Northeast Passage – Long search for the shortest way | Polarjournal
The Northeast Passage is the shortest sea route between Europe and Asia. For centuries, however, it was not known with certainty whether it actually existed . (Graphic: PolarJournal)

It was only a year ago that Christopher Columbus had found the sea route to India, and already the Spanish and Portuguese were fighting over the hoped-for treasures in the new land. That this country was not India but America was not known in 1493, but that didn’t matter: the two largest naval powers of their time fought over the maritime routes. Pope Alexander VI, with the bull “Inter caetera”, divided the territories in the new land into a Spanish and a Portuguese sector, and one year later, in 1494, he negotiated the rights of sea transport with the Treaty of Tordesillas: Spain had priority on the route “straight ahead” across the Atlantic to “India” or America, respectively, the Portuguese received the route “down around” around Africa to the same destination.

Thus the reign over the seas was regulated again. But this posed a major problem for the emerging maritime powers of England, Holland and Denmark. Because if the best routes were already taken: On which route should they then sail to Asia?

The answer was obvious: “over the top”. In other words: Sail around Norway and the North Cape and sail along the Russian north coast to Asia. Unfortunately, this path was blocked by ice, ice and more ice, and even the biggest three-mast ship could not get through. So one had no idea if there was even a seaway this high up in the north. On the other hand, no one knew whether Russia and America were connected. According to official doctrine, at that time people did not even know that the earth was a globe.

It all had to be figured out first. Fortune favours the brave. And so began the search for the Northeast Passage, which would take 400 years and cost the lives of many hundreds of brave men. Because the Portuguese and Spanish had secured their sea routes thanks to the decree of Pope Alexander VI, the two nations never were involved in this search.

Sir Hugh Willoughby was an English officer and expedition leader. He was the first Western European to seek the Northeast Passage. (Picture: Wikimedia)

First attempt: 62 dead

However, it took 59 years until the first European set out to find this sea route – he was also to be the first to pay for his courage with his life: the Englishman Sir Hugh Willoughby set out on May 10, 1553 with three ships and a crew of 111, eleven of whom were merchants. One of the ships was soon separated from the fleet in a storm, but was able to sail around the Kola Peninsula and safely reached the White Sea.

The other two ships continued their journey to the coast of a previously undiscovered country. But because the captain’s notes remained very vague, it is still not quite clear which island Willoughby saw. It could have been Novaya Zemlya.

The ships suffered considerable damage. Willoughby anchored in the mouth of the Warsina off the Kola Peninsula and had to spend the winter there. However, the crew was neither prepared nor equipped for this. When a Russian fishing boat found the two sailing ships in the ice the following spring, all 62 men had perished. Probably the men made fire below deck and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Willem Barents wanted to bypass Novaya Zemlya to the north and therefore had to struggle with ice. On its third attempt, the ship got stuck in the ice and had to spend the winter. Five men didn’t survive this winter, including Willem Barents. (Picture: National Maritime Museum, London)

Supposed breakthrough

Second try. The Dutchman Willem Barents, the greatest Arctic explorer of the 16th century, launched a veritable series of three attacks in three years against the Arctic ice. His first expedition left in June 1594 with three ships. In the Arctic Ocean, the ships separated as planned. Barents definitely discovered Novaya Zemlya, kept course north, but could not get further in the pack ice and had to turn back. Meanwhile, Cornelis Nai, the captain of one of the other two ships, sailed to the island of Vaigach between the Russian mainland and Novaya Zemlya. He circumnavigated the island to the south and reached the open area of the Kara Sea.

The merchant Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who was on board as a consultant, believed he had found the Northeast Passage: “Now there is absolutely no doubt that the route to China is free and open,” he wrote in his diary. Cornelis Nai turned back, met Barents at the agreed point and announced the good news in Holland.

The painter Christiaan Portman stages Willem Barents’ death unrealistically kitschy, almost like a scene of Jesus’ removal from the cross. (Picture: National Maritime Museum, London)

The following year, Holland sent a whole fleet to sail the passage to China – this time with seven ships and again under the command of Willem Barents. But the fleet only got as far as Vaigach Island, where it had to capitulate in the face of a thick layer of ice.

