Hannu Jukola: Cold realism

Hannu Jukola: “You can easily be a thousand miles from port or a week away from another vessel. If something happens, there’s no one to call, even helicopters will take days to reach you.” Hannu Jukola: “You can easily be a thousand miles from port or a week away from another vessel. If something happens, there’s no one to call, even helicopters will take days to reach you.”

“There are some very pretty pictures of cruise vessels surrounded by floating ice in the brochures, but these vessels have no ice class: to an expert eye it’s actually extremely dangerous,” Hannu Jukola of Steerprop tells Stevie Knight. The cruise industry has been taking some heavy risks without, it seems, fully understanding the consequences.

“You can easily be a thousand miles from port or a week away from another vessel. If something happens, there’s no one to call, even helicopters will take days to reach you.”

Ice, according to him, needs to be treated with the proper regard and there are inevitable safety issues with the idea “that you can bring regular cruise liners with a thousand people onboard right alongside it”. He goes on to explain that multiyear ice, unlike first year ice, is unbelievably hard: beautiful it may be but rather than getting up close “it’s avoided by experienced captains”.  

Further, as ice sheets shift with the wind or current, even strengthened Arctic-going vessels monitor the build-up of pressure on the hull carefully: moving ice “can simply crush an ordinary ship”.

Despite this, he explains the industry is beginning to get more realistic about conditions in the Arctic: “There are numbers of projects on the move where vessels like these expedition cruisers are seeking higher ice class designationsThe industr. y is beginning to look at vessels actually capable of not just surviving but breaking ice, so there’s less chance of getting trapped.”

This plays to Jukola’s speciality: he has had a hand in pushing high megawatt, ice-class propulsion forward, being deeply involved in the development of Steerprop’s original, twin propeller unit from the very start of the company.

Despite being involved in contra-rotating propeller (CRP) development for a number of years, Jukola admits he has never quite let go of his “naval architect’s hat”, hanging round the testing basins whenever he could: further, he was always more than happy to be called on as a propulsion expert no matter what his job title actually spelled out. 

In short, he had the kind of R&D background useful for thinking outside the box (or casing) and as a new player Steerprop needed to differentiate itself. It was a golden opportunity to try something really innovative: locating a ‘pushing’ propeller behind and ‘pulling’ propeller in front of the unit yielded some big advantages “as a ‘push-pull’ CRP combines open water efficiency with very high icebreaking capabilities”, he explains. “You get the best of both worlds.”

This set the company carving out a high power, high-value niche market that, he says “doesn’t really have too many competitors”.

However, it was not easy getting the company off the ground. The founders had left larger, more stable businesses behind in order to run their own company “but this meant we had no references, no history, nothing”, he explains. “While a lot of people said they would like to be our second customer, we had trouble finding the first.” 

Then, quite suddenly the hard work paid off and Steerprop got the recognition it needed. “I knew we had broken through when we started getting long orders from the offshore fleet,” he explains. Although there had been other deliveries, in 2007 Bourbon started to put in orders for 10 or 20 vessels at a time: “The Bourbon Liberty series totals over 100 vessels today,” he adds.

But although he is seeing megawatt demand rise quickly and azimuthing propulsion becoming much more common, the crew can still face a learning curve. “You can have a very experienced captain but he may have never driven anything other than conventional shaft-line vessels. And if you have a ship with say 20,000hp and 10,000 tonnes of weight, get it wrong and you can actually do a lot of damage with it.” As a result, some are braver than others in taking the sticks. 

However, there’s one group that get off to a good start: “You can tell the young guys who have spent time on their Playstation, they just pick it up.”

Model testing and even open water trials play their part, but Jukola says there’s nothing like witnessing for yourself how icebreakers engage with the element they are designed for. “My first trip took place in the middle of summer, there were no nights, no winds and the sun was shining.” Not so bad, he thought. Half a year later he was back, this time in October and at 87 degrees latitude, he was close to the North Pole. “We were involved in exactly the same kinds of manoeuvres as the first time but it was completely pitch black, you don’t have any clues as to where you are, you can hardly see anything at all.”

It wasn’t just the environment that gave him pause: the latter trip was also a little more nerve-wracking because a new Steerprop propulsion unit was being put through its paces in hard, 1.5m thick multiyear ice and “at that time, the 8.4MW unit went beyond the limits of our previous deliveries” although the largest have increased in scale since then. 

However uncomfortable, he is grateful for the experience which brought home “how icebreakers really behave during operations - and how they are really handled".

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