Dramatic Viking Sky rescue a wake-up call for Arctic cruises


Oslo (AFP)

What would happen if a cruise liner suddenly found itself without power in the middle of the Arctic? After narrowly averting a maritime disaster, Norway is mulling the safety of cruise ships in the Far North.

Thanks to well-trained professionals and a good dose of luck, the 1,373 people on board the Viking Sky, the ship that suffered engine failure in stormy seas on Saturday, escaped the experience with just a harrowing tale to tell.

The incident led to a spectacular air rescue operation: almost 500 passengers were winched off the ship by helicopters fighting strong winds, some in the dark.

The vessel, which came close to being swept onto perilous reefs with a potentially catastrophic human and environmental toll, was finally able to make its way to a nearby port, after getting three of its engines running.

The engines are believed to have failed due to low oil pressure, maritime authorities said on Wednesday.

"Most of the people on board the Viking Sky would have died if the ship had run aground, because of the extreme weather conditions, the ship's movements, a severe list, and a slow evacuation," said two professors from the University of Trondheim's department of marine technology.

"What would the consequences have been if this had happened in Finnmark, or near Svalbard?," Ingrid Bouwer Utne and Jan Erik Vinnem wrote in financial daily Dagens Naeringsliv.

Finnmark is the northernmost county in mainland Norway, while Svalbard (also known as Spitzberg) is an archipelago located about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from the North Pole.

Both regions are hugely popular in the cruise industry because of their pristine and exotic wilderness, the Northern Lights and polar bears -- but they are poorly equipped for a rescue mission.

- Exclude the biggest? -

Six helicopters were able to be quickly dispatched to evacuate the Viking Sky, as it found itself relatively close to an area with offshore oil installations.

Svalbard and Finnmark meanwhile each have just two rescue helicopters.

In difficult conditions like those that prevailed last weekend and that prevented a sea rescue, how would hundreds or thousands of passengers be evacuated from a ship in distress?

In 2017, Svalbard registered 30 cruiseship dockings and 45,000 passengers, not including so-called exploration cruises with smaller vessels.

"We were lucky the Viking Sky didn't run aground," Erik Joachimsen, head of the professional association Cruise Northern Norway & Svalbard, told AFP. "But you can't always count on luck."

The Norwegian Hurtigruten cruise company, which promotes itself as more environmental than the big cruise ships that run on heavy fuel oil, has called for size limits on ships navigating in remote and ecologically sensitive waters.

"The giant cruiseliners with thousands of passengers and heavy fuel oil pose a major environmental risk," managing director Daniel Skjeldam said.

"Gigantic cruise ships are not advisable everywhere," he said, insisting on the environmental aspect, which would also have the advantage of eliminating some competitors.

- Regulate or ban ? -

"This summer, similar cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers will sail in Arctic waters and in other vulnerable regions, far from search and rescue facilities," lamented Sian Prior, an advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance campaign.

"In addition to the risk to lives, most of these vessels will be powered by oil-based fuels including heavy fuel oil, which pose a grave risk to the Arctic environment, and to the livelihoods of local indigenous people," he said.

A heavy fuel oil spill would be "likely to take from months to years to be completely cleaned up."

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg admitted Wednesday there were limits to what authorities could do in the event of a disaster.

"It's absolutely correct that in the Far North, we would have been faced with much bigger challenges... We don't have the capacity right now to handle this kind of situation," she said.

"The question will always be whether it's best to have large resources up north in case it happens, or whether we should look into other rules," she told parliament.

The International Maritime Organisation adopted a Polar Code in 2017 for ships operating in polar regions, requiring shipowners to meet a number of security and environmental standards.

But Norway, together with other countries bordering the Arctic, is also considering regulating navigation in the region.

The two University of Trondheim professors advocate a swift solution: "If we're not able to take sufficient measures, should we really allow cruiseships in these zones?"