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24 Nov - Who was James Clark Ross?

RRS James Clark Ross Diary

Noon Position: Depressingly similar to last week (35.00.4 Deg S, 56.04.4 Deg W)
Distance Travelled since Grimsby: See above! (10377.1 Nautical Miles)
Air temperature @ Noon today: 29.7°C
Sea temperature @ Noon today : 20.4°C
Weather: Good, Easterly, 2, 1008.6 mb
Mood onboard: Bored of steak and itching to go


We meet an old friend.....

After two weeks enforced stay in Montevideo we are finally ready to go. Repaired, rebuilt, reconstructed and raring to go (and that's just the cadets) we slipped out of Montevideo harbour at 1830 on Sunday, two weeks to the day after arriving. No more warm weather, suntans, steaks, painting, waiting and cheap phone calls home for us. Welding of the steel had finished in the morning following round the clock work by the team of welders since the steel plate had arrived from the US. After assessment of the repair, including gamma-ray examinations of the weld, to ensure there were no problems, we were cleared to sail.

Below are some pictures of the steel plates having been welded into place. We were all impressed by the quality of the workmanship shown by the team from Tsakos in Montevideo. Welding is process by which metal is melted by heating in burning oxygen and used as the glue between the metal plates. To ensure sufficient strength, multiple layers of weld are put down to build up a strong bond with no stress points. It is a highly skilled and specialist job.

Inside of the forward freezer - Click to enlarge
Inside repair of hold 2 - Click to enlarge Welding in progress - Click to enlarge

Above: Top - Inside the forward freezer. Bottom left - The inside repair of No 2 hold. Bottom right - Welding in progress. Click the image for larger versions.

Over the last week, we have carried on working about the ship, painting everything that needed painting, cleaning and preparing the ship for the forthcoming sailing to Rothera. We are very lucky to have Matt Jobson on board, our token FID, who is waiting to go to Rothera for the winter. Matt has just come out of a winter at Bird Island and has been enjoying the heat and trees in Montevideo. We quickly pressed his 'chippy' skills into action and set him about repairing temporarily the damage to the interior of cabin 8. He repaired the internal fittings to such a high quality he promptly moved in to the cabin!

Matt at work - Click to enlarge
I think this needs some paint! - Click to enlarge The finished product - Click to enlarge

Above: Top - Matt at work. Bottom left - A lick of paint is needed. Bottom right - the finished product as good as new. Click the images to enlarge them.


A Collectors Item

As regular readers of this page are aware, BAS has two ships working South. The JCR and RRS Ernest Shackleton. Due to logistical arrangements they are rarely together; the "Shack" comes down South later and then disappears in the general direction of Halley so the ships don't normally see each other. So it was quite an event when the "Shack" rounded the harbour wall and berthed behind us on Saturday afternoon for a crew change and to pick up FIDS. This meant that there were a total of 3 full ship crews and 20 or so FIDS around at the same time. We each nosed around each other ships, discussed and then finally agreed that each ship was clearly better than the other (!?!). Saturday night was a great time for meeting up with old friends, swapping salty sea stories and painting the town the same colour as our hulls. Montevideo didn't quite know what had hit it!

The Shackleton arrives - Click to enlarge The crowds come out to watch - Click to enlarge
The JCR and the Shackleton together - Click to enlarge The JCR and Shackleton alongside - Click to enlarge

It was great to see her come in and a nice end to our stay in Montevideo. Good luck to everyone on board (especially Capt. Graham Chapman and the Halley Doc, Gavin Francis) and we hope they have a successful season.


James Clark Ross

It has been pointed out (by Willie, our second cook) that there is little or no information on the web site or diary on James Clark Ross, whom this ship is named after. Your humble diary writer has attempted to piece together a biography of this outstanding naval officer, scientist and explorer so that Willie and everyone else at home can understand who this extraordinary person was.

James Clark Ross (1800 – 1862)

This is a story primarily of Sir James Clark Ross (JCR) but involves several other characters. The first is Sir John Ross, JCR’s uncle and the other is John Barrow, 2nd Secretary of the Admiralty. These two men had a profound effect on James’ life and will appear many times in this story and we will start with one of them, John Ross.

