Oceans: To the North Pole for Fun and Profit

By Don Walsh

The Arktika made the first surface ship voyage to the North Pole in 1977; her sister, the Sibir , did it next in 1987. Since then, 17 North Pole voyages have been made by three Rossiya -class ships. In total, Soviet/Russian icebreakers have made 20 voyages to the North Pole since 1977.

Russia's nuclear icebreaker fleet and most of its diesel icebreakers are operated by the Murmansk Shipping Company, which leases them from the Russian government. This fleet also includes the nuclear-powered LASH (lighter on board ship) vessel Sevmorput which have significant icebreaking capabilities.

These ships originally were built to give the Soviet Union a capability for year-round East-West ship traffic across the top of Siberia. Now it is Russia's hope to develop a commercial northern route for international maritime shipping. So far, this dream has not materialized, even though the time and distance savings appear to be impressive. In the meantime, the icebreakers support adventure cruises by hauling tourists. Some of the diesel-powered vessels even work in the Antarctic.

Adventure cruises to the North Pole are presently done by either the Yamal (11 trips) or sister ship the Sovetskiy Soyuz (4 trips). They carry 98 passengers and crew of 150. The average ticket price is $20,000 for the round trip from the Nuclear Ship Port in Murmansk.

Both the Yamal and Sovetskiy Soyuz are 23,500 ton displacement, with length of 500 feet and beam of 100 feet. Draft is 37 feet. Propulsion is by electric motors driving three screws. The source of the ships' 75,000 horsepower is two pressurized water reactors, powering two steam turbines that are connected to six generators. Reactor cores are refueled about every four years.

With this much power, these vessels can maintain sustained speed of at least three knots in ice up to ten feet thick. By backing and ramming, ice up to 16 feet thick can be broken. The hull thickness along the ice belt is nearly two inches of "armor steel." The stem is 20 inches thick with a 20-ton cast "ice knife" fitted at the foot of the bow. As the hull of the ship rides up on the ice, the ice knife fractures it. In addition, an air bubbling system and heeling tanks add extra means for working the ice.

The first tourist passenger voyage was made by Sovetskiy Soyuz in 1992. She made two trips that year. Now these cruises are an annual event with two or three voyages being made each summer season when the ice pack is at a minimum. This program was developed by Quark Expeditions of Darien, Connecticut, a leading adventure cruise company. It has a long-term charter arrangement with Murmansk Shipping Company to use the Yamal and/or the Sovetskiy Soyuz .

Trips last IS days, with approximately ten days spent in the ice. Ice conditions permitting, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya are visited, using Zodiac-type boats or helicopter. The ships carry a 1960s vintage 20-passenger Mi-8 helicopter. Each passenger is allocated at least two hours' flight time. Flights of no more than 10-15 minutes duration put people ashore or on the ice.

Seven lecturers educate passengers about the Arctic Ocean—the least-known sea in the world ocean. The ship maintains an open-bridge policy so that officers, charts, and publications always are available to inform the travelers. Most of the 59 passengers on my trip were experienced adventure cruisers and many had been to the Antarctic.

Upon arrival at the North Pole, all hands went ashore for about four hours. Armed guards were posted at the outer limits of the ice area to watch for the fearless polar bears. A "Pole" was set in place using a hand-held GPS unit, and some of passengers set about going around the world in less than a minute. A barbecue, hot drinks, and rock music took the edge off the cold. About ten passengers, and an equal number of the crew, made brief dips in the ocean. Times change; just 90 years ago, no one had ever been to this place. Then, it was thought to be a nearly unattainable geographic goal.

For an ex-U.S. Navy submarine captain, lecturing as part of the ship's company on board a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker operating out of Murmansk, this was certainly a different seagoing experience.


Dr. Walsh is neither marine archaeologist nor treasure hunter. He has spent the past four decades involved with design, manufacture, and operation of submersible systems. A retired naval officer (submarines) he was designated U.S. Navy deep submersible pilot #1 in the early 1970s. During 2001, in addition to Atlantic Sands, hehas participated in diving operations at the battleship Bismarck (16,000 feet) and RMS Titanic (12,500 feet). On 20 July 2001, he had lunch on board the Titanic, when the Mir 2 landed on the bridge so the sub crew could eat.

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