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Sergey Ananov: Two days on ice with three polar bears

Sergey Ananov flying his helicopter in the Arctic Image copyright Sergey Ananov

In July Russian adventurer Sergey Ananov was forced to ditch his helicopter in icy waters between Canada and Greenland. Here he describes his two-day battle against high winds and extreme temperatures - and a few unexpected guests.

I always feel very free, relaxed and happy when I'm flying helicopters and that was exactly how I was feeling shortly before 11:30 on 25 July.

I was halfway through a six-hour flight from Iqaluit in Canada to Nuuk in Greenland. I was flying above a thick carpet of fog and underneath a bright canopy of cloud, steering my Robinson R22 through this fluffy grey corridor, quite alone in the world with the engine noise and a feeling of intense happiness. Next to me, in the passenger seat, sat an extra fuel tank that I had nicknamed Wilson, after the volleyball in Castaway. And 1,500ft (460m) below me - though I could not see it because of the fog - lay the ice and cold waters of the Davis Strait.

Suddenly, I felt a jolt in the tail and I lost about half the power to the blades. The engine was running fine so I took it to signal a problem in transmission. The speed was dropping sharply - not good. I didn't want to risk falling like a pebble out of the sky so I made the adjustments I needed to accelerate, which meant losing altitude. The helicopter was shaking and veering alarmingly to one side and within a few seconds it became clear to me that I would not be able to continue my flight.

Image copyright Sergey Ananov

It was Day 42 of my solo attempt to become the first person to circumnavigate the world in a helicopter weighing less than one tonne.

A thousand thoughts went through my head, among them this one: "Oh God, I have flown 34,000 miles and it's only 4,000 more till I get my world record in Moscow." And: "Why does this have to happen to me here, not above the swamps of Florida or the prairies of Canada or even somewhere in Siberia, where I would just be able to land, get out my phone and call for help?"

I switched the helicopter on to auto-rotation, a safety mode that allows it to glide downwards. Dropping through the layer of fog, which was just 200 feet (60m) above the sea, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an inviting lump of ice. But I was rapidly losing rotation and it would have been dangerous to try to extend the flight to reach it, so I headed straight for the water.

Image copyright Sergey Ananov

I don't agree with the word "crashed" that journalists are so fond of. It was not a crash. It was a forced landing on water, and it was a very controlled and soft one. I was completely unharmed.

The helicopter's tail sank immediately. I knew there was a danger that my weight would tip the aircraft on to my side - starboard - and trap me in deep water, so I threw my weight to my left to force the helicopter on to port side. It fell on that side and the blades, which were still turning, smashed to pieces on the surface.

Then I undid my safety belt and opened the door. Instantly I was up to my neck in icy water. I was wearing a survival suit, but only around my legs and waist - the top part hung loose because I find it quite impossible to fly with one covering my arms and upper body. Such was my adrenaline at that moment that I didn't feel the cold at all. I swam out of the helicopter and then dived back down to retrieve the life raft, which was stowed under my seat.

Whenever I had mentally rehearsed a landing on water I had programmed my brain to think that the life raft was my first priority. It did save my life, though not in the way I imagined.

It turned out I was just 50m or so from the lump of ice I had spotted before making my landing, and this was better than any inflatable raft. I swam over and climbed on to it. It was about 15-20m in diameter and would be my home for the foreseeable future. By this time, the helicopter had disappeared from view - within 30 seconds or so it had sunk into the dark blue water.

Image caption Floating ice in Disko Bay, Greenland, close to the Davis Strait

Then I took off my survival suit. Wearing nothing but my underwear, and shaking violently in the wind, I tipped as much water as I could out of the suit. Then I put it back on, squelchy wet and freezing cold. I did it up, lifting the ridiculous built-in hat over my head.

The wind was absolutely killing me. I got down in a horizontal position and inflated the life raft. It was yellow and square. I tied one end of the raft to my leg and held on to the other with my hand, and hid underneath it, using it as a windbreaker.

That was when I started to beat myself up. I was travelling with two trackers, a distress beacon and a satellite phone, but they had all gone down with the helicopter. "Why didn't you dive in and get them?" I asked myself. "Sure, it would have been very unpleasant but you should have dived in."

Still, I felt confident that the alarm would be raised. I had several friends who I knew were monitoring my progress carefully and would see that the tracker on the helicopter had come to a standstill. But I also knew that the tracker's final position may have been some distance from the place where I landed, and since it was not manually activated my friends had no way of knowing I was still alive.

