Marinette Marine is finally delivering what the American scientific community has always wanted: its own purpose-built research vessel that can sail through ice in the Arctic.

Previously, Arctic oceanographers needed to hitch a ride aboard a U.S. or Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to gain access to the frozen frontier. In 2014, the 261-foot Sikuliaq will be ready for service as a full-time research vessel.

Owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Sikuliaq is tailor-made for oceanographic research, with plenty of room for scientists, laboratories and instrumentation. It will be available for fisheries surveys, geophysical mapping and ice and climate research, said Gary Smith, the university’s on-site project director at the Marinette, Wis., shipyard.

The A frame and Appleton cranes on the aft main work deck.

“The most unique feature of Sikuliaq is that it is ice-capable. The hull is a compromise between sea-keeping and ice-breaking,” Smith said. “It’s one of the only — if not the only — purpose-built polar research vessel for the academic community in the Arctic.”

The Inupiat word “sikuliaq” means young sea ice. Rated at Polar Class 5, the double-hull Alaska Region Research Vessel can break annual ice up to three feet thick. It will accommodate scientific missions of up to 45 days and can hold out for 60 days in an emergency.

For 40 years, the U.S. community of Arctic researchers — spearheaded through the University of Alaska — have proposed the construction of a purpose-built vessel for the region. Until now, scientific expeditions have needed invitations aboard the cutter Healy or Canada’s Louis S. St-Laurent while those vessels conduct other missions.

Ultimately, Sikuliaq’s construction was made possible by federal economic stimulus funds; NSF put the total cost at almost $200 million. It’s the foundation’s first new vessel since 1981 and is part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet.

As polar ice retreats, Sikuliaq gives researchers their own platform for studying the region firsthand, with forays into the ice itself.

Sikuliaq comes at a real opportune time for the scientific community,” said Dan Oliver, the university’s project manager. “It has the ability to operate in that marginal life zone. … This expands tremendously the research window that the academic community has up there.”

The prominent foremast houses a scientific sensor platform.

Powering the voyages will be four MTU diesels — two V16s and two V12s — with a pair of Siemens electric motors. A Tees White Gill bow thruster and a pair of Wärtsilä’s recently developed Icepod z-drives achieve maneuvering. The engines have the flexibility to shift and shed loads.

“By having different-size generators, you can choose what you want to have on line to operate with maximum efficiency and fuel efficiency,” said Dale Jalkanen, Marinette’s senior program manager. “The ship is extremely maneuverable, not just for station-keeping but also in tight quarters like when you’re coming into the dock.”

The captain can control the ship from an aft conning station, an advantage during ice-breaking.

The shallow-butt hull with ice wedge was a custom design by Glosten Associates of Seattle. “This is a relatively small ship to be able to take into the ice, so the thought was to give it every advantage you could give it,” said Glosten engineer Dirk Kristensen. “That’s why we decided to use z-drives, and the hull form is characteristic of modern ice-going vessels.”

Reamers create a wider channel on each side of the ship, improving the captain’s ability to clear ice.

“The side of the vessel forward flares out to aid your maneuverability. It’s wider than the stern, so the stern is able to swing, and it allows for a smaller turning radius,” Kristensen said.

Sikuliaq is one of the first ships in the world to be equipped with Wärtsilä’s new Icepod 2500s. The can-mounted thrusters break ice at 300 rpm.

“It’s a combination of those reamers down the side and those curvatures, and with the z-drives, there will be a high degree of maneuverability in the ice,” said Sikuliaq’s master, Capt. Mike Hoshlyk. “And with the propulsion system, you can kind of create configurations and use the thrusters to maintain that opening.”


Sikuliaq will operate worldwide at various times of the year. During non-polar voyages, the research ship will be moved by efficient five-blade propellers, which provide more thrust than the Wärtsilä ice-class props, which Hoshlyk said have only four stubbier blades.

