The history of the 1819-1821 voyage is somewhat similar to the misadventures of the fictional Captain Vrungel and his yacht “Trouble”
4 July (hereinafter the dates are according to the old style. — Note “Around the World”) 1819, a large crowd gathered in the harbor of Kronstadt to see how the sloops “Vostok” and “Mirny” under the command Thaddeus Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, respectively, set sail on a round-the-world expedition. The ships were also seen off on their own yacht by the head of the Maritime Ministry, Marquis Ivan de Traversay.
Bellingshausen, who led the expedition, shared the enthusiasm of the Vostok team, but his heart was restless. He knew that the flagship was poorly built and poorly prepared for sailing in the polar latitudes. But an order is an order.
March  ;- July 1819
“Mistakes in construction”
The project of the first Russian Antarctic expedition was approved by Emperor Alexander I on the advice of navigators Otto Kotzebue and Ivan Krusenstern. At the beginning of the 19th century, Russia joined in the development of the World Ocean, but the polar latitudes were still unexplored and there was still hope for the existence of some kind of southern continent. The expedition had to come as close as possible to the South Pole from different directions.
Kruzenshtern wrote in March 1819: “We must not allow the glory of such an enterprise to be taken away from us,” but he considered it necessary to postpone the expedition for a year in order to prepare properly.
However, Minister de Traversay, in a hurry to fulfill royal wish, ordered to organize it as soon as possible. The order to appoint Bellingshausen, who then served on the Black Sea, as the head of the expedition, was signed on May 4, at the end of the month the captain arrived in the capital, and then in Kronstadt to receive ships.
The flagship “Vostok”, built in 1818, did not have reinforced outer skin, vital for sailing through the ice. Bellingshausen complained about the hull built from a damp pine forest, about excessively high masts, because of which the ship was too rolly.
“Errors in construction come more from the fact that shipbuilders build ships without ever at sea,” the captain lamented. Bellingshausen blamed the design flaws on Benjamin Stokke, an English engineer in the Russian service, who was favored by the emperor. In addition, the “Vostok” was cramped for a crew of 117 people.
The captain wanted to correct what was possible, “but because of the lateness, there was no time to proceed with this.” The second ship, Mirny, a former auxiliary ship converted into a sloop of war, was inferior to the flagship in size, but superior in strength.
The main reason for the poor quality of the vessel lay in the systemic crisis. The Russian Empire at that time waged many wars on land, and the fleet was supplied according to the residual principle. Due to lack of money, they saved on training voyages that tested ships for strength, on repairs, on weapons … However, the historian of the sailing fleet Sergei Makhov believes that the poor quality of ships was an eternal misfortune.
Be more attentive to the construction of military ships included states that were not rich in ship timber. “The same countries that sold timber usually neglected the quality of shipbuilding. Simply because the ships were cheaper there, since the wood itself was actually free. It is this approach that applies to Russia.
Why make an expensive ship that will last 20 years, when for this money you can build three ships that will last seven years each? But such logic failed when ships were required for long-distance voyages. Problems of low-quality construction immediately came out, which happened with the same “Vostok”, & nbsp; – states Makhov. No money was allocated for solid foreign vessels for the Antarctic expedition.
July 1819 – March 1820
“And then our tiller was damaged”
Problems began on the border with Antarctica. Cold, more frequent storms; ice blocks threatening to damage the skin; wet snow and fog; dampness, which was aggravated by poor-quality wood of ships. It took a lot of work for the crews of the two sailing ships not to lose each other in the ocean, especially since the Mirny turned out to be slower than the Vostok.
“Swimming in the high southern latitudes, at that time completely unknown, was a very difficult and dangerous business. <…> That is why two sloops were also sent to the Bellingshausen-Lazarev expedition, – noted the Soviet oceanologist, Professor Nikolai Zubov. – It was assumed that in the event of an accident with one of the ships, the other would provide the necessary assistance. Naturally, when sailing together, the ships felt more confident and could decide on more daring ventures.
On January 16, 1820, the ships first approached Antarctica – in the area the modern Bellingshausen Ice Shelf offshore, now named after Princess Martha. Later, in a letter to a friend, Lazarev reported about the landscape that surprised him that day: “… we reached the latitude 69 ° 23 'S, where they met hardened ice of extreme height, and <…> it stretched as far as the eye could only reach.”
It was on this day that it is believed that Antarctica was discovered. On February 5, sailors again saw the continental glacier – this time the future Princess Astrid Coast.
A week later, Vostok and Mirny again almost reached the mainland – in that part of it that is now called Enderby Land. However, the ships began to run out of firewood and water supplies, sails and rigging fell into disrepair from constant dampness.
Vostok especially suffered from storms. The waves tore the boards from the skin, and on February 19, as sailor Yegor Kiselev wrote in his diary, “there was great weather, severe storms, snow and rain <…>, and here the tiller (the lever for controlling the ship’s steering wheel) was damaged. — Note “Around the world”)”.
When the captain ordered the damaged lever removed eight days later, it simply fell apart. “The unreliability of the tiller, so necessary for the safety of the ship, proves the negligence of the shipmaster, who, forgetting the sacred duties of service and humanity, exposed us to death,” Bellingshausen was indignant, because a ship that became uncontrollable in a stormy sea would be doomed. Fortunately, the sailors managed to change the tiller on the move.
