Battling Ice

Chelyuskin Sinking

Historic Russian Steamship Chelyuskin Found

By James Donahue

The Russian icebreaker Chelyuskin made headlines in July, 1933, when it got caught in the frozen Arctic ice and then sank in the Bearing Sea after the shifting ice floes crushed its hull.

The ship steamed off that summer from the port of Murmansk in an attempt to break its way through the ice fields to Vladivostok, in the Pacific Ocean, and prove that cargo ships could safely take a northern route instead of traveling all the way south around Asia.

It was similar to the American effort to break a northern path through the ice fields north of the Canadian tundra. Both attempts ended in failure.

If the Chelyuskin had been successful, it would have completed a trip of more than 4,500 miles, much of it through the ice. But it got stranded in the ice fields in the Bering Sea, failed to break free, and sank off the coast of Chukotka in February, 1934.

The crew and a staff of 111 people who were aboard the Chelyuskin escaped the doomed ship and set up a tent camp on the ice until they were rescued by Soviet aircraft. That was a dramatic story in itself. They said aviators launched more than two dozen flights searching for the survivors.

The survivors were evacuated in March and April. They included 10 women and two babies born during the ill-fated voyage. The rescue was big news in Russia and the airmen became the first to be awarded with the highest Soviet medal: Hero of the Soviet Union.

There has been an effort to find the Chelyuskin ever since. It was found this year off the coast of Chukotka. It lies about 165 feet in the water so searchers used under-sea robots to examine it.

The Chukotka was built in Denmark in 1933, apparently for this expedition. It was named after Semion Ivanovich Chelyuskin, an 18th Century Russian polar explorer.

The leader of the expedition was Otto Yuliyevich Shmidt. The ship's captain was V. I. Voronin.


Great And Lost Ships Of The World