State of the Arc: Yamal's icebreaking LNG carriers


SCF Group (Sovcomflot) president and chief executive Sergey Frank jokes that he had always promised Captain Sergey Zybko a very modern LNG carrier — and the now highly experienced master has hit the jackpot.  

In 2007, when TradeWinds first encountered Zybko on his ship off Barcelona in Spain, he was master of the 1969-built SCF Arctic, which was one of the two oldest LNG vessels in the global fleet at the time. 

Greeting TW+ 10 years later onboard his current vessel at the Arctic Circle port of Sabetta on the remote Yamal Peninsula in the far north of Russia, Zybko is at the helm of the world’s most groundbreaking LNG carrier to date.

Zybko, who has spent 15 years as a master in the merchant and auxiliary fleets and more than three as a naval captain, is about to go on leave after taking the 172,600-cbm Arc7 ice-class LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie on its initial delivery voyage from DSME’s Okpo shipyard in South Korea, round the Cape of Good Hope to Zeebrugge in Belgium. 

There the vessel took on equipment and ice specialists, bumping up the onboard numbers to a crowded 83 personnel. The 30 crew and 53 passengers include service engineers from DSME and equipment manufacturers, plus representatives from the Arctic and Antarctic research institutes, SCF and the Aker Arctic research centre in Finland that designed the hull. 

The vessel also loaded 10,000 cbm of LNG before heading to Murmansk, northeast Russia, and on into the Arctic waters of the Kara and Laptev seas to complete its ice trials. 

With the help of two Russian ice-breakers, Zybko has just successfully navigated the new 26-nautical-mile (48km) sea canal in the estuary of the draft-restricted Ob River and, exercising great care without tug assistance, moored his vessel alongside one of the two berths at the new terminal for Russia’s soon-to-start-up Yamal LNG project. 

It has been a groundbreaking voyage in so many respects.  

This, at present, is SCF’s lone Arc7 LNG carrier for Yamal. But 14 more sisterships contracted by other owners are due to follow this pioneering vessel and deliver to the 16.5-million-tonne-per-year project by 2019. 

The ships have been specially designed to enable them to export their cargoes east from Sabetta through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to Asia during its navigable period, or west to Zeebrugge and northern Europe for transshipment. 

Their charterer, Yamal Trade, has an agreement with Russia’s state ice-breaker fleet operator Rosatomflot to accompany the Arc7s where required. But at certain times of the year — probably from July to September — it is possible for these ships and even non-ice-class vessels to transit through the NSR unaided. 

Technically, the Christophe de Margerie rivals some of Russia’s largest ice-breakers in its ability to break a path through ice. But it is not so much the ship’s power that allows it to muscle up to these powerhouses of the Arctic but its size, weight and consequent inertia when moving through ice. 

Zybko recounts a moment during ice trials when the accompanying standby ice-breaker was unable to move forward due to thick ice. He turned his following LNG carrier and, using its aft bridge, moved stern-first into the same ice floe. Within an hour, the Christophe de Margerie had overtaken its ice-breaker guardian (although it later politely fell back into line). 

The biggest danger is from compression between ice floes. 

Frank is a big advocate of the maxim that everything in the Arctic takes patience, and the Christophe de Margerie’s captains have been gradually building up their ice experience over time.  

Zybko and Captain Sergey Gen, a master with SCF for 10 years, and onboard to relieve Zybko, took theoretical ice navigation courses.  

They then spent four weeks working alongside the master on one of Russia’s nuclear ice-breakers, which were working the region around and into Sabetta for ships bringing in the materials to build the Yamal LNG plant. 

After this, the two masters, who have worked together before — Gen as a chief officer under Zybko on the SCF Arctic — went onto Sovcomflot’s Arc6 shuttle tankers for the Varandey project. This gave them valuable experience with Azipod propulsion before starting ice trials with the Arc7. 

Zybko says he and Gen had the same experience on the nuclear ice-breaker: after three days, they felt they were so in tune with the master’s understanding of the ice that they could all but predict his next command. “It is almost intuitive and came naturally,” Zybko says. 

