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© Photo: Key to Baikal
April, 16

The Sea Driving People to Tears: the Largest Wreck of Lake Baikal

Beauty can really be horribly powerful, if we speak about Baikal. Its winds and storms are considered to be more dangerous than ocean ones, especially in the very heart of the lake – around the Island of Olkhon. 58 days out of 100 in October-December are a real menace to waterborne traffic…

The horrifying legends about terrible consequences of the Baikal storms are shared among the inhabitants from century to century, but the disaster that happened on the lake in mid-October of 1901 became the most tragic chapter of history of navigation in the region.

Our story about this tragedy will be based on the materials of local newspapers of that time - “Eastern Review” and “Irkutsk Province Gazette” (the style of narration is preserved).

How It All Began

The “Yakov” steamer was heading from Verkhneangarsk to Irkutsk and leading a caravan of ships, which were mainly occupied by workers who finished the omul fishing season. However, the crowd also included women and children. The increase in the number of people willing to leave the fishing grounds was explained not only by the completion of works, but also by unusually cold weather for these days - minus 17 degrees Celsius.

The caravan looked like this. First, “Yakov” with the crew and passengers who had tickets for the trip. Then, the “Potapov” ship owned by the shipping company of the heirs of A.Ya. Nemchinov, loaded with 549 barrels of salted fish. 161 workers were returning home on the same vessel. There were also 15 crew members. The Potapov was followed by a commercial fishing vessel of A.I. Mogileva with her workers and up to 250 barrels of fish. It was followed by the vessel of V.N. Shipunovwith his workers and a cargo of 250 barrels of fish. And, finally, there were three Buryat sailboats.

On October 14, “Yakov” with towed vessels entered the Maloe More Strait in a relatively calm weather. However, when they passed 15 versts (1 verst = 1066.8 meters) from the lighthouse on the “Kobylya Golova” cape, they got into a heavy storm at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

Sarma Reached Them All of a Sudden...

Sarma is one of the most dreadful Baikal winds, emerging in the valley of the Primorsky Range and literally bursting into the Olkhon Gate Strait at a speed of up to 145 km/ h.

It was Sarma that stood in the caravan’s way. The hurricanes attacked the vessels and completely laid them on their beams’ends. The engine of the steamer (“Yakov”) worked at full speed for forward drive, but the steamer was thrown and pulled back by the wind. The wind grew stronger and stronger, playing the vessels like toys. People just could not stand on feet on the steamer and other vessels. Captain Kazimirov was nearly taken down from the captain’s bridge twice.

According to the available data, the storm was so strong that even icebreakers (“Angara” and “Baikal”) stood at Mysovaya, because they could not move. The captain of “Yakov” said that they got into storm all of a sudden, but according to other sources, he was warned about the threat on the morning of October 1: a sharp fall in the barometer indicators was an evidence of the upcoming storm; however, the captain hoped to pass through Maloe More. The storm caught them in the most dangerous and narrow place, surrounded by cliffs on both sides.

As the captain saw the danger threatening the entire caravan, he ordered to detach the rear vessel with three boats from the caravan. Soon that vessel disappeared behind a snowy whirlwind and splashes of water. The wind was growing stronger. Waves were splashing over the deck. The steamer with the two remaining barges was carried backwards. It got dark. The fight against the rushing water element was impossible. They had to release both vessels owned by Mogileva and Potapov, one after another. Then “Yakov” free from other vessels started to be washed ashore. The storm began to subside only on the third day. And on October 17, at 8 o'clock in the morning, the steamer that has survived went to search the barges.

The Fate of Abandoned Ships

As the steamer approached the settlement Ulunkhson on the Olkhon Island, it was already clearly visible that some vessel was wrecked: broken barrels, parts of the vessel, wooden chips, tatters of clothes were seen in the sea. Coming closer to the coast, the sailors noticed dead people. When the people present on the “Yakov” steamer approached the rock, they were seized with terror: several frozen human bodies were literally “hammered” into the stone surface of the cliff, at a height of about 20 meters.

The fate of the vessels released from the towing rope was different.

The vessel of Mogileva managed to survive by some miracle. It was washed ashore; the workers and the cargo remained intact. The vessel was frozen up to half of the height of its masts.

The vessel of Shipunov somehow managed to keep at anchor at a distance of no more than 30 sazhens (1 sazhen= 2.134 meters) from the sharp coastal cliff.

The same cliff with seven pines killed the “Potapov” vessel on the night of October 15: the ship that was the last to be released from the tugboat crashed into pieces. Due to the noise of the storm, howling and the whistling of the wind and impenetrable darkness, the tragedy of this vessel remained unknown to those who survived. All workers and crew members died.

Two of the Buryat boats were washed ashore by the waves, whereas one boat was destroyed.

The Victims of the Wreck and Eyewitness Accounts

Фото

When the news of the terrible fate of the caravan was published in the Irkutsk newspapers on October 20, the administration of the province sent not only the police bailiffs and the magistrate judge, but also journalists to the place of the tragedy: their messages of the latter were to put down all the rumors heard throughout the city. Therefore, many details of that terrible incident have been preserved.

The journalists of the “Irkutsk Province Gazette” that published list of the dead on October 31, 1901, described what they saw in the following way. “21 dead people from the “Potapov” ship were put in two rows at a distance of 10 sazhens (1 sazhen= 2.134 meters) from the coast, on a hillock; 19 of them are male and 2 are female; all the corpses are almost half-naked, with pieces of tattered clothes; most of them are heavily deformed – with broken heads, broken arms and legs. On October 20 and 21, investigators found six more male corpses in the water and extracted them from under the fragments of the vessel and ice. A total of 143 men, 11 women and four children died on Potapov. ”

Different newspapers mentioned different number of human victims. After all, it was impossible to calculate the exact number of “free riders”, and even real passengers on the three towed vessels. During the trial people started to speak about the figure approaching 280.

It is hardly surprising: the storm was so strong that the meteorological station located on the Kobylya Golova cape, at an altitude of 20 sazhens (1 sazhen= 2.134 meters), was completely covered with ice during the storm. The waves were this high, indeed.

 

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