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Northeast Passage: We’re away!

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

Aboard the Explorer of SwedenAboard the Explorer of Sweden

By Neil Hamilton

Finally, after all the preparations, we are away. We had a very quick final meal of take away pizza and left Kirkenes at 2020 on the 31st July, heading north out of the fjord into the Barents Sea. Everything worked perfectly. I did the first 4 hour watch with Niklas, then went to bed after handing over to the captain, Anders just before we entered Russian waters. The weather was foggy, the sea warm (13 degrees!) and calm. And completely empty. I’m not why this surprised me, but we didn’t see a single vessel on our radar or GPS navigation systems until we had almost reached Murmansk.

After 12 hours we had almost reached our next destination, Murmansk. Entering into the port of Murmansk is reasonably complicated as it is at the south end of a 40km long and narrow fjord with shipping lanes, many different types of anchorage, towns, shipyards, and a major naval base. The fog cleared, the sun came out, the weather was warm enough for short sleeves and we were able to see the wonderful landscape around us, very similar to northern Norway or even (according to some of the crew) parts of coastal Sweden.

View of MurmanskView of Murmansk

We picked up a pilot (the first time he had ever been in a sailing yacht!) who guided us past the huge numbers of shipyards, dry docks, and anchored ships of every possible description. The scale of everything is fantastic. The entire Russian ice breaker fleet is berthed here so we saw many vessels we are familiar with from our work in the Arctic, including the huge ‘Arctica’ class nuclear powered vessels, and an old favourite of Per Magnus’, the Kaptain Dranitsyn. Enormous oil tankers guided by tugs, container ships, and coal transporters passed us going out of the port as we became more and more fascinated by the approaching city.

One of the enormous vessels in MurmanskOne of the enormous vessels in Murmansk

Explorer of Sweden’s first contact with the Russian coast took place at Dock 12 of the Murmansk commercial harbour, in the centre of the incredibly busy coal loading terminal. Customs and Immigration officals were waiting for us and performed a thorough and professional check of our documents and the ship. It seems that only one or two other prviate yachts have ever entered the port before so the process is almost as much of a novelty for the officials as it is for us. Fortunately our agent had ensured that all our papers were prepared in advance but Ola’s little photocopier was working overtime for a while, issuing all the necessary copies.A few questions, and fFinally everything was stamped. We are now legally in Russia.

The Explorer of Sweden in the dock at MurmanskThe Explorer of Sweden in the dock at Murmansk

Then another pilot, and a short trip to another wharf close to the centre of town. We seem to have minor celebrity status here as we have been given a berth right next to the most famous Russian ice breaker of all, the Lenin, which was launched almost exactly 50 years ago. Waiting for us were old friends including Mikhail, the captain of the Barneo floating ice base which I visited earlier this year. Welcomes and formalities over, we discovered a very convenient (and much needed!) shower and sauna nearby.

We have several days in Murmansk to obtain the final approvals from a variety of authorities to continue with the expedition. This is the last place we will visit for the next two months with more than a few hundred people, and with shops, so our time here will be precious.

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