One of the key principles of ice navigation is that free water is the best way, but it is important to keep in mind that in the Arctic the shortest way is not necessarily the quickest. 

The captains look for polyna — open water between ice fields — and use ice and satellite charts to understand the ice type, its drift and the weather conditions to see what is ahead.  

But they also heed advice handed down from the locals in Archangelsk over many years. 

While it is natural to head for the open water of an ice crack, Zybko explains, this can lead to vessels getting stuck between floes. Instead, the tactic is to break the ice on one side of the floe to make a way through. The broken ice then moves into the open water of the crack. 

The masters also reference another key piece of knowledge handed down by the captains of ice-breakers: the strongest ice-breaker in the Arctic is the wind. It will break ice up and move large quantities in one direction, Gen explains. “No ice-breaker can succeed in this.” 

When a vessel experiences strong compression from the surrounding ice, one of the best solutions can be to wait, watch the tides and the currents, then after six hours, you might have free water, Gen says.  

“There are so many sides to these questions of how to move from one point to the other using minimum time and fuel. This is a challenge,” Zybko adds. 

Among the Arc7 vessel’s unique features are its three giant 15MW Azipod thrusters, which can be rotated through 360 degrees. The controls are within easy reach on the bridge, the only complexity for their two-handed operators being that there are three of them to manipulate.  

Zybko assures TW+ that Azipod operation is “very easy”, although it takes a little time to understand how to use them. The captain of SCF’s 42,000-dwt tanker Shturman Albanov (built 2016) told him that once he had sailed on a vessel with Azipods, he would not go back to one without them. 

The Christophe de Margerie’s master says the powerful thrusters allow much more control in the handling of the vessel. 

On its initial delivery voyage the vessel took on stores off Cape Town. Zybko says there was the usual swell in the area and the supply boat asked the LNG carrier to proceed at just one knot. We managed to keep both course and speed, he says. “It was a very stable operation and the reason — the Azipods. Without them, it would be a nightmare for me and risk damage to cargo and stores.” 

And it is no different in the ice. Zybko says that 1½ miles before entering Sabetta, he dismissed the helmsman and did all the manoeuvring himself.  

“It is easy to stop and control the vessel with plenty of power from the Azipods. The power is stable, which is very important for the engine,” he says.  

“The system is sophisticated, but you can do everything with your vessel compared to an ordinary ship”. 

The LNG carrier, which left for its ice trials on 14 February, initially struggled to find sufficient thickness of ice on which to test its capabilities. However, after moving into the Laptev Sea, it finally broke ice of 1.5 metres. 

It also successfully tackled an ice ridge measuring 18 metres from keel to sail, in ice terminology, and with 30 metres of field depth. To do this, it turned to move stern first, controlled from the aft bridge. Then it moved, using the Azipods to chop up the subsea ice and leaving the rest to fall back. 

The ice trials were completed on 12 March. The ship returned to Murmansk to disembark its passengers and undergo a thorough underwater inspection.  

Zybko admits that at the start it was tricky to arrange for everyone onboard to live in comfortable conditions, taking into account their different languages, functions and preferences, but “eventually we managed to create a very good atmosphere and everyone enjoyed their stay”. A South Korea versus Russia table tennis match was declared a draw. 

Many of those onboard wanted to stay on the bridge, the captain recounts. While this was understandable, he says, he had one request: “Please be quiet.” 

A fan of Sir David Attenborough wildlife documentaries — he has watched The Life of Mammals at least six times — Zybko and his crew witnessed something during their time in the ice that might have interested the veteran broadcaster.  

Those onboard were already accustomed to seeing polar bears, which tend to show up out of curiosity when the ship stops in the ice, necessitating an armed guard for personnel on the ice-breaker who need to venture onto the frozen surface for their work. 

But there was more excitement for the LNG carrier’s contingent when they saw what appeared to be a polar bear playing with cubs. 

