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Arctic Sailings…The Northeast Passage

February 14, 2015

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

Westward from the Davis Strait ’tis there ’twas said to lie
The sea route to the Orient for which so many died;
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.

Two verses from The Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers

The Yong Sheng, Chinese container ship that made the historic journey from Dalian, China to Rotterdam Netherlands across the Northeast Passage in 35 days, cutting two weeks off the usual path through the Suez Canal by two weeks

The Yong Sheng, Chinese container ship that made the historic journey from Dalian, China to Rotterdam Netherlands across the Northeast Passage in 35 days, cutting two weeks off the usual path through the Suez Canal by two weeks

The Northeast Passage

“The Northwest Passage” sung by Canadian bard Stan Rogers – wordsmith and folksinger who was every bit Bob Dylan’s match and, in my immodest opinion, far better – is a song about a famous Canadian explorer, John Franklin, who, like many before and some afterwards tried to cross the Canadian Arctic by ship to establish a shorter maritime route between Europe and Asia. Franklin failed.  In 1843, he and his entire crew perished from starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and scurvy.

Rogers’ version is a hauntingly beautiful of that journey. Franklin’s effort, truth be known, was not at all unique. Many others died trying to establish a maritime route across the Arctic north of Canada in order to avoid the much longer and dangerous journey around Cape Horn and the tip of South America.  Not only where there more than likely hundreds of failed attempts to carve out a similar northern route, but beginning in the 1500s already there were also efforts, especially from Europe also to pioneer a northeast passagefrom the Atlantic Coast north to Barentz Sea and from their east across the Arctic Ocean north of Russia to the Pacific and to Asia. These efforts, history suggests, to cross from Europe to China across Russia’s northern tier, are nearly 1000 years old, with Russian sailors attempting to bridge the gap – and pushing further and further east in their efforts – as early as the 11th century (the 1000’s) but with no breakthrough to the east.

Similar efforts were intensified by European maritime powers – the English, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian – in their mad scramble to find a shorter way the Asia’s Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian riches. While the Europeans had finally got to Asia by rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, the journey was both extremely long – 7050 miles – and dangerous. Yet no one succeeded for a variety of reasons – the weather being the primary one, but also Russian resistance to European competition came into play as well. However, it was only in 1878 that FinnishSwedish explorer Nordenskiöld made the first complete passage of the North East Passage from west to east, in the Vega expedition with Lieutenant Louis Palander of the Swedish Royal Navy in command. Nordenskiöld showed such a journey was technically possible, and yet even in an age of increasingly sophisticated ice-breakers to show the way, there has been little to no traffic across this northern route, until recently, when a combination of stronger steel ship hulls and global warming have made the journey more practicable.

The Yong Sheng, Chinese container ship that made the historic journey from Dalian, China to Rotterdam Netherlands across the Northeast Passage in 35 days, cutting two weeks off the usual path through the Suez Canal by two weeks

The Yong Sheng, Chinese container ship that made the historic journey from Dalian, China to Rotterdam Netherlands across the Northeast Passage in 35 days, cutting two weeks off the usual path through the Suez Canal by two weeks

Arctic Shipping

From much of the past 500 years, European and North American powers, most of the so-called “core” countries of the global economy (in contrast to its periphery and semi-periphery) were engaged in a mad rush to India and East Asia (China and Indonesia in particular but the Philippines, Korea, Japan, SE Asia as well) for commercial advantage. Until 200 years ago, the goal was to exploit the riches of the region and thus to find the quickest maritime route to Asia. Thus, the age of great explorations and the bloody triumphs of the likes of Henry The Navigator, Vasco De Gama, the Duke of Albuquerque, Columbus, Cortez, Magellan,  Coen, Drake. Some sailed west to find an Asian short-cut, at first mistakenly taking the Americas for Asia, their real goal. Others sailed east around the tip of Africa, but the goals were the same: find the quickest route from Europe to Asia. 500 years on, the tides have turned some. Less well know, is the Arctic maritime round the northern reaches of Russia from the Atlantic to the Pacific that was also a part of the great race to China and Indonesia which was also probed many times without success another “sea route to the Orient for which so many died” as Stan Rogers put it. Such is the fluid history of the global economy.

Today it is the Asian manufacturing countries, with China of course in the lead, that are probing the shortest routes to Europe from Asia, a feat made more plausible, ironically, due to the increasing effects of global warming which has extended the possible sailing schedules now by several weeks annually. This, combined with the discovery of major energy and mineral sources in Arctic waters, the growing trade between Europe and Asia  and the warmer northern temperatures has resulted in a much greater focus on Arctic transportation possibilities which have been percolating since the end of the Cold War.It has also led, although it should no great surprise to a made race for the resources therein with opposing claims of sovereignty of underwater maritime energy riches for the main Arctic nations: United States, Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark. China, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, South Korea, Japan all have commercial interests as well as long historical experience in polar regions. The race, no stampede, “for what’s left” is the focus of the introductory chapter of Michael T. Klare’s book on Arctic mineral and energy competition in Arctic regions and the dangers implied for global security in his recent book The Race For What’s Left.

