Modern history


Neither Land nor Sea nor Air

After three seasons (1868-1870) of good whaling in excellent weather and forgiving ice conditions, the arctic whalers in 1871 were dismayed by the mass of the ice pack that was still, in midsummer, blocking their route north.

In July, the Oriole, a newly built New Bedford whaleship, struck floating ice south of the Bering Strait, off St. Lawrence Island. Little of the shock was transmitted through the heavily constructed vessel, and the collision was dismissed until a boatsteerer jumped down the forward hatch to look for a harpoon and landed waist-deep in icy water. Thomas Williams’s Monticello and several other whaleships were cruising nearby, and Thomas (who had lost his own ship, the Hibernia, in exactly such circumstances less than a year earlier) was among the men who rowed over to the Orioleto offer assistance. With pumps going, the ship reached Plover Bay on the Siberian shore, where she was hove down onto her side on the beach with the hole above water. But the damage was found to be too great to be repaired in such a remote location, and the ship was declared a loss. Benjamin Dexter, captain of the Emily Morgan, bought the wreck, otherwise in good condition, for $1,350, and set his men to removing every piece of gear he could get out of her, to be kept or resold throughout the fleet. It was a stark reminder, if anyone needed it, of the danger and unpredictability of arctic conditions.

SOMETIME AROUND 330 B.C., a Greek merchant and explorer named Pytheas sailed from his home port, the Greek colony of Massalia (Mar seille) on the southern coast of France, out of the Mediterranean, and headed north in search of distant trading ports. He sailed to Britain, where he observed the mining and processing of tin in Cornwall, and on up the Irish Sea, around the tip of Scotland. Then he wrote—though his own writings have been lost—that he sailed for six more days northward, to a place he called Thule, a name later appropriated by medieval geographers for their maps as “Ultima Thule,” to mean a place beyond the borders of the known world. Pytheas had probably sailed to Norway, because it can easily take six days to cross the Norwegian Sea from Scotland in what must have been a heroically unsuitable boat, and he found barns there.

In Thule, he noticed, the sun disappeared only for an hour or two in the middle of the night. During his peregrinations around Thule, Pytheas found the sea “congealed” and encountered something he described as neither land nor sea nor air “but a mixture of these things”—as the Greek geographer Strabo, who was familiar with Pytheas’s work, put it—“in which it is said that earth and water and all things are in suspension as if this something was a link between all these elements, on which one can neither walk nor sail.” Pytheas was describing ice, almost certainly freshwater icebergs, drifting south from the fjord glaciers of Svalbard, Greenland, and Norway.

Off Alaska, Pytheas would have found different-looking, walkable ice. There are no glaciers slipping off the marshy tundra shores at the edge of the Alaska whaling grounds to release the wonderfully spired and castellated icebergs found in the eastern Arctic north of the Atlantic, or in the Antarctic. The pack ice surrounding the Yankee whale ships was made of frozen seawater, stuff the whalers, to a man, referred to as ice “cakes,” because it was made of sheets that reminded them of pancakes. As Willie Williams wrote:

The pack ice is an enormous accumulation of cakes or floes of snow-covered sea frozen ice, of all shapes and sizes, but containing very few whose highest points are more than 10 feet above the sea level, and those have been formed by the crowding of one floe on top of another. There are very few level spots of any extent, the general effect being very rough. There are no icebergs as there are no glaciers in these northernmost parts of either America or Asia. The pack is not, therefore, in its individual parts imposing, grand or beautiful, but as a whole under all the varying conditions of an arctic sky, from brilliant sunshine to a leaden gloom, it is a magnificent spectacle; and when you stop to consider that it represents ages of accumulation and that there is beneath the surface nearly ten times more bulk than what you can see, you realize that there is something to be considered beside beautiful effects, that there is within it a power which cannot be expressed and can only be partially comprehended.

