Sergey Ananov: Two days on ice with three polar bears

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. 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. 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.

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