Tuesday, August 22, 2017

An Arctic Summer: August 11-22, 1773

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

Track of the Racehorse and Carcass
with position plots from throughout the
expedition from 6/13 to 8/22 of 1773.
Following their labors in getting free of the polar ice the previous week, the ships of the Phipps Expedition arrive at the port of Smeerenberg in Spitsbergen (part of the Svarlbard archipelago in northern Norway). The five journal entries in today's blog post mark the end of my series of posts chronicling "An Arctic Summer." Hopefully you've had a good time following the expedition's progress.

"11th.  Came to an anchor in the harbour of Smeerenberg, to refresh the people after their fatigues. We found here four of the Dutch ships, which we had left in the Norways when we sailed from Vogel Sang, and upon which I had depended for carrying the people home in case we had been obliged to quit the ships.  In this Sound there is good anchorage in thirteen fathom, sandy bottom, not far from the shore: it is well sheltered from all winds.  The island close to which we lay is called Amsterdam Island, the Westernmost point of which is Hacluyt's Head Land: here the Dutch used formerly to boil their whale-oil, and the remains of some conveniences erected by them for that purpose are still visible.  Once they attempted to make an establishment, and left some people to winter here, who all perished. The Dutch ships still resort to this place for the latter season of the whale fishery."

Meteorological Data:
8/11 Weather on Expedition: 33°F at noon, winds from the ENE, hazy weather.
8/11 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 79°F at noon with a heat index of 87°F, 5 mph winds from the S, clear.

Phipps and company will spend more than a week in and around Smeerenberg; both to allow the exhausted crews of Racehorse and Carcass to recover from their recent near marooning, and to take observations with a variety of scientific instruments and conduct a survey of the flora and fauna found nearby.  Be sure to take note of how Phipps had laid plans from the very beginning to return the crews safely to England if his own vessels had been lost...if circumstances earlier in the month had not improved, they may well have had to make use those Dutch ships waiting at Smeerenberg.

"18th.  Completed the observations.  Calm all day.  During our stay, I again set up the pendulum, but was not so fortunate as before, never having been able to get an observation of a revolution of the sun, or equal altitudes for the time.  We had an opportunity of determining the refraction at midnight, which answered within a few seconds to the calculation in Dr. Bradley's table, allowing for the barometer and thermometer.  Being within sight of Cloven Cliff, I took a survey of this part of Fair Haven, to connect it with the plan of the other part.  Dr. Irving climbed up a mountain, to take its height with the barometer, which I determined at the same time geometrically with great care.  By repeated observations here we found the latitude to be 79°44', which by the survey corresponded exactly with the latitude of Cloven Cliff, determined before; the longitude 9°50'45"E; dip 82°8'3/4; variation 18°57'W; which agrees also with the observation made on shore in July.  Opposite to the place where the instruments stood was one of the most remarkable Icebergs in this country.  Icebergs are large bodies of ice filling the vallies between the high mountains; the face towards the sea is nearly perpendicular, and of a very lively light green colour.  That represented in the engraving, from a sketch taken by Mr. D'Auvergne upon the spot, was about three hundred feet high, with a cascade of water issuing out of it.  The black mountains, white snow, and beautiful colour of the ice, make a very romantic and uncommon picture.  Large pieces frequently break off from the Icebergs, and fall with great noise into the water: we observed one piece which had floated out into the bay, and grounded in twenty-four fathom; it was fifty feet high above the surface of the water, and of the same beautiful colour as the Iceberg.

An engraving "View of an Iceberg" published with the expedition journal.

