Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

The Mythbusters

85 years ago, the legendary Arctic drift of the steamship Georgiy Sedov began

23 october 2022

The Soviet icebreaking steamship Georgiy Sedov spent 812 days in the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean. The vessel covered a distance of 3,307 nautical miles, or 6,124 km. The legend of Sannikov Land, which had held for over 125 years, was eventually disproved by the 15 crewmen of the Sedov during three winters in the Arctic.

The icebreaking steamship Georgiy Sedov took part in an oceanographic expedition close near the New Siberian Islands in the summer of 1937. Having finished its primary tasks, she was dispatched to assist a caravan of ships stranded amid the ice in the Laptev Sea owing to the early winter. The Sedov was joined at the caravan by the Sadko and Malygin, two additional icebreakers. All three ships were forced to drift on 23 December after falling into an ice trap that formed during the harsh winter. The North Sea Route's Main Directorate gave them the go-ahead to begin wintering on 30 December.

The people had to learn everything on their own because none of the three ships had any crewmen with expertise surviving in the Arctic.

"A whole city has formed amidst the drifting ice floes. Ice huts, as well as tents of hydrologists and magnetologists, were set up next to the steamships, as tall as three-story buildings… Paths connecting the ships were quickly trodden," recalled Konstantin Badigin, captain of the Georgiy Sedov.

The stranded icebreakers made it through the lengthy winter without incident. The North Sea Route Directorate set up an aircraft wing in the spring to evacuate passengers and crews. The majority of the 217 people on three steamships were transported to the mainland by three aircraft, leaving 33—11 on each ship—behind. The pilots supplied them with food and warm clothes.

Inspection revealed that the Sedov's rudder had been damaged by ice compression, so she was no longer capable of sailing independently. Although the Yermak icebreaker arrived to help, it was unable to tow the ship. All the steamships departed on 30 August, while the Sedov stayed for a second winter. The remaining 15 crewmen continued the drift.

The second winter was even worse than the first one, as the ship tipped 30 degrees and water started to seep into the hold as a result of ice movement. The Sedov's crew never stopped doing research, however.

Each task turned into a challenging endeavour. For instance, they had to drill a hole in the ice, cover it with a tent, and heat it with kerosene burners to perform hydrological studies. "The temperature was as low as minus 38.5 degrees on the day we finished warming the hydrologists' station; inside the hydrological tent, the thermometer read "only" minus 24 degrees; we considered that rather warm," Konstantin Badigin told.

15 brave men kept going and waited for a chance to go back onshore with unyielding patience. Two dogs named Jerry and Ldinka were also aboard the stranded ship; they eventually won the crew's unanimous love.

The second wintering also concluded without incident. However, all attempts to aid Sedov in the summer of 1939 were fruitless again. The icebreakers Joseph Stalin and Fyodor Litke were dispatched simultaneously to assist it in September, yet they were unable to get through the strong ice to reach the vessel, so they were forced to head back to port.

Only after a second effort, in January 1940, did the Joseph Stalin manage to get within 25 miles of the Sedov. In a bid to hasten the steamship's release, explosives were laid 2-3 meters from the hull and set off to get rid of the five meters of ice under its stern. Finally, on 13 January, the two vessels came alongside, and the Sedov was towed to clear water.

The Sedov was welcomed at Murmansk on 29 January. The entire crew were named Heroes of the Soviet Union, and the steamship Georgiy Sedov was awarded the Order of Lenin.

The Sedov crew collected soil samples from depths of over 3,000 metres and conducted original meteorological and hydrological investigations throughout the 812 days of Arctic drift. It also dispelled the myth of the Sannikov Land, whose existence had been alleged for 125 years. The Sedov twice passed through the region where the fabled archipelago was claimed to be located, demonstrating that it was merely a fiction.

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