Though whaling fleets had been sailing into the ice for more than a century, the Arctic and most of the polar waste was still a vast unknown, barred by ice and the lack of technology to penetrate beyond its seasonally melting edge. Conditions at its farthest north, and whether there was land there or simply a frozen sea, could only be guessed at. It would still be more than twenty years before the first serious attempt was made to cross whatever was there to reach the North Pole. In 1893, the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen sailed his purposely designed ship Fram from Christiania (now Oslo) to the Arctic Ocean north of Russia, where it was allowed to become frozen in the ice pack, from which position Nansen hoped the ship would drift with the pack across the Arctic Ocean, over the top of world, to within ski-trekking distance of the North Pole, and eventually reach the Atlantic. He didn’t come close to the pole, but spent three years in the arctic ice pack. He found much of it a flat “ice-plain” of “cold violet-blue shadows, with lighter pink tints where a ridge here and there catches the last reflection of the vanished day.”

But this desolate, occasionally beautiful, jumbled plain was a deadly threat to the whaleships and their crews. As Willie noted, most of the ice lay below the surface, where, in fog and snow, it could not be seen by men aboard the ships. For a wooden ship, however stoutly built, ice was no different from house-sized chunks of concrete or steel, the mass of even a small “cake” displacing far greater weight than that of any vessel, and, on contact, as unyielding as a granite breakwater. The Williams family had already seen their own ship sunk by ice, and again, at the outset of the 1871 season, witnessed the loss of the Oriole by a collision scarcely noticed by the men aboard her. Most whalemen, after one season in the Arctic, had seen or personally experienced the same thing. Ice cruised in constant company with the fleet, often yards from every ship’s hull, an ever-present terror, implacable destroyer of ships, killer of men, the constant loom of misadventure; yet so also is the ocean, and the whalemen and their wives and children grew as used to it as to the sea and sky.

The Japan, a lucky ship until it smashed into Siberia, had already reached the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait, by late March, 1870. Conditions were markedly different for the fleet a year later. “The ice was still heavy and well to the south all across the ocean,” wrote Willie Williams, as the fleet pushed north through the strait in July 1871, “and as the whaling the year before had been around Point Barrow, all the ships commenced to work to the northeast, in the clear water between the ice and the American shore.”

Eskimos trading with the whalers that season advised them that the weather would not be favorable, that the ice would be slow to break up and early to return, and they urged the Americans to turn their ships around and sail south while they could. The whalers, some of whom had been sailing on these arctic “grounds” for twenty years, dismissed the natives’ warnings. They knew from experience that easterly and northeasterly winds would eventually blow the ice away from the land, creating a channel between the land and the ice all the way to Point Barrow. The previous three years had seen steadily rising numbers of whales caught by whalers who had taken advantage of this seasonal waterway, who had sailed farther north each year, and remained there longer.

Whaling captains acquired firsthand most of their knowledge of the conditions they might encounter at sea and off distant coasts, the same way they learned navigation and ship-handling. This empirical education began when they first shipped aboard as green hands, and was added to over the course of many voyages. Competition was great and such information was jealously kept from foreign ships, but among friends and colleagues, and particularly among the captains of vessels owned by the same company, men shared this hard-won insider information. In time, such knowledge, spoken, written down in logbooks and letters, would inevitably become public and eventually be verified and gathered into “pilot” books, published by the United States Government Printing Office in Washington. (While most seafaring nations—Britain, with a millennium of such nautical lore, being a preeminent example—have similar publications with their origins in the same sort of vernacular and empirical sources, it sometimes appears that less “salty” governments have copied, almost word for word, from the pilot books of other, better-informed sources.) The early editions of the United States Coast Pilot for Alaska, published in Washington, contained daunting descriptions of the ice and weather conditions faced by mariners navigating arctic coasts, much of it directly reflecting the experiences of nineteenth-century whaling captains, whose efforts comprised the earliest sustained attempts at arctic exploration and navigation:

The bowhead whale keeps as far to the northward as he can find spouting holes, and to take him the whalers are obliged to keep as close to the pack [ice] as possible. . . . In Bering Sea [south of the strait] there is very little danger in entering the ice, as it is almost sure to open and offer a chance to escape before reaching the Arctic. With a knowledge of this fact, whalers sometimes enter the ice to the southward of the strait and endeavor to work through it if they have reason to believe, from the sudden disappearance of the whale, that there is clear water to the northward. In the Arctic, however [north of the Bering Strait], the pack is carefully avoided. . . . Point Barrow is approached with the greatest caution, as it is one of the most dangerous places in the Arctic. . . . By far the major portion of the vessels lost in the Arctic are wrecked in its vicinity.

