Coast Guard rescues British explorers from Bering Strait waters
British explorers Neil Laughton of England and James Bingham of Wales were rescued from the Bering Strait on March 4. The duo was attempting to cross the Strait from Wales to Little Diomede Island by human-power, a distance of about 25 miles. Laughton and Bingham were deterred by poor ice conditions, and were flown out by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.
The men were prepared for open water and ice, traveling with both skis and kayaks. Laughton and Bingham were each carrying about 50 pounds of gear in their kayaks. When the ice was thick enough to walk on, the kayaks doubled as sleds, so they were “fully amphibious,” Bingham said.
There was just enough ice to prevent kayaking, but not enough to safely hold the men’s weight. Thursday morning, the men activated their personal-locator beacon, which showed them about 25 nautical miles northwest of Wales.
The first few miles of the trip went well, the men said in an interview with the Nome Nugget. There was open water as far as they could see off the coast of Wales, which made for easy kayaking. They made good progress, but began paddling into more and more ice as night fell. The sections of open water began to disappear as ice shifted and soon, Bingham said, they were “surrounded 360 degrees by an ice field.” Unable to control which direction they were going, the men began to be pushed northward.
When it began to get dark, the plan was for the men to pitch a tent on the ice, but the ice was not thick enough for them to do so safely. They tethered their kayaks together to form a raft and shivered through the night.
Though the temperature was above freezing, the wind was gusting up to 40 miles per hour and staying warm in the damp environment was a challenge for the men. Bingham explained that they needed to wear full arctic clothing, but also needed to stay dry. They wore dry suits because “when you’re crossing the Bering Strait, breaking through is guaranteed,” he said.
Though they had not made the progress that they wanted, Bingham said they were not concerned thus far. When it became light, the men saw just how far they had drifted, and became concerned. Unable to walk on the soft ice, but also unable to paddle, the men were stuck. Laughton and Bingham realized that they were not only at a standstill, but they were drifting farther and farther away from their intended course. It came down to “how far do we allow ourselves to drift,” Bingham said.
The men were prepared for the possibility of being picked up by a helicopter, and carried flares and other distress signals, but did not imagine that the Coast Guard would need to be called in. The men had called on Erickson, a global aviation services company, to pick them up if need be. They were in contact with the helicopter airline frequently, but ultimately bad weather prevented Erickson from being able to rescue them. At the time of their rescue, the wind was blowing over 20 miles per hour, and visibility was down to two miles.
Erickson notified the Kodiak U.S. Coast Guard that the men may need to be rescued, and a few hours later the explorers set off their personal locator beacon. Two USCG MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews and a HC-130 Hercules aircraft arrived less than seven hours later.
A total of 24 USCG crewmembers took part in the rescue, and one of the Jayhawk crews flew the men to Nome. The men emerged from the adventure fairly unscathed; the only injury was Bingham’s frostbitten hands.
Bingham expressed his gratitude to the Coast Guard for the rescue. “Their professionalism is beyond belief,” he said. He added that the USCG did not criticize the men for their attempt, in fact, they praised them.
Air Station Kodiak commanding officer Capt. Mark Morin said “Fortunately, the two survivors were well prepared with a SAT-phone and personal locator beacon, which made locating them easier for my crews.”
Bingham said he was drawn to the idea of crossing the Bering Strait because of the formidable challenge it presents. With the number of successful human-powered crosses in the single digits, more people have traveled to space than have traversed the Bering Strait by their own power. “The moving ice, the low temperatures, open water, throw all that into a mix and its toxic,” Bingham said. He described the endeavor as one of the greatest challenges, greater than Mount Everest. But the pull is magnetic. “Ideas get under your skin and you can’t resist,” he explained.
Bingham attempted to cross from Little Diomede to the Alaska coast in February of last year, but was unable to complete the journey because of the ice conditions, which were similar to this year’s.
Though Bingham has been unsuccessful in his past two crossing attempts, the last two years have been practice for 2017. The men plan to attempt the entire Bering Strait as part of an international team. Bingham said the men have been unable to obtain permission from Russian authorities to cross into the country.
Bingham and the rest of the team did gain some valuable information from their past attempts. Last year, they used pack rafts instead of kayaks, which proved ineffective. This time the kayaks proved to be more successful “we were able to transfer between ice and water seamlessly,” Bingham said.
Bingham said it is not a given that they will attempt the crossing again. He and Laughton will reflect on the trip and discuss their experiences with the rest of the group. He said that, in terms of gear, experience and conditioning, everything worked well. The one change Bingham would make would be to add a few days extra days to the trip in order to wait for better ice conditions. They say the third time is the charm, and that might be exactly what Bingham, Laughton and the rest of the group will need next year.
“Success requires a fairly high dose of good luck,” Bingham said.
According to their bios on the challenge’s website, www.thedeadliestjourney.com, both Bingham and Laughton are mountaineers, and both have summited Mount Everest. “We’re not rookies. The challenge is in the nature of the Bering Strait,” Bingham said. Bingham is an avid runner, and leads a 400-kilometer (249 mile) run through the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan. Laughton has been involved in over 30 adventure expeditions. He has completed the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which means Laughton successfully climbed the highest mountains on all seven continents and skied to the North and South Poles.