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Circumnavigation in pandemic: from Antarctic to Arctic onboard Sibir yacht

The Siberia - Antarctic - Siberia voyage is the main part of an international project devoted to the 200th anniversary of Russia’s discovery of the Antarctic

MOSCOW, October 21. /TASS/. The initial plan was that the Sibir (Siberia) yacht on the way from the Antarctic would sail across the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic to reach the northernmost port Dikson, where the circumnavigation route would end. The coronavirus infection interfered with those plans.

We discovered the Sibir near the Omsk fortress (built in the 18th century). The yacht could not get to the pier as the Ob River is rather shallow there.

The Siberia - Antarctic - Siberia voyage is the main part of an international project devoted to the 200th anniversary of Russia’s discovery of the Antarctic.

Leaving home

The Sibir yacht began its second voyage around the world more than a year ago. From the Omsk fortress, she headed for St. Petersburg - the gates to the Baltic Sea, and crossed the Russian border. In every foreign port, the travelers met with Russians.

"We are receiving very many letters from across the globe with greetings on the expedition’s completion," Captain Sergei Shcherbakov said.

Shcherbakov retired 23 years ago. "Now, I make long voyages and I am confident that until you see the nearest horizon, you can’t see another one," he said. "I began seeing those new horizons since my first journey back in 1965."

In July 2019, the Sibir and her three crew members made the second circumnavigation. The captain and the crew visited the Bellingshausen polar station in the Antarctic.

The 12-meter-long Sibir made its maiden voyage in 1997. "I first drew it [the yacht], and then we started building it," the captain said. "The construction continued for ten years due to the money aspect, plus we were always short of time, as we could work evenings only."


Most crew members went ashore in Germany’s Kiel - those were sailors, who had not been in the open sea before. Sergei Lebedinsky, a fan of hiking, was among them. They were all seasick.

"A small percentage of people would never get adapted to motion. No matter, how long they remained at sea, nothing would improve. This was my case - I could neither eat nor sleep, which finally led to dehydration. That was a signal that I had to go ashore," Sergei said.

Back then, only the captain and his assistant remained onboard. They had to take a flight to bring in another crew. Many of those who joined them later reached the Antarctic.

Another voyage around the globe

The Sibir’s new crew crossed the English Channel, where the sea was very stormy, sailor Alexei Dekelbaum said. Sailing a yacht takes a lot of efforts, he said. In addition to tough physical and climatic conditions, one has to keep an eye on the sails and clean the deck before calling at a port.

The Sibir left Europe for its longest-ever autonomous voyage, without calling at ports, to cross the Atlantic Ocean within 14 days. The voyage finished in Brazil’s Salvador. The crew met their compatriot Alexei Belov, who was brought to Brazil as a child. He had made a few circumnavigations, including a solo one. Besides, he owns a big shipbuilding company, and assisted greatly in repairing the Sibir. It was in Salvador that the yacht was painted white.

Penguins and polar station’s team

The crew welcomed year 2020 in Rio de Janeiro and headed for the Antarctic. They made a five-day crossing of the Drake Passage, known as ‘sailors’ graveyard.’

"At times, we were between life and death. Imagine crossing the Drake Passage on a yacht like ours. When we faced a ten-meter wave, the yacht turned upside down and the mast broke. I even don’t want to imagine what a 20-meter wave could have done to the Sibir," the captain said.

The Antarctic’s Bellingshausen station welcomed the sailors warmly.

When the crew went ashore, they saw a penguin 'performance' that looked like a staged show to welcome the visitors - the animals dived and somersaulted in the water, right in front of the yacht.

"I’ve never seen them before," the captain said. "They are amazing creatures. They are the Antarctic’s symbol, like the polar bear is the symbol of the Arctic."

Pandemic’s effect

On the return voyage, the yacht was to navigate the Pacific Ocean along the Americas’ western shores, crossing the Bering Strait and the Northern Sea Route’s eastern part towards the Russian Arctic. The sailors were supposed to complete the circle in Dikson, then reach the Irtysh and along it make way to Omsk.

The sailors detected an engine failure. Luckily, the Akademik Tryoshnikov scientific-research vessel was nearby, and the crew and the yacht were taken aboard the vessel. This time, they crossed the Drake Passage safely.

