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An icebreaker is a special-purpose ship or boat designed to move and navigate through ice-covered waters, and provides safe waterways for other boats and ships. Although the term usually refers to ice-breaking ships, it may also refer to smaller vessels, such as the icebreaking boats that were once used on the canals of the United Kingdom [1, 59].

For a ship to be considered an icebreaker, it requires three traits most normal ships lack: a strengthened hull, an ice-clearing shape, and the power to push through sea ice.

Icebreakers clear paths by pushing straight into ice pockets. The bending strength of sea ice is so low that usually the ice breaks without noticeable change in the vessel’s trim. In cases of very thick ice, an icebreaker can drive its bow onto the ice to break it under the weight of the ship. Because a buildup of broken ice in front of a ship can slow it down much more than the breaking of the ice itself, icebreakers have a specially designed hull to direct the broken ice around or under the vessel. The external components of the ship’s propulsion system (propellers, propeller shafts, etc.) are at even greater risk of damage than the vessel’s hull, so the ability of an icebreaker to propel itself onto the ice, break it, and clear the debris from its path successfully is essential for its safety [2, 22].

Even in the earliest days of polar exploration, ice-strengthened ships were used. These were originally wooden and based on existing designs, but reinforced, particularly around the waterline with double planking to the hull and strengthening cross members inside the ship. Bands of iron were wrapped around the outside. Sometimes metal sheeting was placed at the bows, stern and along the keel. Such strengthening was designed to help the ship push through ice and also to protect the ship in case it was “nipped” by the ice. Nipping occurs when ice floes around a ship are pushed against the ship, trapping it as if in a vice and causing damage. This vice-like action is caused by the force of winds and tides on ice formations. Although such wind and tidal forces may be exerted many miles away, the ice transmits the force [3, 139].

The first boats to be used in the polar waters were those of the indigenous Arctic people. Their kayaks are small human-powered boats with a covered deck, and one or more cockpits, each seating one paddler who strokes a single or double-bladed paddle. Such boats, of course, have no icebreaking capabilities, but they are light and well fit to carry over the ice.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Viking expansion reached the North Atlantic, and eventually Greenland and Svalbard in the Arctic. Vikings, however, operated their ships in the waters that were ice-free for most of the year, in the conditions of the Medieval Warm Period.

In the 11th century, Russians started settling the coasts of the White Sea, named so for being ice-covered for over half of a year. The ethnic subgroup of Russians that lived on the shores of the Arctic Ocean became known as Pomors (“seaside settlers”). Gradually they developed a special type of small one- or two-mast wooden sailing ships, used for voyages in the ice conditions of the Arctic seas and later on Siberian rivers. These earliest icebreakers were called kochi. The Koch’s hull was protected by a belt of ice-floe resistant flush skin-planking (made of oak or larch) along the variable water-line, and had a false keel for on-ice portage. If a koch became squeezed by the ice-fields, its rounded bodylines below the water-line would allow for the ship to be pushed up out of the water and onto the ice with no damage [4, 119].

In the 19th century, similar protective measures were adopted to modern steam-powered icebreakers. Some notable sailing ships in the end of the Age of Sail also featured the egg-shaped form alike that of Pomor boats, for example the famous Fram, used by Fridtjof Nansen and other great Norwegian Polar explorers. Fram is said to be the wooden ship to have sailed farthest north (85°57’N) and farthest south (78°41’S), and perhaps the strongest wooden ship ever built.