Warship Wednesday Dec. 31, 2014 the Mystery of the St Anne, Flying Dutchman of the Arctic
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Dec. 31, 2014 the Mystery of the St Anne, Flying Dutchman of the Arctic
Here we see the Russian 145-foot arctic survey ship Svyataya Anna (formerly HMS Newport) as she pokes through the far north, the last of her class of Royal Navy Philomel-class gunvessel. Have you seen her?
She has been on a milk carton for the past 100-years.
In the 1860s, the Royal Navy needed a class of fairly fast but economical naval vessels that could run around coastal waters waving the flag in far-off colonial ports. The answer to this problem was the Philomel-class of ‘steam schooners’.
These shallow-draught (13-foot at full load) schooner-rigged ships with an auxiliary 2-cyl. horizontal single-expansion steam engine to push a screw when in doldrums were capable of crossing the globe while their 145-ft. oal allowed them to enter even the smallest of colonial backwater harbors. Even though they had wooden hulls, they were triple oak planking sheathed with copper, which made them exceptionally strong.
Armed with a 68-pdr muzzle-loading smooth-bore gun (later upgraded to an impressive 110-pounder 7-inch breechloader) as well as a pair each of 20 and 24-pounders, their 60-man crew could make an impression on wayward natives, chase down maritime outlaws, and in times of war capture enemy merchant ships when found.
Best yet, since they were just armed and well-built merchantmen themselves, they could be constructed at private yards rather than tying up the navy’s larger dockyards. Class leaders Ranger and Espoir were ordered on April Fools Day 1857 and within the next four years some 26 of these hardy little craft were in the works at no less than 9 yards (8 private and one military) around the UK.
One of these, ordered 17 September 1860 from H. M. Dockyard Pembroke in Wales, was HMS Newport. Put on hold for an extensive period as the Royal Navy redirected its efforts to large men-of-war during a period of tension between both the Tsar and the United States and the UK during the Civil War, she wasn’t completed until April 1868.
Like the rest of her class, of which just 20 ultimately saw service, Newport spent her time under the red ensign in colonial service. While her sisterships saw Hong Kong, Australia and the West Indies, Newport was destined for African and Mediterranean service where she was under the helm of Cdr. George Nares (later Vice Admiral Sir George, a famed arctic explorer and surveyor who would later be a part of the Challenger expedition).
While under Nares’s watch, Newport became the first ship to cross through the French-built Suez Canal in November 1869, much to the chagrin of the French who had that coveted honor supposedly in the bag. It would not be the Newport‘s last brush with an arctic explorer by far.
Technology passed the Philomel-class in the 1870s as steel-hulled ships proved faster and less high-maintenance. This led to their rapid replacement in Her Majesty’s Navy and by 1882 all but HMS Nimble, which was herself to be relegated to RNR training duties at Hull until being paid off in 1906, were pulled from the line and sold. Newport was disarmed, pulled from the Naval List in May 1881 at age 13, and sold to British arctic explorer Sir Allen Young who had used Newport‘s sistership HMS Pandora in the 1870s to search for the lost Franklin expedition.
He had sold that ship to another would-be explorer, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. who would enter her into U.S. Naval service as the USS Jeannette, who would famously be lost at sea above Siberia in June 1881, crushed by drifting ice floes. Even triple oak sheathed in copper cannot stand up to millions of tons of ice.
Fresh out of boats and enamored with the Philomel-class design, Sir Allen picked up the now-surplus Newport and renamed her Pandora II (that sounds lucky). He lobbied hard for a British Antarctic Expedition, of which he would be the leader and Newport/Pandora II would be the flagship of, but that proved not to pan out and by 1890 Sir Allen sold his would-be polar survey ship to one F W Leyborne-Popham who (wait for it) wanted to take her to explore the far Arctic north of Siberia. It seems that in the last part of the 19th century, polar exploration was the ‘in’ thing to do.
