Stranded in the Arctic


The men sailing in the Arctic convoys of World War II had a bitter cause to know, that there was no sea in the world more cruel than the ocean that reached north from Norway.

Spray freezes in the air, that crystallized all over a ship, could capsize the ship with the weight. Shards of razor sharp ice cut through clothing. Any man who carelessly grasped a rail with an unprotected hand was liable to strip the skin from his palm. Anyone falling overboard would die an extremely agonizing death from the unforgiving, piercing cold in minutes.

Willem Barentsz

It is called the Barents Sea, named after the Dutch navigator, cartographer, and Arctic explorer, Willem Barentss, who dared to challenge it and died. This happened nearly 400 years before World War II.

Barentsz wrote his own epitaph in a letter dated June 13, 1597. He stuffed it up the chimney of the wooden shack that he had built on a frozen island. It was found three centuries later in 1871, by a party of Norwegian whalers who had rowed ashore from their ship to the barren island of Novaya Zemlya. It recalled an almost forgotten saga of man’s struggles against the brutal savagery of the northern sea.


Commissioned by Dutch merchants to discover the fabled North East Passage to the Indies, Barentsz set out with two ships in 1596. After rounding the coast of Spitsbergen he found pack ice blocking his way north and decided to turn east and round the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya. This was something that Barentsz had done before, but the captain of the second ship, Jan Rijp, refused to follow, because he preferred using a safer and more well-known route to the south.


As Barentsz’s lone vessel rounded the tip of the island, the harsh reality of the situation began to set in – Rijp was right all along. It was too late to turn back. The pack ice closed in and finally choked the ship. As Barentsz letter makes it apparent, he and his crew faced the challenge of surviving the Arctic winter and get home without their ship.

They tackled the problem by first building a hut made of driftwood on the island.This 7.8×5.5 metre lodge was built after a failed attempt to melt the permafrost. It was stocked with food from the ice-locked ship. The ship bore salted beef, butter, cheese, bread, barley, peas, beans, groats, flour, oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, beer, wine, brandy, hardtack, smoked bacon, ham and fish. Arctic foxes were killed for fresh meat. Burning wood in a stove to melt snow provided fresh water.

Het Behouden Huys on Novaya Zemlya; Source: Wikipedia

Gerrit de Veer, the ship’s carpenter, who kept a diary of the voyages was the first westerner to observe hypervitaminosis A caused by consuming polar bear liver and the first person to observe and record the Novaya Zemlya effect. The Novaya Zemlya effect is polar mirage caused by high refraction of sunlight between atmospheric thermal layers/thermoclines. In simpler words, it will give the impression that the sun is rising earlier than it actually should (astronomically speaking). The effect will also present the Sun as a line or a square (which is sometimes referred to as the “rectangular sun”), made up of flattened hourglass shapes. 

The Novaya Zemlya effect: a distorted image due to the mirage. Also visible is the green flash.


The cold was an absolute nightmare. The crew realised that their socks would burn before their feet could even feel the warmth of a fire. Even though they huddled close to the stove, which they kept burning day and night, their backs were always coated with frost. They warmed their beds with heated stones and cannonballs. In addition, they used the merchant fabrics aboard the ship to make additional blankets and clothing.

All but two crew members survived the winter.


Then came the spring, bringing sunshine that lengthened into an hour or two a day. By then, the ship had been throttled into a near wreck by the ice. Escaping in the two open boats was their only hope.

Having been deprived of food and essentials, Barentsz became extremely weak, and almost certainly had a premonition of his fate. He began to realize that death was imminent, and wrote three letters with whatever strength he had left, that the world must know the story if he never returned.

One letter was carried in each of the two boats. As for the third letter, Barentsz left it in the chimney of the hut where the whalers from Norway found it 274 years later.

The little boats struggled round the northern tip of the island and headed south. Shortly afterwards, a raging storm threatened to batter the little boats to pieces and they had to be dragged on to a large ice floe.

It was there, a few days later, that the Willem Barentsz, the only man who could navigate the way home, died.

The Death of Willem Barentsz (1836) by Christiaan Julius Lodewyck Portman; Source: Wikipedia

When the storm subsided, the others struggled blindly on, sometimes having to drag their boats across the ice when it blocked their way. Once, the ice melted under one of the boats, and most of the stores tipped out and were lost.

Adding to the torment of cold and hunger was scurvy.

After travelling 1600 miles across the Arctic in open boats and surviving appalling hardships, the survivors eventually reached the refuge of Kola, seven weeks after Barentsz’s death.

There, with his ship to the rescue, was wise Captain Jan Rijp!

Only 12 crew members had survived. Sources differ on whether two men died on the ice floe and three in the boats, or three on the ice floe and two in the boats. The young cabin boy, who was among the crew members, had died during the winter months in the shelter.

As for Barentsz, it is not known whether he was buried on the northern island of Novaya Zemlya, or at sea.

The remains of the wooden lodge of Willem Barentsz on Novaya Zemlya, sketched by Elling Carlsen in 1871; Source: Wikipedia

The location of Barentsz’ wintering on the ice floes has become a tourist destination for icebreaker cruiseships operating from Murmansk.

Willem Barentsz was the sailor who dared and died.

Captain Jan Rijp, a more wary mariner paid due respect to the ferocity of the Barents Sea- and lived to sail another day.


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