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Master of ice

Only 10 million people in the world live north of the 60th parallel – and half of these are Finns. Finland is the only country in the world to see all its ports freeze during a normal winter. Mastering ice has thus always been a life condition. It still is today.


When the ice sets, you need to keep your ears open and your eyes on stalks. How the ice freezes, where the dangerous currents are, and which way the wind is blowing! Black streaks for weak ice, green for glassy smooth, milky blue for a thin layer over an invisible hole – you need to know how to watch out for such things.

In the old days, the postal route from Finland to Sweden was known as the most dangerous in Europe. The peril was not pirates or bandits, but rather a peaceful, white blanket covering the waters during winters. All white and pristine on the surface but dangerous and deceitful underneath. 

The archipelago of Åland, situated right in the middle of that route, consists of over 6500 small islands, of which about 60 are inhabited. The postman’s job was to deliver letters and packages to the people living on these islands – by boat in summer, and by horse and sled in winter.

A hard winter was the postman’s best friend. The ice could be trusted. But come spring, vigilance was again a matter of life and death for the postman.

Always have an ice pike and a knife in your belt. Listen carefully to how the ice creaks. Don’t be timid, because then you’ll get nowhere. Don’t be foolhardy, because then you’ll stay right there, for good. You need to remember that it’s cold, and deep.

In the old days, winter usually meant splendid isolation for Finland. The mail got through thanks to courageous postmen, but all import and export was cut off. (When the first purpose-built icebreker Murtaja (‘Breaker’) came into traffic in 1889, the export of butter more than doubled in just a few years.)

So no sugar, coffee or other earthly delights from mid-November to the end of April. No wonder that the first ship in spring called for a big celebration. 

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Industrialists paving the way

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1970s that all Finnish ports were kept open throughout the winter. A quick glance at wintry satellite images is all you need to realise why Finland is completely dependent on icebreakers during winter months for keeping foreign trade up and running. Finland is the only country in the world to see all its ports freeze during a normal winter (during an extremely cold winter, Estonia’s ports freeze too). Denmark’s and Norway’s ports remain open thanks to the Gulf Stream. While Stockholm can be sealed off by ice, the Gulf Stream makes sure that Gothenburg and Malmö stay open. During winter months, Canada shuts some of its ports in the north and instead relies on ports on the west coast such as Vancouver.

The Finnish coast is particularly prone to thick ice, as the southwesterly winds, often prevalent in winter, tend to push the ice in big chunks towards the Finnish coastline.

While Finns back in the old days were used to living without certain goods during winter, the icy conditions got on paper industrialists’ nerves. That’s because along with rest of Europe, Finland underwent rapid economic growth in the late 19th century, and it became more pressing to export goods such as paper during winter months too.

So in the beginning of April in 1890, Helsinkiners observed a cloud of black smoke as the Europe’s most powerful icebreaker, the Murtaja, steamed into port. Since then, icebreakers have been launched at a steady pace. 

Around the clock

Unless the winter is particularly mild, which happens about once in five years, the Finnish coastline is completely covered in ice and up to 20 icebreakers are needed to keep over 20 ports open. During a harsh winter a ship travelling from the straits of Denmark to Kemi in Northern Finland has to push through 1600 kilometres of ice. The lane pushed open by the icebreaker freezes fast, and during a busy day there can be up to 10 vessels tiptoeing right behind the icebreaker to make sure they advance before the ice freezes again. So when it’s really cold, icebreakers work round the clock.

And sometimes even that is not enough. During the winters of 2010 and 2011, which were both particularly cold, several cargo ships were trapped in ice, leaving businesses and consumers without their goods for several weeks. All icebreakers including multi-purpose breakers chartered to warmer climates were called in.

 If the conditions are right, a thick white cover can spread on the Baltic Sea fairly quickly.

“During the Christmas of 2014 we hardly had any ice at all. But a few cold weeks in the end of January were all that was needed for the sea to freeze,” says Jouni Vainio, an ice specialist at the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

But even during mild winters, icebreakers have work to do. Finland’s curse – the southwesterly winds – pushes ice in the Baltic Sea towards the Finnish coast. And even if there isn’t much ice, big wall-like constructions can still be formed especially during storms. At their thickest, these walls can measure up to seven metres (and can stretch up to 30 metres below water level).

Even though climate change is likely to soften Finland’s hard winters, the icebreakers will still be in high demand. More unpredictable weather and the looming southwesterly winds that are likely to become even stronger will pack the ice along Finland’s coastline in the future as well.

Mastering ice will continue to be a life condition for the Finns.

