Commercial Arctic shipping a long way off, Maersk boss says

Head of global shipping firm not keen on Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage


The bulk carrier Nordic Orion sailed through the Northwest Passage last month after departing Vancouver Sept. 17. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

The bulk carrier Nordic Orion sailed through the Northwest Passage last month after departing Vancouver Sept. 17. (HANDOUT PHOTO)

Despite all the hype that attended the recent voyage of the Nordic Orion through the Northwest Passage last month, the chief executive officer of Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipping line, says Arctic sea routes won’t carry large volumes of commercial shipping any time soon.

“We will see some single ships sailing through the Arctic… But the reality is, for commercial shipping such as container shipping, this is not something that will happen within the next 10 to 20 years,” Nils Andersen, the head of the huge Moller-Maersk shipping conglomerate, told the London-based Financial Times Oct. 6.

The Nordic Orion, a 225-metre vessel owned by Nordic Bulk Carriers of Denmark, generated many headlines across Canada recently when it carried 15,000 tonnes of coal from Vancouver through the Northwest Passage to a steel plant in Finland.

The Nordic Orion departed Vancouver Sept. 6 and sailed into the Northwest Passage at the height of the short ice-free shipping season, arriving in Pori, Finland Oct. 7.

The vessel’s owners listed the voyage with the federal government’s NORDREG shipping registry, contacted Transport Canada every day and was accompanied by the Coast Guard vessel Louis St. Laurent.

Because the Nordic Orion’s owners sought and received Canadian permission, the voyage did not affect Canada’s legal position that the Northwest Passage is an internal Canadian waterway.

But the head of Maersk, which carries about 15 per cent of the world’s marine cargo, said he doesn’t expect to see much commercial shipping through routes like or Northern Sea Route north of Russia or the Northwest Passage.

The Northern Sea Route, which is open for about four months a year, handles only a small number of sailings annually.

As for the Northwest Passage, it’s only ice free from end to end for about two months a year, and presents numerous hazards and potential liabilities.

Those include, drifting multi-year ice, unpredictable weather, uncharted waters, sky-high insurance rates and the absence of ports and other infrastructure.

For that reason, Arctic sea routes provide limited opportunities for shippers, the Maersk boss said, and even the Northern Sea Route is a long way from becoming a major shipping lane.

“The way global warming is going, of course there is the opportunity in a very far, very distant future that the northern sea route will open up and it will be a major shipping route. But it will definitely not be within the next 15 to 20 years in our opinion so it’s far too early to start constructing vessels for it,” Andersen told the Financial Times.

But the Nordic Orion’s owners told the Shipping Watch news service that they saved US $80,000 in fuel and cut five days off their voyage by using the Northwest Passage instead of the Panama Canal.

However, they also said it’s far too early to tell if the Northwest Passage has any long-term potential as a shipping route.

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