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Searching for Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic expedition ships

In 1845, famed sea explorer Sir John Franklin, two ships and a crew of 129 disappeared while trying to navigate the Northwest Passage. For 160 years, their fate remained a mystery – until one of the sunken ships was finally found this year. G Bruce Knecht tells the story of a desperate search and a doomed fight for survival in one of the most inhospitable corners of the world.

Looking for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

Criss-crossing an almost frozen body of water way north of the Canadian mainland, Ryan Harris was staring at a laptop. It was early September 2014 and Harris was on board Investigator, a 10 metre research vessel. The images on his laptop were produced by a sophisticated sonar system towed behind the boat, but since the seabed was covered in nothing but sand and gravel, what Harris saw on his screen resembled an endless slow-motion waterfall. Ryan Harris, an underwater archaeologist with the Canadian government who had been at sea since August, was leading a flotilla of vessels searching for a pair of British Royal Navy ships that left England in 1845 and disappeared while attempting to navigate the Northwest Passage. The two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had been under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, a famed British Arctic explorer. Since then, more than 50 expeditions had tried to find the ships. Although some human remains and other artefacts had been found, the two vessels’ final location had remained a mystery.

Suddenly, just after noon, a shape emerged at the top of Harris’s screen. Jabbing his index finger at the computer, he shouted: “That’s it! That’s it!” At first the three other men on board Investigator responsible for maintaining the diving equipment thought that Harris, who had been spending far too many hours staring at the laptop, had finally lost patience and decided it was time to give up the search. He could not have been more wrong. The image scrolling down the screen was clearly that of a sunken ship, and Ryan Harris was convinced: he had found one of Sir John Franklin’s long-lost ships. When Harris’s colleagues realised what had actually happened, they raised their arms in triumph and embraced each other. But that wasn’t the end of the challenge.

A secret discovery

The search for the wrecks had become so important to the Canadian government that Harris had been instructed not to tell any of the 150 or so people who were part of the expedition about the discovery until senior government officials, including the Prime Minister, received personal briefings. Harris had unlocked one of maritime history’s greatest secrets but, for the next several days at least, he would have to keep it to himself. The idea that ships might go between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans over the top of the American continent had inspired explorers and commercial powers since the days of Sir Francis Drake. Centuries of Arctic explorations had failed to find an ice-free path through the Northwest Passage, but Franklin’s expedition was believed to be particularly promising.

Franklin's failed Arctic expedition

Sir John Franklin's ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were extremely well equipped. The Terror had started out as a warship. During the War of 1812, it was one of the vessels that bombarded Baltimore, helping to inspire the US national anthem’s lyrics by hurling some of the bombs “bursting in air”. For the Arctic, its hull and that of Erebus was sheathed with thick iron plates and reinforced with heavy beams. A steam locomotive engine was installed on each of the ships to provide propulsion as well as interior heat. There was five years’ worth of food, 7,500 litres of wine and libraries stocked with nearly 3,000 books.

After setting out from England on 19 May 1845, the ships headed to Baffin Bay, the desolate body of water that separates the southwest coast of Greenland from Canada’s Arctic archipelago. There, an accompanying supply ship transferred a final store of food, including 10 freshly slaughtered oxen, for the 129 men – 24 officers and 105 sailors – who would enter the ice-ridden waters. Franklin’s vessels were spotted by the crew of a whaling ship in late July, still in Baffin Bay, waiting for a watery path to clear. That was the last time either ship would be seen afloat.

Concern was slow to develop. Given the lack of communication and the generous provisions the boats had, the first search did not begin until 1848. Motivated by Franklin’s fame as well as a £20,000 reward offered by the Admiralty, a much larger search, involving British and American ships, set out two years later. A few years after that, members of another expedition travelled west of Baffin Bay, landed on Beechey Island and found the first physical evidence that something had gone wrong: graves and Royal Navy cutlery.

Search party members also encountered Inuit natives, who spoke about seeing sickly men struggling across snow and ice. Some of the searches that followed had serious problems of their own. A five-ship expedition in 1852 ended when four were trapped in pack ice and abandoned. One of them, HMS Resolute, was later recovered and some of its timber used to make the Resolute Desk, which would become a White House fixture used by most US presidents ever since.

Disease, poisoning and cannibalism

In 1854, the Admiralty officially gave up hope of finding Franklin’s wrecks, but there were many other searches, more than 25 over the next few decades – one of them financed by Franklin’s widow and a public subscription. A member of that expedition, which began in 1857, found documents written by Franklin’s officers that indicated that the crew abandoned their ships a year and a half after they had become trapped in ice. According to one of the documents, Franklin died on June 11, 1847.

Over time, other details emerged of what happened to Franklin’s crews. The ships were trapped in ice during the winter of 1845-46 near Beechey Island, where at least three crew members died. During the next summer, one or both of the ships sailed south through Victoria Strait to a location near King William Island but was, in September 1846, again stuck in ice. Even by Arctic standards, King William Island is bleak: an almost permanently frozen piece of land with virtually no wildlife. Before the winter was over, more men had died. And in a stroke of terrible luck, the ice didn’t clear during the summer of 1847.

