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Crew Training and Competence Requirements in Arctic Waters

(by Karl Magnus Eger)


A significant body of international public maritime law has established safety standards for seafarers. The IMO addresses mandatory competence and training requirements, primarily through the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, 1978 (STCW) and SOLAS. However, the contents of these conventions are not specific when it comes to requirements for navigators and crews operating in Arctic ice covered waters. Nevertheless, seafarers operating in ice covered waters face several challenges and risks that require specific training and experience. In that respect, the IMO Guidelines call for specialized training for seafarers in Arctic ice-covered waters.

The IMO Guidelines: Applicable to Crews and Navigators in Polar Waters

Part C of the IMO Guidelines focuses on Operational Procedures, Crewing and Emergency Equipment. All ships operating in Arctic ice covered waters are to carry an operating manual and a training manual for all ice navigators on board. Shipping companies are encouraged to develop such training manual that includes: “Summary of the IMO Guidelines; ice recognition; navigation in ice; and escorted operation1 . Furthermore, the IMO Guidelines addresses specific fire safety, lifesaving, navigational, operational and crew training issues. This includes the development and inclusion of drills and emergency instructions, emphasizing changes to standard procedures made necessary for operations in ice covered waters. These drills and emergency instructions would be incorporated into the routine vessel operational training2 . The IMO Guidelines recommends that: “All of the ships officers and crew should be made familiar with cold weather survival by training or self-study of course material (...)1 addressing the safety measures mentioned above. In addition, it is recommended that: “As many as possible of the ship’s deck and engine officers should be trained in ship operations in ice-covered waters1 .

Moreover, the IMO Guidelines focus in particular on the role of the “Ice Navigator”, which is defined as:

“(…) any individual who, in addition to being qualified under the STCW Convention, is specially trained and otherwise qualified to direct the movement of a ship in ice covered waters1 . “All ships in ice covered waters should carry at least one certified ice navigator1 ”

In addition, the IMO Guidelines emphasizes that:

“The Ice Navigator should have documentary evidence of having satisfactorily completed an approved training program in ice navigation. Such a training program should provide knowledge, understanding and proficiency required for operating a ship in Arctic ice-covered waters, including: Recognition of ice formation and characteristics; ice indications; ice manoeuvring; use of ice forecasts, atlases and codes; hull stress caused by ice; ice escort operations and; ice-breaking operations and effect of ice accretion on vessel stability1 .

The IMO Guidelines: The Complexity of the Recommendations

Effective and safe sea transportation in the Arctic requires that the seafarers are skilled in different aspects of ice navigation. With the presumed growth in Arctic shipping, the need for qualified ice navigators and crew members will continue to increase. According to the ARCOP-study, it is expected that there will be an estimated shortage of up to 4000 seafarers with ice experience and training3 .  In addition, it is also important to note that ship owners, operators or others trading or expecting to trade in the Arctic develop an awareness and understanding of the challenges that Arctic navigation can pose for the seafarers working on ships. The IMO Guidelines reflects some measures of the standard setting approach of maritime safety regulation. However, although they improve important recommendations for actors operating in Arctic waters, there are still certain complexities related to these recommendations.

Safe navigation in ice covered waters depends much on the knowledge and skill of the ice navigator. The IMO Guidelines require that the ice navigator shall provide documentary evidence of having satisfactorily completed an approved training programme in ice navigation. Yet, there exists no international recognized model course for ice navigators or qualification scheme for individuals who are to operate in ice covered waters2 .  In addition, section 14.2 of the IMO Guidelines is expressed in relatively broad terms, specifying only that a training programme shall provide “(…) knowledge, understanding and proficiency required for operating a ship in Polar ice-covered waters.” Although note is taken of the severe and unique circumstances faced by ship operators in ice covered waters, like specific fire safety, lifesaving, navigational, operational and crew training issues, provisions could have been made for a more detailed training programme4 .

With regards to crew, the IMO Guidelines provide little information on how to prevent, mitigate or avoid icing. This is a characteristic occurrence in the Arctic Ocean, when cold temperatures result in spray blown off the sea freezing immediately on contact with a vessel. If the ice is not frequently removed, it will build up on the ship’s structure and may cause the vessel to destabilize or capsize. The Guidelines states that: “Ice accretion should be regularly removed from the lifeboats and launching equipment to ensure ease of launching when required and that an icing removal mallet should be available in the vicinity of the lifeboats1 . This risk of ice infested navigation could however have been regulated more extensively within the Guidelines. For instance, the Guidelines could have been more clear on how best to prevent, mitigate and avoid sea spray icing of vessels, for instance by referring to the environmental and vessel characteristics that determine the potential for such icing – like wind speed, air temperature and ship speed. Also, provision could have been made for alternative ice removal equipment and how to protect vital components on deck5 .

