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Ice Navigator Training Aims to Plug a Hole in the Polar Code

There is currently no international certification for mariners who navigate through icy Arctic waters, so industry is moving to fill the void, says Captain David “Duke” Snider, president of the Nautical Institute.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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You need experience and specialist knowledge to navigate safely through icy waters, says ice navigator “Duke” Snider of the Nautical Institute.Flickr/ashatsea

Sea ice can be an unforgiving teacher, says Captain David “Duke” Snider, an experienced ice navigator. It can only take one wrong move for a mariner to put an entire ship and crew at risk. That’s why being an ice navigator requires specialized training and experience – or at least it should.

Earlier this year, the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s Polar Code went into effect. The Polar Code lays down rules that aim to improve safety and provide environmental safeguards while sailing in Arctic and Antarctic waters.

But the code fails to offer clear, international safety standards for training and certifying ice navigators, despite, says Snider, many industry leaders asking for concrete requirements.

So the industry is taking the task on instead. On July 1, the Nautical Institute, an international organization for maritime professionals that Snider heads, will launch its ice navigator training accreditation and certification schemes.

Snider says that this training and certification will complement the Polar Code and foster more stringent training for navigators and industry leaders who want the Nautical Institute stamp of approval.

Arctic Deeply spoke with Snider about the need for accreditation of ice navigators and why the Nautical Institute decided to tackle this issue.

Arctic Deeply: What kind of special skills do you need to navigate ice-infested waters, and why do these skills need to be standardized?

“Duke” Snider: It ranges from very simple academic knowledge of the formation of ice – whether it be sea ice, lake ice or glacial ice – to the differences in ice types encountered on water, and how they move, how they’re impacted by climate as well as weather patterns. It’s basically ice science.

You combine that with geographic knowledge, what you can expect seasonally, annually, decadely. You have to understand the limitations of a ship’s design, from the shape of the ship to whether it’s ice-strengthened or not. [You have to] understand cold weather, and then a whole host of other academic information such as knowledge of how to interpret different types of ice information, whether it be text, satellite imagery of different types, ice charts of different types. It’s complex. Most mariners in their careers do not encounter significant ice.

It becomes an art as opposed to a science. In my career, I’ve seen people who can pass all the academic courses they want, but they just can’t drive a ship on ice without damaging it.

Arctic Deeply: Take us through the history of this training, and why the Nautical Institute took this on.

Snider: It goes back to the 1500s and 1600s. Mariners in various countries started pushing further afield, and understanding the skills of getting a ship around their own waters or open ocean waters was not the same as operating in ice. They started to look and see that we needed people with that experience, and at that time they often called them ice masters. Even the Royal Navy would bring on board an ice master for their voyages into the Arctic and the Antarctic.

What happened in international shipping was we began to get many different standards: local regulations, national regulations. There was no international standard, so that, essentially, anybody could hang a shingle outside their door that said, “pilot for hire.”

The Nautical Institute was approached by an industry group that said, “Could you look into putting in place a Nautical Institute’s standard [for] ice navigation?” Just when we were about to push the “Go” button, the secretary general of the IMO said, “there’s stuff going on in both poles. Shipping is increasing; we need a mandatory standard.”

It’s the same as a driver’s license; the same as a pilot’s license. You can get a commercial pilot’s license, but then you have to get approval for different aircraft.

Of course, [the IMO] has to operate with a full consensus, and to do that oftentimes things get watered down. So, what began as a robust international standard for ice navigation skills and competency was watered down to what the Polar Code now calls polar waters training, basic and advanced.

There is no requirement for any experience actually operating in ice. In fact, officers can obtain these certificates and never [see] any ice whatsoever.

We are going to launch the Nautical Institute ice navigator training accreditation and certification schemes on the first of July of this year. [It] will complement the Polar Code, in that individuals can do the Polar Code training and also apply for a Nautical Institute ice navigator basic or ice navigator advanced certificate, filling that gap and providing a standard that everyone around the world can look to and say, “OK, this individual actually has proven competency operating a ship in ice.”

Arctic Deeply: Are there particular nations or organizations that are the most hesitant to adopt these standards?

Snider: Obviously, there are. I mean, when you bring in a new standard there’s someone who wants to cut the corners and do it cheaper. They want to do it the easiest way. What I think is more important to say is that organizations are coming to us and saying, “When is [a standard] coming? We want to sign on.”

There are a number of other operators that are just standing by waiting for us to actually say, “OK, this is how you apply,” and to get their people recognized and to put training in. We have a number of major schools that are saying, “OK, we want to be accredited as soon as possible because we want the Nautical Institute stamp of approval on our courses.”

Arctic Deeply: Can you give an example of when these skills were important to have on board?

Snider: One of the most famous is the M.V. Explorer that sank in the Antarctic. The ice [navigator] they had on board had no experience in the Antarctic whatsoever, and the vessel entered an ice field and was subsequently holed by the ice and sank. Arguably, an experienced ice navigator would have understood that the type of ice they were entering was glacial ice, which is much harder than sea ice. It looks somewhat similar but it’s not the same; it’ll put a hole in the ship, and it did. An experienced and certified ice navigator would have known all that.

Arctic Deeply: With more ice melting, is shipping activity in the Arctic on the rise? How does that impact the need to have this standardized navigator credentials in place?

Snider: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I want to clarify one thing and maybe a couple of things here. I will say upfront I totally believe in climate change. I’m seeing it. But there tends to be an overabundance of hyperbole about an ice-free Arctic. Sea ice still exists in the summer. Conditions remains variable day to day, week to week, year to year. Each winter new ice grows.

The reality of looking at the statistics is that transit routes going all the way through the Northwest Passage are not increasing substantially. What is increasing at a more dramatic level is what we call destinational shipping. As an example: the resupply of Canadian Arctic communities. It’s been increasing gradually over the years but it’s not been increasing because of global climate change. It’s been increasing because the communities are slowly growing, and as they grow they need more resupply. They need more fuel for their generators, they need more groceries, they need more toilet paper.

So that resupply of Arctic communities is slowly increasing over the years. The other big piece is export. In Russia, it’s the export of the hydrocarbons, whether it be oil or gas. In Canada, the export of iron ore has seen an increase in numbers of ships moving in and out of the Canadian Arctic.

For the most part, there are very experienced shipping companies that are operating, have been operating and will continue to operate. The ones that are coming into it are recognizing that they need better ice class [vessels], and they need the right people – the ice navigators – on board.

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