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Historic journey

September 12, 2009

Two German commerical ships are sailing from Asia to Europe via Russia's Arctic coast in a historic journey, navigating the once ice-blocked North East Passage.

The German commercial ship Beluga Foresight
One of the German ships, the Beluga Foresight navigates the icy watersImage: BELUGA SHIPPING GMBH

For centuries, the idea of finding a way to sail cargo through the once impassable Arctic has been a mariner's dream. That dream became a reality when two German ships became the first commercial vessels to deliver cargo from Asia to Europe.

“We are all very proud and delighted to be the first western shipping company which has successfully transited the legendary Northeast-Passage and delivered the sensitive cargo safely through this extraordinarily demanding sea area,” Niels Stolberg, president and CEO of Beluga Shipping, said in a statement on their Web site.

The Northeast Passage is a shipping route from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic that goes through the Arctic region, along the Russian and Siberian coasts. The route is usually frozen but rising temperatures in the region caused by global warming have melted much of the ice allowing large ships to go through.

The two merchant ships, the MV Beluga Fraternity and the MV Beluga Foresight had picked up cargo in Korea and headed north to the eastern Russian port city of Vladivostok. There, they picked up two Russian icebreakers as escorts and headed to the Dutch port of Rotterdam.

Melting ice made journey possible

The voyage, using the traditional route, is roughly 11,000 nautical miles (12,658 miles) and passes through the Suez Canal. By going over the top of the world, the freighters were able to cut 4,000 nautical miles from that trip. The savings in fuel costs are substantial. There is also an environmental benefit to be realized with a reduction in the amount of CO2 emissions.

The German commercial ship Beluga Foresight
The German ships were accompanied by Russian icebreakersImage: BELUGA SHIPPING GMBH

In order to transit the Northern Sea, the company had to get permission from the Rusian authorities. When that permission came, the ships were escorted by the Russian icebreaker "50 Years Since Victory."

It was only within the last year that the company discovered there was a possibility of sailing over the top of the earth. And even then, the passage is only open for two months.

"It was only last summer that satellite pictures revealed that the ice is melting and a small corridor opened which could enable commercial shipping through the Northeast Passage --if all the circumstances were right and the requirements were met," Stolberg said in an earlier interview with the Reuters news service.

By utilizing the Northeast Passage, the company was able to save approximately $300,000 in costs per vessel. Sailing through the Passage, the amount saved on fuel was about $100,000 per ship.

The two cargo ships have dropped their shipments off in Siberia and after picking up more cargo, are now headed back towards Europe.

Until now, the only vessels that had been traversing the passage were Russian submarines and icebreakers.

Editor: Sonia Phalnikar