Many early editions of the United States Coast Pilot for Alaska carried remarks by Captain M. A. Healy about the 1884 cruise of the revenue ship Thomas Corwin (the same vessel that had reported the extent of the 1879 famine in the Eskimo settlements). Like 1871, 1884 was an unusually severe season, and it confirmed for Captain Healy that “the experience of many years in the Arctic has demonstrated the fact that no rules whatever can be given as to the time of the breaking up [and the return] of the ice.” Arctic pilot books note that “maximum fogginess occurs during the summer.” Dense fog had been “almost constant” through the summer of 1884, and Willie Williams and all the logbook keepers aboard the other whaling ships recorded that it was nearly so during 1871. Healy wrote that “for weeks at a time it was impossible to take observations [i.e., to obtain a position by celestial navigation], dead reckoning was almost worthless, owing to the continual changes in force and direction of the currents.” Then the navigator depended entirely on the lead line—a rope with a lead weight—to measure the depth of water beneath a ship, which would indicate shoaling and the approach of land. Fog distorted the views of whatever piece of shore might be glimpsed, “high bluffs often appearing like low beaches and small rocks looming to gigantic size,” and the marshy tundra land was devoid of distinguishable landmarks. Among the best aids to navigation were the bird rookeries at King Island, the Diomedes, Cape Seppings, Cape Thompson, and Cape Lisburne. “The distance between these rookeries enables one to form a very accurate idea of the one he is approaching, while the cries of birds congregated at them answer the purpose of a fog signal.”

Whalers also discovered that their compass—normally the navigator’s most dependable and necessary tool—was often useless in the Arctic. The horizontal intensity of the earth’s magnetic field becomes progressively weaker as a ship—or a compass—nears the North Pole, until the pole itself becomes an elusive abstraction. The magnetic north pole is actually hundreds of miles from the geographical pole and, the navigator discovers, is constantly on the move. “Measurements indicate that the north magnetic pole moves within an elongated area perhaps 100 miles in a generally north-south direction and somewhat less in an east-west direction,” states the American Practical Navigator—a door-stopper volume generally referred to by sailors as “Bowditch,” after its eighteenth-century originator, Nathaniel Bowditch—some edition of which was carried aboard many whaleships. This book’s treatise on the capricious wanderings of the magnetic north pole could hardly enlighten a navigator: “Normally, it is at the southern end of its area of movement at local noon and at the northern extremity twelve hours later, but during a severe magnetic storm this motion is upset and becomes highly erratic. . . . There is some evidence to support the belief that several secondary poles exist.” Location of the pole aside, the daily changes in its magnetic field could be as much and abrupt as ten degrees one way or another.

Some sailors even found their compasses affected by the wind in the Arctic, while acknowledging that this seemed impossible. Captain William H. Kelley of New Bedford reported this, guardedly, in a letter to the Hawaiian Gazette in 1874:

One of the perplexities of the navigator cruising in the Arctic Ocean is the singular effect northerly and southerly winds seem to have upon the mariner’s compass. . . . Navigators have noticed that with a north or northeast wind they can tack in eight points, while with the wind south or southwest in from fourteen to sixteen points. All navigators know that for a square-rigged vessel to lie within four points of the wind [as the compass might have shown on a northerly tack] is an utter impossibility. . . . I have said this much to show the working of the compass in the Arctic Ocean during different winds, not that I admit that the wind has any effect whatever upon the compass.

For arctic mariners, wind shifts often precipitated a change of course, and, as slow as the ships were, magnetic anomalies in the Arctic left the compass needle far behind, and sluggish in catching up. “I have often seen the ship tack and the compass remain stationary,” Willie Williams noted, “but by a vigorous shaking . . . the compass needle would finally respond.”