"While aboard the Akademik Tryoshnikov, we saw ports locked down. We were not allowed into Argentina, into Brazil. We approach another country, inquire on the radio, and hear: Sorry, we are locked!," a crew member, Denis Iovlev, recollects. The Sibir resumed sailing on her own only in the port of Kaliningrad. From there, she headed for St. Petersburg.

"We did hear something was happening, back in February we learned that something was going on in China, and later on, on March 20, when we sailed onboard the ship and approached Uruguay, we realized - all shores had been closed," the captain said.

Captain’s birthday

Another four yachts from Russia were off South America's coast at that time. "The only one to make it back to Russia was the Sibir," the captain said. "The others are still there: in Argentina, in Chile, or in Brazil. We did not have a single case of coronavirus. We did not have any outside contacts. We did stop at Germany’s Bremerhaven, but security officers did not let us anywhere, and we did not have any contacts."

Over 42 days onboard the Russian research vessel, the Sibir’s crew fixed the failure in the engine, and the captain even managed to deliver a lecture and mark his birthday. The cook made a cake and decorated it with the Sibir’s image.


In April, the yacht joined another yacht from Omsk, the Zhemchuzhina (Pearl). The two yachts headed for the northern seas.

"In the White, Barents and Kara Seas, we visited the areas, where Soviet vessels were destroyed by the Nazi submarines or battleships," Iovlev said.

When speaking about the Arctic, the captain pronounces two words most often - wind and shallow waters - the biggest obstacles for the small Sibir.

"Where the Urals Mountains stretch into the sea, there are rocks. These are mostly very vast shallow areas and thus we had to go far into the sea," the captain said, stressing that it was the yacht’s tenth Arctic voyage. "All our routes are connected with the Northern Sea Route. The only exit from Omsk is along the Irtysh and the Ob, to the Gulf of Ob and then into the Kara Sea."

Rough nature

On the way from Arkhangelsk, the Arctic wind was so freezing, that even the heater could not keep the temperature comfortable. Everyone tried to move all the time.

Quite alarming was the situation in the Barents Sea in early August. The forecast promised wind of 60 nautical knots - that is 30 meters per second.

"Such winds in Omsk happen once a few years, they blow roofs off houses," the captain said. Back in 2000, off the Aleutian Islands, ten-meter waves turned the Sibir upside down during a storm. This time, the crew was lucky - the captain decided they should take shelter in a bay near Kolguyev Island. However, in the shallow waters, they had to anchor two kilometers from the shore.

On the way to the bay, the Sibir and Zhemchuzhina were surrounded by opposing cyclones - the wind came both from the south-west and from the north-west.

At a certain moment the Zhemchuzina was pulled off anchor and the wind was pushing her into the open sea. Shcherbakov spoke to her captain on the radio, told him to turn on the engine and extend the anchor chain. The Zhemchuzhina anchored next to the Sibir. "We remained moored on two anchors, both engines working against the wind."

As the storm slowed down, the yachts left the bay and headed for Naryan-Mar, where every crew member received a certificate confirming he had crossed the Arctic Circle. Each crew received a box of dry cured venison for the remaining route.

The travelers' menu remained practically unchanged throughout the voyage. Delicious dishes, fruit or vegetables were introduced only after leaving the next port. "On those occasions, we had everything fresh - fruit and juices, and when we ran out of those products, we switched back to tinned meat, buckwheat and pasta."

After Naryan-Mar, the yachts entered the Kara Sea, from where any vessel leaving Omsk begins a sea voyage.

The yachts entered the Omsk Region on September 24. They sailed against the headwind, but anyway on September 30 the Sibir’s crew finally walked ashore.

Ocean watchkeeping

Watchkeeping on the Sibir during voyages is six hours long. Two sailors clean the deck and watch the sails. The rest have leisure time next to the kitchen, where watchkeeping is also in shifts.

"Cooks - well, we are all cooks, in shifts," Denis Iovlev said smiling. "Honestly, we are all men here and not everyone is a great cook, so sometimes we have to eat what we get."

Denis was responsible for the expedition media coverage. According to him, 20 crew members had been onboard over the voyage’s 15 months.

"We did not have strictly specified responsibilities, as we are all yachters, and each of us has his own ‘profile’. Some are great in doing a boatswain's job, others have navigational skills, and some are responsible for communication," Iovlev said.

Now that all challenges are overcome, the Sibir is back home. "Whenever you have a goal, you must achieve it, and must not drop it halfway," Captain Sergei Shcherbakov said in conclusion.