On closer inspection, it turned out the bear was engaged in play with an Arctic fox. Zybko says the ship was stationary, with an open water channel to its stern, and the bear crossed this, followed by the fox, before the pair resumed their play. 

The world's biggest computer game 

Chief engineer Oleg Konakov joined the Christophe de Margerie after serving on SCF’s 170,200-cbm Velikiy Novgorod (built 2014), where he says many features are similar. 

The differences on the newbuilding are the Azipod propulsion and the high level of winterisation.  

Onboard systems normally situated on deck have been placed inside passageways rather than outside, where temperatures can drop to -57°C. Some external firefighting features are covered by heated boxes. 

In the engine room, one of the biggest differences is that air for the six main Wartsila dual-fuel diesel-electric engines is suctioned in directly from outside. On conventional vessels, it would first be brought into the engine room, but this would have risked making the interior too cold. 

The engine room is a spacious warren where Konakov admits newcomers can get lost. The Azipod room is particularly difficult to find, but once you’re inside, the huge casing on the top of each unit is visible in its distinctive triangular layout. Enormous banks of electrical cabling run to each one.  

The chief engineer, who hails from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk and has spent 25 years at sea (10 of those at his current rank), describes operating the Azipods as “like a computer game with a joystick” connected to the steering and propulsion. It has not been difficult to shift over to this propulsion mode but he says it has been important to get some experience in advance. 

During ice trials Konakov says the crew experienced temperatures of -30°C. On deck, he could feel his eyelids starting to freeze together, making it difficult to open them.  

When the ship is breaking ice, the normal vibrations the seven-man engine-room team feel are a little stronger than usual — but he has experienced worse in rough weather.  

There is little noise in the accommodation area during these operations, Konakov says, but on deck, especially near the bow or the stern hull areas, it can sound like a hammer breaking rocks. The ridge penetration exercise during ice trials when the huge propellers were crushing the subsea ice was particularly loud, he adds. “It is all very interesting and exciting for everyone.” 

Cooking with gas 

In the Christophe de Margerie’s galley, head cook Nikolay Lukyanov is chopping cabbage and stirring a large, vibrant-coloured pan of borscht, while his two assistants prepare red peppers as part of the fare for today’s VIP guests. 

But this is only the half of it. A deck below, and swathed in a bearlike thermal jacket, Lukyanov proudly displays his three large chiller rooms, which are kept running at about -18°C. 

The first houses 1½ tons of meat and meat products, including the inevitable sausages. Another contains fish, with large boxes of ice cream on the top shelf for good measure. A third is reserved for fruit and vegetables, along with jars of ajika — a fiery chilli sauce from Georgia. Sacks of potatoes dominate one wall, enough for 50 days’ travel (the crew consume an average of 20kg of potatoes a day).  

Potatoes are also used to make soup, which comes as standard with all Russian meals. Borscht is a favourite but the crew also enjoy mushroom and chicken noodle soup, with shashlik or grilled meat another popular dish. But as Lukyanov says: “Russian people can eat everything.” 

He has been a chef all his working life and after his military service went straight into a career at sea with Sovcomflot. 

Like the ship’s masters, he has also served onboard SCF’s old LNG vessels, the now-scrapped 71,000-cbm SCF Arctic and SCF Polar (both built 1969) and other gas carriers and crude oil tankers in the company’s fleet. 

Has he ever run out of anything during his time at sea as a chef? It can happen, he explains: sometimes there is a change of direction and the vessel heads to a different port at a longer distance than has been calculated for. “You can’t predict everything, so you have to imagine and try to purchase as much as possible. There is no shop where you can go and buy. We are at sea.” 

When the crew are sailing on the Northern Sea Route the calorific value of their food has to be high. They eat meat three times a day. Porridge, cheese, salads with mayonnaise and fried fish feature regularly on the menu. The mess room fridge is also kept well stocked in case anyone gets hungry between meals. 

Back in the galley, Lukyanov resumes stirring his borscht. But he will not reveal the ingredients. “It is a secret recipe,” he teases.