After spending a second winter on or near King William Island, during which more men died, 105 survivors set out on foot in April 1848. They headed south along the coast of the island towards the Canadian mainland, probably hoping to reach an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company. No one made it. In the 1980s, scientists studied the corpses of some of Franklin’s men and found indications of pneumonia and tuberculosis as well as lead poisoning, which probably came from either food sealed in lead-soldered tins or the ships’ desalination systems.

Another discovery was even more disturbing: some of the human remains had been damaged by what appeared to be metal blades. It was, according to forensic scientists, a sure sign of “de-fleshing”. Some survivors had become so desperate that they resorted to cannibalism. This did nothing to diminish Franklin’s reputation or the interest in finding his vessels. Indeed, by then, the story of missing ships had taken on a life of its own, comparable to the 20th century fascination with Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, and inspired an expanding cultural legacy: non-fiction books and novels, poems, paintings, theatrical productions and music. In 1992, Canada designated the ships and their resting places as a national historic site in spite of the fact that their locations were unknown.

Some of the statues erected in Sir John Franklin’s memory lauded him as the “discoverer of the Northwest Passage”, even though he had obviously come up short. It was not until 1903-06 that Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, actually traversed the passage, an achievement that does not receive much attention in Canada. And as global warming reduced the ice and opened the possibility that the passage could become an important commercial shipping route, Canadian officials seized upon the idea that Franklin’s expedition could bolster their claim of sovereignty over it. Although Franklin’s voyage was sponsored by the Royal Navy, Canada’s idea is that the products of his expedition and the subsequent searches –which include charts for much of the Canadian Arctic – now belong to them.

Like every search effort, Ryan Harris’s expedition this summer faced enormous obstacles. The ice never clears for more than six weeks. Sometimes there are just a few ice-free days. And each of the two potential search areas Harris had identified were vast. The search began in the more northerly of the two areas on August 15. After a couple of weeks there, Ryan Harris decided that there was so much ice it would be more productive to switch to the more southerly zone. The first day in that region began auspiciously. In preparing for the new search, a helicopter flew from an 83 metre icebreaker vessel that was part of the search effort to a small island, where the pilot found a large iron object that had been impressed with Royal Navy insignia and had probably come from one of Franklin’s ships.

The day Sir John Franklin's lost expedition ships were found

When the ship was found - during the first week of September, but the exact day is, at least for now, a national secret – Investigator lowered the torpedo-like drone that carried the sonar system just after 7am. For the rest of the morning, it passed over sections of a designated search zone, each pass 150 metres from the previous one. Just before the sunken ship appeared, Investigator crossed a shallow section of water, causing Jonathan Moore, Harris’s fellow underwater archaeologist who was on board, to worry that the drone might hit the bottom. The seabed where the ship rests is just 11 metres below the surface of the water.

Since its hull was intact and appeared to be well preserved, Ryan Harris thought that he might be able to recover journals and other documents that could reveal more about what had happened, but he knew any recovery efforts would have to wait. Leaving the expedition, he flew to Ottawa to see the Prime Minister, who had championed the government’s efforts to find the wrecks and who even spent a couple of nights on one of the search vessels. Harris told Prime Minister Harper that there was no doubt the vessel was one of Franklin’s, even though he did not know which one. Harper broke the news during a session of parliament on 9 September.

By the time Harris rejoined the expedition, the weather had turned, but during the next two days, he and Moore made seven dives during which they found that the ship, thanks to the cold water, was in even better condition than they had thought. The mast was gone but some of the rigging was still there as were cannons, a capstan and brass bilge pumps. It did not take long to determine that the ship was Erebus, which had been Franklin’s flagship. They did not enter the hull, but during his final dive, Harris peered through an opening in the deck and into a space he knew to be the ship’s mess. This is where the crew had gathered for meals, and during the early stages of their journey, probably to enjoy the ship’s wine and to sing sea shanties. Later on, it likely became the venue for desperate discussions and where dwindling rations were divided.

Harris’s own emotions were also torn. The search for the Terror will resume next summer and there would be further dives to the Erebus. There was even talk about lifting her from her resting place so she could be displayed in a museum. His thoughts, however, were occupied by the tragedy itself and what had happened to Franklin and his crews. “I felt like I was physically connected to the men,” he said. “It was absolutely haunting.”

Superyachts tackle the Northwest Passage

Only in the last few years have superyachts been able to navigate the Northwest Passage due to retreating sea ice, and so far just a handful have taken on the challenge, most notably the 34 metre explorer Fortrus and 126 metre Octopus. One of the more talked about efforts to traverse it was undertaken by the Royal Huisman-built Arcadia in 2011. What made this east-west passage across the top of Canada so special was that Arcadia is not an explorer yacht, nor does she pack an Ice-Class hull. Instead, she is a fairly normal, albeit beautifully appointed, 36 metre yacht, with an aluminium hull.

In completing the voyage, she became part of a very select club – only about 100 boats have ever made it through. Despite the sea route being open, Arcadia’s captain, James Pizzaruso, still had to navigate with caution, even when it came to the wildlife. “We were manoeuvring through glacial ice chunks when a bear appeared right in front of the boat,” he told BI in 2012. “It rolled over, looked at the boat and snarled – we narrowly missed it.” This year, another milestone was reached with the first solo passage of a cargo ship through the Passage. As the sea ice continues to retreat, shipping – both commercial and leisure – will increasingly see this once deadly route as a way to span the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Photographs: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Canada Press; Canada Archives; Parks Canada 

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