Wednesday, July 12, 2017

50 Let Peobedy

June 26, 2017

There is great excitement in our hotel this morning, as about 100 of us are awaiting the opportunity to board our home for the next two weeks, the ship known as 50 Years Of Victory or 50 Let Peobedy. The ship is the world’s largest nuclear powered icebreaker currently in operation. A new and larger vessel was launched in 2016, but will not be operational until 2020. I am sure that once we are onboard I will have a lot more interesting information to share, but for now there is a general sense of excitement. Visible from our hotel room is the Lenin. That ship was the world’s first nuclear icebreaker, but it was retired several years ago, and now it sits as a museum.

While waiting to board our vessel, we have had an opportunity to do some touring of the area, and my general overall opinion was that it reminded me very much of an old communist town with the tall drab buildings and the run down infrastructure. The city has five basic sections, and each is home to a war Memorial. Our guide reminded us that the city is new, having been started in only 1916. At that time, the Russian government recognized the importance of the waters in these regions, which essentially remain ice-free during the entire year due to the effects of the Gulf Stream. Therefore, they set about establishing the city on the banks of the Kola Peninsula. Vast areas of virgin tundra were planted with seedlings that today give the surrounding hills a colorful view of Aspen like trees. Because of the harsh environment, however, these trees have grown to no more than about 10 to 12 feet in height. Once outside the boundary where these trees were originally planted, the surrounding area turns to tundra again as far as the eye can see.

We are here during the best time of the year, since the city has sunlight virtually all day. Sunrise is at 3 AM, and sunset is just after midnight. I had been watching the temperatures prior to our coming to this area, and they had been running right around or a little above freezing, with occasional rain and snow. However, as is typical in this area when it gets to the summer solstice, the weather can warm rather dramatically, so that temperatures can run in the mid-50s. Nonetheless as we flew in we could clearly see snow in the surrounding hills, and when clouds arrive and wind comes off the water, this beautiful weather can take a chilly turn for the worse in a nanosecond. The flipside to these beautiful long sunny days is that for half the year, the city is bathed in darkness. It is for this reason that the government attempts to attract people to this region by paying double wages. Even at that, however, it is difficult on people emotionally, and in recent years, the city has seen a decline in population, as the advent of a market economy has offered even more profitable jobs in the larger cities like St. Petersburg.

Late this afternoon they announced a schedule whereby the 113 of us taking this journey would be broken into smaller groups and escorted to the Atomflot Naval Base, home to the Russian Nuclear Navy. There, we would undergo special scrutiny before being granted access to the base. The tour operators emphasized that this is the only nuclear base in Russia into which civilians are allowed, and even here, only those involved with this icebreaker are granted this privilege. At times, they say that security to enter the base is not too difficult, while on other occasions, it can take most of the day. Fortunately for us, on this day security was similar to that of entering an airport. However, each of us had our passports checked and faces identified and then compared to a list that had been prepared ahead of time. That list included our names and passport numbers, and we had been warned that any deviation from what was contained within our actual passports could very well cause difficulty, even up to and including being denied boarding to the ship. As it turned out, the lady in the line ahead of Lisa had made a change in her passport since she had submitted paperwork. Security caught the change immediately, and she was quietly, but forcefully escorted away for further screening. After some time, the issue was successfully resolved, and she was ultimately allowed to board the ship. The ship we are boarding is technically owned by a State company, and is not therefore officially part of the Russian Navy, but the mere fact that it can only be accessed through their naval facility, I think speaks volumes.

Once being allowed onto the base, we had to walk to our ship, docked near to the security facility. It was a long, and somewhat muddy walk at the end of which, we were greeted with a long and steep stairway. Fortunately, we did get some help with our carry-on bags. After entering the ship, our passports were collected and we were directed to our cabin. Now during this cruise, use of the elevators is prohibited. Our cabin requires that we climb four flights of stairs. Since the ship had not yet left the port, we were allowed to use the elevator this one time. Thereafter, our only means of reaching the dining room will be to go up and down four flights of stairs every day. Who knows it might even be good for us!