Renamed the Blencathra, Leyborne-Popham took his third-hand ship as far as the mouth of the wild Yenisey River in Northern Siberia where he became involved in commerce to help support the new Trans-Siberian railway project before selling the ship to another Englishman, Major Andrew Coats, who in turn (this is going to shock you) used it for polar exploration, meteorological research and a good bit of commercial seal hunting in the Arctic ranging from Spitsbergen to Novaya Zemlya, the frozen Siberian island chain. Somewhere around this time her elderly Civil War-era engine had been replaced by a 41hp low-power plant.
It was then, at age of 43, that the old gunboat Newport/Pandora II/Blencathra found herself bought by an enterprising Imperial Russian Naval Officer, Senior Lt. Georgy Lvovich Brusilov in 1912. If the name sounds familiar, our story’s newest polar explorer was the nephew of the same General Alexei Alekseevich Brusilov (1853-1926) who later led the offensive in 1916 that very nearly knocked Austria out of World War One.
Endeavoring to make his own name in the history books, the younger Brusilov was competing for fame with no less than two other Russian polar expeditions outfitting at the same time,that of Vladimir Rusanov in his ship “Hercules,” and Lt. Georgy Sedov in his ship the “St Foka,” — both of which would end in abject failure in the frozen hell of the Arctic and their leader’s death. Rusanov tried to reach the far North and survey for coal deposits along the way, while Sedov was meaning to dog sled to the North Pole and Brusilov wanted to sail the Northwest Passage from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.
With so many expeditions vying for fame (and funding), Brusilov had to make do with his elderly schooner and find a crew outside the normal naval channels for the great First Russian Northern Sea Route Expedition.
Brusilov, 28, had been to the Arctic before aboard the Navy’s icebreakers Taymyr and Vaygach so he at least had some knowledge of what he was up against. Wisely, he chose an experienced polar navigator, 31-year old Valerian Albanov for his crew. A classmate of Brusilov’s, Albanov had paid his own way through the Naval Academy by tutoring and selling model ships and the two were of vastly different backgrounds.
The bulk of the two-dozen members of the expedition were mainly seal hunters as Brusilov counted on selling a hold full of seal pelts and walrus tusks in Vladivostok to cover the cost of the expedition, which had been fronted by friends and relatives. The crew was rounded out by a few random St. Petersburg adventurers, a couple of professional mariners to do the heavy lifting, and, when no doctor could be conned, one 22-year-old female nurse, Yerminia Zhdanko. She was a society lady, the daughter of Port Arthur hero and then-head of the Imperial Hydrographic Bureau Gen. Ermin Zhdanko.
With time spent refitting his new ship, named Svyataya Anna (after the 14th Century Russian Saint Anna of Kashin) and assembling his supplies, Brusilov wasn’t ready to leave St. Petersburg until August– just weeks before the advent of winter.
Pro-tip: this is not the best time of year to try the Northwest Passage!
Soon, the Newport/Pandora II/Blencathra/Svyahtaya Anna was starting to bump into hard Arctic ice floes in the Kara Sea and by October 28, 1912 was locked in off the west coast of the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia. Brusilov had expected as much and laid in a huge stock of canned canned fish and meats enough to last through 1915 if needed. It was.
All of 1913 came and went with the St. Anne locked in the ice but unfortunately, the ship was never released. Instead of remaining close to the Siberian coast, it drifted north-northwest, back towards the Atlantic rather than the Pacific. As it did so, the boat past north of 83 degrees latitude and left shore far behind.
By 1914, shit got really out of hand on board.
While the crew still had a ton of canned food, supplemented by seals and bears, they had long ago ran out of fruits and vegetables, which left them scurvy-ridden and in a generally poor attitude about life. Soon Brusilov and many of the crew were so weakened they were bedridden. Fuel grew sparse and the schooner became an icy tomb in which her crew lived off frozen butter and hardtack biscuits in spaces kept warm by burning seal blubber. The bulkheads of the ship’s interior became encased in ice and temperatures in the vessel hovered just a few degrees over freezing, requiring everyone to remain fully clothed at all times, huddled over what meager flame they could find.
Long kept busy by taking met data and soundings through holes cut in the ice compared to celestial readings, monotony turned to rebellion.