Due to the too large masts, the Vostok crew suffered from severe pitching. The hatches through which people climbed to the upper deck also turned out to be of an unsuccessful design. The wooden beams that bordered their doors were too low, causing water from the deck to constantly seep into the living quarters. In early March, Bellingshausen decided to take a breather, go north to the warm seas and repair there.
See also sea robbers exist to this day
March -October 1820
“The crackling of the parts of the sloop drowned out everything…”
The ships reached the Australian Gulf of Port Jackson separately. The captains agreed that the unreliable Vostok would go directly to the port, while the Mirny would explore the practically unexplored water area south of Tasmania. But on the way to the quiet harbor, Vostok got into a severe storm for three days and almost fell apart.
“The wind roared; the waves rose to extraordinary heights; the sea and the air seemed to be mixed, the crackling of the parts of the sloop drowned out everything. We were left completely without sails, at the mercy of a raging storm; I ordered several sailor's berths to be stretched out on mizzen shrouds in order to keep the sloop closer to the wind. However, the wave threw the ice floe away from the ship, and the collision was avoided.
In Australia, the sailors of both ships dried their sails, stocked up on provisions, and cured scurvy. Then they sailed to New Zealand, where they repaired the Vostok with local quality wood: they made ship hatches higher and made new yards for masts.
They explored the Pacific islands and entered Australia for another repair: parts of the masts and the bowsprit again needed to be replaced. Then they moved to the polar latitudes.
The first Russian Antarctic expedition, 1819–1821.
(1) Princess Martha's Coast
(2) Princess Astrid's Coast
(3) Enderby Land
(4) Peter I Island
(5) Alexander I Land
(6) South Shetland Islands
November 1820-February 1821
“Water kept coming in the hold…”
Correction of the shortcomings of the “East” continued on the way. To reduce pitching, the guns were removed into the hold, and the hull was reinforced from the inside. November 8 opened a leak in the bow. The carpenters tried to find the cracks through which water flowed, but during the voyage it was not possible to do this.
Now the captain could not even put additional sails, “so that by multiplying the course, not to increase the leaks in the bow” . And this is on a ship going to Antarctic waters! Bellingshausen tried to look at the matter philosophically:
“Lacking the means to help it, I had one consolation in the thought that courage sometimes leads to success”
Even light blows from small ice floes spoiled the sides. The grooves in the skin diverged, they were caulked, but this did not help much. On Christmas Day, right during the service, the Vostok corps was shaken by a powerful blow.
As astronomer Ivan Simonov wrote: “The sloop staggered, and Captain Bellingshausen remained on his knees with an unshakable spirit, and all those present prayed without getting up, except for Lieutenant Commander Zavadovsky, who went out to the quarterdeck, learned the circumstances of the case, reported to the captain and again became kneel beside him.”
The captain noted: the sloop did not sink only because it met with an ice floe when it went down the wave bow down, which is why the anchor rod somewhat softened the force of the blow. Here Bellingshausen again regretted that the ship was not supplied with additional plating.
Under such conditions, travelers continued to make discoveries. On January 10, 1821, the island of Peter I was discovered. A week later, Alexander Land I was discovered – today it has been proven that this is an island adjacent to Antarctica. Then we sailed to the South Shetland Islands.
A storm on February 4, 1821 almost sent the Vostok to the bottom. There was no place left on the ship where the sea would not leak. “Water constantly arrived in the hold, and during the storm it was continuously pumped out by pumps,” Bellingshausen wrote. The Vostok was in such a state that after stopping on the islands, the captains decided to turn both ships back home.
According to Lazarev, “the incessant pouring of water exhausted people extremely, who, however, were still healthy. The rot appeared in various places, and the shocks received from the ice forced the captain <…> think about returning.”
* * *
Vostok and Mirny arrived in Kronstadt on July 24, 1821. The first after James Cook, Russian navigators circled Antarctica from all sides, explored vast territories (including the discovery of 29 islands), while in 751 days of the expedition they lost only three.
Bellingshausen himself did not believe that he had found the sixth continent. The question of priority in this expedition of 1819-1821 was raised by its former member Pavel Novosilsky in the 1850s, when new information about the lands beyond the Antarctic Circle appeared.
But the vice-president of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, Fyodor Litke, questioned these claims, arguing that Bellingshausen and Lazarev had not collected enough scientific data.
The merits of the expedition were again noticed in 1948, when the question of international status arose Antarctica. As a result, the point of view was strengthened in Soviet historiography that it was Bellingshausen and Lazarev who discovered it.
The rush in which the expedition was being prepared, it turns out, was not in vain. If the ships were delayed, the British would have outstripped the Russians: in 1820, Captain Edward Bransfield saw the coast of Antarctica only two days later than the Russians. Whether it was worth saving on the necessary and putting the lives of the Vostok crew at additional risk is another question.
Photo: © RETRO/PHOTOBANK LORI (X2), DREAMSFOTO/LEGION-MEDIA, DIOMEDIA, Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy/Legion Media
Material published in Vokrug Sveta magazine No. 11, November 2019, partially updated in January 2023