An icebreaker is a specially designed ship to clear ice at the poles, either to rescue frozen in ships caught by the closing winter or to force routes through the ice to make passes for other shipping. The hull is designed thicker than average so that it can break up and push the ice aside and it must be strong enough to mount the ice to break it up by sheer weight. The bottom of the hull is also designed to slide over the broken ice or to push it aside. This leads to problems with the vulnerable steering and propulsion mechanics which must be protected from damage. To achieve all these necessities, the engine must be strong enough to cope with the ice.


There were expeditions in search of the North-West Passage to find a route for shipping to reach the Pacific for trading purposes. With the development of vessels capable of defeat the ice, ways were explored and, discovered and improved upon. Apart from indigenous peoples of the North, the first European ship to brave these waters was the Pytheas in 325BC which “discovered” Iceland. In about 850AD the Vikings sailed these seas and colonised Iceland and Greenland. In the White Sea, Russian traders used the coast for trading purposes and opened up that area.

Over the next centuries, whalers ventured into the unknown waters and opened up new arctic areas. In 1726 Vitrus Bering discovers and named the Bering Sea while looking for a North Eastern Passage. In 1778 James cook was the first to attempt to locate the North-West Passage from the west. It took three winters, and he finally found his way with the help of Inuits. In 1884 the ships the Erebus and the Terror sailed into the Baffin Bay and were never seen again. The navy searched the area for ten years, never finding the 130 sailors, but was instrumental in opening the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

From 1945 to 1969 the icebreaker HMCS Labrador was the first armed naval vessel to complete the NWP route, and three years later she escorted three US icebreakers part of the journey. Due to the installation of the infrastructure Distant Early Warning system (during the Cold War), which spanned 3000 miles, over 300 ships sailed the Arctic seas bringing in 300,000 tonnes of construction cargo. As most of these ships were not designed for the ice fields, new style ships which could cope with the ice were built.

Due also to the search for new oil fields, Canada acquired two icebreakers. By now the US fleet had ten icebreakers, and the US Coast Guard had three. So the development of the Arctic was speeded up due to the Cold War and oil exploration as plans for an oil pipeline to the port of Valdez proved complicated, so Mobil Exxon with Standard Oil of New Jersey, investigated the possibility of icebreaking tankers. The Manhatten underwent refitting to convert her into an icebreaking boat and in 1969 proved it a viable design as it broke through thicker ice than any other icebreaker.