John Ross was born in 1777 and joined the Navy at the age of 9 (!) as was common practice at the time. Four years later, since there were no wars to be fought, he joined the merchant navy for 3 years followed by 5 years with the East India Company and travelled widely. By 1799 he was back with the British Navy as a midshipman and rapidly promoted due to his ‘perfect knowledge of the French language’ (useful in a war with France). In 1801 he was in command of a ship that blew up a French frigate whilst under enemy batteries and received two wounds in his legs from various skirmishes. Whilst serving under Admiral Saumarez, he sunk another French brig, was again wounded and commended for gallantry. In 1806, having captured a Spanish ship in Bilbao harbour, his ship was engaged at point blank range by two armed Spanish boats. Having almost run out of ammunition, he ordered his men to follow him and jumped, with his sword in hand, onto the Spanish ship. At this point the two ships moved apart and he was left alone, facing the enemy. Undeterred, he laid about the Spanish with his sword. Having killed four, wounded three and forced five to jump overboard, the English seamen then came to his rescue. Ross had received severe wounds to his head, had his body run through with a bayonet and had both legs and an arm broken. He survived and was acknowledged with a wounds pension of 5 shillings a day! John Ross then served with Admiral Saumarez in the Baltic, operating to protect Sweden from the French. Finally he gained the rank of Commander in 1812 and took charge of the 10-gun sloop Briseis. We will return there soon....

James Clark Ross was born in London in 1800, son of George Ross (an unsuccessful business man) and Christian Clark (daughter of Dr James Clark of Kirkcudbright).He had an excellent boarding school education in the Chislehurst Academy and on 5th April 1812, ten days before his 12th birthday, JCR joined his uncle as a first-class volunteer on the sloop Briseis. In June, he saw his first action when the Urania was captured from the French near Danzig. They also encountered and detained a French 40-gun frigate La Duchesse d’Angouleme in 1815. These two remarkable men were to follow similar paths for some time.

By 1817 the Napoleonic wars were over and the Navy couldn’t afford to keep all it’s men. In 1818 only 5.6% of officers were still employed and the navy looked for ways to keep them busy. One way was to send experienced officers on voyages of exploration around the globe. John Barrow, the second secretary of the Admiralty had a passion for discovery and set about a renewed attack on Arctic exploration. He wielded enormous power and was convinced of the existence of a North West passage. The fabled North West Passage was a sea route that would connect Europe with the far east round the top of the North America. To the British government, trade routes were extremely important and in 1776 it put a £20,000 reward for anyone who successfully found a North West Passage. In 1778 Captain Cook on his final voyage entered the Bering Strait looking for the passage.

In 1817, John Ross received orders to command an expedition to start a search for the North West Passage and couldn’t refuse. Two ships were strengthened and fitted out for the expedition. Alexander (252 tons) and Isabella (385 tons) left the Thames in April 1818 with instructions to search Baffin’s Bay for a entrance to the North West Passage. No charts existed of this area and only Baffin had ever been there. The two ships sailed up the western coast of Greenland, through the ice pack, round Baffin’s Bay and down the eastern side of Canada during one summer season. Click here for a map. The expedition made several important discoveries. ‘Arctic Highlanders’ (Inuit) were encountered and befriended for the first time ever, ‘red snow’ was described by JCR (snow turned crimson by micro-organisms), new charts were made and unknown areas discovered. John Ross’s expedition had a profound effect on whaling in Baffin Bay with the discovery of a large polynya (an area of open water) at the northern end of the bay and extending the whaling season. However, investigating one inlet, Lancaster Sound, John Ross proclaimed he could see mountains at the end and stated it was not a passage (he was wrong). JCR served as a midshipman on the expedition. Declaring no passage to the West from Baffin’s Bay the voyage returned home in November.

John Ross argued with John Barrow at a dinner party within a month of returning and fell into a bitter and acrimonious public dispute over whether Lancaster Sound was indeed a passage or a mere inlet. In the ensuing hostilities the young James Clark Ross fell out with his Uncle regarding experiments undertaken concerning magnetic fields and both were questioned by the admiralty.

