The Royal Navy’s “swiss army knife” has made history after it sailed closer to the North Pole than any other British vessel before. 

In HMS Protector’s first patrol of the Arctic, the survey and research ship, known as the swiss army knife due to the fact she is versatile and reliable, crunched her way through polar ice to within 1,050km of the top of the world as she gathered data about the ocean and environment.

Only submarines, such as HMS Trenchant which punched through the ice at the Pole in 2018, can travel further north than the position the Plymouth-based survey ship reached. Having been nowhere near the ice in more than two years, the ship tested the strength of her engines using a specialist bollard pull in Flekkefjord, southern Norway, then began icebreaking in earnest in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and the Norwegian island chain of Svalbard.

The ship tested herself against various depths and types of ice, assisted by scientists, engineers and advisors including from the Ministry of Defence and the British Antarctic Survey.

Also helping the ship were two Royal Navy officers who sailed into the Alaskan Arctic aboard the US Coast Guard cutter Polar Star during the winter, and ice-breaking expert Lieutenant Lauren Kowalski, also from the US Coast Guard.

Captain Michael Wood on the ice while conducting trials in the Arctic

Credit: Royal Navy

Captain Michael Wood, the Protector’s commanding officer, said: “This team has ventured far to one of the most amazing parts of the planet.

“The chance to familiarise ourselves with this unforgiving environment has been fantastic, and re-asserts the UK’s ability to operate in the Arctic.”

He added: “We are ready to get back to Antarctica. In the year the UK hosts the COP26 conference, our commitment to preserving and understanding this pristine continent, and the impact of climate change upon it, is more important than ever.”

Leading diver Dan Box drills an ice core

Credit: Royal Navy

Sergeant Chris Carlisle, the ship’s Royal Marines’ mountain leader, led daily patrols on to ice floes inhabited by polar bears to set up the trial ranges and take ice samples.

“The team adapted well to the Arctic,” he said. “Within a week of sailing from Devonport the temperatures and conditions changed immeasurably. Everybody onboard proved they can safely do their job in the most extreme of environments.”

Protector rounds off her mission to the High North by arriving in Reykjavik on Saturday to mark Iceland’s recent accession to the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, drawn from nine northern European nations committed to global security.

She’ll then return to Plymouth having earned her “ice credentials” and begin preparing for return to the southern polar region in the autumn, a mission Captain Wood said has added significance this year.