A vessel with 12 Estonians on board approached Kotzebue Bay recently, eager to visit the community named after their compatriot.
The crew on the ship Admiral Bellingshausen had an ambitious goal: They set out to become the first Estonian sailing vessel to cross the treacherous Northwest Passage.
“Now it has officially been done,” said Boatswain Maris Pruuli.
Besides completing the challenging ocean traverse in September, the group of Estonians fulfilled a dream to follow the steps of Estonian adventurers from the past century, and connected with communities in the Arctic and Bering Sea regions along the way.
Crossing the passage
The Northwest Passage is a sea lane that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It was first crossed at the beginning of the 20th century by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. In recent decades, the ice in the Arctic has been diminishing, and traveling through the passage has grown easier. In the summer of 2007, the route became ice-free for the first time, and in 2016, the first tourist cruise completed the crossing.
Overall, since Amundsen pioneered the passage, more than 350 ships have repeated the crossing using various routes, according to data from the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. The vessels were from 43 countries, the data shows, but none were from Estonia.
Until this year.
On June 21, the crew climbed aboard the Admiral Bellingshausen. The 39-year-old Dutch-built ketch, a type of two-masted sailboat, is named after an Imperial Russian naval officer and explorer, Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, who is credited with discovering Antarctica.
The Admiral Bellingshausen made short stops on Gotland and Orkney islands in Sweden and Scotland, respectively, and did a weeklong tour in the Outer Hebrides in the U.K. Then the group sailed over the Atlantic Ocean to Greenland, where they visited local villages and historical and natural sites.
“We are not racing, we want to see and experience as much as possible,” Pruuli said.
The Northwest Passage opens for only a few months a year, so they planned to be at the eastern “gate” by mid-August, Pruuli said. That’s when the expedition left Greenland and sailed across Baffin Bay.
“Some big storms had made the ice move and blown our entrance to the passage quite clear,” Pruuli said.
In total, the crew spent 36 days in Arctic Canada and Alaska, visiting Kivalina, Point Hope, Kotzebue, Nome and Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait, Pruuli said.
“The last big emotion was entering the Bering Strait and going between the Diomede islands knowing that now it has officially been done,” Pruuli said. “We are the first Estonian sailing boat who has ever sailed through the passage.”
Estonian connection to Kotzebue
Visiting Kotzebue was a must for the expedition, Pruuli said. Located thousands of miles from Estonia, Kotzebue has a strong link to the country’s history.
Kotzebue Sound and Kotzebue the city were named after naval officer and explorer Otto von Kotzebue, who was from Estonia, then a part of the Russian Empire. In search of a passage across the Arctic Ocean, the officer led several naval expeditions into the Pacific, including along the western coast of North America and the Bering Strait.
Kotzebue — locally known as Kikiktagruk or Qikiqtaġruk, which means “almost an island” — had served as a trading center for the Inupiat for hundreds of years before Otto von Kotzebue’s arrival.
Cape Krusenstern and Cape Espenberg near Kotzebue Sound are also named after men born in Estonia.
“We were absolutely sure from the very beginning that we wanted to visit Kotzebue Bay and the town itself,” Pruuli said. “We are pretty sure that not very many Estonians, if any, have sailed those waters after Kotzebue, the place with symbolic meaning for us.”
One challenge in visiting Kotzebue was the size of the Admiral Bellingshausen. The sailboat is about 78 feet long and 20 feet wide, and has a draft of about 10 feet. The vessel is too big to sail through Kotzebue Sound to the shore, Pruuli said.
The crew anchored 9 miles away and contacted KOTZ radio on the morning of Sept. 13, asking for assistance to get into town.
“At last, Ed Iten with his boat, Katie Marie, was ready to give us a ride although the waves were pretty big and the sea quite bumpy,” Pruuli said. “He was a real professional and we are very grateful.”
Safely docking next to the Admiral Bellingshausen was tricky because of the four or five-foot swells in the open water, Iten said. After having the visitors come down the ladder one by one to get into his boat, Iten took them to town and listened to their story.
“They told me their main impetus to come into town was that there’s like four different Arctic explorers that are from Estonia. ... I had no idea!” Iten said. “We’ve got capes and so forth named after them, so they wanted to come to town and ... touch base, you know, since it’s close to their heritage.”
While in Kotzebue, the group visited the local radio station, walked around town and ate dinner at Empress Restaurant.
Kotzebue resident Johnson Greene greeted the group at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, where the travelers told him the reason for their visit and asked him about the history of Kotzebue.
“They’re a nice bunch of people, they spoke their language and also spoke English, and they were very excited to be there,” Greene said. “I thought it was very interesting and cool.”
Greene, who was born and raised in Sisualik, across the bay from Kotzebue and around the corner from Cape Krusenstern, said he was fascinated with the connection between Kotzebue and Estonia.
“One of the ladies, she said back in her hometown in Estonia, there’s a street named Kotzebue, and I thought that was awesome!” Greene said.
That was crew member Susan Luitsalu, an author of several travel books who — back home in Tallinn, Estonia — lives on Kotzebue Street and in a building named Otto House in honor of the explorer. During the visit, Luitsalu split from the group and explored the city on her own.
“There’s a lot of Kotzebue in my life lately,” Luitsalu said. “I walked almost every street — very enjoyable after days on a boat — went to the museum, sent postcards from Kotzebue to Kotzebue and took in the vast views from the promenade.”
After their Kotzebue visit, the crew went to Nome, took a short break and set off to sail to the Aleutian Islands and explore the area, hoping to reach Seattle by mid-October.
Throughout their voyage, travelers enjoyed the aurora borealis shows and glimpsed abundant wildlife in the Arctic. After coming through the narrow Bellot Strait, they entered a region where they saw dozens of polar bears on the shore and a big pod of belugas, Pruuli said.
“We anchored and just watched and watched and watched,” she said.
But the main highlight, she said, was the people they met in the region.
“The idea was to meet as many people as possible in those very sparsely inhabited, remote regions to get the local touch, understand better the way of their living, traditions, beliefs,” Pruuli said. “Those meetings became very valuable part of our journey, I dare say, we left some friends behind there. It was very heartwarming when you felt that people trusted you.”