A particular description of all the plants and animals will have a place in the Appendix.  I shall here mention such general observations as my short stay enabled me to make.  The stone we found was chiefly a kind of marble, which dissolved easily in the marine acid.  We perceived no marks of minerals of any kind, nor the least appearance of present, or remains of former Volcanoes.  Neither did we meet with insects, or any species of reptiles; not even the common earthworm.  We saw no springs or rivers, the water, which we found in great plenty, being all produced by the melting of the snow from the mountains.  During the whole time we were in these latitudes, there was no thunder or lightning.  I must also add, that I never found what is mentioned by Marten (who is generally accurate in his observations, and faithful in his accounts) of the sun at midnight resembling in appearance the moon; I saw no difference in clear weather between the sun at midnight and any other time, but what arose from a different degree of altitude; the brightness of the light appearing there, as well as elsewhere, to depend upon the obliquity of his rays.  The sky was in general loaded with hard white clouds; so that I do not remember to have ever seen the sun and horizon both free from them even in the clearest weather. We could always perceive when we were approaching the ice, long before we saw it, by a bright appearance near the horizon, which the pilots called the blink of the ice.  Hudson remarked, that the sea where he met with ice was blue; but the green sea was free from it.  I was particularly attentive to observe this difference, but could never discern it.  The Driftwood in these seas has given rise to various opinions and conjectures, both as to its nature and the place of its growth.  All that which we saw (except the pipe-staves taken notice of by Doctor Irving on the Low Island) was fir, and not worm-eaten.  The place of the growth I had no opportunity of ascertaining.  The nature of the ice was a principal object of attention in this climate.  We found always a great swell near the edge of it; but whenever we got within the loose ice, the water was constantly smooth.  The loose fields and flaws, as well as the interior part of the fixed ice, were flat, and low: with the wind blowing on the ice, the loose parts were always, to use the phrase of the Greenlandmen, packed; the ice at the edges appearing rough, and piled up; this roughness and height I imagine to proceed from the smaller pieces being thrown up by the force of the sea on the solid part.  During the time that we were fast amongst the Seven Islands, we had frequent opportunities of observing the irresistible force of the large bodies of floating ice.  We have often seen a piece of several acres square lifted up between two much larger pieces, and as it were becoming one with them; and afterwards this piece so formed acting in the same manner upon a second and third; which would probably have continued to be the effect, till the whole bay had been so filled with ice that the different pieces could have had no motion, had not the stream taken an unexpected turn, and set the ice out of the bay."

Meteorological Data:
8/18 Weather on Expedition: 46°F at noon, winds from the NE, clear.
8/18 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 88°F at noon with a heat index of 104°F, light winds from the SSW, clear and humid.

After a much-needed break in Smeerenburg, Racehorse and Carcass put back to sea, once again trying to penetrate the North Pole to the ocean on the far side of the world.

"20th.  At midnight, being exactly in the latitude of Cloven Cliff, Mr. Harvey took an observation for the refraction; which we found to agree with the tables.  The wind Southerly all day, blowing fresh in the afternoon.  About noon fell in with a stream of loose ice, and about four made the main ice near us.  We stood to the WNW along it at night, and found it in the same situation as we saw it before; the wind freshened and the weather grew thick, so that we lost sight of it, and could not venture to stand nearer, the wind being SSW."

Meteorological Data:
8/20 Weather on Expedition: 40°F at noon,  winds from the SW, cloudy.
8/20 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 87°F at noon with a heat index of 96°F, light winds from the E, clear.

"21st.  At two in the morning we were close in with the body of the West ice, and obliged to tack for it; blowing fresh, with a very heavy sea from the Southward.  The wind abated in the afternoon, but the swell continued, with a thick fog."

Meteorological Data:
8/21 Weather on Expedition: 40°F at noon, winds from the SE by S, foggy.
8/21 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 89°F at noon with a heat index of 100°F, 5 mph winds from the SSE, partly cloudy.

"22d.  The wind sprung up Northerly, with a thick fog; about noon moderate and clearer; but coming on to blow fresh again in the evening, with a great sea, and thick fog, I was forced to haul more to the Eastward, lest we should be embayed, or run upon lee ice.  The season was so very far advanced, and fogs as well as gales of wind so much to be expected, that nothing more could now have been done, had anything been left untried.  The summer appears to have been uncommonly favourable for our purpose, and afforded us the fullest opportunity of ascertaining repeatedly the situation of that wall of ice, extending more than twenty degrees between the latitudes of eighty and eighty-one, without the smallest appearance of any opening."

Meteorological Data:
8/22 Weather on Expedition: 37°F at noon, winds from the NE, hazy.
8/22 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 89°F at noon with a heat index of 100°F, 5 mph winds from the S, sunny and clear.