Undaunted, a third expedition started in 1596. Barents discovered Bear Island and rediscovered Svalbard, drove to Novaya Zemlya, got stuck in the pack ice and had to spend the winter. Five men didn’t survive this winter, including Willem Barents. The Barents Sea bears his name in his honour.

Memorial on Novaja Semlja. Willem Barents and his crew spent the winter at this place. Wood and stones mark the location of the hut. Willem Barents died on Novaya Zemlya, but his grave never was found. (Photos: Heiner Kubny)

Thanks to Barents’ expeditions, a traffic of European ships quickly developed to the Russian trading station Mangaseja, from where goods were brought inland on the 3600 and 4000 kilometre long rivers Ob and Jenissei respectively. To benefit from trade, the Russian government established military posts and customs offices. But because these often were circumvented, the government banned sailing on the Kara Sea in 1620 – on pain of death. International trade came to a correspondingly rapid standstill and with it the era of discovery. In the following 250 years only Russian ships were in search of the Northeast Passage, all of them unsuccessful.

It was only the two Austro-Hungarian explorers Julius von Payer and Carl Weyprecht who, after long negotiations with the Russian government, received permission to search for the Northeast Passage for the first time. The two of them were on expedition from 1871 to 1873, but they did not get further than Novaya Zemlya and discovered Franz Joseph Land.

Semyon Ivanovich Deshnev – He undertook his first expedition to Eastern Siberia in 1645, but had to break it off due to unfavourable weather conditions. It was not until 1648 that he sailed around the Chukchi Peninsula together with Fedot Alexeyevich Popov and discovered the East Cape of Asia, which was later named after him, and the Bering Sea. (Picture: National Maritime Museum, London)

Attempts from the east

And what happened on the other side of the Northeast Passage? Of course, even in today’s Bering Sea, sailors had made early attempts to sail through the northern sea route from east to west.

The first official expedition to enter the East Siberian Sea from Chukotka was undertaken by the Russian Cossack Semyon Ivanovich Deshnev as early as 1645. But he didn’t get far because of bad weather. Three years later he succeeded in advancing to the Eastern Cape. In this way he proved that Alaska and Russia are not connected by a land bridge and that a sea route along the Russian north coast is therefore possible.

Unfortunately, Deshnev’s report remained unnoticed by the then responsible governor – and that for a full 88 years, until in 1736 a historian in the city archive of Yakutsk came across the papers.

But by then it was already too late for fame and glory. From 1728 to 1730, the Dane Vitus Bering, who was in Russian service, led an expedition that would go down in history as the first Kamchatka expedition. Bering produced the same evidence as Semyon Ivanovich Deshnev, but this time the report became official. Both the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait bear his name today.

Vitus Jonassen Bering – was a Danish naval officer in Russian services. He led the First Kamchatka Expedition from 1728 to 1730 and from 1733 on the second Kamchatka Expedition on which he died. The picture on the left shows the face of Bering, reconstructed according to the latest findings. (Picture: left: Institute of Archaeology in Russian Academy of Sciences), CC BY-SA 4.0; right: National Maritime Museum, London)

The government was enthusiastic and sent Bering off again in 1733: on the second Kamchatka expedition the naval officer and with him 1000 men were to explore Siberia. Because the undertaking lasted ten years, it is also called the ‘Great Nordic Expedition’. About 3000 people were involved directly and indirectly. Among other things, maps of the Russian northern coast were produced, which provided valuable information for the next explorers.

Dramatically exaggerated: Vitus Bering’s expedition suffers shipwreck. (Picture: National Maritime Museum, London)

Vitus Bering, however, did not live to see the end of this glorious enterprise: his ship made it as far as Alaska in 1741, but on its return journey, it got caught in a storm and stranded on the island of Avacha. Bering did not survive the necessary overwintering. A Russian island in the very west of the Aleutian Islands also bears his name today. For more than a hundred years, all further expeditions were to end unsuccessfully as well.

The failure of several expeditions

Why did all these expeditions fail? There are several reasons for this. First of all, for a long time there were no or very inadequate maps available – not even from the Russians, who could have mapped the coast from the land. The Second Kamchatka Expedition covered only a relatively small part of the total distance.

