The Icebreaker Yermak

Vice-Admiral S. Makaroff of the Imperial Russian Navy was primarily an oceanographer.   His paper On some Oceanographic Problems, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Vol. XXII, contains, amongst detailed reports of his oceanographic investigations, an explanation of why the icebreaker Yermak* was built.  Quite simply, the ship was intended to promote seaborne commerce where Arctic ice had always been a barrier.  It seems that Makaroff had an idea that perhaps, one day, after much experience had been gained, an icebreaker might just possibly reach the North Pole.

As is the way with news reporters, the 'icebreaker to the pole' idea was seen as making better headlines than 'icebreaker breaks ice'.  Fortunately for science, there are to be found, notwithstanding the hype about the pole, many reports of ice conditions with which the Yermak might be expected to cope.  Or not.  But no scientific excuse is really needed for publishing information about this historic ship.

[*]  Alternate spellings - Yermak, Yermack, Ermak, Ermack and in Cyrillic: Ермак.

The launching of the Yermak, 1898, Walker, Newcastle-on-Tyne
image source: Newcastle Libraries

General layout of Yermak's boilers, engines and propellers.
from an out of copyright German language technical dictionary.

The Strand Magazine

The following text and images are taken from The Strand Magazine, Volume XIX.  The text and images have been separated to enhance text flow, and original pagination has been omitted.  The sinking of the steamer Frigg sets the date of the description of ice and events in the article: September 1899.

Model of the Ermack

                      To The Poles by Ice - Breaking Steamer.
                                    By HERBERT C. FYFE.

   In my opinion, the best way to penetrate into the Arctic and Antarctic regions is by means of a  powerful  ice- breaker."   These words were spoken to the present writer some  few  weeks ago by Vice - Admiral Makaroff, of the Imperial Russian Navy, the designer of the ice - breaking steamer Ermack, a vessel which may well claim to be the strongest ship in the world.
   It was in his room at the Grosvenor Hotel, London, that Admiral Makaroff was so good as to receive me, to tell me all about his trip to Polar waters, and to show me the wonderful series of photos he took during the cruise of the  Ermack at work in the ice-fields.  There have been, of course, ice-breakers before the Ermack, and some of them have done  good  service in keeping water-ways clear of ice so that vessels may enter and leave northern ports, but  none have ever achieved such wonders as has this sturdy ship.
   The Ermack was designed especially for ice-breaking in the Baltic and Kara seas, for the purpose of keeping open the northern ports of  Russia  either  during the whole winter or for a longer period than they would otherwise be  navigable,  and  the idea of exploring the Polar regions only occurred to Admiral Makaroff after he discovered what the vessel was capable of.  It was in the month of July, 1899, that the Ermack made her first Polar trip.
   "Our voyage," said the Admiral, "differed from those of former explorers, in that we experienced no sufferings or privations, and were never in danger."
   The Ermack was brought back to Newcastle-on-Tyne in August.   During the five weeks she was away she travelled through 230 miles of Polar ice.
   Nobody before us," said the Admiral, "had ever tried the Polar Sea for ice-breaking, and our going was the first time man had taken offensive action against  Polar ice.  Though many scientists said the thing could not be done, we did it.  Starting from Spitzbergen we found ice in lat. 80deg. 15min., and strong Polar ice it was too.  The plain ice was  4ft. thick, and the pack ice (i.e., in mountainous ridges) was sometimes as much as 18ft. high and seven fathoms (42ft.) deep.  We found the Erinack could break this ice, and she proceeded very well through it.  It was wonderful to see the easy way in which it broke in some places when the Ermack charged into it.  Sometimes it would happen that we struck the weakest part - perhaps a place which had become hollowed out beneath.   Yet at other times huge blocks would stick to the vessel, cover her bow, and bend up underneath her; charge into other pieces with us, and break them without leaving us, and in that event we had to steam backwards and get rid of it.
   The summer is the best time for negotiating the ice of the Arctic Ocean, for then, although the sea is full of ice, it is ice in the shape of islands divided by the canals, which are mostly filled with broken ice.  During the progress of the Ermack floes of ice over a mile long moved away and gave passage to her   In charging `hummock' or `pack' ice the bow of the Ermack rises up 8ft. or so; the field cracks, and the ship then falls down and goes ahead, moving both sides of the debris of the ice-field.   It is most exciting to see some of the big pieces of ice fall down into the water and the others coming to the surface from the great depths, every detached piece trying to find a new position, while the ice-breaker herself, always being pushed along gradually, rises, cracks the ice, and falls again.  Our usual rate of speed was 3 1/2 knots an hour in Polar regions.