An excerpt from Purdie and Dixon's Virginia Gazette
from December 9, 1773.  As part of a larger
dispatch from September 20, it includes a brief summary
of the Phipps Expedition, though the ship Racehorse
is mistakenly identified as Seahorse.
Based upon Phipps' notes, following the main body of the ice in those latitudes means he followed the coast for a distance of approximately 198 nautical miles without finding any significant passages farther north.  After resolving to return to England, the ships sight their first star on August 24th (Jupiter) while passing 75°59' N...this is the first time they've seen a star aside from the sun, which has been above the northern horizon since June 19th.  The journal concludes with two pages of notes marked 'September' as Racehorse and Carcass wend their way back home.  More temperature and depth readings are taken of the ocean...sounding a depth of 683 fathoms at one point.  Towards the end of the month, much closer to England, both ships are caught in heavy seas and storms...Captain Phipps remarked that it is fortunate the vessels left home when they did, as if the two ships had encountered such weather earlier in the expedition when they were much heavier laden, they stood a good chance of foundering.  Even though the Phipps Expedition never made it across the North Pole, Captain Phipps seemed genuinely pleased with what his crews accomplished...confirmed navigational data, conducted important measurements and observations, catalogued various plants and animals in the Arctic, and brought both vessels safely home.

Now for our final comparisons between Williamsburg and Expedition weather: to be perfectly honest, I've experienced colder winters here in town, though admittedly I haven't had to deal with anything remotely as difficult as what Phipps and company experienced.  Despite a sudden increase of humidity and the heat index several days this week, Williamsburg's summer seems to be moderating as well.  After reading through this journal several times, I can see why participating in this expedition left such strong impressions on Nicholas Biddle, eventually of the Continental Navy.

The Phipps Expedition is a perfect example of the Age of Reason/Enlightenment, a period spanning the eighteenth century that placed an increasing emphasis on empiricism and rational thought over the mysticism and religion of previous centuries.  The Age of Reason saw a boom in scientific discovery, exploration, and the growth of various societies and academies that spread this knowledge to an increasingly literate population.  Think of two people contemplating some aspect of the unknown: "What happens if we do this?" "I don't know.  Let's try it and find out."  While the results weren't always predictable, people like Constantine Phipps and George Wythe (to name a Williamsburg naturalist of the time) continued to learn about the world around them through observation, experimentation, and experience: an example worth following indeed.

Phipps, Constantine John.  A Voyage Towards the North Pole Undertaken at His Majesty's Command. (J. Nourse, 1773.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

An Arctic Summer: July 31-August 10, 1773

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

Track of the Racehorse and Carcass with position plots
for 7/29 and 7/31.  Foggy weather described in the
meteorlogical journal likely prevented observations
in early August.  Red circle indicates islands off
"North East Land" where the ships were most likely
beset by ice as the journal describes on Ausgust 3-10.
The Phipps Expedition enters its third month at sea, continuing their attempts to penetrate the polar waters. They've been in close with the "main body" of the ice (which I take to be their encounters with the polar ice cap) for some time now, trying to explore small channels and bays in the hopes that they will prove to be an extended passage farther north.  Almost without fail, these passages are little more than a mile or two long before closing up.  As  we get into this post's journal entries, Racehorse and Carcass find themselves in an extensive field of loose ice near the main body, with the loose ice slowly packing closer and closer together around the ships.

"July 31st.  At nine in the morning, having a light breeze to the Eastward, we cast off, and endeavoured to force through the ice.  At noon the ice was so close, that being unable to proceed, we moored again to a field. In the afternoon we filled our cask with fresh water from the ice, which we found very pure and soft.  The Carcass moved, and made fast to the same field with us.  The ice measured eight yards ten inches in thickness at one end, and seven yards eleven inches at the other. At four in the afternoon the variation was 12°24' W: at the same time the longitude 19°0'15" E; by which we found that we had hardly moved to the Eastward since the day before. Calm most part of the day; the weather very fine; the ice closed fast, and was all round the ships; no opening to be seen any where, except an hole of about a mile and a half, where the ships lay fast to the ice with ice-anchors. We completed the water.  The ship's company were playing on the ice all day.  The pilots being much farther than they had ever been, and the season advancing, seemed alarmed at being beset."

Meteorological Data:
7/31 Weather on Expedition: 48°F at noon, light airs at E, fair.
7/31 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 82°F at noon with a heat index of 83°, light winds from the E, sunny.

