William Woityra smiling, standing on a frozen sea in front of Polaris ice breaker
Fulbright Finland News Magazine

From U.S. Coast Guard to World's Capital of Icebreaking

11 June 2018 • Text: William Woityra, Photos: Patrik Barck
William Woityra reflects on his Fulbright in Finland.

Having devoted my career to icebreaking, I could think of no better place in the world to study icebreakers and icebreaking than Finland. Helsinki, after all, is the world’s capital for all things icebreaking. This should surprise no one, as Finland is the only country in the world whose ports all freeze in a typical winter. More than 90% of Finland’s trade arrives via maritime means, and the Port of Helsinki is consistently first or second among the ports in Europe, as ranked by passenger arrivals and departures. These factors all underscore the urgency that motivates the efficiency and effectiveness of Finland’s winter navigation system.

I applied for the Mid-Career Professional Development (MCPD) grant in Finland for two reasons. The first was Finland’s incredible depth and concentration of experience and knowledge in icebreaker design and operations. The second was the nature of the program. As a professional mariner and Coast Guard officer, other Fulbright programs (as a scholar or student) were an imperfect fit for me. The MCPD offered an incredible opportunity to step away from my routine duties with the Coast Guard on a four-month sabbatical. In doing so, I would immerse myself in the culture of Finland, and learn first-hand from the world’s experts how icebreaking is done.

The MCPD program, through its graduates, has an immediate and lasting impact.

I was also inspired by how the program is able to deliver outsized returns on a small investment. By identifying and developing professionals at the core years of their careers, the MCPD program, through its graduates, has an immediate and lasting impact. The MCPD grantees have an opportunity to turn their Fulbright experiences into leadership in their fields as soon as they return home. This focus on the practitioners and professionals, rather than academics, ensures that the impact of the program will be felt in months, rather than years or decades.

My choice of Finland for the reasons above turned out to be quite fortuitous. As I navigated the application process, made preparations for my grant, and attended the orientation in Helsinki, I was very impressed by the staff and leadership of the Fulbright Finland Foundation. They lead a highly efficient and extraordinarily professional program. I cannot imagine a better run Fulbright program anywhere else in the world.

Soon after my arrival I met my host, Markus Karjalainen, at the Finnish Transport Agency (Liikennevirasto). With his expert assistance I was able to take meetings with all the stakeholders from the winter navigation system. These included the winter navigation team at FTA, and other parts of the government, as well as private entities. At every turn I was impressed by the skill, experience, and professionalism of the individuals who all contributed to the safe and efficient execution of the winter navigation system.

At the end of January, I met the Arctia icebreaker Polaris in Katajanokka. We sailed north to assist vessels in and out of Kemi and Tornio. The world’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) icebreaker, Polaris features technology and design elements that set the entire icebreaker world ahead by a decade. The master, Pasi Järvelin, and his crew were exceptional hosts. It was extraordinary to watch them working only meters away from huge vessels to free them from the ice, and escort them to and from port. Chilling winds up to 20 m/s and temperatures dipping to −25°C kept the team on their toes, but their skill, experience, and deft execution ensured the safe and efficient movement of traffic.

I am very lucky to have this opportunity and I am entirely grateful to the Fulbright Finland Foundation for making it possible.

William Woityra
U.S. Coast Guard
2017-18 Fulbright Mid-Career Professional Development Grantee