By Mark Cardwell

To hear Tom Paterson tell it, sailing conditions are constantly changing in the Arctic – and not always for the better. “Conditions in winter can get very bad [but] even in clement weather when the ice breaks up, it drifts into the shipping lanes and creates serious hazards,” he says. “It is an extremely dangerous area of the world to navigate at any and all times of the year.”

Paterson should know. A world-class expert on shipping in the Arctic, he is also Senior Vice-President of Fednav, Canada’s largest ocean-going dry-bulk shipowning and chartering group and the only marine company in the world that goes unescorted into the Arctic during the winter months.

He will speak about the experiences his company has had, operating ships in that rugged region of the world in a seminar at the 5th annual Arctic Shipping North America Forum set for Montreal on Oct. 29-30.

Fednav has been working in the Arctic for more than 50 years. Together with Canarctic, which owned and operated the MV Arctic icebreaker when it joined the seven-member Fednav Group in 1996, it has been involved in every major shipping project in the region in the past half-century.

Notably, in 2006, Fednav deployed Umiak 1, the most powerful icebreaking bulk carrier of its kind ever built. The 30,000-horsepower, 31,500-tonne vessel is devoted exclusively to the annual movement of 360,000 tonnes of nickel from Vale Inco’s Voisey’s Bay mine in Labrador to the company’s smelters in Sudbury, Ont. and Thompson, Man.

Paterson, a Scottish-born master mariner who went to sea with P&O in what he calls “the good old days”, joined Fednav’s London office before transferring to the company’s headquarters in Montreal in 1991 to help develop and expand operations to new and existing markets, including the Arctic. Careful planning tops the long list of activities he says transportation companies must do when it comes to preparing for safe and efficient operation of vessels in the region.

“There are so many factors that come into play when you go to the Arctic,” he says. “You have to look at each overall voyage and take into account the season and the weather. You have to plan carefully and always be ready and prepared to change [the plan].”

Paterson says there is nothing routine, for example, about the 16-day roundtrip voyages that Umiak 1 makes to the Labrador coast on a monthly basis – including in the dead of winter when the ship routinely smashes its way through 1.8 to 2 metres of ice and ridges up to 14 metres thick.

That’s why he puts a premium on the knowledge and experience of people both onboard ship and at Fednav headquarters in Montreal.

“You have to be smart,” says Paterson, a key player in the development of new federal and international shipping-related rules and regulations for the Arctic over the past 20 years, notably in regards to pollution and ice regime systems. “And you never fight Mother Nature.”

Depending on the time of year, Paterson says ships travelling in the Arctic rarely take the shortest route to destination. Instead, they rely on satellite technology to avoid ice.

Other times, he says, patience is both a virtue and a necessity. “You don’t want to engage the ice against the tide,” he notes. “When leaving Deception Bay, for example, it’s easier if you wait for a Southern wind. That understanding comes with experience.”

Understanding the effects of cold on people and places, says Paterson, is another unique requirement for the carriage and delivery of goods by ship in the Arctic.

“You need to know that with cold you need to change crews regularly,” he says. “There are a whole slew of things you have to consider.”

Not that that’s anything new. In the 4,000 years since small groups of Palaeoeskimos first began to occupy the coasts and islands of the Canadian Arctic, the region has always posed unique challenges to transportation.

A harsh environment that Fednav describes on its website as “cold and unforgiving, yet pristine and fragile,” the Arctic is an intriguing mix of glittering commercial opportunities and potentially deadly challenges that need to be avoided or overcome.

The tales of the many European explorers – from the Vikings to Cabot, Hudson, Franklin and Amundsen – who devoted and/or lost their lives trying to find the elusive Northwest Passage sea trade route that now links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, speak volumes about the dangers of sailing in the Arctic.

Until recently, pack ice prevented regular marine shipping through much of the region and along the Northwest Passage, which the Canadian government considers internal waters – a claim contested by the United States and some European countries, which see it as a free-passage international strait.

In recent years however, decreased sea-ice levels have lengthened the summer shipping season, improved sea access to some areas of the Arctic and opened new ones to navigation.

At the same time, Canadian concerns over sovereignty, together with record commodity prices for gold, silver and other extractable natural resources, have triggered several major public initiatives and private development projects that have increased the need, demand and shipment of all kinds of goods to, from, across and out of the Arctic.

The increased ship traffic – everything from dry-bulk carriers, community resupply vessels and drill ships and platforms to military, fishing and scientific research vessels – has created both opportunities and challenges for shipping companies with shipping management and maintenance capabilities required to operate in the region.

“One of the biggest obstacles in the North is the lack of infrastructure,” said Waguigh Rayes, General Manager of Desgagnés Transarctik Inc – or DTI.

DTI is the largest shipping firm in Northern Quebec, providing carriage and other sealift resupply shipping services to more than a dozen Inuit communities in Nunavik between July and October.

It also services the specific sealift needs and requirements of several other communities in Nunavut through partnerships with Nunavut Sealink and Supply and Taqramut Transport.

In 2008, the Canadian Coast Guard confirmed that one of DTI’s ships – cargo vessel MV Camilla Desgagnés, which has operated in Arctic waters since 1982, was the first commercial ship to sail through the Northwest Passage.

According to Rayes, who has worked and lived in the North for much of the 35 years since he immigrated to Canada from Egypt, few Arctic communities have port facilities, let alone roads that connect them to other communities.

“You have to bring everything you need with you,” says Rayes. “And you can’t create a hub in the region where you can stockpile goods. You have to make deliveries to each site.”

As a result, Desgagnés relies on its fleet of specially designed Type B cargo vessels and roll-on roll-off vessels that can navigate safely through ice and have capabilities and techniques that allow specially conditioned and packaged cargo – everything from basic household supplies like toilet paper to large excavation machinery, as well as dangerous goods like dynamite and other explosives for mining and contaminated soil from old military sites – to be manipulated and carried back and forth from ports in Southern Canada to some 40 destination points at the top of the world.

Since most deliveries and pick-ups are made on or from beaches, the company and its local partners also own, operate and rely on tugboats, barges and even heavy equipment on land to ensure safe and quick cargo transport and unloading. Most often, Desgagnés vessels anchor as close to shore as their drafts permit. Then, barges and tugboats are mobilized and goods and equipment are loaded onto the barges, which are towed to shore.

On average, Desgagnés ships 380,000 cubic metres of cargo during its short Arctic shipping season, which runs from early June until mid-October. Depending on the purpose of each trip – from what Rayes calls “milk runs” to resupply communities, or to carry equipment and supplies to construction and/or mining projects – the company’s ships carry an average load of 20,000 cubic metres on each voyage.

“Our ships are on a very strict schedule when they are in the North,” he says.

“At ports they begin unloading within an hour of arrival, even if it’s at night. The crews must work quickly and efficiently according to the weather and the wind and the tide. Every hour you win or lose can have an impact on the entire season.”

That is why, like Paterson, Rayes believes seasoned hands with cool heads onboard ship and on shore are the key to ensuring the safe and efficient operation of each vessel on every trip to the Arctic.

“We have expert teams of people in operations and management, including our Inuit partners, who collectively have hundreds if not thousands of years of experience in the Arctic,” says Rayes. “You need that because the Arctic is full of challenges and surprises when it comes to shipping by sea. It is unlike any other place on Earth.”