John Barrow and the admiralty commissioned William Parry (Ross’s previous 2nd in command) in 1819 to return to the area and re-survey Lancaster Sound. Hecla (375 tons) and Griper (180 tons) were chosen and JCR taken as a midshipman. John Ross volunteered to lead the expedition but was not wanted. James went as a midshipman. Leaving in May 1819 they sailed directly to Lancaster Sound and through it, proving John Ross wrong. Luckily, with a mild summer and little ice, they reached Melville Island and crossed 110 degrees west. Click here for a map. Then both ships were damaged by ice. Hecla was forced ashore and Griper almost crushed by ice. Fortunately both survived and after manually cutting a channel through the ice for 2½ miles with saws, the expedition anchored in Hecla and Griper Bay and prepared to over-winter. The ships maintained 4 sea watches a day, prevented scurvy by growing cress and mustard, used cans for the first time and entertainments were provided by the North Georgia Gazette and weekly theatrical performances. JCR, being a handsome young man, was often cast in the female roles! During the long winter months 6,862 lunar observations were made to establish their exact longitude! The ships returned to England the following October (1820) having made the longest passage ever conducted in Arctic waters and set standards of seamanship and wintering that successors had to follow.

On the return of Parry, John Ross was hounded by Barrow concerning Lancaster Sound but the impressive work of James Clark Ross was noted. Due to the success of this expedition and widespread public enthusiasm another was rapidly mounted. However, Parry himself was realistic that they had encountered an exceptionally favourable ice year and any return should be to a lower latitude. At the same time that Parry was away, John Franklin left on a 5,500 mile overland expedition to the central area of the elusive North West Passage; he discovered 550 miles of coastline, suffering terrible hardships, loss of life and even eating his boots with hunger! By the time Franklin returned in 1822, Parry (and JCR) had sailed again. Fury and Hecla departed London in May 1821 with 3 years worth of provisions. They sailed to Repulse Bay and searched the coast line for an opening to the west. After over-wintering in Winter Island and making contact with the local Inuit, they then proceeded Northwards, to the East of the Melville Peninsula and into Hecla and Fury Strait but found the passage blocked by ice. Click here for a map. They over-wintered again and JCR could learn about surveying, stuffing animals and sledge travel. By this stage JCR was a keen naturalist and had shot and described a new species of gull (Larus rossii). As signs of scurvy were beginning to show they decided against a third season in the ice and returned home in November 1823. JCR was promoted to lieutenant and was accepted as a member of the Linnaean Society.

In 1824, Parry commanded another expedition to investigate Prince Regent's Inlet. JCR went as 2nd lieutenant in Hecla and Fury. As part of a 3 pronged attack on the North West Passage (the other two were overland) Parry sailed down into Prince Regent Inlet. Click here for a map. After huge difficulties with ice and having to cutting a way through it, they over-wintered in Port Bowen. This was no further than when he surveyed Prince Regent's Inlet in 1819. This was now the 4th winter most of the crew had spent in the Arctic and life was beginning to get tedious. An observatory had be constructed on the land and James Clark Ross played a key role in taking magnetic readings and in other science. JCR also led a dog sledging party for the first time and travelled 75 miles northwards. Released from the ice in July the following year they made their way to the west side of the inlet before disaster struck. On 1 August both ships were forced onto the shore by ice. Fury was so badly damaged as to be useless and was beached. She could not be made seaworthy and her stores and spare materials were dumped ashore at Fury Point (these were to play a key role in the future as we shall see). There was no choice but to abandon her and return home in Hecla arriving in October 1825.