"August 3d.  The weather very fine, clear, and calm; we perceived that the ships had been driven far to the Eastward; the ice was much closer than before, and the passage by which we had come in from the Westward closed up, no open water being in sight, either in that or any other quarter.  The pilots having expressed a wish to get if possible farther out, the ships companies were set to work at five in the morning, to cut a passage through the ice, and warp through the small openings to the Westward.  We found the ice very deep, having sawed sometimes through pieces twelve feet thick.  This labour was continued the whole day, but without any success; our utmost efforts not having moved the ships above three hundred yards to the Westward through the ice, at the same time that they had been driven (together with the ice itself, to which they were fast) far to the NE and Eastward, by the current; which had also forced the loose ice from the Westward, between the islands, where it became packed, and as firm as the main body."

Meteorological Data:
8/3 Weather on Expedition: 47° F at noon, light airs and fair weather.
8/3 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 89°F at noon with a heat index of 94°F, 7 mph winds from the SE, sunny.

After the light-hearted Arctic recreation of the 31st (I cannot help but picture Jack Aubrey and the crew of HMS Surprise staging a polar cricket tournament in such a setting), it seems the fears of the Greenland pilots have been realized; the ships are now trapped by pack ice.  As the ice drifts along in a large mass, the ships are carried with them, perhaps to as yet unseen shoals or fully aground, where they mat well be destroyed.  Light and flirty winds offer no help.  On the 5th, Captain Phipps sends Midshipman Walden and one of the Greenland pilots with a boat crew to a nearby island (which he now refers to as Walden's Island on his charts), instructing him to use the high ground there to search for a path back to open water.

"HMS Carcass Trapped in the Ice"
By Robert A. Wilson
The Mariner's Museum - Newport News, VA
"6th.  Mr Walden and the pilots, who were sent the day before to examine the state of the ice from the island, returned this morning with an account, that the ice, though close all about us, was open to the Westward, round the point by which we came in. They also told me, that when upon the island they had the wind very fresh to the Eastward, though where the ships lay it had been almost calm all day. This circumstance considerably lessened the hopes we had hitherto entertained of the immediate effect of an Easterly wind in clearing the bay.  We had but one alternative; either patiently to wait the event of the weather upon the ships, in hopes of getting them out, or to betake ourselves to the boats.  The ships had driven into shoal water, having but fourteen fathom.  Should they, or the ice to which they were fast, take the ground, they must be inevitably lost, and probably overset.  The hopes of getting the ships out was not hastily to be relinquished, nor obstinately adhered to, till all other means of retreat were cut off.  Having no harbor to lodge them in, it would be impossible to winter them here, with any possibility of their being again serviceable; our provisions would be very short for such an undertaking, were it otherwise feasible; and supposing, what appeared impossible, that we could get to the nearest rocks, and make some conveniences for wintering, being now in an unfrequented part, where ships never even attempt to come, we should have the same difficulties to encounter the next year, without the same resources; the remains of the ship's company, in all probability, not in health; no provisions; and the sea not so open, this year having certainly been uncommonly clear.  Indeed it could not have been expected that a very small part should survive the hardships of such a winter with every advantage; much less in our present situation.  On the other hand, the undertaking to move so large a body for so considerable a distance by boats, was not without very serious difficulties.  Should we remain much longer here, the bad weather must be expected to set in.  The stay of the Dutchmen to the Northward is very doubtful: if the Northern harbours keep clear, they stay till the beginning of September; but when the loose ice sets in, they quit them immediately. I thought it proper to send for the officers of both ships, and informed of my intention of preparing the boats for going away.  I immediately hoisted out the boats, and took every precaution in my power to make them secure and comfortable: the fitting would necessarily take up some days.  The water shoaling, and the ships driving fast towards the rocks to the NE, I ordered canvass bread-bags to be made, in case it should be necessary very suddenly to betake ourselves to the boats: I also sent a man with a lead and line to the Northward, and another from the Carcass to the Eastward, to sound wherever they found cracks in the ice, that we might have notice before either the ships, or the ice to which they were fast, took the ground; as in that case, they must instantly have been crushed or overset. The weather bad; most part of the day foggy, and rather cold."

Meteorological Data:
8/6 Weather on Expedition: No weather data recorded on August 6.
8/6 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 83°F at noon with a heat index of 85°F, light winds from the WSW, mostly cloudy.