As previous mentioned, the IMO Guidelines recommend that “all of the ships officers and crew should be made familiar with cold weather survival by training of self-study of course material or publications (...)1  However, the term ‘familiar’ in this respect, do not necessarily require that crew must have appropriate education, for instance certified training course in cold weather conditions, in order to operate in Arctic waters. Currently there are no cold weather survival course requirements. Furthermore, the IMO Guidelines recommend that “As many as possible of the ship’s deck and engine officers should be trained in ship operations in ice-covered waters1 . Interestingly, the Guidelines do not recommend that ‘all’ officers shall have the training necessary to operate under such conditions. According to the AMSA-report, the IMO should provide specific, detailed and mandatory requirements for survival equipment (i.e., life boats, life rafts, immersion suits) and crew training. Internationally standardized crew training that includes compulsory education for ice navigation and emergency response in polar environments should exist. Crew training should include response knowledge for incidents likely to occur on specific types of ships. For example, cruise ship crew members will need more training on how to account for and direct numerous passengers during cold weather emergencies, while cargo ship crew members would benefit from salvage or other types of training. The requirements should apply to all vessels transiting the Arctic2 .

On the other hand, the IMO Guidelines are the first international instrument to emphasize the need for specialized training of crew and ice navigators in respect of the Arctic. The IMO safety commission is currently in the process to improve the Guidelines. This is an important step towards developments of an international standard. However, in a non binding form, the Guidelines’ contribution to maritime safety in Polar ice covered waters seems rather limited. The regulations impose no legal obligations upon the member governments. In consequence, no state has yet incorporated the Guidelines through national legislation5 .

The International Northern Sea Route Programme (INSROP) goes one step further, in order to identify various navigational parameters that might be affected by seafarers operating in Arctic waters. The geographical areas of the NSR and the NWP include natural parameters (i.e. ice, climatic conditions etc.) and societal parameters (i.e. legal and political parameters), acting together and making the navigation of ships a complex, multi-faceted challenge. Those areas are termed as the Hot spots of the NSR and the NWP. These hot spots have their counterpart in the Cool Spots, which are areas that host just one single navigational parameter (such as ice) to be overcome without violating significant values like environmental interests or the well-being of indigenous people6 . Moreover, there are certain societal and natural values/interests that seafarers should be aware of. These values/interests are clustering together into what is termed Socio-biodiversity, which is a mix of nature/society -all of which should be treated in a sustainable manner in order to reduce the likelihood of negative political reactions to increased navigation6 . Furthermore, there are certain risks related to Arctic navigation. For instance, on the NSR and NWP there are several valued ecosystem components that are likely to be affected by shipping activities (i.e. emissions, oil spills, species disrupted by marine traffic etc.). In addition, there are several indigenous groups living near the coast that might be affected by shipping activities on the NWP and NSR. The point is that seafarers must take these external safety parameters (natural and societal) into account, in addition to the IMO Guidelines procedures, in order to ensure sustainable shipping in the Arctic. Or as addressed by the INSROP: “We need a new breed of sea-ice captains and crews to meet the requirements of modern multi-value navigation in Arctic waters6 .

Some Concluding Remarks

The IMO Guidelines is an incomplete operational framework for crews and navigators operating in Arctic ice covered waters. The Guidelines needs considerable improvements in order to provide adequate safety measures. Moreover, there is an increasing demand for competent seafarers and expected that there will be an estimated shortage of 4000 seafarers with appropriate experience and training. Currently, there is no international recognized education for ice navigators or qualification scheme for individuals operating in Arctic waters. In addition, there are examples of ship owners operating in the Arctic without crews sufficiently trained for winter navigation. Training courses are expensive and the most common type of practice today is the so called “on the job experience”, which means that inexperienced and unqualified seafarers are integrated as part of the regular crew and have to learn various ice operations from experienced colleagues.


  •  1. IMO Guidelines (2002). Guidelines for ships operating in Arctic ice-covered waters. IMO Doc. SC/Circ.1056 MEPC/Circ.399, 23 December 2002.
  •  2. AMSA (2008), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report Draft, 14 November 2008
  •  3. ARCOP (2006), Arctic Operational Platform, Workshop 6, Industry Interests in the NSR. By Liisa Laiho, Piia Rahiikanen, Brita Jourio, Sebastian Sala, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Finland 2006.
  •  4. Jensen, Ø. (2008), Arctic Shipping Guidelines: Towards a legal regime for navigational safety and environmental protection? Polar Record, 44(229), 107–114.
  •  5. Jensen, Ø. (2007). The IMO Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice-covered Waters
  •  6. Østreng, W. (ed.) (1999b), The Natural and Societal Challenges of the Northern Sea Route. A Reference Work. Kluwer Academiv Publishers, Dordrecht 1999

Karl Magnus Eger, 2010, Crew Training and Competence Requirements in Arctic Waters, CHNL.©