Memory Maps: Part Two. In Search of the Northern Sea Route

Арктика. Фото: Леонид Круглов
Арктика. Фото: Леонид Круглов

In the 1730s, an unprecedented expedition took place, covering the entire territory of the Russian North from the Pechora to Chukotka. Graduates of the Maritime Academy found new waterways, mapped previously unknown lands, some of which are now known by their names.

How Malygin and Skuratov each “got” a strait

Stepan Malygin became one of the leaders of the Great Northern Expedition instead of Stepan Muravyov, who was removed from the position by the Admiralty Board in 1736 due to inability to cope with the task. The koches "Ekspeditsion" and "Ob" were supposed to explore the western part of the Arctic Ocean coast from the Pechora to the Ob. For two years they had not been able to enter the mouth of the Ob, although they approached the Gulf of Ob very closely twice. The place of the worn-out koches was to be taken by two Arkhangelsk boats – "Pervyj" (eng. “First”) and "Vtoroj" (eng. “Second”). On June 22, they departed from the Solombala Shipyard to meet with Malygin. Alexei Skuratov was on board the “Pervyj”. He measured depths and conducted astronomical observations along the way, and also logged information about the encountered islands.


Арктика. Фото: Леонид Круглов
Арктика. Фото: Леонид Круглов

Malygin planned to get to the meeting place on the “Ekspeditsion”, but at the mouth of the Pechora the koch ran aground and was crushed by ice. They managed to save people and food; the "Ob" was what remained at the disposal of the captain. On August 8, the ships met at the islands of Golets and Matveev, and together headed for the Yugor Strait. From there, the leaking “Ob”, under the command of Ivan Sukhotin, went to Arkhangelsk, and Skuratov switched to the "Vtoroj" boat, giving the "Pervyj" to Malygin. Severe ice conditions made it impossible to move to the mouth of the Ob – the frosts began early that year, and on September 18 the ships stopped for the winter on the Trehozernaya River. On June 31, 1737, they set out on another campaign. To facilitate the sailors' way, the surveyor Vasily Selifontov prepared detailed plans of the Yamal coast marking the rivers flowing into the sea, indicating the depths of bays. While exploring and describing the peninsula, Selifontov placed beacons along its western and northern shores, which also helped the captains navigate their way. Despite careful preparation, finding a passage at the mouth of the Ob was difficult. The ships had to maneuver along the strait between Bely Island and Yamal for 19 days. They would have to be anchored now and then, before, on August 12, Malygin discovered a passage to the Gulf of Ob. The strait now bears his name.

The goal was achieved – they managed to find the passage to the Ob River. Malygin brought to the Admiralty the "The Mercator map of the Northern Ocean with the designation of the coast from the Pechora River to the Ob River", which became a part of all maps of the world, together with the first map of the Yamal Peninsula. However, the conclusions were disappointing – the sea route to Siberia turned out to be too difficult. The experience of Skuratov, who went back to Arkhangelsk, showed that it was impossible to go through it in one navigation. Having reached the Kara River, the boats buried themselves in solid ice, which, in the summer of 1738, did not leave the coast at all. Only on August 14, 1739, the ships reached the Solombala Shipyard. On September 17, 1740, Skuratov reported to the Admiralty on the results of the expedition, after which he was ordered to "create ... a general map of the coast" from Arkhangelsk to Berezov. This is how the first nautical charts of the southeastern part of the Barents and the Ob regions of the Kara Sea were compiled.


Арктика. Фото: Леонид Круглов
Арктика. Фото: Леонид Круглов
  • In addition to the strait, a cape in the south-west of Bely Island in the Kara Sea bears the name of Malygin.
  • Skuratov also gave his name to the strait between the Yamal Peninsula and Bely Island, and a cape on Yamal.
  • The name "Kara Sea" first appeared on the maps of the Dvina-Ob detachment – apparently, the members of the expedition "borrowed" it from the Pomors who had been sailing here since time immemorial. Previously, this sea was not indicated on foreign maps, merging with others into a single ocean.

How Ovtsyn "earned a cape" on the Taimyr Peninsula

The detachment of Dmitry Ovtsyn had to find a way from the Ob to the Yenisei. On June 13, 1734, the “Tobol” rowboat, built for this task, left Obdorsk. Ovtsyn steered the ship carefully and slowly, describing in detail the coast along which he was moving. The captain's careful actions did not save the him from the whims of the weather: in August, the ship got caught in a storm, in which it lost the rudder and broke two anchors. It was impossible to continue the journey. On the way back, Ovtsyn sent the navigator Dmitry Sterlegov and the surveyor Vykhodtsev to survey the Gulf of Ob on a boat, but the boat did not make it to the sea, it was crushed by ice. The people managed to escape and return to Obdorsk.

"December 23 (No. 5610). Listened to replies from the Siberia Governorate Office and the report from Lieutenant Ovtsyn, who was sent on an expedition to the Ob River with the goal to find a way to the Yenisei via sea. In the report, he states that they sailed along the Ob River as well as the Taz Estuary on the rowboat built for that expedition. They have reached the coordinates of 70°4'N, but they were running out of time and therefore did not reach the sea itself. From that location they returned to the Obdorsk Ostrozhek and are wintering there ... "

Extracts from the logbooks of the Admiralty Board of 1734

The expedition of 1735 ended in failure again – the gulf was not freed from the ice, that stood like a wall in the way of the ships. There was no fresh food, many of the crew fell ill, they "were possessed with a severe scurvy disease from the heaviest air. There were 38 sick people on the ship ... Upstairs, the ship was managed by only one quartermaster, and a geodesy apprentice, and twelve privates". Ovtsyn himself fell ill with "scurvy disease so that he could not get on any leg and had a stomach and chest disease, which is why he was coughing up blood".


