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THE WHALING DISASTER OF 1871

Scrimshaw on fossil walrus ivory artifact 
 on ebony mount with fossil walrus ivory and abalone inlays.
      14"L x 4"H x 3"D     

Private Collection

It was a disaster without parallel in the history of whaling.

Of the thirty-nine American vessels which sailed into Arctic waters "to chase the bowhead" during the summer of 1871, only seven heeded the warnings from the native Inupiat that the season would be unusually short and the winter unusually severe. The rest – thirty-two of the finest whaling vessels in existence, carrying 1200 officers and crewmen, and some carrying women and children – elected to cruise in the treacherous waters of the Chukchi Sea south of Alaska’s Point Barrow.

Now, suddenly, all thirty-two ships lay helplessly trapped or crushed in gale-driven pack ice. To spend the winter in the Arctic would, the masters knew, be fatal. To refloat the ships before spring arrived – impossible. The only alternative was to abandon the fleet where it lay and take to the sea in small boats.

The stranded vessels were spread out in a line ranging more than sixty miles south from Point Franklin. The whaleboats had to be dragged by hand over the pressure ridges of ice to the lead edge where they could be sailed in the little open water remaining. Many times the way was blocked by ice closing the leads and the boats had to be hauled again to open water. Waiting to the south, free of the pack ice, were the remaining seven ships of the fleet.

The boats reached the rescue fleet safely without the loss of a single life. The overcrowded ships then made their way uneventfully to Hawaii. Although whaling in the Arctic did continue for a number of years, the industry never recovered from this disaster.

Three of the ships that were lost are shown here. From right to left they are the bark Concordia, Captain Robert Jones; the ship Gayhead, Captain William Kelly and the ship George, Captain Abraham Osborne. The engraving of the Gayhead and the small whaleboat in the mid-background are based on a painting by William Gilkerson.


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