Anniversary of a Milestone Northwest Passage Voyage Highlights Call for Arctic HFO Ban

Kevin Harun
Date: September 24, 2014

First published in Ship & Bunker

Forty-five years ago, just two months after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, another historic exploration milestone took place in Alaska. The icebreaking tanker SS Manhattan arrived at Barter Island, AK, on September 18, 1969. The ship had been commissioned by Humble Oil to test the feasibility of using tankers to transport crude from the recently discovered Prudhoe Bay oil field. Having launched from Sun Shipyards in Chester, PA, the Manhattan was the largest U.S. merchant ship of its day and the first commercial vessel to transit the Northwest Passage.


The historic journey was not without mishap. As detailed below, many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today. Protecting the Arctic marine environment and Arctic people from these hazards is currently under consideration by the United NationsInternational Maritime Organization which is writing rules for Arctic shipping known as the Polar Code. The United States‘ delegation includes leadership from NOAA and the Coast Guard.

First, a bit more history. Not only the largest ship of its kind, the SS Manhattan was an engineering marvel. Retrofitting the tanker for ice conditions required the monumental feat of cutting the ship into four pieces which were then sent to ship yards in four states and then later reassembled. As the voyage transited Canadian waters, it also jump-started international attention to sovereignty and control of arctic waters. Canada required that the ship be escorted by a Canadian icebreaker and also moved to pass the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, a first attempt at exerting protections and control in international arctic waters.

The ship was greeted In Alaska by the icebreaking U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Northwind  under the command of Captain Donald J. McCann. The Northwind achieved a significant historic first during its mission to accompany the SS Manhattan by becoming was the first ship in history to complete the Northwest Passage in both directions in a single season.

The Northwind‘s voyage was beset by a damaged crankshaft and became stuck in the ice, requiring help from the Canadian icebreaker John A. MacDonald.  The MacDonald also suffered ice damage to its propeller during the voyage.

Many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today:  lack of infrastructure, lack of emergency response, poor communications, inadequate charts, and the inability to respond to Arctic oil spills.

Icebreaking Tankers

Of course, icebreaking tankers are not yet in use to transport Prudhoe crude, but Arctic shipping is quickly accelerating. U.S. waters are affected by international shipping along our Arctic coastline and by shipping through the Bering Strait which connects Asia to the Russian Arctic and northern Europe.

There are concerns that the most pressing issue, a spill of Heavy Fuel Oil,  is not being addressed in the Polar Code. The Arctic Council, which the U.S. will chair next year, identified the release of oil as the “most significant threat” to the Arctic marine environment in their 2009 assessment of Arctic shipping.

We recommend that Heavy Fuel Oil be banned in Arctic waters and that lighter, distillate fuels be required. In the event of a spill, lighter fuels would dissipate more quickly and cause less harm to the environment and the people who depend on marine resources for food. There is precedent for banning Heavy Fuel Oil in sensitive waters, including the waters of the Antarctic. The next IMO Polar Code meeting is in London on October 13.

One more item while we’re thinking about the history and hazards of Arctic shipping. President Obama‘s Oval Office desk is known as the Resolute Desk. The desk was a gift from Queen Victoria and is made from the wood of the Resolute, a British ship that got stuck in the Arctic ice and had to be rescued by an American crew.