The cruise industry is described as being driven by passenger demand and having to constantly develop new themes and destinations. Expedition cruising in the world’s more extreme and remote regions, including the polar regions, is rapidly becoming one such theme.

The dangers of ice in the mass transit of passengers were first made apparent by the loss of the Titanic, following its collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Within two years of this event, the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was adopted. The 2007 sinking of the Explorer, in Antarctica, spurred the International Maritime Organisation (the IMO) to develop regulations aimed at minimising risk when sailing in the polar regions. Eight years later and the maritime industry is facing the implementation of the Polar Code (the Code).

The first part of the Code concerns safety and the second, environmental aspects of sailing in the polar regions. Both parts contain mandatory regulations and non-binding guidance. The Code will be implemented by amending the SOLAS and MARPOL conventions. It will come into force on 1 January 2017 but will initially only apply to ships built on or after that date. Any ships built before this date must comply with the Code by the date of their next intermediate or renewal survey falling after 1 January 2018, whichever occurs first.

Under the Code any ship planning to enter either polar region must obtain a Polar Class Certificate. The grade of the Certificate will determine where the vessel can sail and will be dependant on its main characteristics, like structure, stability and the quality of its built materials and how they are expected to perform in the lowest likely temperatures. For some ships it will mean hull strengthening for ice. An expensive modification.

One of the biggest areas of impact for the polar cruise industry is likely to be the additional requirements in terms of safety and life-saving equipment. Compliance with these requirements may prove difficult and expensive. For example, cruise ships will have to carry fire extinguishers which can be operated in icy conditions, by crew wearing bulky cold weather gear. Enclosed or partially enclosed lifeboats, sufficiently fitted with appropriate survival and communications equipment are also required by the Code. Each passenger and crew member will have to have a cold water immersion suit. Unlike the crew, the passengers (possibly elderly and children) are unlikely to have had the benefit of undertaking repeated drills on how to don survival wear, which might cause issues in the event of an incident that requires them to do so.

Ships hoping to sail in polar waters have to be ready for regular ice removal and the areas of the ship where ice could result in a hazard will have to be made ice free. The crew’s usual routine will have to accommodate this work and they must be trained when and how to deal with ice accretion using designated electrical or pneumatic devices, axes and wooden clubs, whilst wearing cold weather gear.

The Code imposes other crew training requirements. Such requirements vary depending on the ship, ice conditions, and the crew member’s position. However amongst other requirements, crew members must train on how to work with an icebreaker, understand the implications of the presence of icebergs and what is deemed a safe speed in ice infested waters.

In addition to crew training, the Code requires each ship to develop its own Polar Water Operational Manual, which is specific to that ship’s own operational capabilities and limitations in ice conditions.

The Code has certain ambiguities. For example, one of the recommendations is that ships carry sleeping bags – one sufficient for at least two people. This may not be adequate considering the harsh polar environment or the fact that passengers may find such things objectionable. However, sharing to benefit from body heat, whilst reasonable, will only work if two people can actually fit into one sleeping bag. It will be up to each flag state to enact the Code in its own legislation and to set the standard required. Accordingly, the question remains: how will the Code be interpreted and enforced by different flag states? Will some flags operate less onerous standards than others? Whilst this might occur, as it has with other IMO regulations, the expectation is that the insurance market, particularly where the carriage of passengers is concerned, will effectively set its own minimum level of compliance below which cover will not be available. However, this, of course, remains to be seen.

From the cruise industry’s perspective, compliance with the Code will be key from both a reputational and financial point of view. Complacency may increase the risk of liability for a passenger’s injuries during a polar voyage. Furthermore, if compliance with the Code is not assured, there is a risk that ship’s hull and machinery insurance cover may be prejudiced.