Your whole body must be an instrument to register the consistency of ice. You hold your breath sometimes, and fear can make heat blossom like a rose beneath your furs, and then you kick forward as fast as you possibly can.

Extracts are the postman’s notes from Finnish author Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s novel Ice, which is about a settlement in the Åland archipelago at the end of the 19th century. The much-acclaimed novel was originally published in Swedish in 2012. Thomas Teal, translator of the Moomin books from Swedish to English, kindly worked on Ice in advance for Twentyfour7. The wording in the final English version scheduled for release in 2015 may still change.

When the Finnish Transport Agency announced plans last spring to build a new icebreaker, nearly 20 years had passed since the latest launch. But what makes this icebreaker particularly special is that it’s the first icebreaker ever to be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Wärtsilä is providing the engines for the icebreaker being built by Arctech Helsinki Shipyard. Icebreakers are all about sheer force and a massive amount of energy. But this icebreaker won’t be as big a polluter as its predecessors as it will mostly run on LNG.

“This will indeed be the cleanest icebreaker in the world,” says Esko Mustamäki, CEO for Arctech Helsinki Shipyard.

It was the Finnish Transport Agency that brought up the idea of powering the icebreaker with LNG.

“As you don’t have any cargo like big containers on an icebreaker, there’s room for tanks,” says Mustamäki.

Still, when Mika Ojutkangas, General Manager, Wärtsilä Ship Power Sales, was introduced to the idea of powering an icebreaker with LNG, he admits that his initial reaction was one of slight hesitation. 

You need a fair amount of gas on board because the icebreaker requires great autonomy as it can stay out at sea for a month at a time where the chances to bunker up on gas are few and far between.

“You need enormous tanks for getting that autonomy,” says Ojutkangas.

But after a little doodling at the drawing board, it was concluded that LNG on icebreakers is perfectly doable. The size of the tanks was optimised in relation to the vessel’s size. The icebreaker will run as much as possible on LNG, but thanks to the dual-fuel engines the vessel can rely on low-sulphur diesel fuel if there is a delay in bunkering more gas or when the icebreaker needs to maximise power fast.

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Clean and pristine


Long history

Some icebreakers are used throughout the year. During winters, they stay in the Gulf of Finland, keeping one of the most traversed routes in the world open for passenger cruise ferries and cargo transport, in and out of Finland.

This icebreaker will mainly operate in Arctic ice conditions, all the way up to Kemi near the Arctic Circle in Northern Finland, but it will also be able to perform oil spill response operations and emergency towing in summer if needed.

Arctech’s and Wärtsilä’s mutual history goes back a long way, and according to Mustamäki, Wärtsilä was a natural choice. What convinced the people at Arctech further was Wärtsilä’s promise of impressive power output per cylinder. The full scope of supply calls for one 8-cylinder Wärtsilä 20DF, two 9-cylinder Wärtsilä 34DF, and two 12-cylinder Wärtsilä 34DF engines. The engines will be an upgrade from the usual fare.

“Our R&D team has been busy improving the 34DF. This model has more power and is also more economical in terms of fuel,” says Ojutkangas.

Big ice walls

Mustering brute force when the situation calls for it is a life condition for an icebreaker. Frozen oceans are not peaceful white blankets covering the sea. The wind packs the ice slush into big walls, and if you intend to push through that mass you need a lot of force behind you. When an icebreaker sets its course it must deliver. The lane pushed open by the icebreaker freezes fast, so the vessels for which the icebreaker is making the channel are tiptoeing right behind. In the narrow channel there is no way for the vessel behind to turn left or right to avoid ramming into the icebreaker. So whatever comes in its way, the icebreaker needs to be able to push through.

“Big container ships may have a stopping distance of up to 1 km. The need for power was indeed one of the biggest challenges in this project,” says Ojutkangas.

This icebreaker will be able to move continuously through 1.6-metre-thick ice and be capable of breaking a 25-metre-wide channel at a speed of six knots.

The contract was signed in March 2014 and the equipment is to be delivered to the yard in spring 2015. The icebreaker will stand ready in January 2016.


More LNG on icebreakers 

Other icebreaker builders are also waking up to LNG’s possibilities for these massive vessels. The Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) yard in South Korea has ordered 54 Wärtsilä dual-fuel engines for icebreaking LNG carriers currently in production. These vessels will be stationed in Northern Russia. 
The engines need to tackle extreme conditions as the temperatures can sink to as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius. The LNG carriers will be able to break through ice more than two meters thick. These icebreakers will also have to show some muscle when the situation calls for it. Wärtsilä is answering this call by providing a total power output of 64,350 kW per vessel.

© 2021 Wärtsilä