The Ermack forcing through heavy drift ice.

   "The  islands   of the Polar Sea are of different sizes, some being as much as five miles in diameter : the others are smaller, and the great majority of them do not exceed hundreds of feet.   Sometimes these islands are pressed against each other, and there are days during which it is difficult to proceed, but with a change of weather and current the ice-islands become separated from each other, so as to render a passage possible.   It is not necessary when going with the ice-breaker into the Polar region to keep a straight course and cut the ice; the ship goes in a zig-zag 'line', shaping her course between the ice-floes.   In some cases it was necessary to apply the full power, but in other  places the ship proceeded easily.  Before I went I spoke on this subject with Captain  Sverdrup, of the Fram, and Dr. Nansen.   Captain Sverdrup is entirely of my opinion, but Dr. Nansen did not wish to express his views.  He only said that he wished me success, and he would be the first to congratulate me upon it."
   The Gulf of Finland, in the Baltic Sea, is covered with ice during the whole winter, and consequently the navigation and transport of cargo to such an important commercial port as  St. Petersburg is  interrupted for five months in the year.  In a severe winter ice may be found at a distance of 200 miles from St. Petersburg.  The ice of the Finnish Gulf is very strong, because the water of the Baltic has very little salt in it.  The thickness of plain ice does not exceed 2ft. in deep places and 3ft. in shallow water, but the winds break the ice and pile it up, and large fields of packed ice 12ft. deep may often be found.
   It was to clear a passage through the Baltic ice-fields that the first ice-breaker was built in 1864, by Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth, and Co., from the designs of a Russian merchant, Britneff.  His idea was to take one of his steam tugs and cut the fore part into such a shape that it would run on the top of the ice and break it with its own weight.  Since then this firm has built several ice-breakers for the River Volga, the Port of Hango, and the Lake of Baikal; but the Ermack is the finest thing in this line that they have yet done.

Front view of the Ermack in heavy drift ice.

   The quadruple screw-steamer Ermack, constructed at Walker-on-Tyne, can lay claim to be the heaviest and strongest steamer yet constructed.  She is 305 ft. long, 71 ft. wide, and 42 ft. 6in. deep.   With 3,000 tons of coal on board, her displacement is 8,000 tons.   The hull has been designed to resist the crushing effect of ice.  At  the stern are three screws, one being on the centre line as in ordinary single-screw vessels, and the other two as in the usual twin-screw arrangement.   Forward there is a fourth screw, and this is driven by a shaft projecting through the  sloping  stem  forward.   This bow screw is not meant for accentuating the speed of the vessel - for all ship-builders are convinced of the inefficiency of this method of propulsion - but simply to enable the ship to clear her way and keep lumps of ice from accumulating under her bottom.   When the bow screw is working in the ahead direction,  the "race" of water that is caused thereby washes the bottom of the vessel and clears the ice out of the way; when it is reversed - i.e., in the go-astern direction - the " race" is projected forward, and lumps of ice may thus be washed out from underneath the   field-ice, where they are apt to congregate and cause trouble.  All the screws have been designed to work against solid ice without damage.
   The hull of the Ermack is extensively sub-divided into water-tight compartments, of which there are forty-eight in all.   Each of these was tested while the vessel was on the stocks by filling it full, over 6,ooo tons of water being used in all.   Such is the form of the ship, and such the strength of the structure, that the effect of the ice closing in all round the vessel would simply be to raise it.  The ice-belt extends 20 ft. on each side round the girth of the hull, and runs from bow to stern.

