Kara Strait will never be new Suez

Ship owner Felix Tschudi sails through the Kara strait onboard “Professor Molchanov” as participant in the Nansen Memorial Expedition.

KARA SEA: Ship-owner Felix Tschudi can’t see a single vessel on the horizon as he sails through the strait between the Russian Arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya and Vaygach. No traffic boom yet along the Northern Sea Route.


Felix Tschudi enjoys standing on the top deck of the vessel bringing the Nansen Memorial Expedition further and further north into Russian Arctic waters.

Felix sees bright perspectives for shipping here on the top of the world. He knows what he is talking about. In September 2010 Felix Tschudi was a key player when the first ever bulk carrier with non-Russian flag sailed the Northern Sea Route in transit, from Kirkenes in Norway to China.

A Panamax bulk carrier saves 21 days from Kirkenes to Shanghai choosing the Northern Sea Route compared with sailing the Suez. “That saves $820,000 and it saves 3,980 tons of CO2,” argues Felix.

When Fridtjof Nansen was assisting the Norwegian businessman Jonas Lied to find a way to sail through the Kara Sea and by that opening a new trade route in the north, ice was the big problem. Not so today.

“For us, bringing bulk cargo from the resource-rich Barents Region, the Northern Sea Route is a real alternative to other sailing lanes,” says the board chairman of the Tschudi Shipping Company.

He is not alone. The traffic along the Northern Sea Route is peaking again this summer with at least 58 passages. Last year there were 46, in 2011 34 and only four during the 2010 season. In addition comes all the domestic Russian traffic sailing parts of the sea route, believed to be 462 this season.

But, the Northern Sea Route will never be like Suez where 19,000 vessels sailed through last year. In Panama, they counted 15,000.

Increased traffic in the Arctic requires better emergency preparedness and a new set of shipping rules. The worst-case scenario is an accident somewhere way north of Siberia, far from any rescue capacities.

Trond Langemyr works with international maritime safety for the Norwegian Coastal Administration. He is one of the participants on the Nansen Memorial Expedition.

“The new Polar Code that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will implement will certainly be at help for the safety of vessels sailing the Northern Sea Route,” says Langemyr. The Polar Code will be in force from 2016 and is likely to introduce stricter environmental requirements.

The dream of establishing an Arctic trade route between Europe and Asia is old. Even centuries before Nansen sailed to the river Yenisei with Jonas Lied.

The first one to sail the entire Northern Sea Route was the Finnish-Swedish explorer Adolf Nordenskiöld with is vessel “Vega” in 1878. But already in 1594, a Dutch expedition was ordered to explore whether the Kolguyev Island in the Pechora Sea could be used as a transhipment point for cargoes from China “as it would be most efficient for the ships coming from China to unload immediately in order to return as the passage was navigable for at most two months.”

Kolguyev is the island, which the Nansen Memorial Expedition visited a few days ago.

Today «Professor Molchanov» made her way along the coast of Yamal. Seen from the seaside, Yamal is nothing but a tiny line on the horizon, even when you sail close to the shore. The average height over sea level can’t be more than a meter or two. Flat like a pancake, the Netherlands looks rocky in comparison.

The Yamal Peninsula and the Yamal-Nenets region are highly important for both Russia and most of continental Europe today. Nearly 90 percent of the natural gas that is produced in Russia comes from underneath the permafrost in the area. Offshore fields are now under planning on the east coast, where the river Ob flows into the Arctic waters. A LNG-plant could soon be built, attracting LNG-carriers to sail this waters. They will have a navigation challenge; our small vessel has a draft of five meters, the route we are following towards the north tip of Yamal has a depth of nine to ten meters only. 

In late afternoon we reached the northernmost point of our journey, 73*54 outside Beloye Island north of the Yamal Peninsula in the Kara Sea. We can see the buildings of a meteorological station on Beloye.

Fridtjof Nansen and his team made a stopover on the island after struggling with ice all the way through the Kara Sea. Today, 100 years later, I haven’t even seen one single sight of drift ice during our voyage in the same waters.

Now, we steam straight across the northeastern Kara Sea towards the legendary Russian Arctic outpost of Dikson.