Image caption Data from Ananov's flight tracker shows his attempt to circumnavigate the world

I had a few packs of water, amounting to perhaps half a litre, and a small pack of protein bars - about 2,000 calories of food. I also had three flares, which had been packed inside the life raft.

I got up and tried moving around a little, to keep my circulation going, but I found myself panting as though I were doing hard physical exercise. Throughout my time on the ice I did not stop shivering at all.

One thing I was not particularly worried about was polar bears. My block of ice was adrift at sea, with just a few more lumps of ice nearby. Mainly it was water - water, water, water. And the wind.

Then, about four hours after my forced landing, I was lying on my stomach in my makeshift tent, trying to retain heat and breathing as shallowly as I could through my nose, when I heard the sound of heavy breathing nearby and crunching snow. Footsteps. I peeked from under the bottom of the life raft and I saw him, a polar bear, sniffing the air and walking in my direction.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Polar bears are amongst the world's most powerful predators

I had to make an instant decision. And I decided that since he had surprised me I would surprise him. So I jumped up and threw off the life raft. Boo! Then I rushed at him, arms upstretched, roaring.

"Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!"

I was trying to show anger, and I really was angry - with myself, with the situation I was in and with this bear that had somehow found its way on to my lump of ice. How dare he come here and try to eat me!

It must have looked ridiculous - like when you pretend to be a monster with children. But it worked. The bear turned and ran away. "Ok," I thought, "he knows that I am the boss - now I have to build on that." So I chased after him.

Image copyright Arturo de Frias Marques
Image caption Polar bears hunt for seals near the edges of sea ice

We reached the edge of my piece of ice and he jumped nimbly to another. Well, I couldn't do that, so I stood on the edge, my arms still in the air, my eyes black coals of rage, roaring. And I saw that the sea around me had been quite transformed, everything moved around by the wind. No longer was my ice lump isolated, a little island, but it now butted against others. Evidently, I was not safe from bears.

The bear jogged on another 25m or so. Then he sat down on his backside and turned and looked at me mutely, like a dog. He wanted to know what I would do next - and so did I.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Polar bears are not territorial and will avoid confrontation

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Well what could I do? I couldn't just turn around and amble back to my life raft. So I stood there and carried on with the roaring, making it clear that he was definitely not welcome back on my island. We were like that for perhaps a full minute - him sitting and watching, me standing and roaring - then the bear stood up and started walking slowly away. Every five seconds he looked back over his shoulder, just to check what I was up to. It was only after he had gone 100m or so, and we were half-obscured from each other by fog, that I allowed myself to sit down.

"Oh God." I thought. "That was a challenge. Will he come back? He'll probably come back. After all, he knows that food is here, so he'll just go in a big circle and then he'll sniff my smell on the wind and come back."

From that point, I stayed sitting up, gazing at the blue-grey horizon for bears.

Shortly after this episode, I heard the sound of a plane overhead. It was invisible in the heavy fog, but nevertheless I grabbed one of my flares and released it. It burned for 30 seconds and then spluttered out. The noise of the plane grew fainter and fainter. The pilot obviously hadn't seen me.

I had to acknowledge that taking everything into account - the heavy fog, the fact that I had seemingly drifted from my point of landing, the extreme cold and the polar bears - my chances of survival were slim.

I divided my protein bars and water supply into three, one pile for each day. I simply couldn't imagine that after another two days I would have the energy to chase off polar bears. I reflected that at least my family were well set up. I wouldn't be leaving my wife and my two grown-up kids with any money worries.

But if I did survive, I would have a few ideas to contribute to the science of search and rescue. Ideas such as:

•Send helicopters, not planes, to look for survivors

•Make survival suits that you can actually fly in

•Attach mini radio beacons to the suits or life rafts

I didn't get any sleep that night. I did close my eyes but I did not sleep. I commanded myself not to sleep so that I wouldn't miss any approaching bears. To my surprise, I made it through to the morning.

Image caption The midnight sun on an ice floe near Greenland

Another plane came overhead, and I launched another flare, but it was exactly the same as before - useless in the thick fog. There was a helicopter too, but it hovered about two miles away, presumably where my accident occurred.

That morning, another polar bear came for me and I chased it off in exactly the same way as the first. Once again, it ran off, then sat and looked at me for a while, then sauntered away.