Over the course of the post war Soviet period, there was shipping, mostly Soviet along  the Northern Shipping Route. But it was irregular and mostly local or regional  in nature. That started to change dramatically in the years after the turn of the millenium, with the rise in global temperatures.  In 2010, the Norilsk-Nickel operated vessel, “Monchegorsk” (named after a city in the Kola Peninsula) became the first cargo ship to sail the entire NSR without icebreaker assistance from Murmansk to Shanghai, suggesting that commercial shipping was possible along the Northern Sea Route. Since then other cargo ships have made the journey. The first Chinese attempt to place two years later.

Just a few days ago (February 12, 2015), the Yong Sheng, a Chinese container ship, the Yong Sheng, was sailing north in the South China Sea, between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan headed for Quanzou. a rather ordinary intra-Asian commercial journey. But several years ago, this same transport ship made a historic journey. In mid September, 2012, the same ship, named after Huang Yong Sheng – a general in the People’s Army of China, finished a historic voyage. The ship owned by the China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (COSCO). It was the first time that a Chinese ship had made the maritime journey through the Arctic Sea to Europe bypassing the usual southern route via the Malacca Straits, by India, through the Bab El Mandeb Straits, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Sicily and Gibraltar to NW Europe.It had left the port of Dalian, China, sailed north through the Bering Sea, through the Bering Straits between Siberia and the Aleutian Islands into the Chukchi Sea, the entrance to the Arctic Ocean. From there it veered West and crossed the East Siberian Sea – the lower reaches of the Arctic Ocean – into the Laptev Sea and then the Barentz Sea which hugs the northern Russian and Norwegian coasts, into the Eastern Atlantic.

It then passed through the North Sea ending its journey at Rotterdam on September 10, 2013 – the world’s 11th largest container port, the first ten all being Asian (9 Chinese, 1 Korean, 1 Abu Dhabi). The Yong Sheng had left Dalian, a port in northeastern China on August 8, stopping at Shanghai and Pusan S. Korea before beginning its journey in earnest carrying a cargo of steel and industrial machinery. It arrived just 21 days – three weeks after having left Pusan, South Korea, fully loaded. Fully loaded, the 19,000 ton vessel was traveling at 14.9 knots, her maximum speed. The Yong Sheng needed a mere 35 days to take the distance from Dalian to Rotterdam. Had the ship taken the more traditional path, route through the Suez Canal, the trip would have taken an additional 13-15 days and 2,800 nautical miles compared to what has been called the Arctic Northeast Passage.

A historic milestone had been passed. Although a sprinkling of European ships had made the journey east from Norway, this was the first time a Chinese merchant vessel completed its journey over the slowly melting Northern Sea Route, which was 9 days and 2,800 nautical miles less than the conventional routes transiting the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. As Ma Zehua, Cosco’s chair put it, “This sea route will offer our clients more convenience and choice, while allowing us to save time, lower costs and reduce emissions.” He failed to add that all those considerations will make the journey that much more profitable.

At the same time the Yong Sheng was making its historic northern journey, another COSCO tanker was attacked in the Suez Canal. A video posted on YouTube shows two men armed with rocket-propelled grenades firing at Cosco Asia. At least one grenade appeared to hit the port side of the vessel, although it was not badly damaged. Another advantage of the Northeast Passage, also known as the Northern Sea Route (NSR), is that it allows ships to avoid the Somali pirate infested waters in southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean access to the Red Sea.

An article on the Yong Sheng’s maiden Northeast Passage voyage, written two years ago, notes that “Despite the passages’s allure, most shipping executives and analysts remain skeptical about the dream of an industry transformed by regular summer services across the top of Russia. Why might that be? There are several reasons:
∙ While the number of “polar transit permissions” granted by Russian authorities has grown dramatically since 2010 – to more than 370 a year – only about 20 % of them were for full transits of the 5,400 km route.
∙ By way of contrast, more than 17,000 vessels, including 6,300 container ships and 3,600 tankers passed through the Suez Canal in 2012.
∙ “We do not see [the Northeast Passage] having a major impact on routes via Suez” said Lars Mikel Jensen, head of Asia-Europe trade at Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping agency

All the same, Jensens’ skepticism is challenged by others.

The number of ships making the trans-Arctic journey – in part or in whole, continues to increase. In 2012 only 46 ships made the entire journey from Europe to Asia (or the contrary) – up from 4 vessels in 2011. Valentin Davydants, captain of Russia’s Atomflot fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers in Murmansk, forecasts a more than tenfold increase between Asia and Europe by 2021, much of which time the route could be open eight months of the year. The sailing time from Rotterdam to Kobe, Japan or Pusan, S. Korea using the NSR, with ships crossing between the Arctic and the Pacific via the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, should be 23 days compared with 33 days via the canal, according to Mr. Davydants. Ships leaving from the northern Russia port of Murmansk on the Barentz Sea have even a shorter trip and can make the  trip in only 18 days using the NSR,versus 37 from the canal.

Another more positive prediction comes from South Korea’s Marine Institute which estimates that traffic along the Northeast Passage could account for more than a quarter of Asia-Europe trade by 2030. Jong-Deog Kim, Korean Maritime Institute spokesman Jong-Deog Kim noted that “If some conditions are met the NSR will become an attractive option in terms of time and money. I think it will be more used if current problems of the established routes get worse.”

First of a Series…

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