"7th.  In the morning I set out with the Launch over the ice; she hauled much easier than I could have expected; we got her about two miles.  I then returned with the people for their dinner.  Finding the ice rather more open near the ships I was encouraged to attempt moving them.  The wind being Easterly, though but little of it, we set the sails, and got the ships about a mile to the Westward.  They moved indeed, but very slowly, and were not now by a great deal so far to the Westward as where they were beset.  However, I kept all the sail upon them, to force through whenever the ice slacked the least. The people behaved very well in hauling the boat; they seemed reconciled to the idea of quitting the ships, and to have the fullest confidence in their officers.  The boats could not with the greatest diligence be got to the water side before the fourteenth; if the situation of the ships did not alter by that time, I should not be justified in staying longer by them.  In the mean time I resolved to carry on both attempts together, moving the boats constantly, but without omitting any opportunity of getting the ships through."

Meteorological Data:
8/7 Weather on Expedition: 38°F at midnight, winds from the W, foggy.
8/7 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 82°F at noon with a heat index of 90°F, 10 mph winds from the SSW, rain.

From the first moment the Royal Society and other sponsors began planning the expedition, they realized that there was a very strong possibility that one or both ships might have to be abandoned.  As such, both Racehorse and Carcass were large enough to support both ship's companies, and enough boats were provided to accommodate everyone should the larger vessels need to be left behind.  The seamen were picked from experienced, reliable hands, and the officers were selected with equal care.  Even so, I find it worth mentioning that the crews are facing the possibility of such future hardship with relative aplomb.  Granted, British seamen of the time are known for their bravery and dedication, but one would have thought there would be at least a little grumbling.  I thing that this is owed in no small part to the leadership of Captains Phipps and Lutwidge and their officers, and the fact that they already had contingency plans in place for most situations they could expect to face.  Fortunately, as the launches are slowly dragged towards the open water, the ice binding both ships begins drifting to the west and loosening up a bit, hinting that the expedition's situation might not be so dire.

"9th.  A thick fog in the morning: we moved the ship a little through some very small openings.  In the afternoon, upon its clearing up, we were agreeably surprized to find the ships had driven much more than we could have expected to the Westward.  We worked hard all day, and got them something more to the Westward through the ice; ut nothing in comparison to what the ice itself had drifted.  We got past the Launches; I sent a number of men for them, and got them on board.  Between three and four in the morning the wind was Westerly, and it snowed fast.  The people having been much fatigued, we were obliged to desist from working for a few hours.  The progress which the ships had made through the ice was, however, a very favourable event: the drit of the ice was an advantage that might be as suddenly lost, as it had been unexpectedly gained, by a change in the current:  we had experienced the inefficacy of an Easterly wind when fa in the bay, and under the high land; but having now got through so much of the ice, we began again to conceive hopes that a brisk gale from that quarter would soon effectually clear us."

Meteorological Data:
8/9 Weather on Expedition: 34°F at noon, variable winds, foggy.
8/9 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 79°F at noon with a heat index of 82°, light winds from ESE, partly cloudy and mild.

"10th.  The wind springing up to the NNE in the morning, we set all the sail we could upon the ship, and forced her through a great deal of very heavy ice: she struck often very hard, and with one stroke broke the shank of the best bower anchor.  About noon we had got her through all the ice, and out to sea.  I stood to the NW to make the ice, and found the main body just where we left it.  At three in the morning, with a good breeze Easterly, we were standing to the Westward, between the land and the ice, both in sight; the weather hazey."

Meteorological Data:
8/10 Weather on Expedition: 33°F at noon, winds from the ENE, cloudy.
8/10 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 79°F at noon with a heat index of 82°F, light winds from the ESE, sunny.

We've had a fairly mild spell in Williamsburg weather-wise.  Still warm and occasionally humid, but this is definitely not characteristic of the early Augusts I've experienced here in the past.  Even Phipps and company seem to be enjoying relatively easy weather for the region...upper 40's then dropping into the low to mid 30's by the time they escape the ice.  Granted, they've got incredibly hard labor to deal with in dragging boats for miles and chopping at the pack ice in an attempt to get the vessels clear.  Luckily, the worst days of the expedition are behind them.  My next post will detail the final days of the expedition and bring "An Arctic Summer" to a close.  Stay tuned!

Phipps, Constantine John.  A Voyage Towards the North Pole Undertaken at His Majesty's Command. (J. Nourse, 1773.)