The contributions of James Cook
Although James Cook was never a part of the quest for the NSR, no account of the background to the NSR would be complete without touching on his achievements. In 1778, Cook discovered Hawaii, naming the island chain the Sandwich Islands. He turned to the northeast to map the western coastline of Alaska and Canada, then passed through the Bering Strait to reach the 70th parallel before his advance was halted by sea ice. Cook was forced to return to Hawaii , where he met a tragic death. Although his crew returned to the Bering Strait, they were once again blocked by sea ice, obliging them to return to England via Kamchatka, Japan and the Straits of Malacca. Cook developed a technique to obtain highly accurate mapping results. He set a baseline using astronomical observations and mapped the contours of the coast by recording bearing and distance at a few points. To deduce the distance between points, Cook fired a gun and measured the time taken between two ships. Beginning with his second voyage, Cook added a chronometer to his toolkit, enabling him to examine the error between astronomical and non-astronomical bearings, such as the latitudinal error between measurements based on lunar distance and those obtained by astronomical observation. With this bold new technique, Cook conducted painstaking measurements of tides and ocean currents. The maps and astronomical navigation techniques Cook formed a new foundation for generations of maritime explorers to come and ushered in a great new age of British hydrography. Cook's methods and results proved invaluable in later missions to navigate the NSR.
2.1.2 From Nordenskjold to the Russian Revolution
The voyages of Adolf Erik Nordenskjold
The first mariner to successfully navigate the entire Northeast Passage was Adolf Erik Nordenskjold. Professor Nordenskjold's Vega left the port of Tromso in Norway, traveling for over a year across the icy Arctic seas before passing through the Bering Strait in July 1879 and reaching Yokohama in September of the same year. However, Nordenskjold's motives had nothing to do with finding an NSR linking Europe and Asia. Nordenskjold was searching for two different routes. One of these, later called the Kara Sea Route, would link Europe with the Ob-Yenisey river basin; the other was a prospective passage from Europe to the Lena basin.
The tragedy of the Jeanette
During the same period, in 1879, the United States was in the midst of an aggressive territorial expansion. The American government dispatched the explorer De Long to discover a new continent in the Arctic and to reach the North Pole. Although he passed through the Bering Strait, De Long advanced no further than the 71st parallel. De Long's expeditionary vessel, the Jeanette, drifted for two years after that, and was finally shipwrecked in the Novosibirskiye archipelago. On this ill-starred voyage De Long succeeded in discovering Wrangel Island, but tragically only 13 of a crew of 33 men survived to reach the Lena River. Three years later, timbers from the shipwrecked Jeanette were found on the southeast coast of Greenland, casting doubt on the existence, widely speculated at the time, of a new continent at the North Pole. Public opinion grew increasingly negative about the entire enterprise of the search for a northern continent.
The hardships of Arctic navigation and the construction of the first icebreakers
Lured by the region's wealth of natural resources, between 1876 and 1919 as many as 122 expeditions are recorded in the quest for the Kara Sea route advocated by Nordenskjold. Unfortunately the vast majority of these voyages were not the successful commercial operations Nordenskjold envisaged, but extremely dangerous missions whose success rate was dismayingly low. Of 87 expeditions that set sail for the Ob-Yenisey basin from 1874 to 1901, only 60 reached their destination; another 22 fell short and returned to port, and five were shipwrecked.