July 31, 2006

Expediton ship review: Kapitan Khlebnikov

Voyage beyond Arctic ice into a land of legend aboard the world’s most famous passenger-carrying icebreaker, the Kapitan Khlebnikov. Words Roderick Eime.

The fabled Arctic silence is shattered by spine-chilling, rapid-fire cracks as the metre-thick sea ice disappears beneath the ravenous hull. With each hungry lunge forward, the I/B Kapitan Khlebnikov consumes another “mouthful” of pack ice, crushes it mercilessly under its considerable weight, then unceremoniously spits it out in tiny fragments, some chunks rocketing amid the debris tens of metres sideways out onto the flow. This dramatic description is not something you will read in most cruise brochures as they describe crystal white sandy beaches, palm-lined atolls and lavish nightly entertainment. The icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov, is certainly the most celebrated passenger-carrying vessel of its type. It has circumnavigated Antarctica, probed the southernmost reaches of the oceans and made numerous crossings of the fabled North-West Passage.

She, if I may call the revered Kapitan a “she”, was constructed by Wartsila in Helsinki and launched on November 5, 1980. She immediately entered the Soviet Arctic fleet and still carries the hammer and sickle insignia prominently on her bow. Her initial duties were to escort convoys of cargo and naval vessels along Russia’s extensive Arctic coastline, keeping important sea lanes free of ice. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Russia found she had a small fleet of expensive, state-of-the-art icebreakers and ice-class vessels with nothing much to do. Enter expedition cruising.

The concept of small vessel expeditions to exclusive, ultra-exotic locations was already well established in 1990 by pioneers like Lars Eric Lindblad when North American charter company Quark Expeditions, and Sydney-based Adventure Associates seized on the idea of redeploying the ex-Soviet fleet for extreme passenger voyages. Since then, several vessels of varying capability have been refitted for passenger comfort, including the I/B Kapitan Khlebnikov, which made its debut passenger voyage in 1992.

My chosen itinerary was the Khlebnikov’s Arctic “season opener”, sailing north from Siberia through the Bering Strait into the ice-choked Chukchi Sea to Russia’s Wrangel Island. Located 500 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, Wrangel Island is not the sort of destination you’d automatically be drawn to. UNESCO, however, recently added it to the World Heritage List because of the natural assets which include polar bears, walrus, Arctic fox, seals, snow geese and umpteen seabirds. Wrangel Island also escaped glaciation in the last Ice Age, leaving several unique species of vascular plants. It was also probably the last place on earth to support a woolly mammoth population. Although many of the bones and tusks have been removed, it is still possible to see some skeletal remains of these extinct giants scattered across the landscape.

The journey is as much a part of the adventure as the destination. While we’re ploughing through the barrier of stubborn sea ice that separates Wrangel from the Siberian mainland, it’s an opportune time to watch for polar bears as they hang out on the great frozen rafts in search of seals to devour. About 10 animals were spotted in total, half of them desperately cute, first-season cubs following on mother’s hindquarters as if attached by a string.

Access to the lofty bridge is normally available 24/7 to passengers wishing to get a firsthand account of a busy Russian icebreaker captain’s day on the job. The expansive bridge is chock-a-block with radar, depth sounders, an array of GPS equipment, radios, optical aids, engine controls and good ol’ fashioned charts the size of tablecloths.

Occasionally when the expanse of ice appears solid to the horizon, the captain will send out a helicopter in search of open leads in the pack that will ease our progress. These same helicopters, Russian MI-2s for the technically minded, are used to ferry passengers ashore for excursions where the rigid Zodiac inflatable boats are impractical. Case in point: our expedition leader, Jane Wilson, heard that traditional reindeer herders were near Cape Dezhynov at the very eastern tip of the continent. An MI-2 was dispatched to locate them and contact was made. Armed with gifts of sugar, flour, fresh vegetables and powdered milk, we returned by MI-2 to spend an enthralling afternoon in their company as they led nearly 2000 beasts across the tundra and through glorious valleys some five kilometres inland.

A typical day aboard the Khlebnikov usually involves a shore excursion, either by helicopter or Zodiac, after breakfast and lunch. But the generous Arctic summer allows almost constant sunlight, so activities can take place almost around the clock. One glorious sun-drenched afternoon, the ship suddenly halted amid the vast ice pack accompanied by the announcement: “Today we have a barbeque lunch on the forward deck!”

Then, in a flurry of activity, deck hands piled up the Zodiacs, broke out the trestle tables, craned an enormous charcoal BBQ from the hold and proceeded to lay on the most sumptuous grill laden with steak, wurst of all varieties, chicken, fish and salads. It was all lubricated with ladles of fragrant gluhwein. On days when the vessel is at sea, there are expert lecturers giving enthralling lectures on the history, wildlife and ethnography of the region. One ebullient example, Bob Headland, takes leave from his post at the Scott Polar Research Institute to enrich passengers with his almost limitless knowledge of things polar. Buy him a drink, as I discovered, and your enrichment is likely to continue well into the wee hours.

These extreme adventure cruises are certainly not for everybody. If you are a committed devotee of the traditional mega-vessels with Las Vegas-style entertainment, shopping malls, casinos and all-you-can-eat buffets, then the Kapitan Khlebnikov is not for you. Cabins are comfortable and all have private facilities, but despite many added creature comforts, the Khlebnikov is still a working vessel built tough for the travails of the unforgiving Arctic winters. Having said that, Hotel Manager Karl Heinz Iborg brings with him years of land-based hotel experience and ensures comfort levels are well within tolerance for expeditioners not inclined to the Spartan rigours of the Russian Arctic. Executive chef Olaf Roos serves three generous meals per day, typically with meat/fish/vegetable main course alternatives available for lunch and dinner. A full, hotel-style hot breakfast is available each morning replete with bacon, eggs, cheeses, breads, cereals, jams and an array of fruit more akin to a tropical island leisure cruise. No one goes hungry on the Khlebnikov!

When it’s time for a nightcap, the bar is open as late as you want it to be. In the high Arctic summer, the sun never sets, so be careful because before you know it, it’s 3.00 am and the champagne’s still flowing! The Khlebnikov’s bar is more an intimate tavern style establishment than a rowdy nightclub. It’s a great place to get to know your fellow explorers and swap tall tales of the day’s adventures.

Sailing aboard an icebreaker is a very different experience from any you may recall from your P&O or Cunard cruise. An icebreaker, by necessity, is a shallow-draught vessel devoid of protruding stabilisers and its rounded hull below the water line protects it from ship-crushing lateral ice pressure.

Fortunately for me, the northern polar waters are usually mill-pond calm compared to the capricious Southern Ocean where Khlebnikov will travel in the southern summer en route to such destinations as the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound. As a result, an icebreaker, with its low centre of gravity, will roll significantly in heavy seas, testing the mettle of any sailor. If you’re yearning for an icebreaker experience, and I heartily commend it, but you’re prone to seasickness, then look at the Arctic itineraries where seas are milder. Any polar itinerary is always weather-and ice-dependent. It’s both an advantage and disadvantage and quickly shows the experience and expertise of the expedition leader. As one port or destination is discounted, another may become accessible, adding to the adventure. Wildlife is exactly that and may (or may not) appear as expected in any given location, especially nomadic animals like polar bears, whales and some seals like the elusive leopard seal of Antarctica. Notwithstanding this caveat, encounters with these rarer creatures take place on almost every voyage, adding a distinctly enviable cache to your trip.

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