The story of the Kad’yak shipwreck has been documented in an episode of “Drain the Ocean” by National Geographic. The second episode of Season 6 features the wreck of the Kad’yak and has been aired on National Geographic television. It soon will be available on Disney+ for streaming.
The Kad’yak was a Russian merchant vessel carrying a shipment of ice from Kodiak to San Francisco, Calif., in 1860. At the time, ice was a valuable commodity, according to researcher Brad Stevens.
The vessel struck a rock near port in Kodiak, and was kept afloat by its cargo before finally sinking near Spruce Island. When it sank the mast of the vessel was still visible and the Kad’yak’s skipper, Capt. Illarion Arkhimandritov, marked the location in documents after the sinking.
“Captain Illarion Arkhimandritov, skipper of the Kad’yak, had promised to hold a service for Father Herman (now known as Saint Herman of the Russian Orthodox Church) before leaving Kodiak, but he did not keep his word,” Stevens wrote in an article. “And the Kad’yak had somehow drifted through a maze of jagged reefs only to sink directly in front of Father Herman’s grave, with the top of the mast sticking out of the water.”
At the time, Stevens was a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. He first received copies of the documents in 1991 from Mike Yarborough, an archaeologist in Anchorage. In 2003, Stevens was able to put together where the ship had sunk. Stevens said inconsistencies between the names Arkhimandritov knew as Spruce Cape and Miller Point and current names for those locations had prevented him from being able to put together the location.
“When I discovered his original map, I drew lines to where he knew those place names, and then things lined up,” Stevens said in an interview with KDM. “I was literally able to draw an X on the map and say this is where the Kad’yak is.”
The discovery team was made up of local people, divers, film makers and a boat owner. After searching near Spruce Island they found metal debris, then cannons, anchors, ballast stones and other wreckage from the Kad’yak.
“People don’t realize when you think of Alaska and the history of Alaska... Russian America was costing the Russian government more money than it was making, and in 1850 they started shipping ice,”
The downing of the Kad’yak is the oldest recorded shipwreck in Alaska for which there is a known location, according to Stevens. Other older shipwrecks are now known but their location hasn’t been explored because they are offshore in deeper waters. It is also the only shipwreck from the Russian colonial period ever found, according to Stevens.
In 2004 the wreck was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It is physical evidence of both the Russian colonization of Alaska and the fact that there was a thriving economy based on ice from Woody Island...,” Stevens said. “There’s a lot of firsts associated with this.”
A total of $200,000 of the $7.2 million the United States paid for Alaska was for the ice industry, according to Stevens.
Stevens would go on to write a book on the discovery of the Kad’yak titled “The ship, the Saint, and the Sailor: The Long Search for the Legendary Kad’yak,” which was published in 2018. The book is available at the Islander Bookshop in Kodiak, according to Stevens.
After taking an interest, National Geographic reached out to Stevens in June of last year and together they put together the episode. The episode includes above-water videos of Spruce Island and video taken from around the town of Kodiak last July, according to Stevens. The episode also includes content with video from the original discovery and archeology of the Kad’yak in 2003.
“I hope that the remains of the wreck will stay there, and other divers can go visit without removing things,” Stevens said.
Stevens is now professor emeritus of Marine Science at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He enjoys spending his retirement with his sailboat and playing music with his wife.
The episode will soon air on Disney+. It will likely be put on the streaming service after all the episodes for Season 6 have aired on television, according to Stevens.
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