The expedition, Where Thames Meets Yenisei, which found two 19-century wrecks, ended several days ago. Using an inflatable catamaran for transportation, the two researchers went down the Yenisei River for one month hoping to find traces of Arctic shipping from centuries past. Arctic.ru asked one of them, Alexander Goncharov, who teaches at the Siberian State Aerospace University, to share his experiences with us.
Alexander, what was the goal of the expedition?
Our main goal was to find polar shipping monuments associated with the Northern Sea Route on the Yenisei River in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That is, our goal was to identify and conduct an initial inspection of the monuments. The archeologists were supposed to pick up that work, because under the law, we need a permit to work with objects that are older than 100 years. For this, it is necessary to know the specific location of a particular landmark.
Did you plan to study both sunken ships at the same time?
Initially, we planned to focus on the British steamship The Thames, whose location we have established using archived data and an old pilot chart. This boat arrived at the Yenisei in 1876 and was led by Captain Joseph Wiggins.
Two more expeditions were held in the region that year. Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld came to the Yenisei a month earlier. The second expedition led by Davyd Shvanenberg attempted to go in the opposite direction to St. Petersburg. It was sponsored by the merchant Mikhail Sidorov.
Nordenskiöld was able to go only as far as the Yakovlev Bay Bar, having made it up to the Yenisei Gulf. He claimed that the river was shallow and unusable by seafaring vessels, and went back. However, Wiggins managed to take the ship to the Kureyka River (a tributary of the Yenisei — Ed.), which is quite a distance. He spent the winter at the mouth of this river.
Where is the ship now? How did you find it?
The Thames lies at the mouth of the Salnaya Kurya River (a tributary of the Yenisei — Ed.) near the village of Goroshikha. We used sonar and a regular sea gauge to study the river bottom. The depth almost everywhere was 8 to 10 meters, but it gets more shallow, 2 meters, closer to the mouth of the river. We assumed that the ship may be lying there and lowered a camera. The water is very muddy there, so the camera couldn't focus. The weather was warm, so we put on flippers and masks and dove into the river — yes, as simple as that — and saw the ship. You can see only a portion of the aft, the rest is buried in the sand.
The law prohibits touching it, so we made some drawings and marked its GPS location. Quite possibly, it was plundered back in the 19th century, because the story of its sinking is also unusual.
What's the story?
After the winter, Wiggins wanted to return to England, but ran aground outside the town of Igarka (as it is now called). He then sold The Thames to the merchants of Yeniseisk. They tried to pull the ship off the ground, dragged it to the Salnaya Kurya River, and finally made holes in it and sank it. "It remains buried there forever," the Yenisei historian Kytmanov wrote back then. Interestingly, The Thames was mentioned in the pilot chart of 1937, and no place else. We decided to use this data to look for the ship and found it.
How do you find the second ship, Northern Lights?
The second find was more of a surprise for us. The expedition members planned to plant a memorial cross on the Brekhovsky Islands at the mouth of the Yenisei River. The crew of the Severnoye Siyaniye (Northern Lights) schooner presumably spent the winter there. In 1876, it left Yeniseisk for St. Petersburg filled with graphite, lumber, fur and even some live animals. They left a bit too late, in September, got hit by a storm, had their sails torn and the mast broke. We ran through old documents, compared them to modern maps and decided that it should lie near the Bolshoi Brekhovsky Island. Having inspected it, we realized that the schooner was not here.
Therefore, we erected a monument with a sign and continued our journey. In an arm of the Maly Yenisei, we were caught in a storm and were forced to turn back. During low tide, we saw a wooden frame resembling a ship's hull in the water. It turned out to be the remains of Northern Lights, which we did not expect to see, because the storm had dragged the ship for about three kilometers and turned it upside down several times causing severe damage to it.
Were you able to identify it properly?
Not quite. You see, the fittings, some wooden parts and the dimensions fitted the description, and we found it at the very place it was supposed to be. This ship is very different from the standard Yenisei boats in terms of its shape, fittings and structure. I'm 95 percent sure we've found Northern Lights.
How can you prove it?
To do so, we need to conduct scientific and archeological analysis. Its location is marked on the map. Perhaps we will be able to send a team of archeologists there later for confirmation. What we did was just a preliminary identification.
What value do these vessels have for researchers?
As for the British ship, there is none. Provided adequate funding, it can be lifted and restored. As for our ship, there's nothing left but frames, stringers, and a portion of the deck. There's no mast. It is an outstanding, in fact, the only historical example of shipbuilding in Siberia. Today, Krasnoyarsk has the oldest ship — Krasnoyarsk Worker built in Germany in 1930 — on display. What we have here is a locally-built vessel dating back to 1876. It can be used to reconstruct shipping on the Yenisei. This issue has been poorly studied, especially the technical specifications of the vessels.
How much money is needed roughly to have Northern Lights raised?
Once the archeological excavation of the site is completed, a flat-bottomed barge can come and raise the vessel. It's not expensive. Restoring the vessel will require a fairly large amount of money, about 5-10 million rubles. It is unlikely to cost more. Speaking of The Thames, I'm not sure how much sand has to be pumped out before it can be lifted.
As is known, Captain Joseph Wiggins sold the vessel. Why? Also, why would anyone want to buy it? And how much might it cost?
I think it was sold for about 6,000 rubles in gold. Wiggins sold it (he owned this ship privately), because he could no longer use it. By and large, local ship owners were not interested in the boat. They wanted the 20 h.p. steam engine and left the ship for the winter. Then they stripped it of everything that was valuable, and sank it.
Alexander, what does a researcher feel when he finds a wreck?
Nothing… Uncertainty and fear maybe. You want to believe that you have found what you think you have found, but at the same time you are afraid to find some detail that will clearly tell you that you are wrong.
We were fairly confident about The Thames. We knew that it was her right away. There could be no other ship there. Moreover, ships like that have never navigated the Yenisei River.