The wrath of the fresh sea. The history of the disaster called the “Baikal Titanic”

Plot World History with Andrey Sidorchik

For residents of the European part of Russia, Baikal is a natural pearl, a tourist object that you really want to visit, but not everyone can afford it. Those who live on the shores of the lake have a completely different attitude towards it.

Harsh and sacred

Baikal is generous, but and extremely harsh. The famous line «Glorious Sea—— sacred Baikal» did not arise from scratch. In other years, up to 150 stormy days are recorded on the lake, and woe to those whom the wrath of Lake Baikal finds far from the shores. No one can say exactly how many fishermen, working people, travelers have perished in these waters over the centuries.

In the XIX century, when shipping on Lake Baikal became more regulated, wrecks occurred regularly. In December 1869, the steamer Innokenty got into a terrible storm that lasted for several days. The wreckage of the ship was found in the area of the Ushany Islands, of the 30 people on board, no one survived.

In 1888, the steamer “Nikolai” disappeared on Lake Baikal, which was driving a barge with a cargo of bread. In 1900, the steamship “Swan” with a cargo of tea was lost.

The locals treated the tragedies with humility, perceiving Baikal almost as a living being. If he was angry, it means that the people themselves have somehow angered this element.

From Barguzin to Irkutsk

In the autumn of 1901, a disaster occurred on the lake, later called the Baikal Titanic. The real crash of an ocean liner will happen a decade later than the tragedy in Russia, which few people remember today. But for Baikal, the death of the ship “Potapov” became a case that has no analogues.

On October 10, 1901, the steamer “Jacob” left Barguzin for Irkutsk, which was to lead three vessels “Potapov” with 549 barrels of fish, 161 workers and 15 crew members, the Mogilev vessel with 250 barrels of fish and  workers, and  also Shipunov’s vessel with 240 barrels of fish and workers.

It is difficult to establish exactly how many people were on board the ships, since they often carried passengers who were not registered anywhere. Most often it was about workers and peasants who did not have the opportunity to use equipped passenger ships.

The beginning of the journey was successful. The caravan reached the village of Kocherikov, where the sailors replenished the stocks of firewood for the ship’s boiler. The further way lay through the so-called Small Sea surrounding the island of Olkhon.

Olkhon Island. Photo:

Hostages of sarma

When «Jacob» was leading the ships to Cape Mare’s Head, they were overtaken by sarma —a squally wind blowing out of the valley of the Sarma River flowing into the Small Sea. He can reach a speed of 60 meters per second, and it is not difficult for him to tear out perennial trees from the ground and tear off roofs from houses. To get to Sarma during the passage on a ship on Lake Baikal is a test that you will not wish on anyone.

The old «Jacob » couldn’t cope with the strongest wind, the steamer was piled sideways. Captain Kazimirov, an experienced sailor, realized that he would not be able to pull out the whole caravan. At about four o’clock in the afternoon, by his order, the rope was cut off that connected “Jacob” with Shipunov’s ship. A little later, the ship of Mogilev was provided to its own fate. Potapov’s rope was cut last. Only after “Jacob” was left alone, the crew managed to steer the steamer to the nearest bay.

For two days «Jacob» waited out the elements at the Olkhon Gate. After the storm subsided, the steamer went out to search for abandoned ships.

«There were children and probably stowaways»

The ships of Mogilev and Shipunov were incredibly lucky to avoid meeting with coastal rocks. On the icy schooners, Jacob was met by terrified, but alive people.

«Potapov» was the last to be seen by people from the side of Shipunov’s schooner. The ship was inexorably carried to the rocks, and after it disappeared from sight, there was a terrible cracking of the breaking hull.

When they got to the wreck site, there was no one to save, only the wreckage of the ship and the bodies of the dead were extracted from the water.

A day later, the steamer “Theodosius” approached, on board of which there were journalists. The picture that opened made a very heavy impression on them.

A reporter of the newspaper “Eastern Outlook” wrote: “About 200 people are said to have died on the wrecked barge: 161 ticket passengers, 16 crew members, there were children and probably stowaways. Together with him, as already reported, the cargo of Mogilev was lost, and, in addition, the cargo of Vlasov and Suvorov and their seine numbering more than a hundred pieces. The cargo, of course, was not insured, and the fishermen, having lost their prey, workers and tools of production, went bankrupt.

Especially to journalists, the body of the deceased passenger was etched into the memory: “The woman pressed a piece of quilted baby blanket so tightly to her chest that the contours of the hand muscles were outlined in relief. Of course, not a blanket, but a baby she was clutching to her chest at the moment of death…»

Whole families died

on November 11, 1901 in Irkutsk Archbishop Tikhon of Irkutsk and Verkholensky served a memorial service for all the victims of the tragedy. Baikal did not give away the bodies of many of them.

During the investigation of the causes of the incident, experts came to the conclusion that the steamer “Jacob”, due to its technical characteristics and weariness, was not suitable at all for conducting ships on Lake Baikal in October, when the vagaries of the weather on the lake are extremely unpredictable.

On «Potapov» whole families died: Vlas, Andrey andEvgenia Chuiko, Vavila andMarfa Trofimova and their children Alexey, Konstantin andAvvacuum, Ivan andLukerya Kishkin with her 2-year-old daughter Ekaterina, Mikhail andAnna Nefedievs with her sons Vasily (2 years old) andAlexey (4 months)…

In the place where Potapov died, the crash was not the first. The nearby cape even got the telling name of the Dead.

Yes and  the tragedy of «Potapov» did not fundamentally change anything: a year later, in a similar situation, the crew of the steamer «Alexander Nevsky» in the same area cut the ropes connecting the ship with the barges towed by him. As a result, those who ended up on the abandoned barges died.

It was only in Soviet times that navigation on Lake Baikal was made safer. And the wreck of Potapov remains today the largest in terms of the number of victims in the history of the largest freshwater lake on the planet.


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