This led to a largely peaceful mutiny in which the captain relieved Albanov of his post (which, according to Albanov’s later account, was mutual). Following this the unemployed navigator, taking a copy of the ship’s log book, correspondence from the crew, 500 pounds of biscuits, a shotgun and a few Remington rifles for bear protection, gathered 13 mariners who felt the same way, and left the St. Anne on April 10, 1914 walking on foot for Siberia which he reckoned was a few hundred miles or so to the south.
Pushing homemade kayaks sewn from sailcloth over the ice and alternating snowshoeing and skiing, the group dropped like flies in the inhospitable climate. Whittled down to just Albanov and a single sailor, 24-year old Alexander Konrad, they reached land at an old abandoned camp established by explorer Frederick George Jackson at Cape Flora, Franz Josef Land on July 9. There, the two remained alive on supplies left, coincidentally by the Sedov expedition who had passed there earlier. By stroke of luck, it was the St Foka, sans Sedov himself who was long since dead, who found the two survivors of the St. Anne on July 20.
Returning to Russia just as World War One was starting, Albanov turned over the logbooks from the St. Anne, which held valuable information on underwater topography, sea currents, ice drift, and meteorological data from the ship’s 18 months trapped in the ice and became something of a minor celebrity.
He wrote of his story of survival as did Konrad, the classic tale of which has been translated into several languages.
Its English language version is “In the Land of White Death.” Truly a bedtime story.
Speaking of books, the story of Brusilov, and also incidentally of Sedov, was turned into a novel by Soviet author Veniamin Kaverin entitled The Two Captains which was one of the bestselling works of the 20th Century behind the Iron Curtain.
What happened to the St. Anne?
As for the St. Anne, rescue expeditions, including the first airplane flights over the Arctic region (by Polish-Russian naval aviator Jan Nagórski), were mounted to find the ship but they came to naught. After Albanov’s party left, Brusilov and some dozen sick men tended to by their female nurse remained aboard, with enough rations remaining to last for another 18 months, which bought them some time.
In 1915, a lemonade bottle washed up near Cape Kuysky, not far from Arkhangelsk with a note from the ship signed by Brusilov in 1913 saying that he was feeling fine, which leads to the possibility that he just wanted the troublesome Albanov and his allies off the ship.
The former navigator was haunted by the fact that the St. Anne never appeared. Albanov journeyed to the Yensei area in 1919 and asked former arctic explorer Admiral Kolchack, then the White Army governor of the region, for help mounting a search for the St. Anne. However the Russian Civil War overtook both of these officers and neither lived to see 1920.
Konrad, the sailor who got away with Albanov, likewise remained in the Soviet merchant service and returned often to the Arctic several times before his death during World War II, likely with a weather eye out for the old schooner he walked away from.
In 1928 a story of a woman in Tallinn, Estonia of her long missing cousin, Yerminia Zhdanko coming for a visit from France with her ten-year old son in tow, after a marriage to Brusilov, made it to a local newspaper.
Likewise, a French novel, “In the Polar Ice,” edited by Rene Gouzee and attributed to being the diary of one Yvonne Sherpante , a woman who lived through a love-triangle on the schooner “Elvira” appeared on the market the same year. This of course draws some similarities to the tale of Zhdanko. Was Yvonne Sherpante actually the still quite-alive Yerminia Zhdanko? Likely not but the story was surely modeled after hers.
All of which leads to the screwball theory that at least the Captain and the nurse escaped destruction and for whatever reason, shame maybe, kept a low profile and their story even lower as they aged. As the elder Brusilov was ill-liked among White Russian émigré circles in France due to his support of the Reds in the Civil War, this is almost believable.
But wait, there’s more!
In 1937 Soviet explorer VI Akkuratov, who coincidentally knew Konrad, landed on Rudolf Island and found a ladies patent leather shoe marked “Supplier of the Imperial Household: St. Petersburg” on it. Since the St. Anne’s nurse was the only known lady of Tsarist society to have ever passed near that icebox, it has been speculated that maybe Yerminia Zhdanko left the ship later with another group or Brusilov was convinced to eventually follow in Albanov’s footsteps. This could have left the unmanned ship to wander at sea alone in the Arctic.
