At the same time, we are seeing the operating companies conforming to a new classification for ships voyaging in icy waters, as well as a new set of legal environmental requirements. The majority of these ships are being built to PC6 classification which allows for 'summer/autumn operation in medium first-year ice, which may include old ice inclusions'. So these vessels, whilst they do have ice-strengthened hulls, are not termed icebreakers, and indeed they will sometimes travel with icebreakers, or call upon icebreakers to assist them when ice conditions change.
In contrast, Ponant's newest vessel under construction, Le Commandant Charcot, will indeed be an icebreaker with a PC2 classification for 'year-round operation in moderate multi-year ice conditions'. As a result, Ponant is to operate sailings in the Arctic high summer which will, in theory, break their way right through to the geographic North Pole. Until now, the only vessel regularly to offer such expeditions has been the intriguingly named Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory (50 Let Pobedy).
The vessel is not a tourist ship - she was purpose-built to pilot scientific and cargo ships to hard-to-reach areas of the Arctic and along the Northeast Passage. But in the summer, for a short period, she is chartered by specialist polar operators Quark Expeditions and Poseidon Expeditions to take 124 intrepid adventurers with over £1,750 per person per day to spare, in rather spartan surroundings, all the way to the North Pole, looked after by 140 crew.
Whilst I have never sailed on this particular vessel, I have heard it is quite a spectacular - and noisy - experience. Her spoon-shaped hull is powered up by two nuclear reactors to take her up onto the ice, and crash down through it, to create a passageway northwards.
Enter Le Commandant Charcot, the world's first luxury expedition icebreaker, with hybrid propulsion combining LNG and electric generators - cutting-edge technology, and with a scientific research laboratory on board. With 270 guests and 190 crew, she will operate year round, although not always in multi-year ice, and her North Pole fares will start at a bargain price of £1,495 per person per day - helicopter not included.
Finding a route through multi-year ice requires a particular skill, ideally combined with a lot of newly developed ice navigating and routing technology. Ice is not a homogenous mass, and is in constant movement. Icebreaking vessels target areas where the ice is most likely to break up, and once a vessel has passed the ice closes up again. This process can take from 15 minutes to a whole day.
The ship 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. Even powerful icebreakers can become stuck and potentially require rescue when they encounter multi-year ice and pressure ridges.
Le Commandant Charcot will come into service in 2021, with her first trips to Antarctica scheduled for October and November. At the end of the winter season she will then reposition to the Arctic, with summer 2022 voyages to Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard and the North Pole. Call us on 020 7399 7630 for reservations and further information.