In the great age of polar exploration, the major players included the British, the Americans, and the Norwegians. It was also an extremely nationalistic time. To get to the high Arctic or to the Antarctic, they needed ships capable of penetrating the ice, and sailors with a proven ability to face danger on the ice. For the Americans and the British it was strongly preferred to have English speaking sailors, preferably British or North American.
The nineteenth century ships most capable in high latitudes were arctic whaler and sealing vessels. These were wooden vessels, with thick hulls and heavily reinforced and sharp bows. Towards the latter half of the century they started installing steam engines and propellers into these vessels, thus creating vessels capable of penetrating and navigating significant pack ice. However, it must be remembered that these engines were less powerful than the average compact car (the Terra Nova‘s engine was less powerful than the engine of a Volkswagon Jetta).
One of the largest fleets of these vessels were the “wooden walls” used in the Newfoundland seal hunt. Since the 1700’s the local fisherman hunted the seals on the arctic pack that engulfed the Northeast Coast of the island in small boats, in schooners, and from the shore. When the wooden walls came into service they easily transferred their skills and experience on board, and eventually Newfoundland acquired a fleet of large ice-capable vessels with crews and captains with decades of experience in navigating through arctic pack and icebergs. It was a natural resource for the explorers of the time, who were often inexperienced and unfamiliar with the vagaries and dangers of the ice, ocean, and weather of the polar seas.
After hunting around a little, I found that Newfoundland ships and crews, and in particular one Ice Captain, contributed significantly to some of the most important and famous expeditions in the history of polar exploration. In fact, they were mainly involved with the attempts to get to the North and South Poles, the Holy Grails of exploration at the time. Here are some of the stories of how our ships and men assisted in the Great Adventure of those times.
This ship transported the first expedition to winter over on the Antarctic continent. In the process it also penetrated the Great Ice Barrier and entered the unexplored Ross Sea. It then went to the Newfoundland seal hunt for fourteen years, crewed and commanded by local sailors. Finally it disappeared in a storm on the way home from the seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in 1914. 173 souls perished, making it the greatest sealing disaster in Newfoundland history.
- History of the 1898-1900 British Antarctic Expedition
- Brief history of the S.S. Southern Cross
- Norwegian site with comprehensive information: The Forgotten Expedition
- The expedition party also got closer to the South Pole than any previous party. In February, Carsten Borchgrevink and crew of the Southern Cross landed at Cape Adare and spent the winter in huts.
- Borchgrevink’s Cape Adare Huts.
- Photographs and more photographs
- During 1914 she was lost with all hands on a voyage back home from the seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence , making this the greatest loss of life from any ship in Newfoundland sealing history. Here is an analysis of the story of the disaster in traditional music.
This is one of the most famous of the Newfoundland wooden walls. She was a sealing vessel for most of her career (1884-1943), but she gained world renown as the expedition ship for Robert Scott’s tragic and unsuccessful attempt to beat Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. Her silhouette is the trademark of the Bowring Company, who owned her for much of her life, and there is also a mountain named after her on Ross Island not far from McMurdo Station, Antarctica. There is also a Terra Nova Glacier and a Terra Nova Bay in the same area.
This ship was involved in three expeditions. The first was a discover and rescue mission for the Greely Expedition in 1884. The second was the Australasian Antarctic Expedition under Douglas Mawson, and the third was as one of the two ships involved in Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. This third expedition was famous for the loss of the Endurance, and Shackleton’s subsequent boat voyage to South Georgia island across about 600 miles of polar ocean. He was particularly famous for keeping so many of his people alive, which was rather uncommon in those days.
- History of the ship
- Summary of expeditions
- The Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917
- Aurora and the Ross Sea Party
- Douglas Mawson, owner of the Aurora
She was used as the expedition ship for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s second attempt to reach the South Pole, and his first as expedition leader.
Eagle and Trepassey:
- Between 1944-1947 they were charted by the British Admiralty and sent to the Antarctic. Details are in SS Eagle: The Secret Mission by H. Squires.
Captain Robert Abram (“Bob”) Bartlett:
Captain Bob was born in Brigus in 1875 to a family of ice navigators and captains. By the time he was an adult he had significant experience with the seal hunt and on trading ships. He is primarily famous for three events in his life. He worked with Commodore Peary both as the captain of Peary’s ship Roosevelt, and as part of the group that trekked over the ice to the North Pole. He had to turn back on the final leg due to a disagreement with Peary, but otherwise they worked well together and he was instrumental in getting the Roosevelt close enough to the pole to allow for the overland trek. He also was able to get the ship further North than any previous ship.
He was also skipper of the Karluk during the ill-fated Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-18. The ship was trapped in the ice northwest of Alaska and drifted north of Siberia before being crushed in the ice. Bartlett prepared the crew for the destruction of the ship and helped them to head south to Siberia. Then he and an Inuit companion headed east to the Bering Sea and managed to organise a rescue ship. In the end he managed to recover more than half of the crew stranded on the ice.
His third endeavor was less spectacular but probably more important than any of his previous work. He acquired a Grand Banks schooner called the Effie N. Morrissey, refitted her for Arctic work, and for the next couple of decades sailed her north every year with scientists, explorers, and the sons of influential and powerful American friends that he had made due to his earlier exploits. This produced much good research, and also a generation of influential and generous people with an interest in science, exploration, and the Arctic.
Bartlett was considered the best ice captain of his generation. There is one story that still sticks in my mind. At one time he was on a ship anchored in a narrow channel in the Canadian Archipelago. Unbeknownst to them, there was a strong intermittent tidal current in this channel; there was also a large clump of bergy bits, small icebergs, and the occasional large one near one end of the channel. Bartlett was roused by the night watch in a panic; the current had started and the ice was coming through the channel straight towards the ship. Bartlett ran to the ships wheel and signalled the engine room to fire up the boilers and get the engine running. However he knew they would be into the ice before that.
He ordered that the anchor chain be let out further; the crew momentarily looked at him as if he were stunned. They expected that he would want the anchor chain and anchor to be pulled up so they would drift with the current. But Bartlett knew they would be drifting helplessly until the engine could be started, and that there wasn’t enough time anyway. They quickly recovered and followed his orders, and then realised what he was doing. The current moving past the stationary ship would give the boat steerage way. With a longer distance between the anchor and the ship, by turning the wheel left and right he could make the ship quickly glide left and right a significant distance. He then proceeded to do just that, dodging massive chunks of ice with almost inhuman virtuosity as the boat drifted left and right across the channel. After a while most of the ice was safely past the ship, and they finally had a head of steam for the engine. He quickly pulled in the anchor and quietly sailed the ship out of the channel, found a safer place to anchor, and went back to bed.
- Coast Guard Biography
- Peary-MacMillan Collection Biography
- Arctic Profiles brief Biography
- The Roosevelt, commanded by Captain Bob Bartlett for Commander Peary during Peary’s attempt to reach the North Pole
- New York times article on Peary’s “attainment” of the North Pole, and the controversy regarding Dr. Frederick Cook’s prior claim to having reached the Pole.
- The Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1918, where the Karluk was destroyed and Bartlett saved more than half of the survivors.
- Timeline of Bartlett’s arctic schooner, the Effie N. Morrissey which he used for arctic exploration and scientific research for about twenty years, and in the meantime popularised exploration and the north to the United States in particular, and to the world in general
- Whatever Happened to the Effie N. Morrissey?
- History, characteristics, and research voyages of the Morrissey.