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Excavating the thick ice under a whole ship at bone-chilling minus 50C?

By Valeria Sukhova
07 March 2019

This is precisely how Yakutia gets its impressive river fleet ready for the new season of navigation.

One wrong move with a pickaxe, and a narrow cave under a ship’s bottom fills up with water, ruining months of work and potentially drowning the labourer. Picture: Valeria Sukhova 

We travel to the small town of Zhatay, heart of a method of ship repair like no other in the world.

Every autumn up to 130 vessels steer towards the port of Zhatay on the mighty Lena River, the second largest of Russia's Arctic rivers. 

By late November, they get frozen solid and a team of workers begin vymorozka - repair work unique to Siberia that can only be achieved at the peak of cold.

The word translates as ‘freezing out’, and means getting under the bottom of a ship through an elaborate system of labyrinths and caves hewn out of the thick river ice. 

They excavate a cavity in the hard frozen water big enough to carry out repairs to the ship’s hull. 

Zhatay dockyard teams use chainsaws, hammers and pickaxes to expose the belly of a ship and to get under its waterline to reach areas - for example, echo sounding - that need fixing.

Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka

Freezing out ships, Vymorozka
Kirill Gizatullin, 29. Pictures: Valeria Sukhova 


This type of work is not for the faint-hearted as it demands incredible physical stamina and surgical precision in getting through the ice. One wrong move with a pickaxe, and a narrow cave under a ship’s bottom fills up with water, ruining months of work and potentially drowning the labourer. 

‘I lost eight kilogram since I started working in November’, says Kirill Gizatullin, 29 who spends his fifth winter at the Zhatay port. 

Vymorozka is a very challenging job. The best air temperature for it is minus 45C and below, the colder the better because ice stays dry, easy to chainsaw and to pick.

‘Several degrees warmer and it gets wetter, causing gloves to tear and instruments to stuck, so end of February, beginning of March are the last working days.’ 

A JOB LIKE NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD, FREEZING SHIPS OUT AT MINUS 50C TO GET THEM READY FOR NEW NAVIGATION SEASON



The Zhatay dockyard was built in 1943 and has been mending ships by freezing them out ever since, with workers cutting out about 7,000 cubic metres of ice a season. 

Three to four months of hard work is paid around 400,000 roubles ($6.070) a person, which is way above an average salary in here. 

An experienced worker can prepare up to four vessels a season. 

Ships must be frozen out even if they don’t need mending, as it helps the ice to thaw evenly and doesn’t distort the hull.

However tough, vymorozka is still a cheaper way to repair vessels without lifting them into a dock or up a slip.  

An experienced worker can prepare up to four vessels a season. Pictures below: Valeria Sukhova

Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka


Freezing out ships, Vymorozka

Freezing out ships, Vymorozka
Freezing out ships, Vymorozka
Freezing out ships, Vymorozka

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