This explains the second reason for the failure: the long distance of the Northeast Passage. Today’s official route of the actual passage leads from Murmansk along the continental Russian north coast around the Eastern Cape to Providenja in Chukotka – or vice versa. That’s 4,000 miles. Another definition describes the route from the so-called Karator, the sea passage between the islands of Novaya Zemlya and Vaigach, to Providenya. That’s still 3,000 miles.

However, the hydrological and climatic characteristics of the Northeast Passage are decisive: the large island groups of Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands and Wrangel Island act like massive blockades in the drift of the Arctic ice cap and in the tidal currents of the Arctic Ocean. From a global perspective, the drift is stuck to these archipelagos. This happens especially in the areas with a water depth of 20 to 50 meters, where a large part of the ship’s routes runs.

This leads on the one hand to massive accumulations of ice at the “barriers” and especially in the sea sections between the islands and the mainland – i.e. exactly where the ships have to pass through. The congestion is also one of the reasons why the Northeast Passage is only passable without ice for three to four months a year. The section around Severnaya Semlya is considered the most difficult in the shipping industry.

Add to this: the “barriers” divide the sea along the mainland coast into five different sections: the Barents, Kara and Laptev Seas, the East Siberian Sea and the Chukchi Sea. Each section has its own hydrological conditions, and even the individual climates differ slightly.

This is a particular challenge for shipping, because the captain has to deal with changing water, ice, wind and weather conditions on the way.

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld was a baron working in Sweden, professor in Stockholm, polar researcher, cartographer and travel writer. In 1878/79 Nordenskiöld was the first navigator to succeed in crossing the Northeast Passage. (Picture: National Museum, Sweden)

The hero grows up

None of this was known when geology professor Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld set sail from Gothenburg on July 4, 1878 with four ships to cross the Northeast Passage. By this time, Nordenskiöld had become long since a proven expert on Arctic matters. He was born in Helsinki in 1832 as the child of Swedish emigrants. The teachers attested the student “extraordinary laziness”, but he still managed to pass his school-leaving examination with very good marks at the age of 17. Because of his public tirades of hatred against Russia, which at that time had occupied Finland, he was expelled from the country for high treason.

Nordenskiöld, now a professor of geology, moved to Stockholm in 1857 and, as head of the mineralogical department of the Imperial Museum, took part in every Arctic expedition that Sweden has undertaken since then: in 1858, 1861, 1864 and 1868 to Spitsbergen, then to Greenland to prepare an expedition to the North Pole, which was, however, broken off after only three weeks.

He turned to the East: in 1875 and 1876 he explored the rivers Ob, Jenissei and Lena deep into the interior and founded the port of Dikson, which today is an important transhipment point in the Northeast Passage. On his journeys he mapped large parts of the Russian north coast. With the financial and political support of the Swedish King Oskar II and the Russian mine and ship owner Alexander Sibiriakov, Nordenskiöld now prepared for the crossing of the Northeast Passage.

The “Vega” was a 355-ton three-master with a length of 43 m built at the Wencke shipyard in Geestemünde for C. B. Pedersen and was launched in January 1873. In addition it was equipped with a 60 hp steam engine. The “Vega” was designed for voyages in icy waters and initially served as a whaling ship. (Picture: National Museum, Sweden)

Scheduled start

So on July 4, 1878 Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld set off for Gothenburg. His ship, the “Vega”, is a three-master built from the best German oak, reinforced with a 60 HP engine and designed for whaling in icy seas. On board are botanists, zoologists, geophysicists and oceanographers as well as three walrus hunters and 16 sailors from the Swedish Navy. The provisions carried along will last for two years. Horseradish, lemon juice and preserved mulberries are said to prevent scurvy.

The “Vega” is accompanied by the “Lena” and two other ships. Past grey coasts and through thick fog, the four ships reach the Kara Sea without any events worth mentioning. Two of the three escort ships also return here according to plan. The “Vega” and the “Lena” pass the Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point of the Asian continent, on August 19, 1878, which is celebrated with five salute shots.

