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In mid-1967, the U. S. Coast Guard prepared to write an overdue chapter in the centuries-old epic of polar exploration, by circumnavigating the Arctic Basin in a single season.
Robert D. Wells
The circumnavigation of the Arctic Basin has never been accomplished by any vessel in a single season. This last remaining major feat of polar exploration was proposed late in 1966 by Captain William K. Earle, U. S. Coast Guard, as a project for the summer of 1967.
Captain Earle proposed that his ship, the Wind-class icebreaker Edisto, travel with another USCG icebreaker through the historic Northeast and Northwest Passages. The proposed route would bring the two ships across the Atlantic—the Edisto from Thule and the Eastwind from Boston—to a staging stop in European ports, from which they would sail northward as a two-ship squadron into the Barents Sea and the western approaches of the Northwest Passage.
Passing over the top of Novaya Zemlya into the Kara Sea, the ships would transit north of the Severnaya Zemlya island group, across the Laptev Sea, north of the Novosibirskiy Islands, across the East Siberian Sea, through the Long Strait south of Wrangel Island, and into the Chukchi Sea. Optional southern routes, through the Vilkitskiy Straits south of Severnaya Zemlya, and through Sannikov Strait in the Novosibirskiy Island group, were proposed in case of impassable ice to the north. Moving through the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and into the Canadian Archipelago, the ships would transit Amundsen Gulf and Prince of Wales Strait into Viscount Melville Sound, thence through Barrow Strait and Lancaster Sound to Baffin Bay, and on a short final leg, return to Thule, Greenland. With reasonably good ice conditions and no operating casualties, it was estimated that the trip would require some six weeks from the Barents Sea to Thule.
Approved by the Coast Guard in April 1967, the proposal called for the forming of the icebreaker squadron of the two ships under the command of the commanding officer of the Edisto. The Edisto, working in the ice near Thule until early August, and the Eastwind, coming from the Antarctic via a three-month overhaul in Boston, were to proceed independently to European ports for a final stop before beginning the six-week trip. Provisions had been made for the assembly of teams of oceanographic scientists for the ships, and a schedule of scientific work had
been drawn up and co-ordinated by the Office of Marine Sciences of the Coast Guard. Calling for correlated scientific observations along the periphery of the Arctic Basin, the program involved representatives from major universities and government laboratories. Long-range ice forecasts, based on ESSA satellite photography, would be provided by NAVOCEANO. Navy UH-2B helicopters, manned by Detachments 81 and 86 of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 4 from NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, would provide the short-range ice reconnaissance arm of the ships. The National Geographic Society requested and was granted permission to send along a staff photographer to record the expedition’s course through the Arctic.
After uneventful transits of the North Atlantic and short port calls, the ships left their respective European ports of Copenhagen and Trondheim, making a rendezvous off Frohavet, the deepwater approach to Trondheim, on 15 August. Final personnel changes and spare parts swaps were accomplished by small boat transfer, and the ships set course for North Cape and the Barents Sea, to begin the first leg of the icy transit. Stores were stowed, Arctic clothing broken out, and department heads began drafting their contingency plans for wintering in the ice, should the ships become beset. This latter preparation was not idle pessimism. The ice conditions in the Arctic can change very quicklV) and ships can be trapped and even crushed in the moving floes. In 1932, for example, 26 Soviet ships wintered in the ice along the Northern Sea Route, and just last fall a Soviet Arctic convoy of 10 ships and an icebreaker were trapped in the estuary of the Ob’ River’ They were beset for eight months, finally breaking loose in July 1967.
The Northeast Passage, known as the Northern Sea Route* to the Russians, has not been transited by a non-Russian ship since the German raider Komet made the passage secretly in 1940. Discovered in 1878-79 by the Norwegian Arctic expert Baron Nils A- E" Nordenskjold, this icy and treacherous waterway remained a curiosity until the formation of the Soviet Northern Sea Route Authority
* See T. J. Laforest, “Strategic significance of 0'e Northern Sea Route,” U. S. Naval Institute PR°' ceedings, December 1967, pp. 56-65.
