It was a modern day adventure that resulted in the discovery of the 140-year-old wreck of The Thames, a 120-ton British steamship with sails, captained at the time of its sinking by Joseph Wiggins.
Two Russian researchers, Nikolay Karelin and Alexander Goncharov, under the auspices of the Russian Geographical Society, planned a 30-day research adventure. Their team was to sail down the Yenisei River, travelling by catamaran. They left from Turukhansk, just south of the Arctic Circle, in an attempt to reach Dikson Island in the Kara Sea – a distance of over 550 miles (880 km). Close to a bend in the river, near Goroshikha, which lies about 50 miles (80km) below the Arctic Circle, the team came upon a wreck. Dr Goncharov and his team had been convinced that they would find The Thames somewhere in that area, for they had consulted many old maps and charts which brought them to a conclusion. “We had sonar and a camera that was submergible, but the water is very murky there so we didn’t get a good resolution,” he said. After a few dives, however, they located the stern section of The Thames, even though only about half a metre of it was exposed, the rest of the wreck being covered in sand and silt.
The Thames had a very colourful and audacious Victorian Captain. He was bent on using and extending the use of the Northern Sea Route, mainly for purposes of trade – especially because of the potentially rich resources that could be found in Siberia such as timber, furs, coal and even mammoth bones.
Born in Norwich in September 1832, in a family of mail coach operators, Wiggins became a very successful sea captain. He was determined to prove that it was possible to use the sea-routes in that frozen Arctic Circle area – particularly via the Kara Sea – so that he could trade with Siberia. He finally managed to personally finance a successful expedition to the Gulf of Ob in 1874, thereby proving that the Kara Sea was indeed navigable.
He followed up on this success by sailing The Thames, with its seasoned crew, across the Kara Sea once more, this time into the Yenisei Gulf, which he reached in 1876. He then navigated The Thames up the river, thereby becoming the first ocean vessel to enter the Yenisei from the Arctic. By then, the ship carrying a cargo of graphite which was bound for Britain wintered on the river – but as they tried to continue, The Thames, in 1877, ran aground and froze to the bottom of the river, some 916 miles (1,475km) north of Krasnoyarsk. Captain Wiggins was forced to sell various pieces of the ship as spare parts and he and his British crew, having survived the disaster, travelled back home overland. With the coming of spring and the melting of the ice, the ship sank into the mud and silt of the riverbed, where it has lain, almost forgotten, until now.
This heavy setback in no way deterred our intrepid Captain, for Wiggins continued to sail through dangerous Arctic waters, and even managed to deliver the rail tracks needed for the Trans-Siberian railway line. In all, he sailed up the Ob River twice (one of the longest rivers in the world) and delivered five cargo-loads to the Yenisei. Captain Wiggins is seen as a historical figure of some importance, for it was he who pioneered the access route to and from Siberia by ship.
During his lifetime, Captain Wiggins was honoured by Tsar Alexander III for his enterprise, but more particularly for his contribution towards the building of the Siberian railway line. Today, the research team is keen to locate any descendants of Captain Wiggins and are hoping that the remnants of The Thames will be lifted from its watery grave, to be suitably displayed for its historical significance.
The Thames was not the only wreck found in the Yenisei River, for what is thought to be the wreck of a Russian clipper, The Northern Lights, which sank that same winter, was also located. With this ship, however, the sailors were less fortunate, and many them did not survive the catastrophe.
The Northeast passage, which is the Arctic route following the coastlines of Russia and Norway, has always been seen as a possible and lucrative trade route opportunity, but when discovered in 1850 by Robert McClure it was not navigable. From then on, many explorers and mariners became obsessed with trying to find a suitable route through these inhospitable, icy waters. Since approximately 2009 however, the effects of climate change have dramatically melted huge areas of ice in the Arctic, making the trade routes for shipping much safer, all the year round. This has resulted in a substantial increase in commercial shipping in that zone of the Arctic Circle.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, realising the potential for his country of this ‘new’ trade route, has been actively encouraging Russia to stake its claim to the routes and the region’s gas and oil reserves. This will radically increase the sea traffic in this Arctic region, but it seems even more is to come, for just recently these previously unnavigable sea routes have hosted their first cruise ship.
In the late 1800s, when Captain Wiggins was pioneering the sea and river routes into the heart of Siberia, his achievements were hailed as an event “rivalling in importance the return of the first fleet loaded with merchandise from India.” It is in that light that he and his pioneering spirit will be remembered, 140 years since the loss of The Thames.