The 15th Century saw the start of the age of exploration for the countries of Europe. After it was realized that Europe was separated from Asia by two continents, explorers from many countries tried to find a "Passage" through or around the Americas to the spice and silk lands of Asia. In Western literature the emphasis has been on the search for the Northwest Passage, past Greenland and across the Arctic Ocean, north of Canada or through the numerous islands that form the northern shore of Canada. However, there was another route, equally unknown, the Northeast Passage, eastward past Norway.
In 1553 the Company of Merchant Adventurers was formed to find a Northwest or Northeast Passage. The first expedition to attempt the Northeast Passage was under Hugh Willoughby, which left London May 1553. The ships became separated and two ships of the expedition rounded the North Cape and reached as far as Novaya Zemlya, which separates the White Sea from the Kara Sea. They turned back but everyone froze to death in Northern Finland with the outset of winter. A third ship under Richard Chancellor, which had separated from Willoughby made it to the White Sea and met with Russian fisherman, who informed the surprised Englishmen that they were now within the territories of the Russian Empire. Chancellor made landfall at Archangel and journeyed overland to Moscow. The Russians, who had just broken a relationship with the German Hanseatic League, offered a trade arrangement with the English. The Company of Merchant Adventurers changed its name to the Muscovy or Russia Company, then concentrated on commerce with Russia and gave up trying to find a sea passage to Asia. In 1596 Dutchman Wilhelm Barents tried to find the Northwest Passage. His expedition also reached Novaya Zemlya, where it was stopped by ice and only a handful of survivors reached safety in Russia. Barents was not among them. It was not until 1879 that Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskjold of Sweden used a steam-powered whaler to travel the 6,400 miles (10,600 km) over the top of Russia to reach the Pacific from Norway. (History from The Northwest Passage by Brendan Lehane)
Russia with its huge coastline facing the ice-choked northern seas, has always had a primary interest in opening up sea travel along the northern coast. In 1899 a new type of ship was seen in these northern seas. The purpose built icebreaker Yermak, was introduced to explore Imperial Russia’s frozen northern coast and islands. In 1901 under the command of Admiral S.O. Makarov, later to command the Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur, the Yermak explored Novaya Zemlya, Spitsbergen and Franz Josef Land. Russian exploration of the Arctic Ocean continued in the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Leptev Sea, East Siberian Sea, and Chukchi Sea, all of which lie along the northern border of Russia. Yermak gave success to these missions. Yermak also was pressed into rescue missions. The Russian coast defense battleship General-Admiral Apraksin had become locked in the ice in the Gulf of Finland and Yermak was sent to extract the battleship. While on this mission, one of the first wireless distress calls was received informing Yermak that 50 Finnish fishermen were stranded on an ice floe that had broken loose. Within 24 hours of receiving the distress call Yermak had rescued all 50 fisherman, dramatizing that the icebreaker was well equipped to save lives as well as explore the frozen seas. Since the design and voyages of Yermak, Russia has always been in the forefront of icebreaker design, construction and utilization.
Combrig has now produced a 1:700 scale model of Yermak. As can be seen from the photographs, her design is unlike anything else. Her short wide hull is designed to crush ice and not for speed. At 8,400 tons Yermak was a large vessel that showed how a ship could be built just to fulfill one mission or need and to excel in that capacity.