When ships have to break through thick layers of ice, it’s a special challenge for the entire crew. A voyage on board the “Emotion” to the Finnish town of Rauma.
The sky is clear and filled with stars, and the temperature is just above freezing. It’s almost midnight when Master Joop van de Wijngaart steers the “Emotion” towards the Southern Fairway. The fairway leads to Rauma, a town in south-western Finland. With a deft touch, van de Wijngaart turns the feeder about 45 degrees so that the position light at the bow lines up perfectly with the light of the lighthouse. “The passage is very narrow, and it gets rocky right behind the buoys,” he explains. “So it’s crucial to keep the ship at an even distance between the buoys. Otherwise, you’re going to run aground.” Since receiving a pilot authorisation in 2016, Master van de Wijngaart has been navigating through the passage without assistance. Once the ship arrives at the entrance of the Southern Fairway, he waits to receive an OK to proceed from the port in Rauma. Only then will the 1,400 TEU ship proceed slowly and steadily forward.
“The first time without a pilot was dreadful,” the native Dutchman recalls. “It was so foggy that day that I couldn’t even see the foremast. In such situations, it’s important to have confidence in yourself and to navigate the ship in a calm and focused manner.” After all, there’s only one way you can go – and that’s forward, as the feeder can’t turn around in the narrow passage.
Seafaring is something that van de Wijngaart practically inherited. His father was a captain, and he was even born on a ship. He’s been sailing now for 40 years, but he has exclusively served on coasters for the last decade.
Since the launch of the Baltic Sea Express (BAX) service in 2013, the “Emotion” and its sister ship, the “Empire”, have been part of the weekly service as charter vessels, and van de Wijngaart has been on board as master. “One of the things I like about this service is the technical challenge,” he says. “On top of that, I like the reliability of the service: It’s short, which makes it predictable. A round voyage takes about a week.”
The Southern Fairway is 180 metres wide, 15 nautical miles long and only 10 metres deep at its deepest point. At a speed of eight to nine knots, it takes the “Emotion” about two hours to sail through the passage – always exactly in the middle of the red and green buoys. Although the Baltic Sea is not completely frozen over on this March evening, some buoys at the entrance to the passage are lying under the ice and are hard to spot. But this does not ruffle Master van de Wijngaart’s feathers. Sitting relaxed at the navigation bridge, he moves his gaze back and forth from the radar and electronic chart (ECDIS) displays to the position light on the bow out the window – as much as visibility allows.
The radio beeps and hisses. At regular intervals, the officer on duty reports the ship’s position to the port in Rauma. From time to time, he leaves the pilothouse and checks the distance between the buoys and the ship from the steering positions on the left and right sides of the bridge. What is special in this case is that these positions are an integral part of the pilothouse, whereas normally they are outside.
For a trouble-free voyage through ice, it is essential to have close interaction not only with the navigation officers, but also with the engineers. “We’re actually in continuous contact with the bridge,” says Valery Suhovs, Chief Engineer on the “Emotion”. The native of Ukraine has been sailing on the Hapag-Lloyd feeder for six years. “To get through the ice well, it’s important to maintain a steady pace, as it is essential for enabling all parties to maintain control of the ship,” he explains. “It that isn’t the case, the worst that can happen is that the ship gets stuck and the ice-breaker has to come before you can move on.”
The “Emotion” has what is called an ice class certification. Such ships are characterised by a considerably more robust hull, a stronger engine and propellers made of particularly durable metal alloys. All these special features are stipulated by the classification society. “With the ‘Emotion’, we can get through a layer of ice between 50 and 80 centimetres thick without any problems. We don’t need an ice-breaker for that,” Suhovs explains.
However, winters are fairly mild these days, so the Baltic Sea is only frozen in some places. “The worst is when there’s pack ice, meaning ice that has broken into pieces and then formed into layers, which then freeze back together. This makes it very difficult to get through,” van de Wijngaart says.
However, the ice layer is thin on this voyage. Along the passage, there are four leading lights that van de Wijngaart uses to orient himself. “This is basically my main means of navigation through the canal,” he explains. The passage has a slightly S-like shape. After a two-hour voyage through partly frozen water and sometimes large ice floes, the “Emotion” reaches the entrance to the Port of Rauma. There, she is met by an ice-breaker that looks a bit like a small, round black beetle. The ship quickly ploughs through the freshly frozen waters to clear the path to the berth. But the “Emotion” would have been able to safely navigate through the ice even without this help.