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The next great adventure - sailing the Russian Arctic

by Michael Byers/Sail-World Cruising on 13 Aug 2013
North East Passage - a top adventure SW
Now here's a challenge for the adventure-seeking cruising sailor - sailing the Russian Arctic, and the news is that Russia's North East Passage is open for business. Whether that means cruising sailors or not is anyone's guess, but it's worth a try.

The good news about the North East Passage is that it is much more accurately charted than the North West Passage. Remember the 1990 thriller The Hunt for Red October? Here the rogue captain of a Soviet submarine evades the U.S. and Soviet navies by threading his way through a narrow – but precisely charted – mid-ocean trench.

In real life, the Soviet navy’s charting efforts extended to the heart of the Canadian Arctic. Soviet-era charts, available today, show more depth soundings in the Northwest Passage than Canada’s most recent charts do.

If you sailed there, you wouldn't be on your own. While the Cold War might over, Russia still takes the Arctic seriously. Russian nuclear-powered submarines still sail under the sea ice, where Canada’s diesel-powered submarines cannot venture.

However, the reason why the future looks at least possible for the would-be sailor in the Russian Arctic is that, according to Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, Russia is intent on transforming its Arctic coastline into a commercially viable alternative to the Suez Canal.

In 2011, President Vladimir Putin said: 'I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security and quality.'

Russia uses icebreakers to escort commercial vessels, and charges fees for the service. In 2007, it launched the Fifty Years of Victory, a nuclear-powered behemoth able to break 2.5 metres of ice at speed.

Russia is building 10 search-and-rescue stations in the Arctic, each with its own ships and aircraft. The stations will supplement the icebreakers, their on-board helicopters and numerous military bases.

Russia has 16 deep-water ports in the Arctic. The combination of melting ice and Russian state investment has led to a recent tenfold increase in shipping along the Northern Sea Route, with more than 40 large ships – mostly bulk carriers and oil tankers – sailing through last year.

Through its willingness to seize the moment, Moscow has become Washington’s preferred partner on Arctic issues. Together, the two countries have led negotiations on search and rescue, ship safety, oil-spill response and fisheries management.

In both Russia and Canada, some politicians use the Arctic to stoke nationalist pride. In 2007, the deputy chairman of the Russian Duma descended 4,000 metres in a submersible to plant a flag on the seabed at the North Pole. One of the scientists involved in the exercise later described it as a 'publicity stunt.'

However, Russia, which has always controlled the North East Sea Route, has been typically difficult to obtain permissions from, and it may be a while before there is clarity for the foreign cruising sailor. However, Russian and Norwegian crews have been able to negotiate permissions recently.

The Russian crew of the sailing yacht Petrer I was the first in world sailing history to sail 'around the world' in the Arctic, which included the North East Passage, within one navigation season, and without any icebreakers support. At the same time, the Norwegian trimaran 'Northern Passage', with an international crew, was completing a similar journey as well.

There is some help at hand. An organisation called Rusarc offers route planning, documents and permits, yacht club reservations and some equipment, and advertise that they offer assistance for the North East Passage.

For more information, go to their www.rusarc.com!website

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