Since the early scientific expeditions and commercial voyages seafarers have relied on seaworthy vessels to navigate safely in ice infested waters. As the emergence of trade routes including those using the Northeast Passage and Northern Sea Route, have advanced these have posed new design conditions and challenges. As a result the pressing need for suitable vessels to operate in cold regions has increased to manage the risks of operating in these regions. This paper provides an insight and perspective into the historical development of ships used for ice navigation and an explanation of some of the key features and characteristics of the vessels at the same time as outlining some of the technical designs used by ice going ships and icebreakers. It introduces the provisions and measures that have been utilised to manage the exposure to sea ice and design adaptations to reduce or remove these hazards. It is clear that early ship designs have introduced many of the concepts being applied in present day icebreakers.


Ships have been operating in cold climates for many years, and for nearly four hundred years from the early seventeenth century whaling ships sailed from various ports of north-west Europe to the whaling grounds off the coast of eastern Canada and Greenland. Whilst many aspects of shipping in these regions have changed, much can be learnt from the development of the vessels and in the pioneering aspects of these voyages in establishing these trade routes.

Historically much emphasis has been placed on establishing trade routes in Arctic navigation. The Northeast Passage, now known as the Northern Sea Route, is a shipping lane running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, along the Russian coasts of the Far East and Siberia. This sought after trading route shortens the sea voyage to Asia by almost 7,400 km (4,200 miles) compared with more traditional routes from north-west Europe to Asia via the Suez Canal. The vast majority of the route lies in Arctic waters and parts are only free of ice for two months of the year. Like, the Northwest Passage along the northern coast of North America and the Canadian Archipelago, the potential to open up the route has roused people's interest and attracted numerous expeditions over the centuries. Many early attempts to find the Northeast Passage from the fifteenth century onwards, failed to get further east than the Kara Sea.

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