the perfection of the various design features and systems that are typical of ice going vessels today, such as the AC/AC diesel-electric propulsion system. By the late 1980s, Aker Arctic was responsible for constructing the only nuclear-powered icebreakers built outside the Soviet Union and Russia.

More recently, Aker Arctic developed several state-of-the-art icebreakers, including the concept for the world’s first LNG-powered icebreaker for the Finnish government. During its history, Aker Arctic has contributed to the development of the podded propulsion known today as ABB’s trademark Azipod. This has enabled the development of the Double Acting Ship (DAS) concept.

In 2018, Aker Arctic also created the design for the icebreaking cruise ship Le Commandant Charcot for French luxury cruise line Ponant, which was delivered in 2021.
In 2018, Aker Arctic also created the design for the icebreaking cruise ship Le Commandant Charcot for French luxury cruise line Ponant, which was delivered in 2021 (by Aker Arctic).

As a result of its work, Aker Arctic has also found new ways of operating ships in heavy ice conditions. For example, the company invented the sideways-going oblique icebreaker to take full advantage of the azimuth propulsion units. Recently, the company demonstrated the unique capabilities of the first such vessel in extensive full-scale trials in the Arctic.

The latest concepts, such as for the new Finnish icebreaker, have been widely regarded as the world’s most advanced icebreakers and in full-scale ice trials, Aker Arctic’s icebreaking innovations continue to outperform other designs.

Experienced builders

The Finns have two shipyards experienced in building icebreaking ships of all kinds: Rauma Marine Constructions and Helsinki Shipyard, which was recently acquired by the Canadian Davie Group. Due to sanctions, the former Russian owners have had to relinquish the yard. Russian ownership also excluded the yard from Finnish government orders for icebreakers or naval ships.

In the hands of the Canadians, Helsinki Shipyard will probably get access to Finnish Navy orders again. The yard has built over half of the icebreakers in operation worldwide today and it is the only Finnish shipyard that has built an icebreaker in the last ten years (the Polaris, the newest icebreaker made in the Western World).

In Rauma, a wide range of ships have been built, including car and passenger ferries, research vessels, icebreakers and naval surface combatants. Rauma shipyard has built the Finnish multipurpose icebreakers Fennica (1993) and Nordica (1994), all Finnish Navy surface combatants since 1991, the ice-going Polar Research and Supply Vessel S.A. Agulhas II for South Africa (2012) and the Finnish Border Guard Patrol Vessel Turva (2014).

The renewal of Finland’s entire icebreaker fleet is starting soon, and the Finnish government expects this project to be completed by 2029. With the takeover by the Davie Group, Helsinki Shipyard will probably compete again with Rauma for this huge order.

One of the strongest fleets

The Finns have one of the strongest icebreaker fleets in the world, which is run by the 100 per cent state owned Arctia Oy. This specialised shipping company currently has eight icebreakers in its fleet, including two PC3 multipurpose icebreakers and one PC4 icebreaker classified in accordance with the IMO Polar Code requirements.

The company has extensive international experience in providing icebreaking and ice management services, as well as specialised multi-purpose vessel services in all polar and sub-polar areas.

Arctia has operational experience in the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, as well as with offshore operations in Alaska, Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic. Arctia’s customer base includes international energy companies, research institutions and other organisations active in polar areas.

The company’s offshore services include, but are not restricted to, fairway icebreaking, ice management, pipe and cable laying, towing, service work for production platforms, and the installation and maintenance of underwater structures.

Oil recovery

Arctia’s current fleet includes three conventional icebreakers: Voima (commissioned in 1954, major refits in 1979 and 2016), Urho (1975) and Sisu (1976). It also includes the converted polar icebreaker Otso (1986), the oil recovery icebreaker Kontio (1987), the multi-purpose icebreakers Fennica (1993) and Nordica (1994), and the world’s first LNG-powered icebreaker Polaris (2016).

From 2010 to 2016, IB Kontio was in a continuous state of readiness for oil spill response operations in the northern Baltic Sea as mandated by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). Arctia has more than 150 crew members who are IMO-trained for oil spill preparedness and response operations.

The company works in close cooperation with national and regional rescue authorities. Arctia also develops oil recovery from ice with Lamor in the Ice Management in Oil Recovery (IMOR) programme.

In September 2016, the icebreaker Polaris joined Arctia’s fleet. The Polaris is unique in many ways. It is the first icebreaker in the world capable of running on both liquefied natural gas (LNG) and ultra low sulphur diesel. Its total output of about 22 MW also makes it Finland’s most powerful icebreaker and it is the most environmentally friendly diesel-electric icebreaker in the world.

The vessel is equipped with three Azipod propulsion units, which rotate 360 degrees to enable excellent manoeuvring qualities. The icebreaking capacity of the Polaris is 1.2 metres at a speed of 6 knots. The Finnish company Lamor Corporation Ab delivered the built-in oil recovery system, which enables the ship to collect 1015 square metres of oil at a rate of 200 m/h in harsh weather and ice conditions.

Picture (top): The icebreaker Baltika can sail transversely to clear a more than 40-metre path for Aframax tankers (photo by Aker Arctic).