1934 – STEAMER CHELYUSKIN PIONEERS THE NORTHERN SEA ROUTE

March 08, 2020

“The conquest of the Arctic Ocean has long been the dream of mankind. As far back as the sixteenth century brave men felt the lure of the Polar regions. Many English sailors attempted to reach the Pacific Ocean by a northern route. Their ships were found gripped in the ice-fields beyond Northern Russia, with their crews lying frozen in their bunks. During the succeeding centuries scientific explorers studied the Arctic and Antarctic; but as yet no one had discovered the North-East Passage to the Pacific Ocean. ” (Shipping Wonders of the World)
In 1878 the Finnish-Swedish scientist Nordenskiold sailed from Tromsø to the Kara Sea and rounded Cape Chelyuskin by mid-August. At the end of September his ship froze in ice near the Chukotka Peninsula and his team was forced to overwinter, finally making it through the Bering Strait in summer of 1879.
The Soviet Union began to defend domestic priority in the Arctic at the dawn of its existence: in 1923, the Soviet government announced that all the lands in the Soviet sector of the Arctic belong to the USSR. It became necessary for the USSR to establish navigation on the so-called Northern Sea Route, the shortest route from Europe to the Far East, which runs through the seas of the Arctic Ocean.
The steamer A. Sibiryakov made the first successful crossing of the Northern Sea Route in a single navigation without wintering. On June 28 1932, the ship sailed from the Russian port of Archangels, crossed the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea then the Chukchi Sea. A. Sibiryakov arrived in the Bering Strait in October 1932. This was regarded as a heroic feat of Soviet polar seamen and Chief of Expedition Otto Yuliyevich Schmidt and Captain Vladimir Voronin.
In 1933, Schmidt decided to prove that along the Northern Sea Route not only icebreaking and specially prepared vessels can pass, but also ordinary heavy bulk carriers.
The transport ship Lena was built in Copenhagen in 1933 by Burmeister and Wain by order of the USSR. The steamer was then renamed Chelyuskin in honor of the famous Russian explorer of the Arctic. The hull of the ship was reinforced for the voyage.
Heavily overloaded the ship left Murmansk on August 2, 1933. There were cargoes for wintering the 111 people onboard, prefabricated houses for a village on Wrangel Island, as well as a seaplane for reconnaissance from the air.
Already on August 15, at the first serious encounter with heavy ice, the ship was damaged. However, the expedition continued, and without incident Chelyuskin reached the Chukchi Sea, where it was sandwiched by perennial ice. Chelyuskin was unable to approach the Wrangel Island, as planned. From mid-October to early November, the ship drifted towards the Bering Strait and reached it on November 4. In fact, the Northern Sea Route has been covered.
On February 13 1934, a powerful pressure of ice pierced a crack a meter wide and 30 meters long in the port side. The ship was offloaded without panic and abandoned. Around 16:00, the Chelyuskin sank. 104 people remained on the Arctic ice. The message about the disaster was transmitted to the mainland by the radio operator.
In Moscow, a government commission was created to save the Schmidt expedition. Under the circumstances, it was possible to save people only with the help of aviation. In an emergency, planes and the most experienced pilots were flown to Chukotka.
It was in March, three weeks after the sinking of the Chelyuskin, that the miracle happened. The world’s first air rescue successfully started. In April of the same year all crew members, scientists and passengers were rescued and flown to the village of Vankarem on the coast of the sea. From there, some were flown further to the village of Uelen, while fifty-three men walked over 300 miles to get there.
The history of Chelyuskin and the salvation of its crew shocked the whole world. The salvation in polar conditions of so many people had no analogues in history. All the pilots who saved the people were the first to be awarded the newly established title “Hero of the Soviet Union”
As the steamship became trapped at the entrance to the Bering Strait, the USSR considered the expedition mainly successful, as it had proven that a regular steamship had a chance to navigate the whole Northern Maritime Route in a single season. Others said that the expedition simply proved that it was not possible. After a few additional trial runs the Northern Sea Route was officially opened and commercial exploitation began in 1935.
Efforts to find the wreck of the Chelyuskin were made by four different expeditions, and it was finally discovered in September 2006, at a depth of about 50 metres in the Chukchi Sea.
(Source: Shipping Wonders of the World/bortnoe.ru/Wikipedia/expeditions.com)