Thursday, 14 April 2011


William Scoresby
The 1816 voyage of the Esk to Spitzbergen under the command of Captain William Scoresby proved a most disastrous endeavour. As soon as the ship crossed into the arctic ice fields, a storm of such ferocity bore down on the vessel that Scoresby, a veteran of fourteen voyages, considered the hazardous situation the worst he had ever encountered. The storm lasted a full twelve hours, a prolonged period throughout which the crew must have felt in sickeningly close proximity to certain death and destruction.

After trying several times to free the Esk from the ever encroaching ice, which involved the intricate navigation of an unwieldy, cumbersome ship through narrow channels between drifting floes, on May 2nd open water was acheived.

Until June 19th the Esk was employed in the activity for which she was built, namely the hunting of whales. Although not the best season ever, a reasonable amount of 'fish' were caught. Things were going tolerably to plan, but in such an inhospitable environment nothing can be taken for granted.

In an attempt to avoid being crushed by two massive ice floes which were inexorably coming together, the Esk was steered towards an indentation in the ice. The thought was that, although it would be fairly tight, when the blocks of ice came together the indentation would prevent the Esk from being broken like a wallnut in a nutcracker.

Unfortunately, and unbeknown to the crew, a submerged projection of ice known as a tongue had done severe damage below the water. When the pressure of the opposed masses relaxed, the ship began to sink.

A distress signal was immediately sent out and assistance came from many of the ships busy in the area. One was the John of Greenock, commanded by Mr Jackson, Scoresby's brother-in-law. With the extra manpower available, pumps and buckets were put to constant use until the extent of the damage was ascertained.

Water was welling into the ship through a large hole due to a major section of the after keel being torn away. Emergency measures to save the Esk were discussed. Several plans were put forward. In the end it was decided to adopt the most extraordinary proposition of all.

The rigging was taken down and all portable stores and furniture were removed from the stricken ship and placed on the ice. Ropes were tied to the tops of the masts and heavy anchors were suspended from them to aid rotation of the ship. These ropes went under the hull of the vessel and onto the ice where they would be heaved upon by as many men as possible, the idea being to turn the Esk upside down in the water so the carpenter could then climb aboard the upturned hull and make good a repair

The attempt to capsize the arctic whaling ship the Esk by running ropes beneath her and using heavy anchors to assist in the manouvre. Click on the picture for a larger image.
With one hundred and fifty men pulling, the ship still refused to careen sufficiently and it was obvious that some extra persuasion was required. Scoresby duly went on board with one hundred and twenty men who lined up at the highest side of the tilted deck, and then ran en masse to the lower side in a vain attempt to suddenly move the ship in the water. Sadly all these endeavours failed and it was back to the drawing board.

In the end a plan to partition and seal off the injured part of the ship was hatched. This was carried out successfully and swiftly. The repair was tightly caulked to prevent leakage, and a 'thrumbed' sail - that is to say a sail studded with bunches of oakum and rope yarn - was applied to the hole externally. This was sucked into the leak by water pressure and served to partially choke the influx.

On July 6th 1816 the Esk set sail for home. The John remained with her to chaperone the limping vessel back to England. Because he had forgone any chance of success in the whale fishery through the unstinting assistance he'd given to Scoresby and his crew, Captain Jackson agreed a pact. He would take half of the cargo captured by the Esk prior to her near fatal accident.

On July 27th the Esk entered Whitby harbour with all but one of the crew she set out with, and all in a reasonable state of health. In the words of Captain William Scoresby...

The hearty congratulations I received on landing, from every acquaintance, were almost overwhelming, and these, with the enhanced endearments of my affectionate and enraptured wife, amply repaid me for all the toils and anxieties of mind that I had endured.

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