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!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Northeast Passage – a Russian arctic odissey (I)

The Northeast Passage is the water route along the northern coast of Europe and Asia, mainly North Russia’s coast, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The distance from Saint-Petersburg to Vladivostok via Northern Sea Route is 14 280 km, via the Suez Canal — 23 200 km, around Cape of Good Hope - 29 400 km.

Beginning in the XV century, efforts were made to find a new all-water route to India and China. Most of these attempts were directed at seeking a Northwest Passage. However, English, Dutch, and Russian navigators did try to seek a Northeast route by sailing along the northern coast of Russia and far into the arctic seas.

In the 1550s, English ships made the first attempt to find the passage. Willem Barentz, the Dutch navigator, made several failed attempts in the 1590s. The decline of Dutch shipping in the 1700s left the exploration mainly to the Russians; in 1648 Russian pioneer Semen Dezhnev made a voyage on a small boat proving existence of a strait between Asia and America; he made first detailed description of Chukotka, and founded Anadyr burg.

Dezhnev’s voyage and discovery of a strait between Asia and America was compared with the feat of Christopher Columbus. Vitus Bering also explored the eastern part of the passage and discovered many islands.

Steam vessels Vega and Lena near the Cape of Cheluskin

The Northeast Passage was not, however, traversed by anyone until Nils Nordenskjöld of Sweden accomplished the feat on the steam vessel Vega in 1878. Starting from Karlskrona on June 22, the Vega doubled Cape Chelyuskin in the following August, and after being frozen in at the end of September near the Bering Strait, completed the voyage successfully in the following summer. The steam-engine power was 60 horsepower. The vessel was equipped with sails; its velocity was 6-7 knots.

The route of steam vessel Vega

In the early 1900s, icebreakers sailed through the passage, and in the 1930s the Northern Sea Route, a shipping lane, was established by the USSR. Since World War II, the Soviet Union, now Russia, has maintained a regular highway for shipping along this passage through the development of new ports and the exploitation of resources in the interior. A fleet of Russian icebreakers, aided by aerial reconnaissance and by radio weather stations, keeps the route navigable from June to October.

Nils Nordenskjöld and the Vega

Thanks to Lastochka!

Commemorative Coin

To be continued

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Galicia, the Iberian Ultima Thule

The celts, the romans, the suevi, the visigoths and even moors and vikings visited Galicia as a last destiny before the sea.

An wild rocky coast that also offers large safe inlets (the Rias) and optimal conditions for settling and defending against enemies. Celt settlements (castros), dolmens and engravings in the rocks can be found all around.

The romans finally defeated the Gallaicos (Galicians) in 137 BC. Roads, bridges, walled cities and aqueducts are their usual legacy. Then came the Suevi and the Visigoths with the first kingdoms, that between some fighting started peaceful mingling. All ended up with conversion to catholic religion.
The moors hardly got here - this region had no interest for them. They just now and then came to collect taxes...
Later, some Viking raids aimed at Santiago the Compostela by landing at Catoira. Fortifications still exist in the area.

Nowadays, Galicia is still a land to explore, with unspoiled coast, almost untouched beaches and steep cliffs, small fishing ports, unvisited forest parks, magnificent grain stores (horreos) in stone, megalithic era remains (dolmens, family tombs).

In Corcubión I found the spirit - a quiet large bay (Ria), white houses with framed glass balconies (galerias), other houses supported by arches, an almost mediterranean feeling in such a remote place, near cape Finisterra - the end of the earth, where mare tenebrosum starts!

In La Coruña, the main town in the far North of Galicia, you can find all this in a larger scale. Good museums, narrow up and down streets in the old town, an old tramway line, walks on the cliffs, the impressive Hercules tower - a lighthouse, first built by the romans (it's base still remaining), then rebuilt in neoclassic style. And the fantastic glass balconies facing the ocean, reflecting the sunset in thousands of mirrored windows.