Melting sea ice has opened up new cargo and cruise shipping lanes in polar seas – and the captains of tomorrow are now learning how to conquer the Arctic  . . .  in Glasgow

Ground-breaking technology is allowing the delivery of a training programme developed in Scotland for sailors on board ships operating in polar waters.

The 360 degree simulator at City of Glasgow College, the most advanced of its kind in the UK, will be used to train them to safely navigate the treacherous ice, blizzards and fogs.


DEEP FREEZE: A container ship designed for the harsh conditions of the Arctic makes its way through ice filled waters

Simulations of the frozen conditions will be part of the courses on offer at the college and could  help avoid tragedies and environmental disasters in the polar regions which are now being opened up to more ships as a result of global warming.

“These places are incredibly hostile, although the risks are reducing as the ice melts. If ships are going to use these areas more, we want to make sure our officers have been fully trained before they go on board,” said Captain Phillip Taylor, who is the Curriculum Head Marine Innovation & Research Centre at the College

“We work closely with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to ensure all our ice navigation courses include instruction on the Polar Code – for any ship operating in polar waters - and abide by the IMO’s recommended International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. It also raises awareness among students on the importance of protecting both the environment and keeping safe at work.”

The melting of Arctic sea ice means that the Northeast and Northwest Passages have seen an increase in shipping traffic as it is now possible for vessels to pass through the North Cape for around four months of the year, although the number is still only around 30 per year at the moment. 

Experts at the college anticipated that growth will continue and after introducing a pilot course, there is a 60 strong waiting list for new courses tailored for the challenge. 

A basic course and an advanced course have been developed, with the five day basic course covering ice characteristics, regulations, vessel characteristics, manoeuvring, planning, icebreaker assistance, crew preparation and environment. The three day Advanced Training for Masters and Mates will additionally cover regulations, advanced vessel characteristics, detailed manoeuvring, planning, detailed icebreaker operations and safety.

“We will be using state of the art technology for training purposes and the simulator will be essential for the advanced course which involves ship handling,” explained Captain Taylor.  “We have been able to use areas to the north of Norway and Russia for the simulation and with blowing ice and snow it will feel pretty realistic.”

Captain Taylor has experience of sailing through icy waters in the Baltic Sea and Captain Craig Feeney, who has spent many years in the Polar Regions, will be a key trainer on the courses. “You need to have specific knowledge of these regions which is not easy as so few ships have been there until now,” said Captain Taylor.  There are also new rules and regulations that deck officers have to be aware of.

“If you are taking a ship from Shanghai to Rotterdam, for example, you can save about 5,000 miles by going via the North Cape so you are cutting fuel costs but the crew need to understand the implications of going somewhere where the rescue services are so limited,” pointed out Captain Taylor.  “You might have to wait three days before anyone can get to you so you have to be more resilient and be better trained for these waters. You also have to understand that pollution is potentially a very big problem there because any incident is almost impossible to clean up.”
He added: “Communications are very difficult because of the lack of signals and navigation equipment does not tend to work well being so close to the North Pole. 

“The area is not properly surveyed either so navigation equipment struggles because the charts are not so good. It is getting slowly better though and that’s why anyone working on a ship that’s going there needs training for polar waters.” The new courses will begin in January.


College has skilled captain at the helm 

With 14 years Arctic experience and only the 90th Captain to steer through the Northwest Passage, Craig Feeney is now passing on vital skills

ONE of the few captains in the world to have taken a ship through the legendary Northwest Passage is to teach the new Polar Ice Navigation courses at City of Glasgow College.

Craig Feeney fulfilled a lifetime dream when he became the 90th captain to successfully navigate a course along the treacherous waters. In total he has had 14 years experience of sailing ships in the Arctic, starting out in the late 70s and finishing in 2002 when he persuaded his company to let him take his ship through the passage.


ON COURSE: Captain Craig Feeney fulfilled a lifetime dream when he  took a ship through the notorious Northwest Passage.

As a yacht from Ireland had made it through the year before he knew he could do it but had to convince his bosses who were worried about the risks.

“I knew it would save a lot of miles as we were going from the Arctic to Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Captain Feeney.

“Normally you would go around Alaska and then through the Panama Canal but by going east instead I knew it would save at least two weeks and the expense of going through the canal.”
Fog turned out to be as big a problem as the ice but the ship made it through and en route stopped at Beechey Island where three of the sailors from the ill-fated Franklin Expedition are buried.

“We had the opportunity to go ashore and pay our respects,” said Captain Feeney. “Once we got to that point we were confident that we would achieve the passage. We had the latest ice charts but we didn’t know about the visibility. 

“If you are in fog you have to proceed very slowly, you have to watch it, because of the ice, but it turned out okay. It was a dream I have always had so to do it was very special for me.”

As one of the few people who has experience of sailing the Northwest Passage and other Arctic waters, Captain Feeney will be able to impart valuable knowledge to all those who take the courses. He says training is essential for all deck officers on board ships going to the polar regions.

“The Canadian government is rightfully concerned and wants to regulate ships going into the Arctic. There are still significant areas that have not been surveyed, and if there were an adverse incident there are so few ships up there that it would take a long time to effect a rescue. The potential for damage to the 
environment through pollution is also very real.” 

As a result any navigators going through the polar regions should be as well trained as possible. 

“We want people to be aware that although there is less ice the danger is still there,” said Captain Feeney. “You just have to take it easy.

“In the old days none of the ships were that powerful, but they are now. Too much power in ice is not good. It is too easy to proceed too fast and that is where the problem will be. To navigate in heavy pack ice you have to take it slowly.

“And they need to know that if there is any choice of avoiding pack ice then they should avoid it, and go around it, because while there may be leads and open spots, that can change within hours. The wind can push the ice together so that you can become beset – stuck, in other words”.

Despite the challenges, Captain Feeney enjoyed his time in the Arctic.

“There is something about being in ice that is elemental,” he said.
“I loved being up there. It was special because a lot of the time we were the only ship there so it felt unique.”