How Does an Icebreaker Ship Work?

icebreaker ship

Unless you have lived under a rock for the past decades, you've probably seen or heard of the movie Titanic. Helmed by James Cameron, Titanic depicts the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, a British passenger liner operated by the White Star Line.

Back in 1912, White Star Line vice-president Phillip Franklin said the Titanic was unsinkable: "There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers."

But we know how it all ended.

At 2:20 AM on April 15, 1912, the British ocean liner sank after striking an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. To this day, the Titanic remains at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, never to be seen again in broad daylight.

To the movie fanatics and common folk, hitting an iceberg might mean the end of a ship’s voyage. But did you know there’s a special type of ship that’s built to ensure we have minimal to no Titanic incidents again?

Meet the icebreaker—arguably the world’s toughest vessel.

What is an icebreaker ship?

The shipping industry, which makes a sizable contribution to the international economy, provides services to a wide range of clients worldwide. Tens of thousands of ships that carry out various tasks make up the business, from the biggest container ships to riverboats.

Nonetheless, few vessels distinguish from the others because of their specific uses.

You have various kinds of maritime research vessels as well as opulent private yachts owned by the rich and famous of the world.

But a special-purpose ship enters the list—the icebreaker ship.

Since the earliest days of arctic exploration, the concept of an icebreaker ship has existed. An icebreaker ship was rumored to have been used as far back as the 11th century. But, of course, they resembled boats more back then.

The communities that inhabited the Arctic Ocean's shores contributed to the Koch or early versions of icebreakers.

They created a small, one- or two-mast wooden ship that was used to travel over the frigid rivers and seas of Siberia and the Arctic. The Koch included rounded body lines below the water's surface to allow the ship to be pulled up if ice fields trapped it and a belt of ice-floe resistant flush skin-planking to protect the hull.

Later eras saw the development of new icebreakers using similar design principles. Even today, despite modernity making them unquestionably much more efficient, their fundamental design is still the same.

What sets apart the icebreaker from other vessels is its hull. It has a stronger hull to withstand icy waters. It also comes with a specially created ice-clearing shape to build a passage forward and extraordinary power to navigate through sea ice.

The force that modern icebreakers provide to clear a path for other vessels through the icy waters is one of the key distinguishing qualities that sets them apart from other ships. Whether nuclear-powered icebreakers or diesel-electric icebreakers, all of them have much more power than the coal- or oil-fired steamships of the past.

Are you interested to learn more about the specifics of an icebreaker ship? Read more about it here.

How an icebreaker ship works

The icebreaker ship does precisely what it sounds like: it breaks ice.

It makes navigation through the ice-covered waterways, particularly in the Polar Regions, doable, as the ship cuts through even the thickest ice and opens up some of the most hostile global paths.

Icebreakers open up pathways by pushing directly into frozen water or ice. Because sea ice has such a low bending strength, it typically breaks without significantly altering the ship's trim.

However, when the ice is particularly thick, an icebreaker can push its bow onto it to break it using the force of the boat. A ship can be severely slowed down by a pile of broken ice in front of it than by the actual breaking of the ice; hence icebreakers have hulls specifically designed to direct the broken ice around or beneath the vessel.

The Baltic Sea, the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes, and the Northern Sea Route all have vessels traveling along them that are built to maneuver through frozen waters. Still, the seasonal ice conditions make it challenging for the ships to control themselves.

Icebreakers accompany commercial vessels as they voyage through these treacherous locations. They can also act as rescuers; in the event that a ship is stuck on thick ice, icebreaker ships help out by breaking up the ice around the cargo ship.

Aside from their role in ensuring safe passage for trading ships, the icebreakers are also frequently utilized to help scientific programs carried out in the Polar areas.

Life aboard an icebreaker ship

Many international sailors frequently complete lengthy excursions that cut them apart from friends, family, and loved ones for up to nine months at a time.

Most mariners choose to pursue a career at sea because it allows them to better the lives of their families back home, making the time spent away from them worthwhile.

Life aboard an icebreaker ship is no different, save for some unique experiences.


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For starters, the location. Can you imagine telling your family and friends back home about your experiences at the North Pole? Talk about a superb icebreaker!

Apart from the novelty of visiting a place that no one else in the world can easily access, you are also treated to gorgeous vistas and the incredible wildlife of the arctic regions.

Although you’re frequently subjected to the cold (sub-zero temperatures are typical), you can also gain some health benefits from it. For example, colder weather can help fight off inflammation and allergies.

A 2017 Stanford University study even claims you’re less impulsive in the cold. You can keep a cool head and perform cognitive tasks with ease.

And, of course, the bond you create with fellow shipmates who braved the cold is stronger. Conquering the frozen wasteland, helping out ships in help, doing your part in the advancement of science—all these experiences aboard the icebreaker ship strengthen your camaraderie.

To wrap it up

The icebreaker ship—it may not be as familiar and famed as cargo ships and fishing vessels, but this ship soldiers on. Thanks to its strength and purpose, global trade flourishes even on wintry days.

Do you want to kickstart your maritime career? At Martide, we can help you get started! Build your resume today or view our exciting job vacancies.

Tricia Tan

Tricia Tan