The solid line traces the route of the two Coast Guard icebreakers. The broken line is the route they would have followed had they not been stopped in the Kara Sea by impassable ice on 22 August 1967. The complete route, as proposed by Captain Earle, with alternate routes shown as broken lines, appears in the opening illustration.
76 U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 1968
(GLAVSEVMORPUT) in 1932. At that point the Soviets decided to make a major effort to develop the Northern Sea Route as a commercial waterway, in order to connect the Russian Arctic ports with the ports lying at the ends of the route, and to permit the transfer of shipping from one end of the route to the other during the summer season. From its inception until 1967, the Northern Sea Route remained a Russian route, with occasional cargo runs by foreign vessels to selected ports near the extremities. Only in World War II, when the security afforded by this remote route was especially needed, was a limited amount of American Lend-Lease material permitted to transit to ports in the Arctic. In 1967, for the first time, the Russians advertised the Northern Sea Route as being open to foreign vessels. With great fanfare and considerable optimism, the Soviets presented the Northern Sea Route to the shippers of the world as the fast way from Europe to the Far East. And, with the Suez Canal closed, their literature and brochures were eagerly read, despite the high piloting and transit charges imposed.
The Edisto and the Eastwind entered the Kara Sea at the western end of the Northern Sea Route on 20 August, encountering scattered ice later the same day. Only the second and third American ships in the Kara Sea (the U. S. icebreaker Northwind was the first, in 1965), the two ships moved easily through the deteriorating ice along a track that would lead them north along the western coast of Severnaya Zemlya and then over the top of that island group. Encouraged by the North- wind's report of open water at 81°30' North in September 1965, the ships hoped to make a quick and easy transit over the top.
This was not to be. The Kara Sea had been under the influence of westerly winds for several days, and the loose Kara Sea ice had all been drifting east, where it rafted up under great pressure along the coast of Severnaya Zemlya. For miles and miles to the west of the islands there could be no passage. After fighting extremely difficult ice conditions for over a day, the Edisto and the Eastwind on 22 August called a halt at 78°55' North and 86°45/ East and began retracing their steps to the southwest.
A second attempt was plotted. This time, reckoning on the presumed pattern of ice movement under the influence of the continuing westerly winds, the ships would make their northeasterly path toward the top Severnaya Zemlya from a point further to the west. Since the loose ice was being blown against the coastline of Severnaya Zemlya) there should be some open water farther to the west. Possibly there would also be a gap between the polar pack and the rafted ice on the northern shores of Severnaya Zemlya.
The initial presumption, that there would
A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy with the Class of 1958, Mr. Wells served in the USS John S. McCain (DL-3) from 1958 to 1960. He was then assigned to the Staff, Commander Destroyer Squadron Nineteen from 1960 to 1962. He attended the Defense Intelligence School during 1962 and 1963, and the Defense Language Institute (East Coast), where he studied the Russian language. An Assistant Naval Attache!, Istanbul, Turkey, from 1964 to 1966, he served on temporary duty as Russian language interpreter in the USCGC Noithwind during the summer of 1965. He left the service in March 1967 to become Legislative Assistant to a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
be more open water further to the west, was proven correct by the observations of the next few days. Working their way through loose ice and occasional patches of open water, the two breakers moved easily and at good speed on a track 150 miles to the west of the original track. But, as doubt gave way to cautious optimism, the ships again began running into heavy ice. Finally, on 27 August at a latitude of 81°27' North, only 513 miles from the North Pole, the ships ran into ten-tenths coverage of hard, thick, polar ice. There could be no mistaking the ice at this point: the ships Were clearly colliding with the permanent Polar pack. There could be no further progress. After a final ice reconnaissance by helicopter, the decision was made to turn back once again.
