Building icebreakers

There are very few icebreakers in the world and most of them are very old. For this reason, not many companies have the knowledge or skills to build an icebreaker. In addition, when a new icebreaker is built, it is important that it meets the very latest standards and is able to remain in operation for at least 50 years. There are no shipyards with finished drawings that are ready to start construction. When the decision is made to commission a new icebreaker, the process takes around five years to complete. The first two years are spent on ordering and designing the vessel and the next three on building it.

The process​

The process consists of several clearly defined phases. Although these phases are sequential, they also undergo continuous iterations during the course of the project. The financing has to be resolved in parallel, but sometimes the shipyards can help in this respect. The payment plan is part of the shipyard contract and it is usually broken down into different percentages which are linked to events such as the signing of the contract, the laying of the keel and delivery.

The process consists of several clearly defined phases.

The Process

Year 1-3

Financing, payments

Year 1



The most important consideration when building a new vessel of this kind with a significantly longer service life (around 50 years) than conventional vessels (20-30 years) is to determine the profile for current and future requirements. The ships of the future will in all probability be larger and have lower installed power to meet future emission standards. This means that future icebreakers will need to be more powerful and wider and will have to leave an ice-free channel for the ships which are following them. It is usually preferable for the customers to specify their functional requirements, rather than taking responsibility for the dimensions and installed power. Another important issue is the fuel type. One possibility is a flexible arrangement that allows for a gradual transition to fossil-free operation, such as diesel/methanol.

Year 2


Designing a ship is an iterative process that takes into account many different factors. These include:

  • A hull shape designed for icebreaking
  • Main dimensions that enable the ship to support its own weight, together with the necessary quantity of fuel and supplies
  • A steel hull to provide strength, fatigue-resistance and effective corrosion protection
  • Automation and IT systems
  • Machinery, ship’s systems and living spaces designed for efficient operation and maintenance that provide a good working environment
  • Equipment for other tasks that the ship must be able to perform

The design work involves different levels of detail during the various phases of the project. Initially, a more general, overall design is created to ensure that the project is viable. After the contract has been signed, the level of detail is increased in order to obtain approval from classification societies, public bodies and the customer. Before work on the ship starts, the construction documentation is drawn up so that the shipyard can actually build the ship.

Year 3

Ordering and contract

Ordering and contract

When ordering a ship, it is important to approach a number of different shipyards in order to get a competitive bid. The shipyards that are chosen must be competent and guarantee to provide internationally acceptable conditions for their employees and suppliers. They must also ensure the safety of the customer’s staff who supervise the construction process. In addition, the shipyards must be able to guarantee that they have the financial capacity to carry out the project. When the order is placed, the technical contract specification is negotiated, which describes every aspect of the finished vessel. The commercial contract also has to be agreed, which covers all the areas of the construction project, such as payment terms, bank guarantees, delivery date, change management, project planning, approved suppliers, penalties etc.

Year 3-5



From the point when the contract has been signed and entered into, the shipyard has the responsibility for implementing the project in accordance with the specification and the schedule. The customer follows up to ensure that the work is being carried out in accordance with the guidelines in the contract. To make this possible, the customer must have staff on site in the form of a site team who monitor every aspect of the work, including welding, preparation of surfaces for painting, piping and cabling, foundation, installation and commissioning of equipment etc.

Year 5



Before delivery, all the systems must be functional and the ship’s weight and its centre of gravity must have been determined. In addition, the ship must have taken part in sea trials to guarantee its speed, power and operational reliability. The classification societies and public bodies issue various certificates indicating that they have approved the vessel for operation, but it is the customer who decides when the vessel is ready for delivery.

Future-proof for a long life

The long service life of icebreakers makes it particularly important that they are designed to meet future requirements. This must be taken into account throughout the process, especially when it comes to choosing materials and following up the shipyard’s work during the construction phase. A large number of subcontractors are involved in all the phases and they are usually contracted by the shipyard after approval by the customer. Building icebreakers requires experience of both the practical work of breaking ice and the building of new ships, but it also calls for the ability to be innovative and make the best possible use of new technologies.

Cracked ice