Breakbulk Transit Via Northern Sea Route

SAL Makes First Cargo Delivery on the Route


Breakbulk specialist SAL Heavy Lift has transported its first cargo via the Northern Sea Route, paving the way for an increase in project cargo deliveries through the Arctic. 

Connecting Europe with the Pacific via Siberian Russia, the Northern Sea Route has long been touted as a potential route for shipping, but severe weather conditions and perishing temperatures have limited traffic to date. Tackling this difficult route, SAL Heavy Lift partnered with its sister company Combi Lift to deliver a cargo of breakbulk equipment before the end of the navigable season this year.

Malte Steinhoff, spokesman for parent company Harren & Partner Group, told Breakbulk that the cargo consisted of a variety of “components for the gas and oil industry,” adding that the “cargo was booked through Combi Lift.”

Adverse Weather Conditions

Interest in navigating the northern coast of Russia dates to at least the 16th century, but modern transit has been established since the 1920s, when the Soviet Union developed the Northern Sea Route as a shipping lane.

The route, which stretches from Northern Norway and the Barents Sea in the West, continues eastward along Russia’s northern coastline, through the Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi seas before connecting to the Bering Strait and finally the Pacific Ocean.

For SAL and Combi Lift, the journey began in the Angus region of eastern Scotland, where cargo was loaded aboard SAL’s heavy-lift vessel Hilke.

“Under the command of Capt. Viktor Ivashchenko the vessel sailed eastbound from Montrose, United Kingdom, to Korsakov, Russia, transporting some cargo which was booked by our sister company Combi Lift. Preparations for the passage were completed in Bremerhaven, Germany,” a spokesperson for SAL said.

Featuring a maximum draft of 7.8 meters and a maximum speed of 16 knots, the Hilke is certified ICE Class DNV GL E3, equivalent to Finnish/Swedish 1A. Weighing 10,000 deadweight tonnes, the vessel has two on-deck cranes with lifting capacity of 450 tonnes each, giving combined lift capacity of 900 tonnes.

“The ice-going vessel was built in China in 2010,” Steinhoff explained, noting that the crew “successfully managed the route despite adverse weather conditions such as temperatures of -12 degrees Celsius, fog and icy conditions.”

As well as reduced visibility, due to these weather conditions, the crew also faced difficulties dues to the short daylight hours. Extra man hours were also required to ensure a constant rotating watch on ice conditions, guaranteeing that the route ahead was clear at all times and the ship did not become grounded.

Calling the journey “an enormous challenge,” Steinhoff praised the successful completion of the project, highlighting the pioneering work of all involved in the transit.

Despite these challenges, the route offers major upside for breakbulk shipping lines thanks to the reduced transit time and potential cost savings.

“The time window for the passage is only open between July and October,” Steinhoff said, but noted that there are “convincing advantages” during this time period for breakbulk shipping operators that are able to manage the risks.

Chief among these is the shorter distance, allowing vessels to deliver vital project cargo within much tighter timeframes and helping the bottom line due to reduced fuel costs.

“With 60 percent the length of the Suez Canal route, the Northern Sea Route offers an enticing alternative to many shipping companies eager to seek profit despite the geopolitical outcomes,” said Thomas Soerensen of The Arctic Institute.

The route remains contentious, however, with many environmental organisations protesting the increase in sailing via the Arctic. Faig Abbasov, shipping officer at clean transport campaign group T&E, predicts that shipping on Arctic routes could lead to local impacts, such as “more black carbon deposits on ice and snow” and that potential oil spills risk irreparably damaging the “unique and very sensitive” ecosystem.

This concern is balanced against a substantial saving in miles-traveled, with estimates suggesting that the northern route could shave as much as 40 percent off journeys. This in turn could lead to significant reductions in emissions from shipping, greatly supporting global climate goals, and driving interest from a wide variety of industries.

“We believe that especially wind turbines, module transports as well as oil and gas components will see the greatest demand for further transit via this route,” Steinhoff predicts.

Risks Remain

SAL can count their luck on the timing of the transport as only a few weeks after the Hilke successfully transited the route, dozens of vessels became stuck in sea ice, when an earlier-than-expected freeze hit the region.

Highlighting the danger of traversing the frozen Russian Arctic, the sudden freeze caught operators and authorities unaware and saw a 30-centimeter-thick ice layer form across most of the Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea by late October. Local sources cited a "dramatic change" in weather that had been inaccurately forecast as a "light" snow shower.

This risk is unlikely to deter future breakbulk vessels from making the arduous journey the route, however, as the time and cost savings may be to lucrative to avoid. Steinhoff points out that “the season is over for the time being”, the Northern Sea route “will be navigable for our ships again from July 2022” and “it may very well be that we will use the route again next year.”