We found our room at the top of stairs, but before describing it to you, I need to share some context. I had heard that this vessel was a “working” ice breaker. To me that meant with the exception of a few short weeks during the summer in which it carried passengers, the rest of the year it was keeping the sea lanes open in the Russian Arctic. That is indeed a correct statement, but I did not realize its implications. How does a “working” ship, suddenly become a passenger vessel? Well it’s very simple – the cabins which are normally occupied by the officers and upper-level crew are vacated in order that they might be used by passengers. The crew squeezes into the lower levels during passenger season. It was emphasized to us that the people working on this vessel consider it their home, and most of them live here year round with the exception of their vacation time. So in a sense, we were being allowed into their home during our two-week visit.

Our new home turned out to be that of the ship’s Staff Captain. It is a very large room which even has its own refrigerator. That being said, it is certainly not the equivalent of a cruise ship cabin. There is a small bedroom with an adjoining bathroom. To enter the bedroom, you go through what I would describe as an office. There is a nice size desk, with plenty of shelving, and even a sofa. The room is certainly large enough that group gatherings could be conducted. The first problem we encountered was that the bedroom holds only a single bed. It is surrounded on all sides with raised wooden edges which is very uncomfortable, and completely impossible to be occupied by two people. In the office area of the room they have converted the sofa into a bed – well kind of bed! I will see if I can explain. Picture in your mind a sofa where if you put in the bottom of the sofa towards you and as you do so it will slide down lie flat. Now if you think about it for a minute, the part of the sofa towards the wall that was previously the back is well supported by the foundation of the sofa. The bottom of the sofa that was pulled out over the edge is almost completely unsupported by anything underneath. Therefore when you sit down on the sofa, it wants to immediately drop down so that you will end up on the floor. After a little experimenting, I found that if we placed our carry-on bags strategically underneath part of the sofa, it gave some support to keep overhang from throwing me to the floor.

Besides the amount of space that we have, the best part of our new room is without question the fact that we have forward and side facing windows that can be opened. We are positioned directly underneath the bridge, and so from our room we have almost the same view as does the crew one deck above. The good news about the windows is that they can be opened, while the bad news about the windows is that they can be opened! When we first entered our room yesterday I would suspect the temperature was close to 85 to 90°. Believe me, the ship does have heat and lots of it. Therefore having the window open gives us some small respite from the heat. Now that we are moving along at about 21 knots through a cold sea, the slight amount of air whistling around the windows is almost too much. We found from our room steward, that there is a special tool they use to tighten down the window, but if we do that, our room becomes too hot. So we are now trying to find a delicate balance, where it is just the right amount of air that we want, without either sweating to death, or freezing our butts off.

The final thing that I will mention with regard to our room, deals with the bathroom. It truly is a piece of work! You must be very careful not to lean on the sink because it is pulling away from the wall. If you turn on the water, you get a very slow trickle of rust colored water – your choice of hot or cold. The toilet has a unique handle for activating it, and that handle fell off shortly after we arrived. I found the screw that had fallen out, and it was completely corroded. I managed to get it back in temporarily, but when I showed it to our room steward this morning, she simply shrugged and said “that’s the way it works.” I also pointed out that during the night the toilet had repeatedly flushed without being activated, and as I was talking to her it did just that. Our steward then launched into a long discussion of how with the heat, and somehow being on the top floor, combined with the loose toilet, well; “that’s the way it works.”

I have a great deal more that I would like to share, but I think I will stop at this point and save the rest for a later day. I gather that this is going to be a very exciting voyage. They tell us that they just returned from the same trip, and that the ice this season is quite thick. They fully expect that when we arrive at the North Pole, we will be able to get off the ship and stand on the ice.

So standby, there is lots more adventure to come.


No comments: