15-Jul-2009 – "Where will you spend your summer holidays?" my friend asked me.
"Well, I will visit a Confluence Point" I said with a slight grin.
The face of my friend showed a bit of disbelief.
"Eh, a Confluence Point is the crossing of a latitude and a longitude in the middle of nowhere?" he replied.
"Yes exactly!" I said with an even bigger grin.
I saw the disappointment in his face. He expected that I spend my holidays in exotic regions like Antarctica or at least South America. But a boring Confluence Point?
"Hmm, which Confluence Point will you visit?" my friend asked me.
"Ninety twelve" I replied with a big smile.
"Ninety? – The... the North Pole???"
Indeed this little conversation showed what 124 passengers and 120 crew/staff of 25 nations simply did: to visit a Confluence Point. Nowadays 100 years after the first men conquered the North Pole, it is an easy visit. The minimum walking distance would be less then 1.5 kilometers, mainly through the aisle of the airports. But be warned: this expedition is not suitable for people with limited walking abilities!
I think my story began when I first read about the visit of Martin and Doris Fuerst here at www.confluence.org. A quick look in the Internet showed it is possible for normal men like me, although not quite cheap.
I planed to do this journey last year, but I read in an article of a newspaper that it is likely that you cannot stand on the ice and do the confluence dance by yourself. For all passionate confluence hunters it is a must to do the dance by yourself and have the 90°00.00'N displayed on your own GPS device.
However there were also other reasons why I did not undertake the journey last year, but I regretted my decision and planned to do it in 2009.
I booked, got the visa for Russia and off I went.
First with the car from my home town near 49°N 012°E to Frankfurt (Germany). Then with the airplane to Helsinki (Finland). I took the taxi to the hotel where the rest of the group joined. We woke up at 2 a.m. the next morning and got the bus to Helsinki airport. A charter flight took off Helsinki at 5 a.m. and brought us to Murmansk in the Russian Arctic. After the 124 passengers cleared thorough immigration and customs, we were welcomed by our local guides.
We drove by buses to the city and we were shown the few sights of the town with its 300,000 inhabitants near 69°N 33°E. Finally in the afternoon we embarked our new home, the nuclear driven ice breaker "50 Let Pobedy" (50 Лет Победы, "50 Years of Victory"), certainly after a thorough security inspection!
We left the harbor with the high tide and set course to the North.
After one day of uneventful journey through the Barents Sea, our expedition leader Jan Bryde had a special announcement for us: "Russia has closed the North Pole!" Everybody wondered why the Russians can "close" the North Pole, because it is in international waters and thus no man's land. He further explained that the Russian military will do a kind of maneuver or exercise on the particular day we will arrive on the Pole and they won't want to be disturbed. As this ship sails under Russian flag, has a Russian captain and crew, and is operated by a company owned by the Russian government, we had no choice than to obey.
Changes in schedules are very likely in the Arctic environment, normally caused by weather or ice, but this time by the government. Our expedition leader decided to spend an extra day on Franz Josef Land (Земля Франца-Иосифа) and asked the captain to alter the course. This turned out to be a great decision, because on this extra day we had splendid weather and could see a lot, including an unsuccessful Confluence Point visit.
After leaving the archipelago our ship steamed a full day through the ice, a sometimes very bumpy ride.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Today is Wednesday, 15 July 2009 and hopefully we will reach the North Pole today!" was the wake up call of our expedition leader.
Days before bets were accepted when we will arrive at the North Pole. At the briefing our expedition leader told us that it once happened the ship was at 89°59'N, only one lousy nautical mile off the Pole, but due to severe ice conditions they needed six hours to reach it.
At noon we reached 89°N. In the afternoon we reached 89°50'N and the countdown began: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached 89°50' North, only ten nautical miles to the North Pole!" announced our expedition leader. Most of the passengers sat in the bar and we were excited like on Christmas or on New Year's Eve.
Jan, our expedition leader, counted down the positions: 89°51' North, 89°52' North, 89°53' North, 89°54' North, 89°55' North, 89°56' North, 89°57' North, 89°58' North. Excitement increased when 89°59' North was announced. Everybody was in high expectations and I went to my cabin, grabbed my GPS receivers, my cameras, put on my warm jacket, gloves and went to the fly deck on the very top of the ship. There three GPS antennas are mounted and I thought, if the ship's GPS receiver will show 90°00.000' North I will also get these magical numbers on my GPS device. Thus I switched on my GPS receiver and watched carefully the approach to the North Pole. It drizzled and I had to wipe the GPS screen from time to time with a cloth.
The approach did not take much time and when my GPS receiver showed only 100 meters to the pole I was happy and satisfied, because for me as a confluence hunter I had reached the North Pole successfully according to the rules of the Degree Confluence Project! But we wanted to get all zeros and this turned out to be a very hard task. "Ladies and Gentlemen, only thirty meters to the North Pole" announced Jan. More excitement arose but a bit later: "Ladies and gentlemen, we missed the North Pole by seventy meters." The passengers were a bit disappointed. For me as a passionate confluence hunter I know exactly how difficult it could be to get all zeros on a GPS receiver even on foot under open skies, but this time the confluence dance was performed with a 25,000 tons ice breaker in about two meter thick multi year ice!
One challenge is to move in this difficult environment, the next problem is that you barely have orientation. The closer you get to the pole, the more the longitude values change rapidly, and thus it is hard to know in which direction to go. The third problem you will have is that the ice drifts with about 0.3 knots, so even if you have a stable position, you will loose it soon.
I also tried during the confluence dance of the ship to do my own dance on the top on the 30 meters wide deck but with no success. It was also funny to see the rapid change of longitude during the dance of the ship and we crossed the dateline many times.
The passengers on the bow got a bit bored but Jan, our expedition leader did his best to keep the suspense: "From here, the North Pole, to London 4285 kilometers, from here, the North Pole, to New Delhi, India, 6830 kilometers." and also announced from time to time the distance to the North Pole.
About 45 minutes after we reached the hundred meters mark, the ships horn blew. Everybody cheered, because the ship's GPS showed the eagerly awaited latitude of 90°00.000' North!! We had reached the North Pole!!!
Glory and joy came into my mind but I was a bit disappointed: my GPS receiver showed only 89°59.99'N. I was not sure if it was able to show 90°00.00'N, because it also does not accept 90°00.00'N as a way point. However I descended from the fly bridge to the bow, where the big celebration took place. While there I had a brief look on my GPS receiver and I saw the unexpected: 90°00.00'N. A very big smile came into my face. All zeros!!! My trusty old Magellan GPS Blazer 12 receiver did it! A very special and unexpected present for me, better than any Christmas present in my whole life! Photos of the magical digits were taken with great satisfaction. The entire party celebrated with champagne, took group photos, hugged each other and had a very good time. We all had reached the North Pole on 15 July 2009, 22:00 hours UTC!
During the confluence dance of the ship, while I was standing on the fly bridge, I took the required photos for the Degree Confluence Project, but due to the special geographic location you can only get views to the South. To get the four cardinal directions I took photos along the (estimated) 0°E, 90°E, 180°W, 90°W longitude.
The party on the bow did not last long. Although it was only about 0°C we were freezing during the confluence dance of the ship and resumed the party in the bar.
On the next morning the ship moored on a big chunk of ice some nautical miles off the zero point. Here we could step on the ice safely and celebrated our success the whole day. In the evening we danced on board of the ship and the verse of one song stayed in my mind: "I am back from outer space". "Indeed", I thought, "we are in 'outer space', here at the top of the world".
Later the ship set course to Franz Josef Land again and we had our third and fifth landing there. We passed the Confluence Point 80°N 50°E and continued our way back to Murmansk. From there an air plane brought most of the passengers to Helsinki and everybody took his way home.
I want to pay my highest respect to the commander and his crew to navigate such a big ship to a point with 1.85 meters precision and want to thank all the staff for the great journey.
Later the words of the German poet Max Dauthendey came into my mind:
It is the curse and also the joy of travelling that locations, which were infinite and out of reach to you before,
will become finite and reachable.
But this finiteness and reachability set limits in your mind,
you will never get rid of.
(Own translation of the German original:
Das ist der Fluch und zugleich die Wollust des Reisens, daß es dir Orte, die dir vorher in der Unendlichkeit und in der Unerreichbarkeit lagen,
endlich und erreichbar macht.
Diese Endlichkeit und Erreichbarkeit zieht dir aber geistige Grenzen,
die du nie mehr loswerden wirst.
– Geschichten aus den vier Winden – 1915)