The Ermack in the Baltic.

   As is natural with a ship intended for such hard work as is the Ermack, there is a great deal of machinery.  This is, however, all placed so low that there is ample accommodation, not only for the crew, but also for a good deal of cargo and even passengers.  There are four main propelling engines and four smaller propelling engines, or eight sets of engines in all, and there are six double-ended boilers.   During her trials in the North Sea the Ermack reached a speed of nearly 15 1/4 knots with 8,000 h.p.   The whole of the propelling machinery is designed with such ample margin of strength that when the engines are brought up suddenly by ice  getting in the propellers no harm is done either to engines or to screws.  The  shafting and all working parts have factors of safety from 35 to 60 per cent. above the requirements of Lloyd's and the Board of Trade.   The propeller blades are extremely massive, and are made of nickel steel of great strength.
   On her first voyage, a few months ago, the Ermack behaved in a most satisfactory manner.  Her designer, Vice-Admiral Makaroff, and Mr. Arthur Gulston, of Newcastle-on-Tyne,  were on board, and from their reports it appears that the Ermack first met the ice in the Baltic. It was drift ice, apparently about 5 in. thick, and there seems not to have been the slightest difficulty in getting the vessel through the obstruction, as she went comparatively easily at nine knots.  The worst piece of ice, we read, which was encountered was 25in. thick, and the ship went nearly through this mass of obstruction before she was brought up by it.  The worst field-ice that the Ermack had to deal with was apparently 4ft. thick, with snow on the top of it.  Snow proved to be. the greatest impediment to the ice - breaker's progress, and this bore out the designer's expectations.
   Mr. Gulston says that 12 in. of snow on the top of thick field ice is a serious impediment, and that 18 in. almost blocks her.  The ice generally in the Baltic appears to have been much more serious in the winter of 1898 than was expected, and it is said to be beyond 1883, which was a record winter. The Ermack did not run continuously, but rested at night and started early in the morning, working with the search-light.  There was no difficulty in starting her, although she had become fast in the ice.  The ice-anchors were put out, and the vessel was warped backwards from her berth, after which she started apparently without any difficulty.   In his report Mr. Gulston remarks : -
  "She can be steered in any way, at any time, in any ice.  This has never been the case with any ice-breakers that have previously been built, and is no doubt largely due to the form of the ship.   There is no flat place in her side either vertically or horizontally, so that unless absolutely frozen in solid she can be given some movement, and can thus be worked loose by her own propellers and by ice-anchors."

Near view of the prow of the Ermack amidst the ice.

   From all accounts the arrival of the Ermack at Cronstadt must have been an extraordinary sight.   The Russian newspapers were filled with enthusiastic descriptions of the vessel's majestic entry into the port.  The ice was about 18in. thick, with a good deal of snow on the top, but the Ermack steamed through this at 6 1/2 knots up to the sea-wall and past the battleships.  "She swung round on the port hand and entered the harbour through an entrance only 95ft. wide (the ship is 71 ft. beam).   She swung once in the inside harbour, and one charge astern put her into her berth alongside the coal store.   Some manceuvring trials were made in ice of about 2ft. to 3ft. in thickness, when the turning circle was found to be about 6ooft., and there was apparently very little difference in which direction the ship was turned.  The effect of the bow propeller was most marked, and it appeared that if this stopped the ship stopped too."

View of a path opened by the Ermack for ships in the Neva - taken from deck.

   Whilst in the harbour of Cronstadt the Ermack was visited daily by large numbers of people, and Admiral Makaroff, who initiated the employment of ice-breakers in  Russian and Siberian waters, was the recipient of numerous letters and telegrams of congratulation,  not only from public institutions, but also from the Czar and various officials.

Ships using the path opened by the Ermack.

