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Mastery of the Seas

Norway has always looked to the sea for its livelihood – and successfully so. But what may be surprising is Norway’s dominance in its mastery of the seas. Although it has just a fraction of the world’s population, Norway has...

The country’s recognition of the importance of shipping has fuelled the nation’s leadership in shipbuilding, fisheries, and offshore petroleum production, as well as a keen desire to foster innovation and uphold high standards for services, training and environmental protection.

“Norway is a strong maritime nation, with a long and proud maritime history,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told the European Maritime Industries Forum when it came to Oslo in October 2006, the first time the meeting had been held in a non-EU member country. “Sea travel connects us – with Europe, the world and each other.”

University of Oslo historian Even Lange says it’s tempting to look to Viking times to explain Norway’s ascendancy as a maritime nation – but the cause can be found in more recent and complex developments. Lange is directing a research project on the history of Norwegian shipping, with the first volume of the series due in 2009, the 100th anniversary of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association.

The transition from sails to steam was a decisive one in the history of Norwegian shipping. Steam was fast, and was used to transport people and perishable goods, but Norwegian captains were able to exploit the benefits of sail in moving coal, wood, and other heavy, non-perishable goods. 
© Aker Yards


“The 19th century is when Norwegian shipping established its important position,” Lange said. “From the 1830s–1890s, Norway made the jump from an insignificant maritime nation to a leading shipping country.”

Lange says Norwegians were able to assume their leadership in part because of skills that are still important today:

•          Norwegians put the training they received to good use

•          Norwegian skippers and crews were widely recognized as highly efficient

•          Norwegian companies adopted new technologies at the right time

•          Norwegians benefited from specialization in shipping

At the same time, the rough seas of the North Atlantic and the icy perils of Arctic waters have driven Norwegians to be innovative in developing ways to cope with tough maritime conditions.

Four Hundred Years of Training

Understanding Norway’s development as a maritime powerhouse requires an overview of the country’s last 600 years of history, Lange says. From the Kalmar Union in 1397 right through to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, Norway was in a union with Denmark. The Danish crown governed a small empire, with outposts in the West Indies and India, which allowed Norwegians to learn the intricacies of long-distance trade. “Norwegians had their training inside the Danish system and its micro-empire,” Lange said.

These days, Norwegians leave nothing to chance when it comes to training the next generation of mariners, and to retaining skilled employees. For example, in 2005, the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association launched an ongoing two-year trainee programme on behalf of the Norwegian maritime industry and involving 21 different companies. The programme can draw on the Norwegian maritime cluster in its offerings; shipowners, shipyards, maritime equipment companies, oil rig companies, classification societies, law firms, banks and shipbrokers are all active participants.

Once they’re in the workforce, maritime workers can also depend on strong support from Norway. The country was an active contributor to the crafting of an international Maritime Labour Convention, which was adopted in February 2006 and consists of minimum standards for workers and fair competition for employers. “In order to attract and retain skilled employees, we need to ensure good working conditions,” said Dag Terje Andersen, Norway’s Minister of Trade and Industry, at the 2006 Maritime Industry Forum in Oslo. “Norway welcomes this convention.”

Efficient & Willing to Work

Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the ship’s captain was key in determining a ship’s cargo. Harbours were meeting places where captains would connect with merchants eager to send their wares abroad. Thus, a captain’s negotiating skills and his track record inevitably made a difference. Norwegians excelled at these tasks, Lange noted, which helped build the Norwegian fleet. Plus, Norwegian seamen were known for their meticulousness with cargo, and their efficiency in loading and offloading goods.

“Norwegians had the reputation of being quick in and out of harbours, and they took care with their loads,” Lange said. “So they had this reputation and they were in demand.”

As the 1800s progressed, the Norwegian fleet expanded, particularly in moving bulky items like coal and wood. But the world was changing. As the century ended, many maritime nations were shifting to steamships powered by coal. Norway stayed with sail, however, because in moving goods that didn’t need rapid transport, sails were more profitable – at first. By 1890, Norwegian vessels carried nearly 8 percent of the world’s cargo – a high point. But after 1890, steam began to dominate, and Norway’s share of the maritime trade dropped by nearly one-half during from 1890 to 1920.

Adopting New Technologies – And Developing Them

Some think Norwegian shipowners lingered too long with sail, but Lange says they stayed with the old technology for good economic reasons. The slow transition to steam was followed by a very rapid transition to diesel-powered vessels – driven by a shift to more specialized kinds of shipping, particularly tankers, a move that continues to pay dividends today.

The modern Norwegian fleet is highly specialized. The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s spurred the growth of ships designed to handle the rigours of the North Atlantic and the Arctic, and to deliver specialized services, from anchor handlers to supply ships. In fact, Norway has 15 percent of the world’s fleet for offshore services.

Norwegians continue to invest in ships and the sea, as befits the country’s heritage and its economic success. Norwegian shipowners had NOK 64 billion worth of ships on order at the beginning of 2006, representing 4 percent of the world’s total. Since the 1990s, Norway has held one of the leading positions in supply shipping, providing for oil installations across the globe. “It’s a new speciality for Norway,” Lange notes. “And it has been lifting the Norwegian shipping industry out of the crisis of the 1970s to new heights.”