Arctic Ice Navigation: Ship Refitting (Part 1 of 3)

Relics of the Franklin Expedition from "Illustrated London News," October, 1854, Wikimedia photo.
Relics of the Franklin Expedition from “Illustrated London News,” October, 1854, Wikimedia photo.

Rigors of ice navigation challenged 19th century English and American explorers who ventured into the High Arctic. With no purpose-built ships designed and constructed for ice prosecution, shipyards retrofitted wood-hull sailing vessels and continued to employ them with varying success for ice navigation well after the advent of true steel-hulled screw steamers.

Ice navigation or safely and successfully maneuvering amongst ice in its various forms is a skill developed and refined with years of experience – and is the crux of Arctic navigation in the 19th century and is practiced by bridge crews on modern-day, ice-traversing ships.

Of modern-day archaeological interest, the 1845 death-fated Franklin Expedition, led by Sir John Franklin of the Royal Navy, consisted of 134 officers and men who were veteran Arctic and Antarctic explorers. Refitted to search for the Northwest Passage, their heavy sailing ships, the HMS Erubus and HMS Terror, “were of stout oak, reinforced with cast-iron supports and inch-thick iron sheathing on their bows. Each ship had a steam engine for use in navigating narrow leads through the ice.” [1]

Despite these advantages, Franklin’s ships were embarrassed by ice on two noted occasions, the latter of which directly contributed the death of the crew. Because of impassable conditions, the ships camped at Beechey Island for seven months. There, they buried three crew members, reducing their ranks to 129 sailors and officers. Once ice opened, with pennants and spirits high, the ships sailed south towards King William Island, where they encountered paralyzing ice flowing south from M’Clintock Channel. Caught in choking ice, the ships were beset for two years before being abandoned by the crew. Surviving historical records, Inuit witness statements, and decades of corroborating archaeological evidence have provided a dismal account of the starving, scurvy-debilitated English sailors and their heroic yet futile efforts at Arctic survival.

In pursuit of the lost Franklin Expedition, American and British search and rescue efforts launched twenty searches into the Arctic. In addition to providing increased knowledge of Arctic “geography, ethnography, and other scientific disciplines,” such as experience and knowledge pertaining to ship retrofitting for Arctic exploration. [2] Whilst large “man of war” sailing ships have distinct “brute force” advantage in frangible ice, smaller more nimble, shallow-draft sailing vessels were more adept at negotiating narrow, fluctuating leads, including those openings adjacent to shorelines.

The disadvantage of adding heavy oak planking and cast-iron sheathing to the bow of a sailing vessel is that additional weight on the bow can alter ship handling characteristics, including inherent balance and stability. This situation is worsened when ice accumulates on forward decks. The bow-heavy aspect can be alleviated somewhat by placing stores on stern working decks and below decks, including tons of coal for ballast. The combined weight of ice-reinforcement and stores would also cause the ship, whether sail or steam, to ride lower in the water, a real concern in heavy seas, when negotiating shallows and/or maneuvering amongst ice.

Such were the apprehensions of Isaac I. Hayes, M.D. when time-pressured to prepare the schooner United States for summer ice duty in search for the legendary Open Polar Sea. According to Douglas Wamsley, “Hayes estimated that the ship rode a mere eighteen inches above the sea, and water came in on all sides. [3] According to Hayes, his ship was structurally augmented with:

A strong sheathing of two and half inch oak planking [that] was spiked to her sides, and the bows were cased in thick iron plates as far aft as the fore-chains. Internally she was strengthened with heavy beams, crossing at intervals of twelve feet a little below the water-line, which, as well as the deck-timbers, were supported by additional knees and diagonal braces. For convenience of working among the ice, her rig was changed from a fore-and-aft to a foretop-sail schooner. [4]

Here, Hayes provided some insight on internal ship strengthening not only for improved resistance from the pressures of ice but also the need to architecturally strengthen the ship to carry the external weight of additional oak and iron. Unlike a stationary house with the addition of new siding, a ship must endure varying hydrodynamic forces imparted by pounding seas, hard heeling, and inevitable icing and hard ice impacts.

Further, Hayes’ schooner was retrofitted from the traditional fore-and-aft configuration to carrying square-rigged sails aloft. Whilst these modifications may have improved close-quarter handling, swinging booms aloft may have been a liability as the upper most mast of the schooner was damaged in an Arctic gale on August 31, 1860:

The collision was a perfect crash. The stern boat flew into splinters, the bulwarks over the starboard quarter were stove in, and, the schooner’s head swinging round with great violence, the jib-boom was carried away, and the bowsprit and foretop-mast were both sprung. In this crippled condition we at length escaped most miraculously, and under bare poles scudded before the wind. [5]

Whilst positioned on the foretop-yard, Hayes recounted another incident with an ice field one mile in width: “Luckily for me the spar held firm, but the cut-water flew in splinters with the collision, and the iron sheathing was torn from the bows as if it had been brown paper.” [6] This account demonstrates how solid ice easily splintered solid oak and mangled cast-iron sheathing, and of equal import, subjected 19th century Arctic explorers to potential injury or death.

Sailing vessels with a more relatively stable deep-displacement hull have a maximum theoretical speed based on hull length. Generally, there is a point of negligible return to adding more sail beyond which the ship was designed to carry, except for “light air” sailing to capture enough wind to execute quick maneuvers, negotiating icebergs, and other hazards to navigation. Part 2 of this three-part post will discuss various types of ice and related phenomena typically encountered in Arctic regions.

1. “The Fox Expedition in Search of Franklin: A Documentary Trail,” J.W. Lentz, Arctic, Volume 56, No. 2, June 2003, 175.

2. Ibid, 176.

3. Polar Hayes: The Life and Contributions of Isaac Israel Hayes, M.D., D. W. Wamsley, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 2009, 253.

4. The Open Polar Sea, Isaac Israel Hayes, M.D., Hurd and Houghton, 1867, p. 8.

5. Ibid, p. 81.

6. Ibid, p. 84.

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