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Polar Code & Cruise Expedition Vessels: a very interesting challenge for RINA and the Operators!


Expedition cruises promise adventure, exotic environments and unique experiences shared with a small number of fellow passengers and crew. The compact, comfortable ships are a world apart from giant contemporary and premium cruise ships with their discos, casinos and 4D cinemas.

Expedition cruise travel began in 1966, when Swedish-American explorer Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first expedition to Antarctica aimed at tourists, not scientists. The ship was chartered from the Argentine navy. A first-hand experience, thought Lindblad, would help travellers understand more about the Antarctic and its role in the environment. “You can’t protect what you don’t know,” he said. This pioneering cruise was successful enough that three years later, he built the “Lindblad Explorer”. Specially designed for Antarctic cruises, it launched a whole new concept of cruising and cruise ship design. Today, over 50 expedition vessels ply the waters with between 12 and 500 passengers each. Around 20 new builds are currently on order for the expedition cruise market.

Steel ships operating in polar waters need to be built with specially reinforced hull structures and materials. RINA’s Polar Class is an additional notation developed in accordance with IACS standards. It defines different types of navigation in ice-infested waters, as well as the correct scantling and materials for hull structures and relevant appendages. It also covers the design of machinery and systems required when operating in different ice conditions.

The ships must be built, or adapted from converted icebreakers and research vessels, to meet the expectations of modern travellers. These include not just an adequate level of comfort and services, but a desire for an exclusive “expedition” experience. Many vessels are equipped with inflatable motorboats, scubadiving equipment and even helicopters for shore landings and tours.

The most popular destinations are the Arctic and Antarctic regions. However, larger expedition operators such as Silversea offer trips to all seven continents. The guides are experts in nature, geology, oceanography or history. In contrast to conventional cruises with their set itineraries and schedules, an “expedition team” has more freedom to plan activities and trips ashore.

Expedition cruising may always be a niche market, but it’s growing rapidly . Bigger ships have recently been used on expedition routes, in an attempt to merge the exploratory aspects of expedition cruising with the traditional cruise experience.


The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (“Polar Code”) is one of the most interesting pieces of international regulation in 2017. It has major consequences for the fast-growing market of expedition cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Adopted by the IMO in 2014, the Code was introduced as a result of melting in some areas of the North and South Poles during specific seasons. Reduced ice cover means new routes in these usually inaccessible areas are opening up. There’s a need to ensure the safety of ships operating in these harsh, cold conditions. The pristine environments in these areas must also be protected from pollution caused by ships.

The Polar Code is mandatory within clearly defined Arctic and Antarctic waters, and applies to new ships constructed on or after 1 January 2017. Ships constructed before 1 January 2017 and operating in the areas defined in the Code must meet its relevant requirements by the first intermediate or renewal survey, whichever occurs first, after 1 January 2018.

The focal points of the new Code are safety, pollution prevention, manning, training and qualification of the ship’s personnel. Since master and crew qualifications play a crucial role, the Seafarers’ Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Code has been amended to take into account the Polar Code. Design, construction and maintenance are other key areas affected.

The core of the Polar Code certification is an operational assessment to establish procedures and operational limitations for a particular ship. The assessment determines the content of the Polar Waters Operational Manual (PWOM), a manual that must be kept on board to support the master and crew when sailing in these areas.

The above procedure makes the application of the Polar Code very interesting to ships built before 1 January 2017. Certain modifications may make these ships eligible for Polar Code certification in restricted areas of great interest from a business point of view. There are some design- and structural-related operational limitations. However, modifications may sometimes consist of measures such as providing appropriate clothing, upgrading life-saving appliances and installing ice removal equipment.

RINA is deeply involved in activities related to the assessment of existing ships for the polar expedition cruise market. Our work includes tailoring the ships’ upgrade in order to comply with the requirements of the Polar Code on specific routes requested by operators.

In addition to the Polar Code assessment, surveys and certification process, RINA also assists with the application of flag administration requirements related to the Code, plus national requirements for waters where the ship is expected to sail.

Have a wonderful day All!


Capt. Giorgio DE SCIORA

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