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  Over the Top -
Circumnavigating, Siberian Style

A few decades ago, circumnavigating the globe was a feat attempted by only the boldest of sailors. These days, though, all kinds of folks are successfully completing a lap around our ever-shrinking planet: grandparents, singlehanders, families with kids. . . not to mention the neophyte sailors who pay big bucks to bash 'the wrong way round' in the BT Global Challenge.

Even so, there's one variation on sailing 'round the Earth that has never yet been achieved: circumnavigating via the 'Polar route' across the top of the Asian continent. As you read this, however, a tenacious crew of Russian sailors is attempting to do just that.

Traveling via this unorthodox route was a longtime dream of Siberian sailor Sergey Shcherbakov, now 48, but it took him years to prepare for it. In order to fully appreciate just how ambitious - or should we say bizarre - his chosen track really is, you have to study a map of the Asian continent. Although Shcherbakov's home town of Omsk is, in fact, a port city, it lies on a river some 1,700 miles from the nearest ocean. And that ocean is the Arctic Ocean!

No matter. Well educated and relatively well traveled, Shcherbakov reasoned that crossing 'over the top' was certainly possible and, having sailed competitively since his youth in a variety of European and Asian venues such as the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Med, he figured his skills were up to the test.

The story of his Siberia 2000 expedition began back in the mid-'80s. With Gorbachev's innovative glasnost policies making headlines worldwide at that time, Russian society was awakening to new possibilities beyond its borders. So it was, perhaps, due to the subtle renaissance of that era that Shcherbakov began developing ideas for a boat that could sail well in open-ocean conditions, yet would be strong enough to withstand the abuse of bashing through Arctic ice floes.

The finished design called for a 33-ft ketch with a retractable centerboard, to be named after his homeland, Siberia. It took 10 years to complete her 'cold-molded' hull, with five layers of wood laid up in alternating diagonals, then sheathed with a layer of fiberglass.

During the summer of 1997, Captain Sergey and four comrades set off on a 'shakedown' expedition, sailing up the Ob River to its mouth (roughly the distance from San Francisco to Chicago), then west through the iceberg-strewn waters of the Kara and Barents Seas, over the top of Lapland, south along the Norwegian Coast and into the North Sea. Finally skirting Denmark's Jutland Peninsula, they entered the Baltic (between Scandin-avia and Northern Europe) and eventually made a port call at St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). Mindful of the short summer season, though, they soon had to retrace their path before the floes became impassable.

Back home in Omsk, Shcherbakov immediately began planning for his current adventure, having proven Siberia's seaworthiness in some of the world's least-traveled and treacherous waters. Along with a variety of other refinements, Siberia's stern was extended by 8 feet (making her 41 overall) and a one-ton lead bulb was added to her existing keel. "It was made in a space equipment factory," the proud adventurer told us with a smile during his recent Bay Area layover. Having worked as the director of a firm which makes satellite tracking systems, he apparently has some very useful connections.

The resolute skipper had no trouble attracting an able crew for the around-the-world expedition - including the man who had given him his first sailing lesson 36 years ago, Sergey Kikot. But raising enough capital to make the record-breaking attempt wouldn't be easy given the severely-depressed state of the modern Russian economy. Nevertheless, he eventually secured a generous pledge of two million rubles from his government, an ample budget for the trip. Unfortunately, before Siberia even cast off her docklines last summer, the ruble had become so drastically devalued that the relative worth of the team's war chest was greatly diminished. Undaunted, they secured several additional sponsors including the multinational satellite commun-ications company, Globalstar.

Siberia set out from Omsk last July 3 with a crew of five, again heading north up the Ob. This time, though, when she reached the river mouth Shcherbakov steered her east, instead of west, traveling through frequently changing weather, dodging icebergs and regularly getting trapped in pack ice, where he and his men had no option but to wait until the floes parted to let them pass.

As you might imagine, there wasn't a lot of vessel traffic in those frosty latitudes. Initially, they encountered some fishing vessels, and later they came within sight of three Russian icebreakers which patrol the northern regions. The most unlikely vessel they crossed paths with, though, was a small sailboat with a two-man crew. Talk about crazy, this pair of thrill-seekers - one was from Monaco and the other from Norway - not only arrived at the port of Dickson without proper papers, but their plan was to wend their way through the ice fields under autopilot. You guessed it, they whacked into an iceberg and had to turn back.


According to Siberia's crew, one of the most exciting moments of their journey was arriving at Cape Chelyuskin on August 20, the northernmost point on the Asian continent. We're talkin' r-e-a-l-l-y far north here. In fact, it makes us shiver just to tell you about it. Picture, if you will, the southernmost tip of the South American continent, Cape Horn. That notoriously foreboding place lies at about 56° (south latitude). By comparison, Cape Chelyuskin lies at 78°44' N., more than 1,300 miles farther away from the equator - and a mere 700 miles from the North Pole! B-r-r-r-r-r. . . (The same relative position in the Southern Hemisphere would have put them halfway across the Antarctic continent!)

