A first in ship safety exercises at the North Pole

A first in ship safety exercises at the North Pole

Dec. 22 2021 - 5 min

How long could you survive at the North Pole? Aurélien Olivin, the Bureau Veritas expert in Marine Safety Equipment leading our involvement, details the real-life survival challenge performed with Ponant.

Aurélien, please could you describe this project?

In September 2021, Ponant undertook a 24-hour Safety and Rescue Exercise (SAREX) in the Arctic Circle with the cruise ship Le Commandant Charcot. 67 people, including 33 crew members and eight marine experts, underwent a mock survival scenario. The vessel was stopped in heavy pack ice, and a mayday signal was sent to nearby rescue stations. All crew and passengers abandoned the ship and established a survival camp – including a hospital center and command tent – out on the ice.

What was your role in the SAREX?

I have been involved with this project since the planning stage in 2018. My focus was preparing the evaluation of safety equipment, including polar immersion suits, personal or group survival kits, and Ponant’s “ice cube”. Heading up to the SAREX, I used the week prior the exercise to familiarize myself with the equipment to be tested and with the scenario developed by Ponant.

Next, I closely followed the abandonment of the ship and the installation of the survival camp on the ice flow. When the survival camp was established, I joined everyone on the ice to personally share the experience with all participants.

The Polar Code is so new we are gathering data from experiences in implementing it, which will then allow the maritime community to adapt and improve its requirements. My preparation and participation allowed me to prepare the most accurate report possible for Ponant to share this with the maritime community.

What was experimenting in the North Pole like?

Cold! But fascinating. Especially since this exercise included civilians in the role of passengers, with crew members inviting their families to participate. It’s the first time such an experiment has included people who are neither specialists nor trained for this kind of test. This gave us insight into how people, untrained and unused to marine and arctic conditions, would react. Meanwhile, participants had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Although we saw some polar bears on the journey, we didn’t encounter them during the SAREX, and those we saw did not seem perturbed by our presence. Ponant had a protective and respectful approach to wildlife.

What did this exercise reveal about safety equipment?

Firstly, it confirmed the benefits provided by Life-Saving Appliances designed for the polar environment, but it also allowed us to identify potential improvements. Polar immersion suits could benefit from design improvements, notably in terms of dexterity and mobility, and improved thermal protection to keep extremities warm. The comfort within the inflatable shelter could be significantly improved with more solid flooring and optimization for space as it has to contain up to 16 people.

Installing a heating system in the overall command tent to provide hot beverages during the survival phase was also suggested. The contributions of civilian volunteers were enlightening as much of their feedback in our survey centered around comfort and privacy, going beyond pure necessity.

What are this SAREX’s regulatory implications?

There are important takeaways for both the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Both organizations state that polar ships must be equipped with a shelter, but don’t say what kind. The SAREX clearly showed that specifications for shelter type, heating systems, toilets and flooring are crucial to comfort and safety. To address this, we are now working with a TC8 committee to develop a detailed standard for polar vessel survival equipment.

Furthermore, we have already shared our final report with all the international experts present at the SAREX, and shipping administrations worldwide. Our findings will also be shared with the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) division, and we hope the IMO will publish the report.

What do you hope will happen next?

If there is another held next year to review improvements made, I hope that the equipment manufacturers will be able to join us to see how their equipment performs under real conditions. Everyone involved in this experience hopes that other shipping companies will take advantage of what they have learned regarding risk assessment, crew training and safety equipment. Looking forward, other ships traveling the Arctic or Antarctic will be able to take this SAREX as a foundational example.

This type of exercise has been invaluable to me in building my knowledge of the behavior and characteristics of safety equipment in real situations. Experiences like these also allow us to build on our unique bank of knowledge within Bureau Veritas and to spread best practices to across the shipping industry to benefit others.

And if I have the opportunity to participate again, I’ll definitely pack my bag and join the experiment!