Thursday, 3 September 2009

The Northeast Passage – a Russian arctic odissey (II)

1934: The icebreaker Chelyuskin versus the Northeast Passage

- The discovery of the Northern Sea Route is one of the most outstanding pages of Russian history -

In the 1930s, the Soviet power was impatient with the delays that had kept the Northeast Passage from developing into the valuable cargo and passenger route it had promised to be. The geophysicist and Arctic veteran Otto Schmidt was appointed as the head of the project of the Northern Maritime Route from Murmansk to Vladivostok, and by 1932, he had readied the icebreaker Sibiriakov, with Vladimir Voronin as captain, for a voyage through the passage.

Although the ship broke down a number of times, the voyage was successful: in 65 days, the Sibiriakov had traveled from Arkhangelsk to the Pacific Ocean, the first vessel ever to accomplish a passage of the northern sea route within one navigation season, without wintering along the way.

The Chelyuskin, launched in 1933

Flushed with the success of this first attempt, Schmidt prepared a second vessel, the Chelyuskin, built in Denmark in 1933, adapted with a powerful 2 500 - horsepower engine, special frame, reinforcements, and extra steel plates on the bow and forward bulkhead. Its construction would allow it to function as a semi-icebreaker. Confident that the ship would be able to plow through the ice of the Arctic Ocean, Schmidt loaded it up in August 2, 1933; with 100 passengers and heavy cargo, the ship left Murmansk and managed to get through the bulk of the Northern Route before it was caught in the ice fields in September.

The route of the Chelyuskin 1933-34

By the time the ship reached Cape Chelyuskin, Captain Voronin realized that his vessel was not performing up to expectations and that conditions were worsening rapidly. By mid-September, the Chelyuskin was picking its way through narrow leads of water, twisting and turning to avoid the big floes, heading ever eastward.

Then, in the East Siberian Sea, 200 miles from the Bering Strait, the ship could move no more. Back and forth the ship drifted, frozen solidly in the pack ice, its powerful engine unable to free it.

By radio, the captain heard that 12 miles ahead was open water. After weeks of drifting to the north and northwest, Schmidt realized the ship was in the main polar pack. The ship would never be free. With five crew members, he began in secret to prepare to abandon ship.

The end came on February 13, 1934, when a mountain of ice gashed a 40- foot-long hole in the side of the ship, flooding the engine and boiler rooms with Arctic water. Suddenly the ship rised, stood for a moment almost vertically. A big smoke cloud came out of the funnel. And then, there was nothing left than dark water.

The ship’s helmsman described what followed in The Voyage of the Chelyuskin: “Then the Chelyuskin’s bow began to go down rapidly and the last command rang out—‘All on the ice! Leave the ship!’ The gangway twisted and fell.” The last men aboard jumped onto the ice and within minutes the ship sank beneath the sea.

The sinking of the Chelyuskin with the crew on the ice.

The crew and passengers now settled down to make what they named “camp Schmidt” on the ice floes. These pioneers did not have radios to send messages nor airplanes to come immediately to the rescue, nevertheless, by April 13, 92 men, 10 women, and two chihdren were airlifted to safety—not a single life lost.

The stay of Chelyuskin team in a camp and rescue by pilots is known in the world as heroical deed of Soviet explorers of the Arctic. The polar pilots made 24 flights to rescue the expedition, and were awarded the Heroes of the Soviet Union titles. Rescuing the Chelyuskin expedition became a remarkable moment in Russian history.

Ski equipped Polykarpov P-5s had a key role in the rescue of of the Chelyuskin's crew.

The Northern Sea Route was officially opened, and commercial exploitation began in 1935.

The wreck of the ship was finally discovered in September, 2006 at the depth of about 50 metres in the Chukchi Sea.

Nowadays the Northern Sea Route is an integral part of the economy. It is vital for the regions of the Extreme North and the Far East. It ensures supply of remote areas with fuel, foodstuffs and essential goods and supply of the continent with natural resources.

Dissolution of the Soviet Union followed by social and economic crisis of the post-Soviet space in the early 1990’s had a negative influence upon the condition of the Northern Sea Route. At present practical steps are made in Russia to overcome the crisis and to continue development of the Route.

Sources Again, thanks to Lastochka!