Not surprisingly, Siberia was only the third vessel ever to reach Chelyuskin without the aid of an icebreaker - but neither of her predecessors continued on around the world. To their credit, both were Russian sailboats: Yukutsk in 1991 and St. Andrew in 1999. Shcherbakov and the boys took great pleasure in signing the Russian Coast Guard's 'guest book' which is housed on the bolder-strewn point in a watertight box. Needless to say, there are plenty of pages left to fill.

Including the river trip, Siberia had to travel roughly 4,000 miles before reaching the Bering Strait (2,300 of which was along the north coast). We'd have to assume that finally being able to steer toward the south at that point was the source of considerable elation. The waters of the Strait, incidentally, were as turquoise blue as a Caribbean lagoon in the snapshots they shared with us.


Regrettably, our Russian is limited to a few barroom toasts, so we didn't pick up too many anecdotes from the crewmen, but Captain Shcherbakov - who speaks remarkably good English - took pains to relay the tale of Siberia's dismasting off Alaska.

The long arm of the Alaskan Peninsula extends southwest from the mainland, eventually breaking up into a desolate chain of islands called the Aleutians. After weathering intense, stormy conditions out in the Strait, Siberia cut through the Unimak pass, at the tip of the Peninsula, in the middle of a pitch-black night. But instead of encountering more sheltered waters, conditions got worse. As Shcherbakov explained, they registered winds of 55-60 knots and as the big North Pacific swells met the shoaling waters near shore, the result was massive 30-foot rollers.

With Kikot along on deck, lashed to the wheel, one of those monsters caught Siberia and capsized her - she did a complete 360, losing both masts in the process. The crew managed to get 53-year-old Kikot back on board safely, but their liferaft was lost overboard and much of their electronic gear below decks was damaged.

We've written about a lot of 'un-fun' sailing adventures, but this one has to be high on the list. Imagine crawling out on deck in those conditions and trying to sort out a tangle of rigging and twisted metal. "It was very dark, very wet and v-e-r-y cold," recalled the ever-stoic Shcherbakov.

He knew there was a chance of being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard if he put out a mayday via his EPIRB, but he chose not to play that trump card. After all he and his men had been through, he wasn't about to give up without a fight. No one had been seriously injured and their 25hp diesel was usable. Several hours later the crew managed to winch aboard both broken masts. They then set a course for Kodiak under motor, which lay some 300 miles away.

But here's our favorite part of the story: About an hour after the knockdown, someone was clearing a foot of water and muck out of the bilge, when they discovered that the Globalstar satellite phone (made by Qualcomm) had found its way there during the rollover. Although it had been submerged in the soup for over an hour, Shcherbakov performed his best telephone triage to resuscitate it: He disassembled it, bathed it in alcohol, then carefully dried it out over the ship's heater and reassembled it. Amazingly, it worked! We'd like to see Timex top that one.

Even before the crew lost all their radio communications in the dismasting, the phone had been a magnificent addition to the ship's gear. Not only did it allow them to keep in touch with their expedition associates back in Omsk, but they were able to chat with friends and family all along their route - a tremendous morale booster.

The Kodiak Customs and Immigration office isn't often visited by Russian expeditionary sailors and, according to Siberia's crew, the agents there couldn't have been more helpful. In fact, it sounds as though many folks in that remote fishing port bent over backwards to help out their new Russian friends. With no money to buy new masts - and certainly no way to ship any to Kodiak - the local welding shop patched them back together, and the sturdy ketch was soon on her way to Seattle. (Globalstar picked up the repair tab.)

There, the boat's arrival made headlines in the local papers and the crew was showered with kindness and assistance. No doubt a bit gun-shy after their knockdown, they harbor-hopped down the coast - encountering some "very rough weather" along the way - before arriving in the Bay last month. We caught up with them at Svendsen's Boat Works in Alameda, where the boat's propeller shaft had to be replaced due to a mishap in Oregon. (Again, Globalstar footed the bill.)

At this writing, Siberia is headed across the equator to the Galapagos Islands - apparently a bonafide circumnavigation requires an equatorial crossing. But because the expedition is two months behind schedule, the original plan for a Cape Horn rounding has been quashed. Instead, Siberia will transit the Americas via the Panama Canal. Naturally, she must return to the far north during the short midsummer thaw.

With more than 10,000 miles left to go before they even reach Scandinavia, Shcherbakov and his crew still have a lot of open-ocean sailing ahead of them. But most of it will seem like a walk in the park compared to where they've been. We take our hats off to them, and wish them many brilliant, sunny days in the tropics on their route back home.

- latitude/aet

This story was reprinted from the March 2001 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with photos in living black & white), use the subscription order form, and specify the 3/01 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

Please note: After a couple of years, the actual issue will no longer be available, but we will still be able to make photocopies of it.

©2001 Latitude 38 Publishing Co., Inc.