Wednesday

29th Jan 2020

First containership goes north of Russia from Asia to Europe

  • Venta Maersk in South Korea before venturing into the North East Passage (Photo: Kwak Dongmin / marinetraffic.com)

A brand new ice-strengthened containership is heading straight into the annals of maritime history. As the first containership ever Venta Maersk is on its way through the still ice-plagued North East passage north of Russia from Asia to Europe.

Venta Maersk belongs to Seago Line, a shipping company owned by Denmark's A.P. Moller Maersk A/S, the world's largest container-shipping agency.

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  • The seas north of Russia are still covered by heavy ice in winter - here, the North Sea Passage is marked in blue, the conventional sea route through the Suez Canal in red (Photo: Wikimedia)

A leading expert on the North East Passage, professor Frederic Lasserre at Universite Laval in Quebec, Canada, told EUobserver that more shipping companies are presently contemplating using the North East Passage for container traffic.

"I believe Maersk - like the Chinese shipping companies and Japanese MOL - is exploring exactly what the costs are and what kind of market they can tap into," he said.

A few years ago many shipping experts all but ruled out containers in the North East Passage.

The seas north of Russia are still covered by heavy ice in winter, the passage is too shallow for the largest containerships, Russian fees for transit, ice-pilots and ice-breaker escorts are steep - but climate change is offering new perspectives.

"In the last two-three years the ice melt in summer has been so extensive that developments are getting very hard to predict. I will not rule our that some shipping agencies may reach the necessary level of flexibility so that they can offer regular container service in the North East Passage during summer within the next ten years," said Lasserre.

The main point for Maersk and other shipping agencies is that the route from Northern Asia to Europe north of Russia is substantially shorter than if their ships travel south of India and through the Suez canal.

Depending on their exact point of departure and destination cargo ships may shorten their route between Europe and northern China, Japan or South Korea by up to 40 percent if they go through the North East Passage.

As the Chinese shipping agency COSCO wrote already in 2013: "Enormous expenditures on fuel, canal transit, security guard, personnel and vessel wear and tear can be saved".

One of seven

After a stop in Vladivostok on Russia's east coast Venta Maersk on 1 September ventured up through the Bering Strait separating the northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean from the Arctic Ocean and then into the North East Passage.

The first stop in Europe, in Bremerhaven, Germany, is expected to take place in late September before Venta Maersk continues to St Petersburg, Russia.

Venta Maersk is one of seven ice-strengthened containerships that Maersk is currently having built in China.

The ships are 200 metres long, 35.2 metres wide and capable of shipping 3,600 containers, six metres long, through one metre of ice.

The ships are among the largest ice-strengthened container ships ever built and destined, according to Maersk, to a work-life primarily in the Baltic Sea.

The inner Viking

A.P. Moller Maersk is carefully trying to contain any hype kicked up by Venta Maersks routing. No-one from the company's higher ranks are available for comment. All media requests are met with the a written statement which labels the project as a "one-off trial passage".

"The trial passage will enable us to explore the operational feasibility of container shipping through the Northern Sea Route and to collect data. Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as a commercial alternative to our existing network which is defined by our customers' demand, trading patterns and population centres," the statement says.

Like professor Lasserre, other expert observers also see Venta Maersk's journey in light of growing Asian interest.

"Venta Maersk is a signal to COSCO, who has been the most active player in the North East Passage," says a Danish industry source, who askedfor anonymity.

"Maersk illustrates that they are ready for it and that they have the ships for it. This is about being prepared. Maersk has found its inner Viking. They do not any longer focus only on growth and on reducing costs but also look offensively at new opportunities," this source told EUobserver.

Increased political instability in the world also plays a role, he thinks: "In such a situation it is good commercial thinking to be first-movers. There is war on the Horn of Africa where we had the pirate challenge. We have seen terrorist groups block the Suez canal. The Strait of Mallaca may also quickly turn into a bottleneck. In this state of affairs it might be really nice to have an alternative like the North East Passage, if everything else closes".

No-one in the industry expects the North East Passage to ever rival the route through the Suez canal as the main artery for cargo between Europe and Asia, but many now see the North East Passage as a potentially important niche for the industry.

In the first eight months of this year, cargo traffic in the North East passage, including exports from Russia and cargo in transit between Asia and Europe, surpassed the amount of cargo shipped in 2017 by 80 percent, according to Norwegian newsportal HighNorthNews.

Since 2013, COSCO, the Chinese shipping company, has systematically increased its use of the passage. From Janurary to August this year, COSCO sent 12 cargo ships from Asia to Europe via the North East Passage or as many as in the whole of 2017.

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