Around a small bonfire one night on Bering Island, under the hugely black starry sky, a modern-age seafarer offered his own salty opinion of the komandorskiye. Among the maybe 25 souls in the archaeologist's retinue, this retired captain of a Soviet "boomer" alone had first-hand knowledge of the sea and the challenges of a naval command.
While not a scientist, his view was expert and unique.
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Was there something in the nature of the man himself, some cosmic character flaw, that made Vitus Bering... unlucky? Serious people have asked this question.
Highly professional, moral, responsible, disciplined, loyal - a good man, yes, most agree on this. But in the end, can these admirable qualities somehow conspire to oppress imagination, to make a man not push the limits enough?
Why are some men remembered for their great deeds, while others, equally qualified, become castaways in the sea of time?
Set your sails and steer a course in an uncharted sea toward a world with utterly no definition. A journey in fact filled with perils known, imagined and unimaginable. Sail on the razor's edge between how far you can go and going too far, all alone, with no points of reference except the stars in the sky - when you can see them.
Your world view is a map, parchment on canvas, big enough to spread over three dining tables, and it shows nothing at all between the eastern shore of Russia and the eastern seabord of America - a chasm of some 10.000 kilometers, 7,000 miles, half the planet unknown...
Consider maybe two meters - six feet - of daunting, empty space on your map: a hole in the world sliced by razor-thin lines of mercator, latitude and longitude, drawn at precise intervals and creating a plateau of neat quadrangles clear from Petropavlovsk to Pittsburg. You have no idea how long your voyage of discovery will take, where you will see land, or if you ever will again.
"Vitus Bering started with a blank piece of paper - that speaks about their heroism and the greatness of their voyage," the salt water captain exclaimed. "The sea is the sea and everybody has their own luck dealing with it. Nobody can judge Bering."
Cut yourself free of the Earth...
A tiny section of it, anyway. The letters above the dark squiggle on the right spell AMERIKA, while the little splash of green in the upper left represents the last place on earth known to them - the far east coast of Russia, which Bering's entourage had charted on their first expedition, in 1728.
The helpful staff of the Russian Naval Archives, in St. Petersburg, press a glass pane from a cabinet door over a small portion of the wrinkled, but perfectly preserved world map used by the doomed crew of St. Peter on their epic voyage of 1741. The scrawl to the right is the first chart ever made of North America's western coastline.
Model of St. Peter, Bering's
command in the 1741 voyage.
A voyage of pure discovery -
77 men, in an awfully small ship.
Exactly 250 years after his greatest triumph and his subsequent death, a team of archaeologists from Bering's hometown museum set off to find the lost grave of its wayward son, komandorskiye Vitus Jonassen Ivanovich Bering.
They found it.
I was privileged to accompany the Vitus Bering Expedition 1991, a mission of archaeological discovery, as a journalist-photographer on assignment from the Danish weekly Weekendavisen and the German GEO magazine. These images are a sampling from among hundreds of keepers in my Bering archives.
The boy from Horsens grew to be an astonishing individual. His story is not just epic and triumphant - czar Peter the Great chose him to lead specifically because he was Danish! The only man for the job was a disciplined, competent, experienced, sober- minded, honest, ambitious Danish man, and one physically tough SOB. Conversely, as one noted Danish academic commented, it was these very qualities which took him away from his homeland: To make something out of his life, Bering had to shake off the social strings of janteloven * - a potent force even in the 1700s.
* Janteloven (yantuh-low'n), "the law of Jante": Do not believe you are somebody.
Composed a decade ago, A Life on Blank Paper is my homage to a great man, and a near-unsung historical figure. Deeper background to this never- ending saga is told in chapter 8 of Pie in the Sky.