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
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
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
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
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
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
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.