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Isles of ice

January 6, 2012

The logbook, kept by Master Jonathan Fowler Senior on board the Seahorse I on its outward voyage to Hudson Bay in 1754, provides us with a stark reminder of the often treacherous conditions in which the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) ships operated. Although HBC master mariners were highly experienced navigators, possessing a good understanding of the icy conditions they were likely to encounter as they voyaged north into the Davis Straits and into the Bay; they were still very much at the mercy of the natural environment.

In 1754 as the Seahorse and her ships in company voyaged  north into the Davis Straits, ice was sighted on the 8th July “At 8am saw an isle of ice” and as the days passed, the presence of ice increased with Fowler noting on the 11th  “At noon many isles of ice in sight”. By the 13th, the Seahorse I together with the Prince Rupert and King George reached 61° N and found themselves “enclosed in a body of ice” and in danger of being crushed.

On the 19th,  Fowler states “Between 11pm and noon in a body of ice . Was drove by the tide within 20 yards of a large isle of ice that I think not inferior in bulk to St Pauls and the top of it not much lower which if we had touched the consequence might have been such as I pray god I may never have occasioned to wright (sic)”.

John Ross, watercolour, N.B. Sketch of an Island of Ice seen by H.M. Ship Scipion on Davis Straits, dated 1818. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1973-9-4.

The ships remained locked in “a body of ice” for a month when finally, on 13th August, Fowler reports  “At 2pm sailing though the open ice”.

It is possible, based on the positional data recorded in the logbook, that the ships fell in with what is known as the “middle pack”; a tongue of ice that reaches down from Baffin Bay into Davis Strait and sometimes, as far as the Labrador Sea. This southward moving ice stream is composed of deteriorating winter ice from the north and icebergs; the latter of which can be numerous and very large.

As we continue with our transcription and begin analysis of both the terminology and extent of sea ice encountered each year by the HBC ships, we hope to be able to put the experiences of the voyage of the Seahorse I in 1754 into context.

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