Arctic Ice Navigation: Kane’s Winter Ship Preparations (Part 3 of 3)

"Life in the Brig: Second Winter." See photo credit below.
“Life in the Brig: Second Winter.” See photo credit below.

Dr. Elisha Kent Kane led the Second Grinnell Expedition in an effort to locate or rescue the lost Franklin Expedition. However, Kane’s expedition is best known for its own heroic survival and eventual eighty-three day march from Rensselar Bay to Upernavik, Greenland.

Confronted with a scurvy-debilitated crew and minimal stores, including coal, Kane realized that the prospect of spending a second winter in the Arctic imposed serious survival risks to his crew. After a year interacting with Inuit, Kane was familiar their practices, especially the methods and materials used to construct and insulate their igloos. He used this knowledge to winterize the ice-trapped Advance by turning it into a ship-igloo. As indicated in his September 6th, 1854 diary entry, Kane’s men gathered moss from the shore to be used as insulation:

We are all at it, all hands, sick, and well… The sledge is to bring us moss and turf from wherever the men can scrape it. This is an excellent non-conductor; and when we get the quarter-deck well padded with it we shall have nearly cold-proof covering. Down below we will enclose a space some eighteen feet square, and pack it from floor to ceiling with inner walls of the same material. [1]

In that same diary entry, Kane further described additional insulating steps to prepare the Advance for another hard winter, including cutting an “igloo-type” opening into the ship’s wood hull:

The floor itself we are calking carefully with plaster of Paris and common paste, and will cover it, when we have done, with Manilla oakum of a couple of inches deep, and a canvas carpet. The entrance is to be from the hold, by a low, moss-lined tunnel, the tossut of the native huts, with as many doors and curtains to close it up as our ingenuity can devise. This is to be our apartment of all uses, — not a very large one; but we are only ten to stow away, and the closer the warmer. [2]

An immediate issue at low tide, heavy sea ice adhered to the hull of the Advance, the weight of which threatened hull integrity. In an effort to prevent significant ship damage, Kane and his men devised a mechanical lift consisting of chains and shoring timbers to raise the brig onto an improvised dry-dock:

Our object, therefore, has been to lift her mechanically above her line of flotation, and let her freeze in on a sort of ice-dock; so that the ice around her as it sinks may take the bottom and hold her up clear of the danger. We have detached four of the massive beams that were intended to resist the lateral pressure of nips, and have placed them as shores, two on each side of the vessel, opposite the channels. Brooks [First Officer] has rigged a crab or capstan on the floe, and has passed the chain cable under the keel at for bearing-points. [3]

Extremely low on coal, Kane realized that the Advance must be stripped of wood for fuel with concern for keeping the brig seaworthy. Since wood does not produce the long, intense heat of coal, Kane was understandably apprehensive about the amount of wood required to maintain a livable temperature inside the brig, and added this notation to his diary: “Not a stick of wood comes below without my eyes following it through the scales to the wood-stack. [4]

Kane further related the critical supply of heating fuel and ship winterization efforts in his diary as of October 26th, 1854:

We burn seventy pounds of fuel a day, most of it in the galley – the fire being allowed to out between meals. We go without fire altogether for four hours of the night; yet such is the excellence of our moss walls and air-proof tossut, that the thermometer in-doors never indicates less than 45º above zero, with the outside air at 30º below. [5]

To scavenge additional wood from the Advance, Kane consulted with Christian Ohlsen, ship’s carpenter, as to what wood could be removed from the brig and still be seaworthy should ice open the following spring. As part of his October 27, 1854 diary, Kane recorded this listing:

The winter cold increases fast, verging now upon 40º below zero, and in spite of all my efforts we will have to burn largely into the brig. Ohlsen’s report marked out the order in which her timbers should be appropriated to uses of necessity: 1. The monkey-rail; 2. The bulwarks; 3. The upper ceiling of the deck; 4. Eight extra cross-beams; 5. The flooring and remaining wood-work of the forecastle…[and finally] 8. The outside trebling or oak sheathing. [6]

Despite these extraordinary efforts at ship winterization and fuel conservation, the ultimate survival of Kane’s crew required that they abandon the Advance to ravages of crushing Arctic sea ice.  Before they departed the brig to make a four-month, 1300-mile forced march south to Upernavik, Kane recorded this solemn acknowledgment dated May, 1855:

I regard the abandonment of the brig as inevitable. We have by actual inspection but thirty-six days’ provisions, and a careful survey shows that we cannot cut more firewood without rendering our craft unseaworthy. A third winter would force us, as the only means of escaping starvation, to resort to Esquimaux habits and give up all hope of remaining by the vessel and her resources. It would therefore in no manner advance the search after Sir John Franklin. [7]

Kane’s experience with the Arctic in many ways mirrored that of Sir John Franklin, including both crews weathering two consecutive years beset in High Arctic sea ice. Both expedition teams were stricken with disease, faced starvation, and man-hauled whaleboats towards civilization. However, Kane and his crew adapted Inuit methods and materials, to include resourceful winter ship preparations, and they directly contributed to the heroic survival of his crew. This concludes the three-part discussion of 19th century Arctic ice navigation.

1. Arctic Explorations in Search of John Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, M.D., U.S.N., T. Nelson and Sons, London, 1877, 212.

2. Ibid., 212-213.

3. Ibid, 240.

4. Ibid, 255.

5. Ibid, 251.

6. Ibid, 251-252.

7. Ibid, 372.

Photo Credit: “Life in the Brig: Second Winter,” Arctic Explorations, Elisha Kent Kane, Philadelphia, 1856. Engraving by J. M. Butler based on a sketch by Dr. Kane, Wikimedia photo. (Kane seated in center, Hayes to his right.)

Social profiles