With two strikes against his squadron and the season advancing, the critical time schedule demanded that the commanding officer exercise his only remaining option—the Vilkitskiy Straits, separating the northernmost point on the Eurasian land mass from the islands of Severnaya Zemlya. These Straits, although ice-clogged from the same Westerly winds that had been moving the ice elsewhere, would probably be passable. But there would be a diplomatic problem. The Straits are less than 24 miles wide, and the Soviet Union claims a 12-mile territorial sea. This 12-mile limit, although not recognized by the United States, means that the Vilkit- skiy Straits are considered by the Russians as
territorial waters of the Soviet Union.
But, there was no other way, and on 28 August, the following message was sent to the Soviet Radio Station at Dikson Island:
FROM USCGC EDISTO TO COASTAL RADIO STATION OF
USSR AT DIKSON BT
PLEASE PASS THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE TO THE MINISTRY OF THE MARITIME FLEET, UNION SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS.
U. S. COAST GUARD ICEBREAKERS EDISTO AND EASTWIND, UNDERTAKING A WEST TO EAST CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF THE WORLD VIA ARCTIC BASIN FOR PURPOSE OF COLLECTING OCEANOGRAPHIC DATA, HAVE BEEN BLOCKED BY HEAVY ICE FROM PASSING NORTH OF SEVERNAYA ZEMLYA. IN ACCORDANCE WITH INSTRUCTIONS FROM THE COAST GUARD COMMANDANT, AS APPROVED BY THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE, THIS SQUADRON WILL, ON OR ABOUT 31 AUGUST 1967, MAKE A ^PEACEFUL AND INNOCENT PAS- SAGETHROUGHTHE STRAITS OF VILKITSKIY, ADHERING TO THE CENTERLINE AS CLOSELY AS POSSIBLE, AND MAKING NO DEVIATION OR DELAY. THE MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS OF THE USSR HAS BEEN NOTIFIED BY DIPLOMATIC NOTE.
Radio Dikson inquired: “Is yu Amerikan icebreaker,” then “rogered” for the uncommon American-Soviet ship-to-shore traffic. The ships continued on their course for the Vilkitskiy Straits and waited.
The blows that scuttled the historic mission were not long in coming. The next morning a message from the Commandant of the Coast Guard advised the two ships that the circumnavigation attempt was being called off, since the northerly route and the unusually severe ice conditions elsewhere along the route would probably not permit completion of the circumnavigation on schedule. With other commitments for the icebreakers, the Coast Guard could not afford to have the Edisto and the Eastwind set behind schedule and possibly caught in heavy ice along the way. Later in the day, by message direct from Moscow via the radio station at Dikson, the
commanding officers of the two ships were further advised as follows:
FROM MOSCOW HIGHLY URGENTLY BT
INFORM THROUGH RADIO DIKSON. ICEBREAKER EDISTO AND ICEBREAKER EASTWIND. VILKITSKIY STRAITS IS WITHIN USSR TERRITORIAL WATERS THEREFORE SAILING OF ANY FOREIGN NAVY SHIPS IN THE STRAIT IS SUBJECT TO REGULATIONS OF SAFETY OF USSR FRONTIERS. FOR PASSING THE STRAIT ACCORDING TO THE ABOVE REGULATIONS MILITARY SHIPS MUST OBTAIN PRELIMINARY PERMISSION OF USSR GOVERNMENT THROUGH DIPLOMATIC CHANNELS ONE MONTH BEFORE EXPECTED DATE OF PASSING. USSR MINISTRY OF MERCHANT MARINE.
The second message re-emphasized what by now was quite clear: the two factors of an especially bad ice year—the worst in recent history—and the territorial waters question at Vilkitskiy Straits, had conspired to destroy the hopes for an internationally significant feat in polar navigation.
Looking back on the aborted voyage, the polar “first” that was to be a major goal clearly was not accomplished. But oceano
graphic study of the Kara Sea—the only such American studies of that body of water other than that accomplished two years ago by the Northwind, clearly will be of value. For two weeks the Edisto and the Eastwind collected water samples, bathymetric profiles, bottom and plankton samples, water temperatures, and temperature/pressure gradients. Weather and ice observations were made, and laboratory analysis of water samples was carried out- More substantial work at shore-based laboratories will be made possible by the water and bottom samples collected, and by the bottom cores obtained by the gravity corer- Bottom sampling, a subject of international treaty, was accomplished in strict conformity with the Convention on the Continental Shelf, which became effective in June 1964-
Additionally, the ships gained experience in the extremely difficult business of naviga*' ing under constant overcast in the Arctic ice> as well as testing the remarkable ships’ satellite navigation system. This system, good f°r one-tenth-mile accuracy under all weather conditions, permits precise position plotting and increases the value of the oceanography data that has been collected by increasing the accuracy of the navigational plotting.