In the afternoon, I was overtaken by a strange impulse. In the corner of my piece of ice, about 50cm from the edge, was a large hole, filled with water. This was melted ice, but it was sadly undrinkable, since a small channel had allowed seawater to enter too.

The icy walls of this hole made the water inside shine an aquamarine blue as inviting as any Mediterranean pool. I was tired of lying on the hard ice, so I tipped my life raft on to the water and lay on it, then pulled the raft's sea anchor - which is basically a large plastic bag - on top of me like a blanket. Like that I was gently warmed and better able to reflect calmly on my seemingly inevitable fate.

I got up after an hour. Lying on the water like that I must have looked like nothing so much as a seal sunning itself - easy pickings for a you-know-what.

And sure enough, no sooner had I got back on the ice and reconfigured my raft into its tent formation than a third bear appeared and I had to chase it off exactly as I had with the other two.

I know what you are thinking. Why am I so sure that these were all different bears, and not the same one? The very fact that all three bears behaved in exactly the same way suggests to me that they were different. If it was the same bear, you would expect it to learn from experience and be less scared the second time, a bit more persistent.

Towards the end of that second day my luck changed. The fog finally lifted and I saw, about three miles away, a strong beam of light. An icebreaker! I couldn't see the port and starboard lights from the ship, so I thought it was pointing in my direction. Daylight was fading, which would help the crew spot me.

So I set off my final flare.

Image copyright Fisheries and Oceans Canada / Canadian Coast Guard
Image caption CCGS Pierre Radisson
Image copyright Fisheries and Oceans Canada / Canadian Coast Guard

And 36 hours after my accident, I saw exactly the thing that I had pictured many times in my mind - a Canadian rescue helicopter approaching me. Before long I was jumping on board and trying to hug the men, and they were saying, "Calm down, calm down man. We still have to reach the ship."

They were very surprised that I could walk by myself, that I was speaking rationally, and that I did not really need any help.

I learned that their ship, the Pierre Radisson, had left Iqaluit 30 hours earlier and had been travelling all this time to get me. It had only just started its search of the area when the third mate saw the last few seconds of my flare.

On board, everyone was overjoyed, because these are rescue guys first and foremost, and it's quite rare for them to find people like me alive. I had a warm shower and then they took me to the officers' mess where I sat down at a large circular table.

Image caption The Facebook message that told Ananov's fans he was alive

By this time it was after midnight but dozens of eyes watched me tuck into a full supper. They gave me a plate of the most delicious salmon, which the chef had smoked on board, with a salad dressed in olive oil. It was out of this world. There were lots of other things on the table but I didn't eat too much that first night. The vodka, too, had to wait until the second night, by which time we were approaching Iqaluit.

I believe the prayers of many people were answered when I was rescued - my friends and family, well-wishers I had met on my journey, and people I didn't even know - local people, Inuits, folks the world over who had heard about my situation. I want to thank everybody who prayed for me and all the rescue people - the Canadian military and civil coastguard. No-one had any time for regret. No-one gave me a hard time about forcing them to do a rescue mission. Before I flew home to Russia they even gave me a polar bear as a memento - a cuddly one.

Image caption Ananov paid a visit to his country's embassy, together with his new friend

I didn't complete my circumnavigation but I did see how small the world is and how much we all have in common. People in the US, Canada and everywhere else were so friendly to me. I no longer feel like just a Russian citizen, but a citizen of the world.

There is one question that everybody asks me. "Would I do it again?" It's very simple. If I could have continued my trip from Canada I would have done so without a moment's hesitation.

This is sport. There are competitions and there are records. And the history of aviation is a long list of such flight records. The World Air Sports Federation in Lausanne is 109 years old. Imagine! All these years, since the very start of aviation, it has fixed the records, world records, continental records and so on. Only two people before me had flown solo around the world but they were in bigger helicopters with support teams. And I practically made it. Eight-five percent, 42 days out of 50 and 33,000km out of 38,000km.

I haven't yet worked out how to ask my friends and loved ones for permission to go on a second attempt. On my knees I must beg their forgiveness for the hard time I put them through, not knowing what happened to me for two days.

But on my knees I must beg them to let me do it again. Again and again!

Image copyright Fisheries and Oceans Canada / Canadian Coast Guard
Image caption Sergey Ananov after his rescue

Production by William Kremer. Sergey Ananov spoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service. Listen again via iPlayer or get the Outlook podcast.

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