On 23 August 1994—one day after becoming the first Canadian and U.S. surface ships to reach the North Pole from the Alaskan coast—the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent and the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea (WAGB-11) joined the Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal in a historic gathering. More than 550 people met on the Arctic ice, only 20 nautical miles from the North Pole.
During the summer of 1994, the 392-foot, 15,000-ton St-Laurent and the 399-foot, 13,000-ton Polar Sea—the largest icebreakers in Canada and the United States—sailed together on the “U.S./Canada 1994 Arctic Ocean Section,” a complex, joint scientific expedition in the Central Arctic Ocean to study global climatic change. Seventy Canadian and U.S. scientists mixed on board both Coast Guard ships took measurements of the atmosphere, sea ice, water column, and sea floor, and collected data in a region of the world’s ocean that has been the least sampled and understood. The two ships departed Nome, Alaska, on 24 July, transited the Bering Strait, and reached the ice edge of the northern Chukchi Sea two days later. The Polar Sea and the St-Laurent, commanded by Captain Philip Grandy, broke ice for more than 1,600 nautical miles on a track line initially to the east and later to the west of the International Date Line. Thick fog caused low visibility for most of the voyage and slowed the icebreakers to an average speed of two to five knots through 5- to 12-foot-thick sea ice.
The northward transit showed few areas of open water. During most of the transit deep into the Central Arctic Ocean, scientists observed sedimentladen ice presumed to have originated from the Siberian rivers along the Russian Arctic coast. Scientists also sighted and tagged Polar bears during the voyage and gathered evidence that these marine mammals roam across the entire Arctic Ocean. A vast array of oceanographic and atmospheric data—much of it awaiting years of analyses—suggests environmental change even at the most remote locations of the Arctic Ocean.
While the Polar Sea and the St-Laurent had been advancing toward the North Pole, Russian ships operated by the Murmansk Shipping Company had been carrying tourists between Murmansk and the North Pole. On 20 August, the Yamal, commanded by Captain Andrei Smimof, reached the Pole with an international group of 65 gifted children on board. A Russian film crew was documenting the children’s adventure and broadcasting the events throughout Russia and Europe. When the Canadian and U.S. icebreakers arrived in the area three days later. Captain Smimof invited the scientific expedition’s leader. Dr. Knut Aageard, and the commanding officers of both ships for a visit to his filming location, approximately 20 nautical miles from the North Pole. The commanding officers agreed upon a rendezvous, and the Polar Sea and the St-Laurent hove to in the ice with the Yamal.
The officers and crew of the Yamal began the extraordinary event with a barbecue on the ice, and the crew members of all three ships joined together for an international softball game. The commanding officers decreed “open house” for the three icebreakers, offering tours and warm receptions on board each ship. A Kamov Ka-32C helicopter from the Yamal landed on board the Polar Sea, and among the senior Russian officers visiting the U.S. ship was Staff-Captain Boris Sokolov, “dean” of the Russian icebreaker captains and for 30 years captain of the first nuclear surface ship, the polar icebreaker Lenin. The Arctic mariners discussed icebreaking operations in Russia, Canada, and the United States, with special interest paid to the Polar Sea's recent scientific and ice escort work in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program. The three ships departed in company and sailed with the Yamal in the lead for 36 hours along a track toward Murmansk. After observing each ship’s icebreaking performance, the Polar Sea and the St-Laurent resumed scientific operations. The Yamal continued to Murmansk.
Discussions and observations revealed that the 500-foot Yamal is used normally for the escort of shipping along the Russian Northern Sea Route. During the summers of 1993 and 1994, the ship sailed on six voyages to the North Pole, with tourists filling 49 twin cabins. With a nearly 24,000-ton displacement and 75,000-shaft horsepower available from the nuclear propulsion plant, the Yamal appears capable of sailing virtually anywhere in the Arctic Ocean basin. Canadian and U.S. crews observed the Yamal breaking easily through seven- to nine-foot-level ice at 10 to 12 knots, leaving a wide, clean track astern.
Just a few years ago this unexpected and impromptu August 1994 convocation of Russian, Canadian, and U.S. polar icebreakers at the top of the world might not have been possible. Professional and personal exchanges of this type will enhance closer cooperation among all polar nations as we face greater challenges in the use and protection of the Arctic environment.