July 01, 2004

Saving the Chelyuskin

In 1932, the Soviet merchant ship Sibiryakov had attempted to sail across the Arctic Ocean, to demonstrate that a Northeast Passage route was possible, linking European Russia with the Pacific Ocean ports of the Russian Far East. It was not successful; but its efforts suggested that, with the help of ice-breakers, the voyage was possible. Therefore, the following summer, another voyage was planned. It would turn out to be one of the most amazing rescue stories of the 20th century.

Built in a Danish shipyard as the Lena, a ship quite similar to the Sibiryakov was commissioned and sailed to the ice-free port of Murmansk. There it was renamed the Chelyuskin, after the Russian explorer who had discovered the northernmost point of the Eurasian landmass. It was manned, in addition to the crew, by a scientific expedition, headed by the experienced Dr. Otto Schmidt, and a relief party for Wrangel Island – a remote outpost off the shores of Chukotka. Altogether, there were 112 people on board the ship, which, skippered by Captain Vladimir Voronin, steamed out of Murmansk on July 16, 1933, escorted by the ice-breaker Krasin.

At first, the Chelyuskin made good headway. It crossed the Barents Sea without incident, except that, halfway across the Kara Sea, the number on board was increased to 113, when little Karina (named after the Sea) was born to a Wrangel Island family. Then, navigating north, to seek open waters from the pack-ice, the Chelyuskin sighted Uyedinenia Island, which had been mistakenly charted 50 miles away from its true position.

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