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The ship’s captain and crew who came back from the dead – in the Arctic

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, 20 August 2013

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This edited article about Polar exploration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 377 published on 5 April 1969.

Captain Ross and crew, picture, image, illustration

Captain Ross and his crew embarked on their perilous journey

For more than four years, the steamship Victory was the only home that Captain John Ross and his crew knew.

In the spring of 1828, Ross had led an expedition from England to explore the regions near the North Pole. The men had not intended to stay away so long, but when the Victory became icebound, they were forced into a “frightful imprisonment.”

Unable to communicate with the outside world, Ross patiently waited for the ice to melt. But as the months went by and this showed no signs of happening, he realised that something drastic must be done.

Although he did not know it, he and his crew had already been given up for dead; at home in Britain, the men’s families were in mourning, and there was no move to send out any rescue vessels.

On 29th May, 1832, Captain Ross decided to abandon ship. He and his crew did this with mixed feelings, for although they were glad to be leaving the ice, they had regrets about deserting the Victory.

The ship’s colours were hoisted and nailed to the mast, and a final toast was drunk. Then the crew of the Victory started out on one of the most arduous journeys in the history of Polar exploration – and certainly one with a most unexpected ending.

It took the party a month to reach a place called Fury Beach, where they built a rough timber house and began to repair the three boats which they had left there earlier. They also dug out the food which they had wisely hidden in the snow. Thus the threat of starvation was removed, at least for the time being.

Ross proposed to sail to the Barrow Strait in Canada, and then continue across the Arctic Circle, south to civilization. The ice was now beginning to break at Fury Beach, and after taking aboard enough provisions for two months, the mariners set off.

They sailed night and day until at last, in the middle of September, they came to the meeting point of Barrow Straights and Prince Regent’s Inlet. Here, to their bitter disappointment, their way was barred by a continuous mass of solid ice. Unable to make any further progress, they were forced to return to Fury Beach to sit out yet another winter in the frozen wilderness.

The following months had a disastrous effect on the men’s morale. The long hours of boredom and inactivity made them ill-tempered and morose. Their supply of food began to run short, and they were further depressed by the death of the carpenter, one of the most valued members of the crew.

Somehow Ross managed to keep their hopes alive until July, when they made another attempt to escape from their “dismal prison.” Three of the seamen were now so seriously ill that they were unable to walk. Some of the others were not much stronger, and it was all the castaways could do to pull the loaded sledges to the spot on the beach where they had left the boats.

“We prepared to quit this dreary place,” wrote Ross, “as we hoped, for ever. Yet with these hopes there were mingled many fears . . . whether we might not yet be compelled to return – to return once more to despair, and perhaps to return to die.”

By 12th July, they had safely reached the boats. They spent the next few days cutting a lane through the ice, and at eight o’clock on the third morning they joyfully set sail. The sick men were laid gently in the bottom of the boats and, fired with new enthusiasm, the fit seamen rowed for three days and nights, until a fierce snowstorm forced them to land and pitch their tents.

Next morning, they again set sail. The lane of open water they were following through the ice was now broadening before them, and this gave them heart.

For a number of days they struggled on, always keeping close to the shore so that at nights they could land and take shelter.

Then, one morning, while they were still ashore, the look-out spotted a sail in the distance. Immediately the boats were launched, and in a dead calm the oarsmen pulled lustily towards the vessel.

The party’s hopes of rescue were, however, quickly dashed. A breeze suddenly sprang up, the ship’s sails filled, and she headed rapidly away from them. Even so, Ross and his companions did not despair. For four back-breaking hours they pursued the ship until she was eventually no more than a dot on the horizon.

For a while, it seemed as if their situation was as lamentable as ever. Then, miraculously, a second sail was sighted. The men from the Victory had come across a whaling fleet.

This time they were confident of being picked up, and, sure enough, as it again fell calm, a boat was lowered from the whaler and headed towards the overjoyed crew.

As it came within hailing distance, an extraordinary conversation took place between Captain Ross and the officer in command of the longboat.

“Have you lost your ship?” called out the officer.

“Yes,” answered Ross. “What is your vessel’s name?”

“The Isabella, whaler, of Hull – commanded by Captain Humphreys.”

Ross’s heart jumped in his chest. “And formerly commanded by Captain Ross?” he called back.

“That’s right. But Ross has been dead these two years.”

“No he hasn’t,” replied Ross stoutly. “I’m Ross, and the Isabella used to be my ship!”

Once the officer had got over his amazement, he had the exhausted survivors transferred to the longboat and taken aboard the Isabella, where Ross was given three rousing cheers by the crew.

At first, Ross was ill at ease at being back on his old ship. Unshaven, dirty, and “dressed in the rags of wild beasts,” both he and his crew were sensitive about their “gaunt and grim” looks. But by the time they reached England, they were ready and willing to meet anyone.

The story of how they had come back from the dead was one of the most remarkable in the history of the Arctic.

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