A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NORTH EAST PASSAGE
As seen from Northabout on anchor, Sun Bay, Bolshevik Island. August 25th, 2005
Bolshevik Island is midway along this 3,000 mile north coast of Asia. We are
at 78 degrees, its most northerly latitude, and so on a convenient platform to view it, both geographically and with some historical perspective.
Russians call it The Northern Sea Route.
Indigenous people have lived here and travelled its shores from time immemorial, 'before the white man came'.
Russians came north for the fur. The eastern boundary of the Czars empire extended to the Pacific Ocean, and indeed into northern America. Its western lands into Europe were well known. To the far north, the map was largely blank.
Czar Peter the Great, in 1725, resolved to amend this. His Great Northern Expedition, over the next 17 years, 1,000 men in five detachments, achieved remarkable results. Their methodology was to travel eastward on known inland routes. Meeting the big north-flowing rivers they would build boats and sail to the arctic shores, mapping east and west. The names of their leaders adorn the map, Bering, Deznev, Laptev and our own current favourite, Seymon Chelyuskin, who in May 1742 reached Asia's most northerly point by sledge. For four successive summers he tried and failed to sail round it.
Further expeditions over the next 100 years filled in added detail, led by such as Billings, Litke and Wrangel, all involving over wintering and help from native Chukchi, Yakuts, Dolgan and Nenets.
In parallel, commercial endeavour brought the Russian Pomors, coastal traders, eastward from the White Sea and into the lower reaches of the Kara Sea.
The British traders Chancellor and Willoughby followed them in 1553, reaching Moscow upriver and overland.
Dutchman Willem Barents, trying in 1597 for Cathay through a North East Passage, reached the northern coast of Novaya Zemlya, New Land. He and his men over-wintered there, unintentionally. The foundations of his hut remain.
The first to traverse the North East Passage was the wealthy and well travelled Swedish Baron Nils Nordenskiold. He in his 300 ton 'Vega' made from west to east in 1878 and was beset only a short 100 miles north of the Bering Strait. He got through the following summer.
Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen traversed much of the passage eastwards as far as the New Siberian Islands in 1893, before deliberately setting his 'Vega' into the ice for a northern 2-year drift.
In 1899 these arctic seas saw an icebreaker for the first time, the 'Yermak'.
In 1914-15 the icebreakers 'Taimur' and 'Vaigach' journeyed from Vladivostok to Arkhangelsk, the first Russian transit.
They discovered the islands at which we are now anchored, the Northern Siberian Islands. Their leader, Boris Vilkitskiy, took the losing side in the 1917 revolution, but nonetheless his name was given to the strait between Bolshevik Island and Cape Chelyuskin.
The Soviets closed all Russia to foreigners, but before this became effective Roald Amundson, he of the North West Passage and the South Pole, made a west to east transit in 'Maud' in the 3 years 1918-21.
Russian icebreakers have since made the transit, the nuclear ones virtually at will.
However this is infrequent as the needs are taken care of, from the east by their Far East Shipping Company and from the west by their Murmansk Shipping Company.
Small boat passages of note have since been:
'Yakutia' 1991 Tiksi-Chukotka
1992 Cargoed back to Tiksi
'Apostle Andrew' ( Nicolau Latau) East to West, 1998-99, overwintering in Tiksi
'Sibir' ( Sergei Cherbakov) West to East , 2000-2002.
'Vagabond ' ( Eric Brossier) West to East, 2002
'Dagmar Aaen' (Arved Fuchs) West to East, 2002
'Campina' ( Henk De Velde) East to Tiksi, 2003
Tiksi to Taimur, 2004. Ice damage caused abandonment of voyage. Cargoed to Murmansk.