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International Forwarding Association Blog » Sea freight in Europe » Navigating Ice and Fog in European Sea Freight Forwarding

Navigating Ice and Fog in European Sea Freight Forwarding

Efficient sea freight in Europe is often hindered by severe weather conditions. Two of the most significant challenges are ice formations, which impede vessels, and dense fog, which impairs navigation and slows down port operations.


Ice Formations

In the Baltic Sea, winter often results in harsh conditions where portions of the sea are covered by thick ice packs that immobilize vessels. To combat these challenges, ports in Finland and Sweden deploy fleets of icebreakers – ships with reinforced hulls that break ice into pieces. These icebreakers help maintain clear paths along commonly used shipping routes such as the Gulf of Bothnia and the Gulf of Finland and approaches to major Baltic ports. While icebreakers create navigable paths, they still leave behind substantial chunks of ice, and ships need to travel at lower speeds of 5 to 10 knots compared to normal cruising speeds of 20 to 25 knots.

These reduced navigation speeds can lead to ships arriving late at ports where cargo is waiting to be shipped. As a result, forwarders may need to use heated storage facilities to prevent goods from degrading, given the challenging weather at these northern ports. Heated storage is especially important for temperature-sensitive goods like insulin and biotech enzymes, which are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, as well as exotic plant seeds that could lose germination capability if exposed to frost.



Fog is a common maritime challenge, particularly prevalent in high-traffic areas like the English Channel and the North Sea. It poses significant risks to ships because dense fog drastically reduces visibility and impairs a ship captain’s ability to see other vessels and navigational markers. Additionally, the reduced visibility makes it difficult to detect hazards in the water, such as submerged rocks, floating debris, shallow reefs, and wildlife.

In such conditions, ships must navigate at significantly reduced speeds which can disrupt scheduled arrivals. Moreover, the dense fog can also hinder the operations of harbor pilots and tugboats that guide ships safely into ports, which further compounds delays.

Additionally, port authorities may implement stricter protocols during foggy conditions, which also slow down activities. For instance, the use of additional spotters becomes mandatory to guide crane operators when lifting and positioning containers.

Another measure is the requirement for all communication to be conducted over dedicated radio channels, with operators confirming receipt and understanding of all instructions before proceeding. This protocol reduces the likelihood of miscommunication but also adds time to every operation.

To further enhance safety, port authorities might extend the mandatory distance between moving vehicles and equipment within the port. This increased separation distance helps prevent collisions but requires operators to cover more ground at slower speeds, which further delays operations.

To mitigate such delays, forwarders can sign contingency contracts with local transport companies for immediate cargo pickup and distribution. These contracts specify that a fleet of pre-arranged trucks is always available within a specific response time, such as within two hours of a ship’s arrival. They may also detail expedited routes for high-value electronics and perishables and negotiate priority access to local roads to avoid congestion and streamline transport.