While the two ships were working in the Arctic the Soviets were not idle. The Ameri' can ships were kept entertained by a never- ending stream of Soviet Badger and Bear reconnaissance aircraft. These planes, flying sometimes in virtually zero-zero flying Weather, never failed to develop an audience as they passed overhead. Flying over in clear Weather at 500 to 1,000 feet, in poor visibility they would decrease their altitude a little at a time until they could make a visual sighting of the two ships. One of the giant Bears, lowering gradually step-by-step through the fog in the course of six passes, finally got a visual by passing between the icebreakers at a height of not more than 200 feet on his seventh pass. There is nothing more stimulating in a radar plotting drill than to have a four-engined bogey roar by and shake the ship. This was training at its best.
The question of territorial limits, of course, Will not be quickly resolved. The scope of last year’s disagreement over Vilkitskiy Straits has been reflected already in the headlines across the country. It seems a bit strange that We should have Soviet electronics vessels three miles off Cape Canaveral and sailing the waters of Long Island Sound while the Soviet Government says “nyet” to our transit and innocent passage inside of 12 miles. A six- mile compromise or a requirement of reciprocity would seem to be a logical next step. But, failing a solution to the question of the right of innocent passage through Vilkitskiy Strait, there will be no circumnavigation of the Arctic Basin except in good ice years. So, the 1967 expedition has failed in its primary mission, but not without compensating factors. Freedom of the seas in the Arctic outside of claimed territorial limits has been tacitly confirmed by the Soviets. The scientific work, continued in the Kara Sea by the Eastwind after the cancellation of the original circumnavigation plan, will add to the meager store of knowledge of the Kara Sea available to Western scientists. The experience of working in the Eurasian Arctic, and the Arctic experience in general, will add to the growing store of knowledge about ice seamanship. And the diplomatic exchange over the Vilkitskiy Straits, in addition to making the ground rules clear on an ex post facto basis for the 1967 cruise, may very well set the stage for additional international thinking on the limits of territorial waters, and this frozen portion of the Iron Curtain may yet be thawed.
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There Goes the Mad Scientist
Ice moved in and was crushing the cargo ship USS Arneb while she was off-loading equipment and supplies for the new U. S.-New Zealand station at Cape Hallett, Antarctica. The clanging of fire quarters on board a nearby icebreaker rushing to rescue the Arneb, called attention to the fact that a fire had developed in one of her generators. Meantime, on shore, a scientist, seemingly undisturbed, continued his job of netting penguins.
At the height of the excitement, a crusty, old Boatswain’s Mate was heard to exclaim, “Jeeze, look at that! This is the only place in the world where a ship can be sinking, another one be on fire, and some damn fool be out on the ice chasing birds.”
-------------------------------- Contributed by Captain Edwin A. McDonald, U. S. Navy (Retired)
★ ★ ★
Any Excuse for a Swim
Because of the dangers of ear fungus in some of the Vietnam harbors, the order was issued against unauthorized swimming. One day our LST was beached at Phan Rang and crew members not on watch were lounging on the sandy beach near the bow ramp waiting for the Army crew to return from lunch so that off-loading could continue. They were gazing yearningly at the cool water when someone tossed in a Coke can. The Chief Master-at-Arms barked, “Get-that can back!”
With one voice, “I’ll get it,” shouted the men, as they all dove in with their clothes on.
----------------------- Contributed by Lieutenant Commander Malcolm L. Huffman, U. S. Navy
(The Naval Institute will pay $10.00 f 'br each anecdote published in the Proceedings.)