   After a few days at Cronstadt the Ermack left for Revel,  near which twelve steamers were blocked by ice to  the  danger of their crews.   When the ice-breaker arrived the ice was found to be 20ft. thick,  but the Ermack steamed merrily through the mass and released nine frozen-in steamers.   These she convoyed out to sea, and then proceeded to tow into port other vessels which were lying outside, and not daring to enter for fear of being frozen in.   Needless to say, the rescued vessels were intensely grateful to the Ermack for the services she had rendered.   It may be mentioned that one of the ships which the Ermack freed was an ice-breaker herself.  The Ermack, however, is far stronger than any other vessel that has ever been built before, and marks the commencement of a new era in this branch of ship-building.
   From Revel the Ermack proceeded to St. Petersburg, where her appearance and doings on the ice-bound Neva created an immense sensation.   She was received by a deputation, with the mayor at its head, and a grand entertainment was organized at the City Hall in honour of Admiral Makaroff and the officers of  the ice-breaker.  In May the Ermack left for the Kara Sea, where Admiral Makaroff intends to employ her in order to establish quicker communications than at present exist between the Kara Sea and the mouths of the Siberian rivers.
  The successful trials of the Ermack seem likely to indicate that the entire condition
of navigation to ice-bound ports, and the course of trade with such countries as have hitherto been considered closed by sea in winter, will be revolutionized,  Archangel, Cronstadt, Odessa, Vladivostock, Revel, etc., will now be "open ports" in more senses than one, and the benefit to commerce and shipping which must result from Admiral Makaroff's vessel bids fair to have far-reaching results in the immediate future.   During her short winter's work, the Ermack liberated eighty vessels, each of which would, but for her assistance, have been embedded in the ice for another fortnight, while during her working in the Baltic Sea, in May last, she was successful in rescuing from danger nearly one hundred steamers.  These vessels she convoyed through the ice to the ports of Cronstadt and Revel. On the 4th May word was  received by  Vice-Admiral Makaroff on the Ermack  that the steamer Frigg was in danger near Cronstadt.  They at once proceeded to endeavour to render  her assistance.  Unfortunately, by the time they arrived, the steamer had been severely nipped by the ice, causing her to founder.   We are enabled to present our readers with a unique set of photographs showing the sinking of this steamer.    These interesting photographs,   for which we are indebted to Mr. William Bourn,  of  Walker-on-Tyne, were taken from the deck of the Ermack.    We have also to acknowledge the courtesy of Captain Vassiliev, of the Ermack, for permission to reproduce them.
  Arrangements   have  been made by Admiral Makaroff for coupling up the Ermack  with other vessels in order to make a train of ships for more effectually dealing with thick ice.  Although the Ermack is the strongest ship afloat, there is a limit to her capacity of breaking up ice, and a vessel pushing astern of her would supply additional power for the work.    Into the counter of the ship a recess has been built, and this is designed to take the stem of the following vessel, arrangements being made for lashing the latter in firm contact with the leading craft.  There seems to be little doubt that with two Ermacks fastened together the North Pole could be reached.  Whether this will ever be attempted remains to be seen; but at  any rate the  feat has been brought far nearer by the advent of these ice-breaking steamers than it has ever been before.

The sinking of the Frigg.

The vessel has been split by the pressure of the ice and is filling with water.

The prow sinking.

The headlong plunge.

The final scene.

end of Strand Magazine article.
The iron steamer Frigg, formerly the Carron Park, was sunk by ice in the Kara sea on September 1st 1899.  Thanks to the Yermak and her crew, the crew of the Frigg did not suffer the same fate as many crews before who had lost their ship to ice.

The Yermak was equipped with guns about 1939 to serve as a training ship.  The photograph below shows that she may have been used 'in anger'.

The caption reads:
The armed icebreaker Yermak at the Palace Embankment during the Seige of Leningrad.

The Leningrad photo is from a post by Ivan Kukushkin - Иван Кукушкин on the forum  Interested readers will find more photos and drawings of Yermak on that Russian language site.