Monday 11th March, 1811

In 1811 William Scoresby Jr. sailed to the Greenland sea in command of his own ship for the first time. He was 21 years old and had by then spent nine summers in the Arctic, first as apprentice to his father, and later as chief mate on the Resolution, his father’s ship. In 1806, the Scoresbys achieved the record for ‘furthest north,’ reaching a latitude of 81 degrees 30′ north, a record that stood unbroken until 1827.

By 1811, when Scoresby Jr. took over command of the Resolution from his father, he was an accomplished whaler and expert navigator. He had studied, at the University of Edinburgh, and had served in the rescue of the Danish fleet from occupied Copenhagen. He was emerging as a scientist of some talent, and a keen observer of the world around him. In his introduction to the first volume of Scoresby’s journals, C. Ian Jackson notes that even as early as 1807, Scoresby had met Sir Joseph Banks, impressing him enough for the teenager to be invited to social occasions with the most eminent natural scientists in Edinburgh at the time, in particular Robert Jameson, Professor of Natural History at the university there.

Scoresby begins the first of his extraordinary journals, part scientific journals, part customs inspectors’ logs, on March 11th, 1811, with the Resolution about to leave Whitby for the whale fishery. Guns were loaded because, in 1811, Britain was at war, and whaling ships were valuable targets:

The ship not having floated on the morning tide some things were moved forward to trim her being near one foot by the [Stern?] as regards the draught of water[.]

The weather fine and favourable made preparation for the sailing[.] At 3PM several of the other Greenland Ships were in motion it was not until near full tide however that we were enabled to heave the Resolution off the Ground we presently afterwards hauled through the Bridge nearly as far as the pier where we made sail and got safe out of the harbour[.] At 5 1/2 PM the Pilot left us we then made sail loaded a few of the guns[.] In the Morning fine weather moderate or fresh breezes and hazy[.] … steering to the NNE the rate of 6 to 8 knots[.]

Cross posted from Letters To Elizabeth

Advice On Dealing With Cold

Few people in history can have been more experienced in dealing with cold than Arctic whalers. This 1820 account by William Scoresby, master of the Baffin gives an insight into the conditions on board ship, and is smart advice on how to stay warm for longer in very cold conditions. Bear in mind that the temperatures he describes are in Fahrenheit, so 10 degrees, is actually -12 Celcius, and of course 60F is around 15C. At -12C, Scoresby found he could remain at the masthead “for several hours without uneasiness” if he drank tea beforehand:

It is a prevailing opinion, that sudden transitions from heat to cold, are very inimical to health. Where the heat is productive of copious perspiration, the sudden exposure to cold might operate unfavourably; but where no sensible perspiration prevails, I have never seen, in a healthy person, any ill effects resulting from the greatest transitions. For my own part, indeed, whenever I have occasion to expose myself to a severe cold, I like to get the body well warmed, finding that the more I am heated the longer I can resist the cold without inconvenience. Internal warmth, however, is clearly preferable to superficial heat, and the warmth produced by simple fluids, such as tea or soup, preferable to that occasioned by spirits. After the liberal use of tea, I have often sustained a cold of 10°, at the masthead, for several hours without uneasiness. And though I have often gone from the breakfast table, where the temperature was 50 or 60 degrees, to the mast-head, where it was 10°, and without any additional clothing excepting a cap, yet I never received any injury, and seldom much inconvenience from the uncommon transition. Hence when the sea is smooth, so that the smoke of the stove can make its escape, I generally have my cabin heated as high as 50 or 60 degrees, and sometimes upward, though I am liable to be called upon deck or even to the mast-head, at a moment’s warning.

From Letters to Elizabeth

Prevailing Winds, History, and Forgetting

One of the things I find most fascinating about the process of trying to understand the past is the extent to which we forget collectively about things that no longer seem to matter. How things that were once an acceptable or at least tolerable part of life become almost inconceivable. What we call progress is not simply a matter of overcoming problems and sidestepping obstacles, but of denying they exist. The Icelandic volcano that has disrupted air travel across Europe in the past month has been a reminder of just how dependent we are on a stable and predictable environment. We want our transport to be reliable and nothing less than a volcanic eruption can stand in our way. But even so the idea of being delayed in our travels round the globe because of a volcano seems faintly ridiculous. Volcanos are so prehistoric and passenger jets are so, well, shiny and modern. But what if transport, industry, and commerce could be disrupted by something as mundane as the wind blowing in the wrong direction?

In March 1822 William Scoresby and his crew of fifty men were preparing to sail from Liverpool to the whale fishery off Greenland in the ship, Baffin. Unfortunately the voyage was delayed for about a week because a westerly wind prevented them from leaving the dock. This would no doubt have caused problems for Captain Scoresby, since not only would the men have to be retained on the ship (as it happens two of the crew deserted during the delay) but the loss of a week from the short Arctic hunting season was expensive. Scoresby finally managed to begin his voyage north on March 27th when the wind shifted a little southward, but his ship was almost alone when it left the Mersey. Here’s how he describes it:

[We] were prevented from sailing by strong westerly winds, which prevailed for several days … At this time, nearly 500 ships were lying in the different docks wind-bound; but scarcely any of them attempted to put to sea on this occasion as the wind was not suitable for the South Channel, the outlet most suitable for the voyages to which the principal part of the fleet was destined.

Scoresby’s troubles should be seen in a wider context: around forty percent of world trade was conducted through Liverpool in the early nineteenth century.  Delays had a significant effect not only on individual ships but on the economy of Britain as a whole. Far more significant, no doubt, than the restrictions on European flights are today. It is also worth noting that the prevailing wind in Liverpool is from the West.

Baffin of Liverpool: The Last Liverpool Whaler?

The Liverpool Whaleship, Baffin, by Francis Hustwick, c. 1834

I seem to be developing a minor obsession with whales and whaling. I’ve been reading recently about William Scoresby Jr, a Whitby whaler who built and sailed the Liverpool whaleship Baffin on a famous voyage to Greenland. Scoresby, besides being a whaler, arctic explorer and naturalist, designed the Baffin himself, overseeing her construction at Liverpool. In his Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery Scoresby describes the ship:

The voyage was accomplished in the ship Baffin, burden 321 tons, built at Liverpool, under my personal inspection, expressly for the whale-fishery, in the year 1820. No expense having been spared in the construction of this ship, every known principle calculated for producing strength, accommodation, sea-worthiness, and fast sailing, in so far as these properties were compatible, was adopted, and with such good effect, as to answer, upon trial, our highest expectations.

As far as I have been able to work out, Baffin was the only whale ship based in Liverpool in 1822*. Scoresby made one last trip to the Arctic before he gave up the sea and became a clergyman. The Baffin–almost certainly the last Liverpool whaler–also sailed out of  Leith, before being wrecked in the Davis Strait off Greenland in 1830. The ship with its bow towards us in the picture above is thought to be the Baffin. The painting is held at the Hull Maritime Museum.

*Text originally claimed Baffin was one of two whalers sailing from Liverpool in 1822, and that Lady Forbes was lost that year. In fact she was wrecked off Greenland in 1821.

Edited, December 17, 2009 and February 11, 2015.