Into this featureless, disorienting environment sailed the fleet of heavy, tub-shaped, wind-powered whaleships. The Corwin was a coal-fired steamship, and Healy wrote that even at anchor, “moving steam had to be kept”—that is, the engines had to be kept running, in a state of readiness to haul anchor and steam to safety “to prevent being dragged ashore by fields of ice moving in the rapid and changing currents.” The skill and difficulty of the negotiation of such constant obstacles entirely under sail can scarcely be appreciated by anyone who has not actually witnessed the maneuvering of a square-rigged ship from on board. Few modern sailors take the time to develop the skills, and the nerve, required to handle their highly efficient and maneuverable sailboats—to sail them in and out of a congested harbor or negotiate adverse piloting conditions—under sail alone, for when the wind drops or pipes up too much, they prefer, naturally, to push a button and start the diesel. Whaleships were to modern yachts what steam-rollers are to race cars, yet their captains and crews sailed them like crack racing teams, through ice floes, up narrow inlets, turning them completely around inside their own length, and even sailing them backward when conditions warranted. They did this out of pragmatic necessity, but also with pride and pleasure. “The contest to be head ship was close and spirited,” wrote Willie Williams of the fleet’s race to the northern whale grounds, when ten or fifteen ships crowded the narrow and fickle waterway between land and ice:

The right of way due to starboard tack was insisted upon fully as zealously, even to the limit of hair breadth escapes from actual collision, as ever seen in a cup race. Those old “square toes” with plenty of wind and a smooth sea, manned by crews every man of which by that time could qualify as an A.B. [i.e., able-bodied seaman], made a nautical picture rarely seen in even the great traveled highways of the ocean.

The suddenness and casualness of the loss of the Oriole were endemic to arctic navigation, where collisions with ice were an unavoidable, sometimes daily, occurrence. The single great advantage of having so many ships vying for the diminishing number of whales on the arctic grounds was the security they provided one another when cruising in close company. Never at any time during or after the collision did anyone aboard the Oriole fear for his life. The captains of nearby ships quickly came aboard to share their opinions of what might be done for the ship, no doubt enjoying refreshments laid on by the Oriole’s cook and steward, and to offer what they could of their own stores and men. And if a ship had to be abandoned, there was a floating village close at hand to take in its crew. In June 1858, the whaleship Addison, of New Bedford, struck ice off Cape Thaddeus in the Bering Sea. The Addison’s captain, Samuel Lawrence, had his wife, Mary, and seven-year-old daughter, Minnie, aboard. The whaling wives who accompanied their husbands were, manifestly, extraordinary women, particularly for their time, generally at least as brave as any man aboard, with an interest in the ship’s business that was second to none. When the Addison was in trouble, Mary Chipman Lawrence was gratefully aware of the whaling community standing by, ready to help. From her diary, of June 17, 1858:

A sad accident happened to us this morning. In a thick snowstorm we hit a lone cake of ice. No one saw it, neither had any been seen during the morning. We were not aware that there was any within six miles, at least. The first thing I did was to get Minnie up and dress her. We were at breakfast, and I generally let Minnie sleep in the morning, as we breakfast early. I was very calm and composed while dressing her and was ready to collect my things preparatory to leaving the ship, as I expected we should be obliged to do. The ship was stoven some on her larboard bow, causing her to leak a little; but Samuel thinks when he can get up to the land into a bay where we can anchor to repair her a little, it will be perfectly safe to continue on whale ground for the season. Captains Freeman of the Tybee and Smith of the Fabius were on board during the day, and they considered that it was perfectly safe to do so. I believe I am truly thankful that it is no worse, and I shall retire to rest with a feeling of gratitude that the Addison is still my home. There are plenty of ships in sight, and I know that I should suffer for nothing; but for Samuel ’s sake especially am I thankful.

The Addison was luckier than the Oriole. It was beached at Masinka Bay, a few miles north of Plover Bay, was repaired, and profitably saw out the end of the season.