Nordenskiöld goes on an exploratory trip in the Koljutschin Bay. (Picture: National Museum, Sweden)

At the mouth of the river Lena, the ship “Lena” says goodbye to the “Vega” and travels 2000 kilometres up the river to Yakutsk. Meanwhile, Nordenskiöld makes a detour to the north with the “Vega” to the New Siberian Islands. He passes Wrangel Island and enters the narrow Koljutschin Bay. But that’s where the ill fate strikes: a belt of drift ice at least 30 kilometres wide closes around the ship and freezes.

The “Vega” is stuck, the crew is trapped in ice. On September 27, Nordenskiöld decides with a heavy heart to moor the ship to an ice floe and prepares for wintering – just about 200 kilometres from the open waters of the Bering Sea, so close to the finishing line. Nordenskiöld had missed the passage only by hours.

“This freezing so close to the goal,” Nordenskiöld will write later, “has been the misfortune with which I had the most trouble reconciling myself during all my Arctic sea voyages.” Without a detour to the New Siberian Islands, he would probably have made the crossing in one go. So it is of little consolation that 1878 was a year with an extraordinary amount of ice.

Safe overwintering

Apart from eventual frostbite among the Arctic inexperienced sailors, neither the crew nor the ship is in serious danger and both are well equipped for wintering. But it is now no longer possible to send messages home. Although Nordenskiöld was able to give a letter to a local chief on October 18, 1878, this message did not reach Stockholm until May 16 the following year. In Sweden the “Vega” is therefore considered lost for months. People are seriously worried. Alexander Sibiriakov, the Russian patron, is even hastily building a ship in Malmö, which he gives the name “Nordenskiöld”. This one breaks through the Suez Canal towards Bering Sea with the order to search for the “Vega”.

Christmas 1878 in the wardrobe of the steamer “Vega”. (Picture: National Museum, Sweden)

But the crew on the “Vega” is safe and sound: The men measure a sea ice thickness of 127 centimeters on December 1st and celebrate Christmas at minus 35 degrees. They hike safely across to the mainland and take the local Chukchi sleigh rides, explore their culture and even create a dictionary of the Chukchi language. So it makes sense to pass the time.

The winter camp lasted a whole 294 days until the ice broke up again and on July 18, 1879 the “Vega” was able to continue its journey. The remaining 200 kilometres to the Bering Sea are an easy two-day walk. On September 2, the ship anchors in the harbour of the Japanese city of Yokohama – the tenno immediately honours Nordenskiöld with a ceremony and an medal. Proudly, Nordenskiöld noted in his diary: “May it be forgiven us that with a certain pride we saw our blue-yellow flag rising from the mast and fired the Swedish salute shots where the Old and the New World try to join hands”.

Itinerary by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. (graphic: Wikipedia)

Glorious homecoming

The eight-month journey home takes Nordenskiöld and his men around Asia through the Suez Canal to Stockholm, where they arrive on April 24, 1880 to the cheers of the audience. King Oskar II declared this date to be a national holiday and elevated Nordenskiöld to the nobility. At last, at last the Northeast Passage is conquered, the dream of the new, short trade route has come true.

To the cheers of the audience, Nordenskiöld was celebrated and the King of Sweden, Oskar II, raised Nordenskiöld to the rank of baron. (Picture: National Museum, Sweden)

Adolf Erik Baron Nordenskiölds travelogue is translated into several languages and becomes an international bestseller. In his excessive report to the king, however, he has serious doubts as to whether the Northeast Passage is suitable as a trade route for shipping: “Can the journey that Vega is now completing be repeated every year? At the moment it is impossible to answer this question with an absolute yes or an absolute no.” The Northeast Passage, he writes elsewhere, is unlikely to be “of any real significance to trade”.

Nordenskiölds assessment of the Northeast Passage as a lucrative trade route remains correct to this day. In the following 60 years, 846 ships set off in this or that direction for the Northeast Passage – 793 voyages were successful.

But for some years now, climate change has been raising the hopes of globally active cargo ship companies – the ice-free period in the Northeast Passage is becoming longer and longer. With the passage of the first icebreaker in 1930, a new era of commercial use of the Northeast Passage began.

Author: Christian Hug

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