Conceivably, it could have been there for years or even decades before being spit out into the Atlantic as a ghost ship.
This is not so farfetched.
On June 18, 1884, verified wreckage from St. Anne‘s sister USS Jeannette (including clothing with crewmember’s names) was found on an ice floe near Julianehåb (now Qaqortoq) near the southern tip of Greenland although she broke up near the Bearing Strait three years before.
In 1938 the Soviet icebreaker Sedov (yes, named after that Sedov– small world) became locked in the sea ice near the New Siberian Islands and remained there, adrift in the floe for 812 days, until she was broken out by a rescue party between Spitsbergen and Greenland. Had she not been extricated from the ice then, she may have remained there much longer.
Nansen’s Fram followed a similar course when it was icebound 1893-96.
This suggests that the ice of the Arctic Ocean was in constant westward motion from the Siberian coast to the North American coast and as such would have eventually pushed St Anne into the Atlantic at some point, likely near Iceland or Spitsbergen, probably sometime around 1918.
In the 1988 Soviet seascape artist and writer Nikolai Cherkashin while visiting the Hanseatic bar in the port city of Stralsund, East Germany, came across a battered old ship’s wheel and a worn Russian icon of the little known Saint Anna of Kashin. Asking about it, he was told an amazing tale.
“The owner of the cellar told that the steering wheel and the icon was found by his father, who immediately after the Second World War, was fishing in the North Sea,” wrote Cherkashin. “In the autumn of 1946, his trawler in dense fog almost ran into an abandoned schooner. Examining this schooner, fishermen found her, a lot of canned meat, and other foodstuffs, which he handled himself and his father took the helm from the schooner and icon.”
On the wheel was a badly worn inscription that could be read in English script “..andor..” which, of course, could be part of, “Pandora II.”
Its (wildly) conceivable that St Anne, abandoned by her crew, could have washed up along some forgotten glacial ice near Greenland around 1918– which in turn broke free decades later. She could then have drifted as far as the North Sea to be salvaged by a German fisherman before she sank. Stranger things have happened.
Most recently, in 2010, an expedition to Franz Josef Land by the Russian Wildlife Discovery Club found a male skeleton and some 20 artifacts that includes a set of sunglasses made from rum bottle bottoms, early pre-WWI era 208-grain 7.62x54R cartridges and shell casings, a canvas belt, sailor’s knife, dairy, whistle and brass pocket watch along the route that Albanov took.
It is believed that the body is either sailor Vladimir Gubanov, helmsman Peter Maximov, sailor Paul Humbles, or ship’s steward Jan Regald, the four of the mariners who perished in that area, separated from Abanov. However, it could very well be from a follow-on group that tried to do the same. DNA tests are pending and should prove interesting while further expeditions are planned.
“Today we got our last brick of tobacco; the matches ran out long ago,” reads the diary dated May 1913, adding that crew members hunted polar bear to supplement canned supplies.
Its unknown if there is a monument to St Anna in Russia.
The logs from the St Anna, as well as the original diaries of both Konrad and Albanov, are in the collection of the Arctic and Antarctic Museum of St. Petersburg.
A monument to the original HMS Pandora, Newport/St.Anne’s sistership lost as the USS Jeanette is, however, on the grounds of the US Naval Academy.
A number of geographic and landmarks and seabed features in the Arctic region have been named in honor of the St. Anne, Brusilov, Albanov, and Zhdanko.
Their final story, and the ship’s resting place, may never be known.
Displacement: 570 tons
Length: 145 ft. (44.2 m) oa, 127 ft. 10.25 in (39.0 m) pp
Beam: 25 ft. 4 in (7.7 m)
Depth of hold: 13 ft. (3.96 m)
Installed power: 325 ihp (242 kW)
Laird Brothers single 2-cyl. Horizontal single-expansion steam engine
Auxiliary Schooner sailing rig, later Brigantine rig
Speed: 9.25 knots (17 km/h)
Complement: 60 as a naval vessel
Armament (As built)
1 × 68-pdr muzzle-loading smoothbore gun (replaced with 7-inch gun 1871)
2 × 24-pdr howitzers
2 × 20-pdr breech-loading guns
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