France’s Ponant to offer North Pole cruises starting in 2021

The Le Commandant Charcot will be the the world’s first icebreaking cruise ship. While it will run on LNG and carry a Polar Class 2 rating, questions about environmental and passenger safety still persist for Arctic cruises.

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Le Commandant Charcot by Ponant
Le Commandant Charcot by Ponant will be the first luxury icebreaker in the Arctic. (Courtesy of Ponant)

With the continued melting of Arctic sea ice and the further opening of the Arctic Ocean to maritime traffic, cruise ship tourism is the latest economic sector forecasted to experience a boom in the region over the coming years. Cruise ship operators around the world are adding ice-capable expedition cruise ships to their fleets: in 2019 alone, 13 such new vessels will be launched, with an additional 28 vessels to be commissioned by 2022.

The technologically most advanced and most capable of these will be French cruise ship operator Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot, which will be powered by a hybrid liquefied natural gas (LNG) and battery propulsion system to reduce emissions by up to 85 percent.

The Le Commandant Charcot will have Polar Class 2 designation, placing it on the same level as the newly designed U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers and allowing it to travel virtually anywhere across the Arctic. Ponant plans to offer regular trips to the geographic North Pole, which would be a first for non-nuclear powered vessels and highlights the vessel’s proposed capabilities in ice-covered waters.

However, even high ice-class designations are not a “carte blanche” when it comes to safely navigating in ice-covered waters, emphasizes Pierre Leblanc of Arctic Security Consultants. Even powerful icebreakers can become stuck and potentially require rescue when they encounter multi-year ice and pressure ridges. In 2017, two large Russian icebreakers, the Kapitan Dranitsyn and the Admiral Makarov, got stuck in the East Siberian Sea. In 2014 China’s Xue Long icebreaker got stuck in Antarctica after assisting the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy.

In the Arctic Ocean’s vast distances, assistance and rescue may be many hours or likely days away if a vessel encounters difficulties.

“Search and rescue resources are very limited above 82 degrees north and due to the large distances even aircraft will take many hours to arrive on scene,” explains Bent-Ove Jamtli, the director of Norway’s Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC).

The Le Commandant Charcot, which was designed by Ponant in cooperation with Stirling Design International, Aker Arctic and VARD, will deploy Aker’s dual-directional hull, which allows it to travel forward through light to medium ice, and operate in reverse to ram through extreme ice conditions. The ship also employs newly developed ice navigation and routing technology to help it find the optimal and safest route through icy waters.

Ponant contracted Vard, a shipyard group, to build the $330 million Le Commandant Charcot and construction began at Vard’s facility in Tulcea, Romania, in December 2018. The vessel is expected to be launched in 2020 and will enter into service in early 2021.

Aside from its icebreaking design, Le Commandant Charcot features a new generation of Wärtsilä medium-speed engines, which Ponant will power with LNG, rather than the traditional and more emissions-heavy diesel. In order to operate without any emissions for short periods of time (up to three hours, according to Ponant ) the Le Commandant Charcot will combine its LNG engines with large, high-capacity battery banks to create a the world’s first hybrid icebreaker.

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Ponant’s effort to move towards cleaner fuels in Arctic shipping was welcomed by the Clean Arctic Alliance, a global campaign to protect the Arctic from the hazards and risks of heavy fuel oil. However, the company’s efforts are only a first step, Sian Prior, the organisation’s lead advisor, stressed.

“While Ponant is heading in the right direction, the Clean Arctic Alliance believes that shipping companies must embrace a future where international shipping is fueled entirely without the use of fossil fuels,” she said.

The Le Commandant Charcot will be propelled by two ABB Azipod VI units, producing a combined 34MW of power, and fitted with massive six-meter propellers, comparable to the power output of the newly designed U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers.

The vessel will resemble the latest generation of icebreakers in terms of overall size and weight, with a length and width of around 490 feet by 90 feet (150 meters by 28 meters) and a weight of approximately 30,000 tons.

Ponant plans to equip the ship with 135 luxurious cabins which can accomodate 270 passengers, in addition to a crew of 180.

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In order to safely navigate in the Arctic, an ice-capable vessel is just one of many important factors, explains Arctic Security Consultants’ Leblanc. The captain’s and ice navigator’s experience is key, he says; inexperience with specific ice conditions led to the sinking of the MV Explorer in 2007.

Especially when navigating in coastal waters, the lack of accurate charts presents a danger and resulted in the running aground of the Russian ice-class cruise ship Akademik Ioffe in 2018, fortunately in calm weather with assistance nearby.

And while the Le Commandant Charcot’s unique propulsion system aims to be environmentally friendly, it is also unproven, and there is a risk associated with new technology which could lead to a loss of power, according to Leblanc.

It is the vast distances of the region that present a particular challenges, especially when venturing into the center of the Arctic Ocean, thousands of miles from the nearest shore. The logistical challenge of evacuating passengers and crew from a listing ship would be insurmountable, as the recent incident of the Viking Sky off the Norwegian coast showed. Distances may be too great for helicopters and weather conditions may be too adverse for launching emergency boats.

Due to the long lead-time for rescue aircraft or vessels to arrive on scene, cold-water immersion suits, which are mandated by the International Maritime Organization to provide six hours of survival time, may not be able to protect sufficient personnel long enough.

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Similar sentiments were voiced by the JRCC’s Jamtli. In case a cruise ship becomes stuck in ice near the North Pole, other vessels may take many days to arrive on scene.

“There are very few other icebreakers that can break ice all the way to the North Pole, so it will probably take many days to render to assist with another icebreaker.”

Rescuing passengers of a stranded cruise ship will require setting up a complex evacuation chain with and an icebreaking coast-guard vessel that can be used as a refueling platform for SAR helicopters. Even with these resources, it would take several days to evacuate all passengers. Jamtli added that due to the large distances cruise ships must cover on polar expeditions, they need to be self-sufficient and have medical crew and advanced medical facilities on board and carry sufficient medical supplies to deal with medical emergencies independently.

Ponant appears confident that it has designed a capable vessel and is ready to venture into the remoteness of the Arctic Ocean. Le Commandant Charcot will spend nearly six months around and above the Arctic Circle during the spring, summer, and fall of 2021, culminating with a three or four-week cruise along the Northern Sea Route in September.

Note: Ponant did not respond to several requests for comment regarding how they aim to address the challenges of navigating in the Arctic Ocean.