By Mark Cardwell

Nordic Bulk Carriers has done it again. Just three years after it became the first non-Russian shipping company to transit the Northern Sea Route, the small Danish bulk operator last month became the first to send a commercial vessel through the famous Northwest Passage. “We’re very proud of our accomplishment,” Christian Bonfils, the company’s Managing Director and co-owner, told Canadian Sailings from Copenhagen. “It’s not every day that you get a chance to open a new sea trade route.”

The historic trip began September 6, when the Nordic Orion, a 1A ice-class ship, left the port of Vancouver with a full load of metallurgical coal bound for a steel mill in Finland. The ship would have normally transited via the Panama Canal. This time, however, it sailed north through the Bering and Beaufort Seas and the Parry Channel, and entered Baffin Bay on September 22. “Everything went very well,” said Bonfils. “Our crew is very experienced in sailing through Arctic waters.”

Using the Northwest Passage, he added, shaved 1,000 nautical miles and four or five days of sailing time (depending on weather conditions) from the traditional route. “In addition to the savings in time and CO2 emissions, we saved between 800 and 1,000 tonnes of fuel,” noted Bonfils. “At US$600 a tonne, that’s a lot of money.” Using the northern route, he added, also saved the $175,000 transit fee through the Panama Canal. Similarly, not using the shallow canal meant that the 225-metre Nordic Orion was also able to carry 25 per cent more coal. “It was a profitable trip in every way – professionally, commercially and historically,” said Bonfils.

He added that the significance of the trip through an almost mythical trade route that has remained elusive for centuries – until last month – has not been lost on international media, and Arctic watchers and stakeholders the world over. “I’ve been getting calls from all over – even Australia,” said Bonfils. “But most are from the United States and Canada (and) the Nordic countries here in Europe.” He added that Danes, too, are greatly interested in his company’s exploit. “It’s been major news here – though not as big as our 2010 trip through the Northern Sea Route,” said Bonfils. “[Denmark] has a long and proud sailing tradition in the Arctic.”

He scoffed, however, at a suggestion that last month’s trip was politically motivated, in support of Denmark’s possible claims to islands presently claimed as Canadian territory.

Greenland is a semi-autonomous possession of Denmark, which is responsible for the massive island’s defence and has rights to its vast natural resources. According to a recent article in the Canadian American Strategic Review, Denmark is “pouring millions” into the creation of new maps that show the geological features of the floor of the Arctic Ocean. Entitled Denmark ‘Goes Viking’ in Canada’s Arctic Islands, the article says the maps show the Lomonosov Ridge – claimed in its entirety by Russia – runs from the top of Greenland to the North Pole. Based on this underwater seafloor connection, Denmark has laid claim to the North Pole itself.

With the Arctic ice cap receding at record pace, the article contends that Denmark’s territorial claims will include “some or all of the islands of the Arctic Archipelago which are now part of Nunavut, Canada’s newest Territory.” Those islands notably form the Northwest Passage.

“There was nothing political about our trip,” said Bonfils. “We are a small company (and) it was strictly a commercial venture. We haven’t been knighted here in Denmark or anything like that.” He noted that Nordic Bulk Carriers, which operates 20 ships in the Handy/Handymax/Panamax segments, including four in 1A ice-class ship category, has been trying to expand its winter season business. That strategy led to the historic trip through Russian Arctic waters in 2010, when one of its vessels carried iron ore from Norway to China. Since then, the company has run that route a dozen times since, including five voyages by one of its vessels during one sailing season.

According to Bonfils, planning for last month’s trip through the Northwest Passage began a year ago, when the coal-shipment customer – Finland’s Ruukki Metals Oy – gave Nordic Bulk Carriers the green light to try and organize a voyage along the route. He said his company first contacted the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada to ask for both permission and assistance in navigating the Beaufort Sea and Parry Channel, which Canada considers internal waters – a claim contested by the U.S. and several European countries, including Denmark, which maintain the Northwest Passage is an international strait that allows for free and unencumbered passage.

“We maintained a very close dialogue with the Canadian Coast Guard in particular,” said Bonfils. “We sent them everything they needed and asked for, including trip and cargo information, pictures of the ship, the ship’s certificate – you name it.” In return, he added, CCG provided logistical support and assistance for the planning phase. For the trip itself, he added, CCG provided an on-board ice expert, as well as the services of an ice breaker at some points along the transit route. “This trip would not have been possible without their help and guidance,” said Bonfils. He declined comment, however, when asked how much his company paid for that Canadian support and assistance. He did say however it was less than the $200,000 to $500,000 that Russia charges in mandatory escort fees by ice breakers for every transit through the Northern Sea Route.

According to Rachelle Smith, Communications Manager for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, CCG, “was in regular contact with Nordic Orion, as it would be with any other vessel, prior to and throughout the transit.” She added that CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent “met up with Nordic Orion in Peel Sound on Sept. 20 and provided just over 1.5 days (39 hours) of routine escort services through the area.” The Canadian icebreaker, Smith noted, “is in the Arctic throughout the season to provide services as part of its regular operations and therefore there was no additional cost to CCG for this escort.”

Bonfils said his company has an option to do another transit through the Northwest Passage this year, but thinks it is probably too late in the sailing season to undertake the trip. “We hope to do more trips next year (and) maybe five or ten times more in the coming years,” he added. “But it’s very hard to predict. When you’re dealing with the Arctic, you need to go slow and learn. You can’t rush things.”

Bonfils downplayed the potential of the Northwest Passage as an international trade route. “Even if trips that way become routine, they will represent only a tiny fraction of the traffic on the world’s major trade routes,” he said. “And you need to carefully study and consider every trip, from the cargo to the weather conditions.”

Canadian shipping operators agree. “As a commercial shipper, you look at the quickest and most efficient way to get cargo to destination, and the shortest way is not always the best way to do that,” said Tim Keane, Arctic operations specialist for Fednav. The Montreal-based company has been carrying cargo to and from communities and mines and other projects in the Canadian Arctic since the 1950s. Those trips, however, represent roughly 5 per cent of the cargo the company carries.

Keane said Fednav has long considered using the Northwest Passage, and could do it under the right navigational conditions and the right cargo. However, he said the short season and the navigational trickiness of the waters would require a real desire and need to undertake such a trip. “You need a lot of infrastructure and resources like ice breakers, and there is very little of that in the region,” he said. “We’re proud of our work in the Arctic and it’s an important part of our business. But I think there will need to be a lot more development there before you’ll see a lot of commercial traffic through the Northwest Passage.”