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The Dangers of Sea and Ice

Excerpt from details of whaling ship <em>Advice</em>, built 1785

Baffin Bay Fair

1830 was a particularly disastrous year, as was 1835. Many whaling companies were bankrupted. Others ceased trading, refusing to take the risks associated with a voyage to the icebound seas. In 1835, 20 ships were trapped in the ice in an episode. It became known as the Baffin Bay Fair.

An estimated 1,000 seamen were shipwrecked on the Arctic ice, as ships were crushed by the grinding pack. Some survived the arctic winter to return home a year later after the spring thaw had released their vessels. The hardships of such a voyage are well documented in From the Deep of the Sea by ship's surgeon, Charles Edward Smith. Despite the death and destruction around him, he managed to keep his journal. The Dundee ship Advice was found off the Irish coast, near Sligo, after such an encounter. Only a handful of her crew were still alive.

Foghorn from a whaling ship, used around 1860

The Chieftain Disaster

Other dangers could endanger an unwary crew. In 1867, the Chieftain had boats out chasing whales when a sudden fog descended and the boats were cut off from the mother ship. By the time visibility was restored they were all separated in the vastness of the ocean. Two of the boats were lucky and were rescued but the third, in charge of harpooner James McIntosh, was nowhere to be seen. The boats crew decided to make for Iceland in the hope of meeting another vessel. However, with little or no food the freezing cold began to have an effect and one by one they perished. Finally, only McIntosh was left alive. Near to death he was sighted and rescued. He had to be cut from the boat loosing both legs to frostbite in the process. Toshie, as he became known survived to lead a full life and campaigned for seaman’s rights for the rest of his life. He even cycled to London to draw attention to the lack of pensions for disabled seamen.

 Title page of booklet about the loss of the 'Oscar'

Loss of the Whale-Fishing Ship Oscar

Accidents could also happen closer to home. On 13 April 1813, a whale fishing ship was lost in the bay near Girdleness shortly after leaving Aberdeen. A short pamphlet was written about the tragedy. It was entitled Melancholy Loss of the Whale-Fishing Ship 'Oscar' of Aberdeen on Tuesday April 1 1813. It tells of a violent storm that blew up just after the ship had left port. At 11.30 am she was seen to go ashore on a rocky part of the coast. When onlookers arrived, she was already breaking up. The spectators watched helplessly. The crew attempted to form a bridge to the rocks using the main mast, but this was unsuccessful. She soon began to sink in the violent sea and the crew could do nothing to save themselves. Some were drowned immediately and others were hit by debris just as they were about to reach the shore. Out of a crew of 54, only 2 were saved.

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