Barrow had now set his heart on sending ‘some adventurous Englishmen to the very northern extremity of the earth’s axis’. So Parry and his crew (JCR included) were dispatched to Spitzbergen with heavy boats weighing ¾ of a ton that doubled as sledges. The principle was simple. Pull the sledges across the flat ice or sail them north for 600 miles to the North Pole. Easy. JCR was taken as second in command and spent the winter of 1826 preparing the ship and boats. On midsummer day 1827, with the Hecla anchored in Spitzbergen, they set out sailing the boats. By the 24th they were stopped by ice. Instead of the flat smooth ice they expected they met irregular floes with ridges up to 15 metres high. The boats were regularly hauled out of the water and then re-launched. Pulling the boats proved difficult over the rough terrain and slushy snow. With Parry suffering from snow blindness JCR performed large amounts of the route-finding but by July 26, having only gained 1 mile in the previous 5 days and short of food, they decided to turn back. After a day of rest JCR proposed a toast to Mrs Parry which brought tears to Parry’s eyes and they headed back. They had achieved 82° 43’32” North, the farthest north anyone had ever been or would do again for almost 50 years. They had travelled only 172 miles from Hecla and had 435 still to go to the pole. They were starving on the journey back until JCR shot a polar bear for food. Parry named an islet after Ross. The party returned to London, Parry was knighted in 1829 and never went to sea again. Sir William Parry had a huge effect on James Clark Ross. He taught him scientific knowledge, gave him experience in command of ships and expeditions, reaffirmed his strong religious beliefs and had allowed him to write up the natural history of the last two expeditions. JCR was promoted to commander on his return and spent time studying zoology in London. In 1828, JCR was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1928 John Ross submitted a plan for a further expedition to the Admiralty which was turned down. Ross’s plan was to use steamships for the first time in the Arctic. Steamships were still at an early stage of development but he thought they would be ideal for Arctic navigation. Ross persuaded Felix Booth to donate some of his fortune (he had made from gin) for the expedition. He commissioned an 85-ton paddle steamer, Victory, and fitted her with new engines generating a huge 30 horse power (about the same as a small motorbike!). Sailing up to Scotland an engineer fell into the machinery and severely injured his arm. John Ross didn’t hesitate and (with no previous medical training) amputated the arm as there was no surgeon onboard. He had seen many operations in the Napoleonic wars and the patient recovered well! The Victory left Greenock on 13th June 1829 to explore Prince Regent’s Inlet with JCR as the second in command.

By 1833, four years later, nothing had been heard from the expedition. JCR’s father organized an overland expedition lead by George Back to look for the men and another by whaling ships. Where had John Ross gone and what had happened to them?

The Victory had sailed to Greenland but Ross already realized the engines were unreliable so rigged the ship like a schooner, using masts and rigging from a wrecked ship they found. They saw unusually small quantities of ice when the entered Lancaster Sound and by late August had reached the wreck of the Fury (from Parry’s expedition) and found the stores were intact. Click here for a map. By October they were another 150 miles beyond Parry’s furthest and cut the ship into a suitable harbour (Victoria harbour) for the winter. Ross decided the steam engine was not worth the space it took up as it was totally unreliable. He removed it, dumping the whole engine overboard! The three engineers were suddenly out of a job! Learning from the local Inuit, Ross gave a diet high in fat to give the crew extra energy during the cold months, something previously never done. The crew worked in five watches, the three mates, engineer and harpooner keeping lookout with a seaman throughout the winter. Early in 1830, Inuit were seen passing by and, throwing away their guns, the expedition rapidly made friends with the locals. JCR’s knowledge of the Inuit language provided crucial and huge amounts of local information was gleaned from them. Daily bartering for food supplemented the crews diet. JCR also started going on sledging expeditions with the Inuit and learnt how to build snow huts amongst other things. One night on an expedition, the dogs broke loose and started eating the sledges (they were made from frozen salmon due to the lack of wood in the high Arctic!). JCR made firm friends with the Inuit who he travelled with and saved one of their lives. He travelled for several weeks at a time and reached Victory Point only 222 miles from the furthest east Franklin had reached from the Bering Strait; but 6 out of 8 of his dogs died and with little food, he couldn’t go any further. By September it was clear the Victory would not be released from the ice that year and they prepared for another winter! No Inuit were there to relieve the boredom of that winter. In May 1831, JCR set off on a 3 week sledge expedition in which he travelled to the magnetic North Pole. On 1st June 1831, by taking accurate measurements of the magnetic field he decided he was there. He was the first man ever to visit a pole. He was disappointed there was no natural monument to the mark the spot such as a ‘mountain of iron, or a magnet as large as Mont Blanc’. He also correctly realized that the pole moves on a daily basis and is not constant.

Ice released the ship in August that year, but after only travelling a few miles the Victory was run aground by an iceberg, broke her rudder and was proclaimed unseaworthy. The crew started to dismantle the ship but managed to over-winter in her. Scurvy started to appear late in the year. In 1832 during their 3rd winter in the Arctic, one man died of heart failure, one was almost blinded by the snow, the mate could hardly walk and John Ross’s old war wounds started to open up again and bleed due to scurvy. The crew, most now suffering from scurvy, abandoned the Victory on 29th May and departed northwards with provisions and the two boats. Their only chance was to walk to safety. It was John Ross’s first time to be forced to abandon ship in 42 years and 36 ships. The men hauled the boats and equipment across the snow and ice 200 miles towards Fury point and the remains of the supplies. By 1st July they had reached Fury Point and found that one of the boats from the Fury had been preserved. JCR played a key part in organizing and leading the sledges. On 1st August they found clear water on the beach and set off, northwards towards Lancaster Sound. Having almost been crushed several times in the ice in the small rowing boats and finding the way blocked by ice they had no option but to return to Fury Point, build huts and start their 4th winter in the ice. In 1833, during the winter one man died of scurvy, John Ross’s wounds were very bad and it was thought he may not survive. He was 55 years old. The winter was spent in ‘waking stupefaction’ but it slowly passed and the weather improved. Everyone was very ill by this stage with scurvy, people's teeth were falling out and any work was a major effort resulting in bleeding and bruising. On 17th August there was clear water and they rowed out to sea again to try and sail out through Lancaster Sound. This time there were better ice conditions and despite several storms the lookout saw a sail on 26th August. When they were finally picked up the whaling ship, Isabella, no one believed that they were from the Victory as they had been presumed dead for over two years. They had survived four winters in the Arctic, two of them ship-wrecked in terrible hardship and with severe scurvy. The Isabella was the same ship John Ross had commanded in 1817 and when the boats came alongside the crew manned the rigging and gave 3 cheers! On 19th October John Ross laid the flag that had been raised at the North Pole at the feet of the King in London, there was much public rejoicing and it was considered a miraculous escape. John Ross was promptly knighted and regarded as a national hero. The crew complained they hadn’t been paid for 4½ years and JCR read a paper to the Royal Society.

However following the publication of John Ross’s book on the expedition, he and JCR fell into argument over it’s contents and fell out.

Following a disastrous whaling season in Baffin’s Bay, James Ross led a rescue expedition in 1835. By the time the ship left most of the whalers had returned under their own steam and so, having nearly been sunk in a storm near Stromness and not found any ships in the ice, JCR returned home. On arrival he was offered a knighthood but declined it, and became chairman of committee charged with producing accurate compasses for the Navy. Given his scientific and nautical background combined with an excellent knowledge of magnetism he excelled and designed a compass that would be the standard compass for most navies for the next 50 years; the design was still in use in 1939! Over the next few years he travelled all over the UK making measurements of magnetic variation and dip for a national survey. In late 1834, JCR met and fell in love with Anne Spence, a family friend aged 17, and courted her against her parents' wishes for several years.

In 1838, the Admiralty decided to send an expedition to investigate the magnetic South Pole. Compasses were crucial to ships navigation and with increasing trade in the Southern hemisphere magnetic variation was very important. In April 1839, being the obvious choice James Clark Ross was appointed to command the expedition investigating terrestrial magnetism in Antarctica.

Aged 39, having survived 6 expeditions to the Arctic, in love, famous and as already an outstanding officer and scientist, James Clark Ross took command of Erebus and Terror and prepared to lead them south for the first time.

Next Week – James Clark Ross in Antarctica.


Thankyou this week: Walter Pasquali, Gabriel Grinschpun, Alejandro de Silva and all at Mitrano and everyone involved from Tsakos in the repair of the ship.

Coming up next week: Stanley and normal service resumed.


Alex Ramsden
Doctor