Rule 1 in learning to drive a 13,000-ton icebreaker: Go slow

July 21, 2017
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First officer Jukka Alhoke sits at the controls of the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it sets sail off the coast of Canada toward the Bering Strait, Thursday, July 6, 2017. The MSV Nordica is setting course to traverse the Northwest Passage, a route once considered impassible, from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic via the Arctic. The icebreaker, which is returning to its home port of Helsinki, is carrying researchers studying the impact of the Arctic's melting sea ice on the fragile social and ecological balance in the region, and observers from the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

THE ARCTIC CIRCLE (AP) — Learning to drive an icebreaker like the MSV Nordica is a bit like taking dance lessons.

You start slow, with a few turns and twists on the open sea to get a feel for the way the ship moves.

Next step, add some hazards.

I got my chance to take the controls as two fellow Associated Press journalists and I travel aboard the Nordica through the Arctic Circe’s Northwest Passage. Granted, it was only for five minutes and the captain was standing next to me, ready to step in if necessary, but it was still a daunting moment.

Despite the name, icebreakers will avoid hitting ice unless they have to. In a sea filled with floating chunks of frozen water, each weighing several tons, the ice navigator will look for the path of least resistance and relay it to the person at the helm, who ultimately decides which course to take.

Icebreakers with azimuth thrusters, such as the Nordica, are extremely maneuverable and can change direction very quickly, allowing the ship to avoid many unnecessary encounters with ice that would otherwise slow it down.

Still, keeping several pieces of moving ice in mind, as well as possibly other ships and shallows that could ground the vessel, has been compared to an elaborate waltz in a crowded ballroom.

Now imagine doing that blind, as would be the case when it’s nighttime, there’s heavy snow, or the ice is “smoking” — a particular weather condition in which sea ice produces a dense fog.

While icebreakers are equipped with sensitive radar systems, ultimately it’s up to the ability and experience of the person at the helm to ensure the ship only breaks ice when it’s unavoidable.

According to Nordica’s captain, Jyri Viljanen, only lots of supervised practice can adequately prepare a person for the challenges of steering the ship.

When you’re in charge of a 13,000-ton, 380-foot icebreaker, you don’t want to be stepping on anyone’s toes.


Follow a team of AP journalists as they travel through the Arctic Circle’s fabled Northwest Passage here: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NewArctic

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