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Banner: PATHFINDERS AND PASSAGEWAYS: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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19th Century

Northern Ships

Wooden ships used for Arctic exploration were strengthened to make them seaworthy for northern sailing. Hulls were covered with a mixture of animal hair and tar to form a watertight skin, then "doubled" with a second layer of oak planking. The bows of the vessels were sheathed in iron plate, while interiors were buttressed with stout beams and timbers to absorb the pressure of the ice that closed in around them. Flues were added to carry warm air from the galley fires to the various cabins below deck.

British naval vessels on their way to the Canadian Arctic customarily followed the 58th parallel of latitude across the north Atlantic to avoid Greenland's southern tip, where ice conditions were notoriously bad. The voyage was made in the spring, when temperatures rarely climbed above freezing. The rigging and the decks were coated with ice and the ships had to manoeuvre carefully around the icebergs that floated slowly southward. Once around the bottom of Greenland, the ships made their way up Davis Strait into Baffin Bay and through the perilous ice pack to Lancaster Sound, the channel that led into the heart of the Arctic Archipelago.

Steam engines were too new to be of much use to the Arctic explorers. The first expedition to use steam was John Ross's in the paddlewheel yacht Victory. The paddles proved cumbersome in the ice and the engine was so unreliable that Ross dismantled it and threw away the parts. However, with the invention of the screw propeller, steam became more popular with navigators. For example, Sir John Franklin's two vessels, the Erebus and the Terror, were equipped with small auxiliary engines. As the century progressed, steam technology became standard in British naval vessels.

When vessels wintered in the Arctic, either by plan or by accident, they had to be transformed from ships into homes. Masts and rigging were dismantled and stored away and decks were roofed over with boards and canvas. Once the ice had closed in tightly around the hull, snow was banked against the sides to provide insulation. Still, the temperature in the living quarters often fell below zero. Breath froze on the men's pillows and it was a constant struggle to stay warm. During the depths of the winter, total darkness descended and nobody stirred far from the ships, but once daylight returned the naval explorers continued their travels using sleds. William Edward Parry first borrowed this form of transportation from local Inuit people, and subsequent explorers used the sleds, drawn by dogs or by crewmen, to travel over the ice and extend the range of their explorations.

During this period of Arctic exploration, several ships were crushed in the ice and sank, including the Breadalbane, the sunken wreck of which was discovered and visited by divers in 1980. There is also the story of the Resolute, which sailed to the Arctic in 1852 as one of many ships sent out to search for the missing Franklin expedition. It was trapped in the ice for two winters and finally the captain and crew left the vessel on sleds, to be eventually rescued. Instead of sinking, though, the empty ship was carried by the ice slowly out of Lancaster Sound and down into Davis Strait, where it was found by an American whaling vessel and towed to New England. The Resolute was returned to Great Britain, and years later some of the timbers from the ship were made into an oak desk that was presented to the American government. This historic piece of furniture has been used in the White House by several presidents.

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