Арктика. Фото: Леонид Круглов
Арктика. Фото: Леонид Круглов

The Admiralty decided to build a faster and more maneuverable vessel. It took two years, so, for the third campaign, Ovtsyn set off on the faithful "Tobol" again. They set out on May 23, 1736. On August 3, the ship approached the estuary, but could not go out to sea. Again, the ice of " 6 and 7 fathoms, extremely solid" interfered. Returning on September 26 to Obdorsk, Ovtsyn sat down to draw up a detailed map, which was later delivered to Malygin, which helped him to go to the Ob.

On May 5, 1737, the fourth attempt to break through to the Yenisei began. This time, two ships set off on their way: the new “Ob-Pochtal’on”(eng. “Ob-Postman”) boat and the honored “Tobol”. The explorers were lucky: the sea was clear of ice, the weather was favorable for navigation, and the ships safely sailed to the Yenisei Gulf. The sea route from the Ob to the Yenisei was opened.

  • In 1895, the hydrographer Andrei Vilkitsky gave the name of Dmitry Ovtsyn to the strait in the Kara Sea at the entrance to the Yenisei Gulf between the Oleniy and Sibiryakov islands.
  • The name of Ovtsyn's companion Dmitry Sterlegov is borne by two capes – on the western coast of the Taimyr Peninsula and on the coast of Khariton Laptev, as well as the strait between Pestsovy Island and the Rybny Peninsula in the Minin Skerries on the north-western coast of Taimyr.

How Sterlegov marked "his" cape

Upon reaching the Yenisei, Ovtsyn's detachment was supposed to go around Taimyr and meet with the Lena detachment of the Great Northern Expedition. To accomplish this task, the captain dispatched Fyodor Minin, putting him in charge of the “Ob-Pochtal’on” boat and issuing detailed instructions regarding the route and research. Particular attention was to be paid to the surveying of the mouth of the Yenisei and the islands located in it, as well as the eastern coast. Sterlegov set off with Minin.


Таймыр. Фото: Леонид Круглов
Таймыр. Фото: Леонид Круглов

"Sail the North Sea to the east to where the bay of the right bank of the Yenisei River ends. Observe the northern part of this place. And then follow the sea to the aforementioned river Khatanga – the locals say that ice poses no danger here in August. And the Siberian shore lying between the Yenisei River and the Khatanga should be described in detail including the rivers flowing out of that river, the depth should be measured. Where the occasion allows, the mouth of those rivers should also be measured, described and put on the map."

Instructions "From the fleet of Lieutenant Dmitry Ovtsyn to navigator Fyodor Minin" dated June 6, 1738

The early winter – fog, ice and snowfalls – prevented the complete fulfillment of the task in 1738. Despite difficult weather conditions, Minin managed to get to Cape Dvuhmedvezhij (eng. Cape Two Bears), where he left a beacon with a commemorative inscription. Having settled for the winter on the Kurye River, he began to prepare a map. However, he did not map the islands discovered during the voyage – the ice prevented him from approaching them close enough. To fill this gap, as soon as the river cleared up, Minin instructed Sterlegov to go from the Cape East-Northern to the Kamenny Islands, survey the area and measure the depths between them.

The delay of the 1739 campaign was caused by the local authorities, who had not prepared provisions and equipment for the expedition in time. They managed to set off only on July 31 – the short northern summer was missed. To put the beacons necessary for the Lena-Khatanga detachment to the north of the Pyasina, Minin equipped a land expedition to the east of the Yenisei, putting Sterlegov in charge. He set off on two sledges in January 1740, cataloging and surveying the coastline in blizzard and frost. Because of the fierce wind the eyes of the detachment members hurt so much that "sometimes the shore ahead could be hardly seen". Sterlegov managed to go further to the northeast of the mouth of the Pyasina than anyone else before. The cape where he erected a commemorative plaque now bears his name. The beacons that the polar explorer placed along the coast greatly facilitated further sea trips.


Таймыр. Фото: Леонид Круглов
Таймыр. Фото: Леонид Круглов

Minin sailed twice more, but each time the path to the northeast was blocked by impassable ice. However, the results of his travels were very significant – the outlines of the Taimyr Peninsula appeared on the maps for the first time.

  • The peninsula on the western coast of Taimyr, and the strait between the Oleniy Islands and the mainland bear the name of Minin.
  • In 1878, his name was given to the cape on the Taimyr Island by the navigator Nordenskiöld.
  • In 1894, Vilkitsky also named another cape – on the Mammoth Peninsula in the Gydan Bay.
  • In 1900, Eduard von Toll named the archipelago off the northwestern coast of the Taimyr Peninsula the Minin Skerries.
  • In the twentieth century, the Minin Islands at the mouth of the Yenisei, a bay, a mountain and the Minin Cape on the Taimyr Peninsula also appeared on the map.

Read the first part: Survive, Die and Become the Sea

Olga Ladygina