The Addison did not go as far north, nor remain as long in the Arctic Ocean, as ships began to in later years. The increasing scarcity of whales would drive whalers to push the limits of whaling grounds, weather, and the balance between prudent seamanship and the tightening economic realities of whaling. In the arctic whaling seasons of 1868, ’69, and ’70, ships probing farther north, and remaining there longer, did substantially better. The weather during these years was forgiving (the severe storm experienced by the Japan and the Champion in 1870 came in October, after most ships were south of the Bering Strait). Whales were taken in good numbers around Point Barrow well into September. The experience of the Henry Taber in 1870 was common: her crew didn’t spot a whale for three months, until late August, and then caught seventeen during the following three weeks around Point Barrow. In 1871, every captain was determined to reach Point Barrow and stay there as long as possible. Captains whose long experience made them feel they were being foolhardy by cruising such waters at such late dates made some accommodation with their fears and discovered within themselves unimagined stoicism and skill, or else found themselves without a command. Less responsible crewmembers, whose eyes rested solely on their take of the profits, and who would not be blamed for the loss of or damage to a ship, could, and did, write to a ship’s owners to complain if they felt their captain was being too timid.

So the fleet pushed north, negotiating conditions that in any other circumstances would have been considered unacceptable. But still they found they could not keep to the schedule of recent years, which had seen ships close to Point Barrow by early August. In August 1871 they were 150 miles south of there, facing apparently impenetrable pack ice, which was held against the land by a nearly steady wind from the north.

Wednesday [August] 2nd. Strong breeze from North’rd working to wind’rd foggy most of the time,” wrote Nathaniel Ransom in the John Wells’s logbook, as the ship tacked again and again, pushing into strong headwinds, seeking any opening in the ice.

“ Thursday 3rd. Strong breeze from North’rd again. . . .

“Saturday 5th. Strong breeze from North’rd . . . found plenty of ice. . . .”

But on August 6, the wind shifted to northeast, blowing off the land. The Henry Taber, at the front of the fleet, found a channel between the ice and the land off Blossom Shoals, and, working into this shifting opening, passed Icy Cape. Three days later, the John Wells followed her:“Wednesday 9th. Fresh breeze from North’rd on wind forenoon pass icy Cape & blossom shoals found a very narrow passage through between land & ice afternoon a little more room to work ship made sail evening foggy came to anchor.”

The not unpleasant-sounding description “fresh breeze” used by these rugged whalers aboard heavy, slow-moving ships generally meant winds that were nearly gale-force. “Strong” winds would indicate a true gale. Understatement is a consistent factor in gauging reports of conditions faced by men aboard whaleships. Usually, the weather they faced was appalling.

The Wells found sixteen ships ahead of her, four of them “boiling”—giving off black clouds of greasy smoke as their tryworks melted blubber—a happy sight.

The next day, Thursday, August 10, after most of the ships had squeezed their way into the finger of water between the ice pack and the low dismal shore, Lewis Kennedy died aboard the Henry Taber. He was one of the crewmen of the Japan who had never recovered from his ordeal. Abram Briggs, the Taber ’s logkeeper, recorded (in his characteristically tidy hand) this death in a neat, black-ink-bordered note in the logbook.


Of Lewis Kennedy who departed this life Thursday August 10, 1871, at 12 [noon], he was a native of London, England, aged 24 years or thereabout he was one of the English Bark Japan crew that was wrecked In Oct last up here. We are now called upon to witness on this solemn occation, the last tribute & respect, paid to our fellow mariner & may we all bear It In mind that we have all got to go that way sooner or later. And from leaveing this World of Troubles & woe, he has entered Into a Heavenly mansion, where love & peace forever [reign]. The deceased died of the scurvy on the Lungs. Oh death where Is Thy sting. Oh grave where Is Thy victory.

A fleet of twenty ships, including the Monticello and the Howland brothers’ Concordia, now crowded into the narrow channel that had opened between Icy Cape and Wainwright Inlet, thirty-five miles to the north. The wind fell light and settled into the northeast for a few days, and conditions at last seemed promising for the final push to Point Barrow, another sixty miles beyond Wainwright Inlet, where they all wanted to be, and where, they believed, lay the richest whaling grounds on earth.

But that spring an anomalous (compared with the patterns of the previous three years) stationary high-pressure system developed over Siberia. Through the spring and early summer, persistent cold winds—the northerlies noted by all the ships’ logkeepers—blew across the Arctic Ocean, keeping the ice pack pinned to the coast of Alaska and preventing its normal melting and dispersal. The narrow channel that had opened up, as it had done in years past, would prove to be a temporary aberration that season. The ships had sailed into a trap.

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