Russian-born Konstantin Sergeyevich Badigin was best known as the captain of the steamer Georgyi Sedov—a vessel beset and drifting in the ice of the
Arctic Ocean—in the years preceding World War II. Near the end of the 1937 navigation season, due to an unfortunate combination of unusually difficult ice conditions and poor decisions as to the deployment of the available Russian icebreakers, 26 ships were forced into an unplanned wintering beset in the ice at various points along the Soviet Northern Sea Route. Among them were the icebreaking steamers Sedov, Malygin, and Sadko, all locked in the ice of the Laptev Sea. Badigin, age 27, served as first mate aboard the Sadko. When by October 23, 1937 the three vessels failed to make any progress under their own steam, they faced a grave, enforced wintering adrift in the ice of the Laptev Sea. Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen's experience on the Fram in 1893-1896 led the crew to believe that they would drift north or northwest.
The three ships housed a total of 217 people. In addition to the regular crews, 22 students from the Leningrad Hydrological Institute were on board Malygin; 20 scientists of the Third High Latitude Expedition were on board Sadko. Other passengers included carpenters who were trained to erect weather stations, engineers knowledgeable in the establishment of light beacons, and the staff (men and women) of several weather stations who fondly believed they were heading home.
The crew and passengers initiated a program of scientific work including studies of meteorology, astronomy, and oceanography. New Year's Day and various Soviet red-letter anniversaries were celebrated with great enthusiasm. Ice ridging and bouts of pressure frequently plagued the vessels, the worst occurring on January 1, 1938. The Sedov fared worst of all: a massive pressure ridge engulfed the stern, although the ship's hull survived the assault intact.
Moscow alerted the drifting ships that an aerial evacuation of superfluous personnel would be attempted as soon as it became light. Badigin was charged with choosing sites for and building the necessary airstrips. His work began on January 30. At the cost of enormous effort, four strips were ultimately cleared, since they were repeatedly wrecked by bouts of ridging. Flying from Tiksi, with an intermediate base on Ostrov Kotel'ny Island, three aircraft reached the ships on April 3 and in a series of flights evacuated 184 of the ships' personnel, leaving only 11 men on each ship.
Prior to the arrival of the aircraft, on March 20, 1938, Badigin received orders to command the Sedov, replacing Captain D.I. Shvetsov, who was sick, elderly, and ordered south.
With reduced crews, the ships continued their drift and the scientific program continued as usual. As the spring melt began, in anticipation of getting free of the ice, Badigin decided to investigate the damage to Sedov's rudder. An inspection by divers revealed that the lower half of the rudder was bent sharply to starboard, rendering it useless.
In late August, the veteran icebreaker Yermak headed north from Tiksi, having the distinction of freeing 23 other ships that had been forced to winter at various sites in the Arctic. Yermak reached the three drifting ships on August 28 and broke them free. Taking Sedov in tow, and with Sadko and Malygin following astern, Yermak started south. However, Sedov's damaged rudder kept causing the ship to yaw wildly and the tow-lines parted repeatedly. The denouement arrived when Yermak lost one of its three propellers in the ice, dashing any hopes of towing Sedov clear of the ice.
Officials in Moscow decided to leave Sedov in the ice as a "drifting high-latitude station." With Badigin still in command, a crew of 15 "volunteers" remained on board, and the ship was provisioned and fueled for 18 months. Then Yermak and the other two ships headed south.
Badigin and his companions resigned themselves to at least one more winter in the ice, although in reality they stayed for almost two full winters. As the ship drifted north and west, their scientific studies continued unabated. Badigan's crew impressively maintained a program of soundings that they took in the central Arctic Basin. Sedov possessed no sounding wire, but scientists on board improvised a practical substitute that involved the tedious unlaying of strands of mooring cables, anchor cables, and spare wire ropes for the standing rigging. Repeatedly the cable would break and lengths of cable and weights were lost, but several soundings of over 4500 m were obtained. At one point no bottom was reached at 5180 m, at a point some 375 nautical miles (600 km) northwest of Franz Josef Land. Toward the end of the drift, the soundings confirmed the existence of the Nansen Ridge located between Svalbard and Northeast Greenland. Temperature profiles also revealed the presence of a layer of relatively warm Atlantic water (the product of the North Atlantic Drift diving under the colder surface water of the Arctic Ocean).
In preparation for reaching open water (to the west of Svalbard), Badigin and his crew invested an enormous effort to get the crippled rudder to function. Over a period of four days, crew members cut the rudder and rudderpost horizontally, using the most primitive of tools, and thereby allowing the upper half of the rudder to function almost normally so that the captain could steer the ship again.
By December 1940, Sedov was located to the northwest of Svalbard and drifting south toward the edge of the ice. With the expectation of encountering severe ice movement and ridging as the ship approached the ice edge, the icebreaker Iosif Stalin was sent to assist the floundering Sedov and reached it on January 13, 1940. Iosif Stalin towed Sedov to open water where a collier was waiting, and once the ship had bunkered, Sedov continued south under its own steam. On January 28, Badigin and his crew reached Murmansk to a wildly tumultuous welcome, repeated again for the ship's crew in Leningrad and Moscow.
The survival of Badigin's ship during its drift across the Arctic Ocean was a tremendous feat. Additionally, Badigin and his crew are credited with the collection of significant scientific data such as the speed and direction of drift, meteorological data that were transmitted regularly to the south, and oceanographic data, in particular the soundings, all of which represented vital contributions to the knowledge of the Arctic Ocean.
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