As the shipping season on the Northwest Passage draws to an end, it’s time to summarize this year’s international voyages.
There were 24 complete transits by 22 large commercial vessels in 2023: 17 westbound (eight cruise ships and nine cargo ships) and seven eastbound (three cruise ships and four cargo ships). Two of the transits were return voyages within the same season i.e. the same ship took the Arctic shortcut to both directions. Although Northwest Passage transits are still somewhat exceptional, there was nonetheless over 40 % increase compared to last year which saw 17 international voyages by large commercial ships.
Six of the ships were first-timers on the Northwest Passage; 12 ships had completed the voyage once before and 4 ships more than once. PONANT’s cruise ships Le Boreal and L’Austral each completed their fifth Northwest Passage transits.
While this year we again saw some new operators on the route, most ships belonged to companies with prior experience from sailing the Northwest Passage. One of the “regulars”, Royal Wagenborg, increased its total number of full transits to 31.
Unlike on the Northern Sea Route where the media has tracked the number of non-ice-strengthened oil tankers this year, all of the transits on the Northwest Passage were by ice-strengthened vessels: three ice-class 1C cruise ships, eleven ice class 1A cargo ships, six Polar Class (PC) 6 cruise ships, one PC 5 cruise ship, and one PC 2 icebreaking cruise ship. Although the Northwest Passage was ice-free for much of the season and only the first few ships were escorted by Canadian Coast Guard/Garde côtière canadienne icebreakers, choosing an ice-strengthened ship for such Arctic voyages is still a prudent precaution.
While the shipping season on the Northern Sea Route will continue for some time with the support of Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers, we can probably expect the next Northwest Passage transit to occur sometime in late July 2024.
Whereas we are primarily interested in large commercial vessels, Scott Polar Research Institute maintains an exhaustive list of Northwest Passage transits that also includes voyages by private yachts and smaller boats (18 this year ranging from a 10-meter yacht to an 85.9-meter ketch). They also have more information on e.g. what route each ship took when it sailed through the Northwest Passage.
Read more about three main routes over the Arctic: