When the ice opened for the last time, the local inhabitants urged the ships’ captains to get out before it returned and trapped the whalers against the northwest coast of Alaska for the deadly Arctic winter.
It was September, late in the season, but the wind had always kept an escape channel open that time of year. Plus, the whaling was finally going well. The Yankee skippers decided to wait.
It was a poor decision, which could have claimed hundreds of lives.
On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that it had discovered the wrecks of two of the 32 ships that were crushed by the ice that late summer of 1871 in one of the 19th century’s worst whaling disasters.
More than 1,200 mariners and their families barely escaped in small whale boats through narrow and rapidly closing channels in the ice to reach rescue ships 80 miles away, according to NOAA and old newspaper reports.
But the trapped whalers, many of which were owned by merchants of New Bedford, Mass., were destroyed, ruining the owners financially and damaging the 19th century whaling industry, NOAA said.
The loss of the ships equaled about $33 million in today’s dollars, Brad Barr, the project’s co-director, said Wednesday.
The vessels, with names such as Concordia, Eugenia and Minerva, were left behind in the ice with their American flags flying upside down, a sign of distress, according to an old account in the New York Times.
NOAA said the discoveries, near Wainwright, Alaska, were made possible, in part, because climate change had melted ice in the area and made wreck sites more accessible to archaeologists.
Barr said that scientists had gone to the remote shores of the stormy Chukchi Sea, above the Arctic Circle, in August aboard a chartered research vessel.
He said experts used state-of-the-art sensing techniques to locate underwater remains of the wooden ships, anchors and tell-tale implements carried by whaling ships of the 1800s.
Among other items, the researchers found the iron braces, or “knees,” that supported the brick box in which the huge iron “try pots” boiled blubber into whale oil.
The finds provided a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten era in seafaring history.
The whaling ships “were working pretty late that year, because it hadn’t been a particularly productive year,” Barr said. “And they were trying to catch more whales.
“All of a sudden there was a wind shift,” he said. “The wind pushed the sea ice in faster than they expected and it trapped the . . . vessels.”
The captains then held a meeting and decided to abandon their ships, lest they face death in the coming winter. They wrote up a resolution:
“We, the undersigned, masters of whaleships now lying at Point Belcher, after holding a meeting concerning our dreadful situation, have all come to the conclusion that . . . we feel ourselves under the painful necessity of abandoning our vessels.”
They had found an escape route for the small whale boats and located the distant rescue ships, which were other whalers standing by.
Fearing the escape route might be iced in at any moment, the skippers packed their crews, many of whom were Hawaiians, into the small boats and fled.
Everyone survived, in spite of a gale they encountered as they reached the rescue ships.
Barr said the project team searched the coastline around Point Belcher and found wood framing and keel bolts, along with anchor chain and other items.
As for the other 30 ships, Barr said that in winter the shallow water there freezes from the surface to the bottom and, pushed by the wind, tends to grind up whatever is underneath.
Over time, that was probably the fate of the other wrecks, he said.
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