From left, J. Marc Willis, marine science technical director; Gary Smith, University of Alaska-Fairbanks; Dale Jalkanen, Marinette Marine.

“It’s definitely a beefier propeller, where the edge of the blade is not as sharp as you would have on an ocean cargo vessel,” the captain said. “We will have replacement ocean blades, which we can switch out in a quick dry-dock.” The projected fuel efficiency increase is 50 percent.

The scientists and designers wanted a vessel that comes as close as possible to meeting international fisheries research standards for underwater radiated noise, known as ICES 209. At this level, an underway research vessel is not loud enough to scare away schools of fish. Sikuliaq does not meet the standard at its maximum cruising speed of 14 knots.

“This was really a big challenge because it’s an ice-going vessel and we wanted to get as close as we could to the underwater radiated noise standard,” Kristensen said. “We’re trying to be a quiet ship at up to 8 knots. Where this really becomes difficult is in the design of the propellers, because the propellers need to be able to break ice and be able to withstand ice impacts.”

Soundproofing is evident throughout the ship, including Soundown noise and vibration controls.

“We put on a lot of sound absorption tiles — on the vessel, on the machinery spaces,” said Smith, the university’s project director. “And just about anything that’s rotating or humming is resilient-mounted. We don’t have any radiated noise from the structure of the hull … into the ocean. Cavitation is a big contributor to underwater noise. We had to cut down on cavitation and still get the thrust we need and the bollard pull we need.”

Aside from the main lab, which is full of work benches and power receptacles, there is a separate analytical lab, science freezer, chill rooms, and computer lab with fiber network. A wet lab is located alongside Sikuliaq’s large Baltic room, which is fitted with an overhead hydraulic load-handling system.

“It’s basically a hands-off handling system for deploying things over the side and it’s motion-compensated,” said Marc Willis, the project’s science technical director.

Rapp Hydema was the systems integrator for the scientific handling equipment and winches, and Kongsberg provided the sonar systems. Siemens was the propulsion systems integrator, while Marine Technologies was the integrator for navigation electronics.

On the working deck are two 30-ton-rated Appleton Marine cranes plus a hydraulic A-frame. All can be manipulated from a single operating station or wireless belly pack.

Russ Patton of the yard’s electrical engineering department.

“The A-frame — the big square rig that sticks off the stern of the vessel — has a 180-degree operating radius to reduce the ice’s impact on towing wires,” Hoshlyk said.

The ship will routinely deploy a conductivity temperature depth profiler, which tests salinity and other conditions in water samples at isolated locations of the water column. The handling equipment is capable of lifting a remotely operated vehicle, putting it in and out of the sea and moving it to storage.

Sikuliaq will carry scientists to zones ranging from the Arctic to the tropics, necessitating greater heating, ventilating and air-conditioning capabilities than the average ship.

“The challenge is the vessel has to be able to operate globally, and that was a bit of a design change from the marching orders we had for several years,” Kristensen said. “It has a pretty hefty HVAC plant on board to accommodate a wide range of weather conditions. The machinery cooling system has to take into account possible blockage from ice, so there is a sizable sea chest.”

In accordance with UNOLS standards, Sikuliaq’s main science deck and public areas comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. One stateroom is designed to accommodate a person in a wheelchair. And a sauna has been installed near the living quarters.

“That’s a carryover from traditional ice-breaking ships,” Smith said. “It’s pretty nice to have, but it’s also for (treating) hypothermia from working out in the cold. If you go on any Finnish or Russian icebreaker, you’ll see a sauna.”

After sea trials, Sikuliaq is scheduled to begin operations in the Arctic next August. The master, who has six years’ experience in the Bering Sea aboard National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessels, is ready to take the scientists where they want to go.

“We’ll have a nice, robust vessel,” said Hoshlyk. “The challenge now will be how far you have to go to refuel and reprovision and do crew change-outs. … We’ll push it to its limits, within reason. As the multi-year ice decreases, our range will increase.”

By Professional Mariner Staff