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We are moving along at a good clip through the open water: 18 knots. Weather is bright; there is little to see, however, few or no birds, no ice, no land. The ship slides into a fog bank.

No matter how cold it is, the engine room vents are a warm place to stand. On this ship, you don't get covered in soot.

More unpacking, during which E unfolds a useful map that reminds us where we are. I have scotch tape and so we are able to personalize our wall.

The first day out is safety briefings day. A Russian officer gives the briefing, translated by Irina, the woman in jeans we first met yesterday on the bus. She'll be the official translator for the voyage. A junior crewman used for demonstration purposes only was not harmed.

The safety briefing also includes a confusing but unintentionally risible bit about putting on your warmest clothing and a life vest if you have to jump into the water. The warm clothing is not going to help, up here. The water is -1°C. Then we practice (just once) getting to our lifeboat muster stations.

This is a brand-new icebreaker, but it's got nice-sounding old-fashioned metal bells for warnings and signals, not obnoxious electronic horns or beeps.

It is more than a little troubling to hear that passengers go into the enclosed pod lifeboats and, apparently, the hotel staff and most of the crew go into bouncy-castle style inflatable lifeboats. I hope I misunderstood that part.

Parkas and boots are distributed after the safety briefings and lifeboat muster, an unfortunate order of things for those passengers who did not bring a parka but are relying on the one Quark provides. The boots are new but oddly sized, and I wish I'd brought my own. E and I lug the gear back to the cabin, which is immediately perfumed with the odor of rubber boots.

A sub-section of the safety talk seems to tell us that our rooms have self-closing doors which work with magnets located behind a panel, and we are told how to open the panel and get at the magnet to disassemble this in an emergency. Our room doesn't feature this mechanism and I am not sure why they explain it. If my door stops working, I'm phoning someone. The only phone number they gave is the emergency number for the bridge, 371, so I guess we phone the captain if the door gets jammed...

A helicopter briefing replaces the usual Zodiac tutorial. I ask and learn that this ship has only 4 Zodiacs (and 81 passengers on this cruise), and the expedition team expects to use the MI-8 helicopter for the few landings we may make on Franz Josef Land toward the end of the trip. Thus, the rear deck of the ship holds the helicopter and the bow is uncluttered by Zodiacs.

Two Russian security officers are on the ship, because after all it is a nuclear vessel. They'll be participating in the landings and in any ice-walks that we do (the ship halts in the ice and we're allowed to get out and walk around) as polar bear lookouts, since they're well-trained to handle weapons. Expedition leader Laurie says that it will take about 45 minutes to an hour to move all the passengers (20 at a time). At first I wonder privately whether this is really a good idea — with sufficient Zodiacs, everyone on shore can be evacuated very fast, if a polar bear appears. But perhaps they are counting on the noise of the helicopter to scare a curious bear away. Until the landings, I guess the security officers (plain clothes) and helicopter pilots (uniformed) are going to play a lot of cards.

The aft lounge is truly aft, not in the bridge part of the ship with the dining room and passenger accommodations. (See here for a sketch plan of the ship decks.) It's reached either by going outside along a deck which can be slippery (no nonskid paint) or a circuitous inside route with lots of stairs and an exciting passage through the crew's quarters. A few (two or three) passengers have trouble negotiating the stairs but overall this is, although an oldish group, not an infirm group. There's an elevator, which the few rely on, but it got jammed yesterday and isn't back in service till this evening.

We have one more briefing, an overview of the expected itinerary from the expedition leader. He puts up an ice chart.

That's right, most of our route is in 9/10 and 10/10 drift ice. The 50 Years of Victory, however, is not the Kapitan Khlebnikov. It has three times the horsepower and is much larger and heavier. Apparently there is no reason to imagine that we won't get to the North Pole, at least because of ice. Nonetheless, the captain has decided to take a route that maximizes open water (and speed) for this first leg of the trip. The currents have left an area of open water just west of Franz Josef Land, so the route will lie that way.

The Captain's welcome-aboard cocktail hour and dinner are held in that large aft lounge, which also has a bar and dance floor, before dinner. (There are 18 light switches, but none of them make the lights flicker disco-style.) Expedition staff, unrecognizable without blue uniform plumage, host the party. Here is geologist Sue Currie demonstrating one of her many awesome skills by passing round drinks and warming up the party. NB Sue is wearing a rather nice pantsuit and jewelry. E and I are wearing our best Polartec fleeces. Sue's mother should be proud; E's mother and mine can be assured that our socks, so early in the trip, are clean.

The officers are presented to the passengers, beginning with the captain who has more than 30 years of experience. This ship, brand new, must be a plum post, and taking tourists to the North Pole in it rather a lark for the crew (disregarding Russian Polar political issues). The captain is the tall bald fellow on the right end of the row.

These are the most important men on the ship (IMO) after the captain: the chief engineer and the head engineer. The head engineer ranks over the chief, in Russian usage.

Dinner is another elaborate multi-course meal from the excellent kitchen, excuse me, galley. It begins with a generous dollop of caviar and two teeny blinis.

After dinner, a walk around the decks; ahead of the ship we see a bright line beneath the fog which has with brief breaks lain on us thickly all day.

As we draw nearer to this front, blue sky appears between the tufts of cloud and the sun, high in the west, begins to show a disc and casts a few weakly-colored rays down to the sea. It's too high for sunset colors, but the layers of clouds are beautifully, though transiently, lit, grey opal. The ship's movement carries us across this break fairly quickly and in an hour we're back beneath cloud, though not in fog.

We spot a lone puffin, flying high up, at about 21:00; around 22:00, some scattered groups of a half-dozen or so puffins and guillemots pass. The rapid-beating, strenuous way puffins fly is distinctive enough to make identifying them easy. Our first puffin of the trip; we won't see many on this leg, because they require open water, and we're heading for the polar pack ice.
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July 2008

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