Its hard to image a time when some believed in the notion of an Open Polar Sea. I guess the same could be said for a flat earth. In the past many believed if one was able to simply sail far enough north, past the ice shelf, an open ocean could be reached. Robert Thourne first proposed the concept of an Open Polar Sea in 1527 in a letter to Henry VIII. His hypothesis – “there is no doubt, but sailing Northward and passing the Pole, descending to the Equinoctial line, we shall arrive at the Island of Cahay, and it should be much shorter way than any other.” The theory gained little momentum until 1817 when reports of an extraordinary breakup of sea ice occurred off the coast to Greenland. The great Arctic explorer Edward Perry believed in the Arctic Sea just passed the barrier of ice encountered in the North latitudes. In 1845 Perry sent Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage as well as open water leading to the Pole. Franklins expedition was ill fated, as were the lives of the 128 men on his ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror. His disappearance launched unprecedented rescue mission involving 23 ships between 1848 and 1853. It was believed among some that men of Franklin’s expedition could still be alive years after leaving England and existing among an unknown race of people in the North.
One of these vessels dispatched was the HMS Investigator captained by Robert McClure which sailed from Plymouth, England on January 20, 1850 with a crew of 33. The Investigator was a 422 ton, three-masted, copper bottomed barque measuring 118 feet long and 28 feet wide. It had recently been refurbished, rounded at both ends and double hulled with English oak, Canadian elm and African teak resulting in a reinforcement of some 29 inches in some locations to buffer against the ice. It was provisioned for three full years at sea. McClure’s plan was to sail around the tip of the Americas and enter the polar region from the West after resupplying in Hawaii. By the fall of 1850 the Investigator reaches the Western Arctic in search of both the Franklin expedition and a Northwest Passage. In a matter of days, the Investigator is bound by ice and the first year of overwintering in the arctic has begun. When ship is finally sealed, the hatches batten down and the tarps draped over the decks, the stoves are fired and an interior temperature of 50 degrees could be maintained. Meanwhile the average outside temperature is a chilling -30.
On January 1, 1851 the temperature drops to -40 degrees, the coldest to date. The lack of sun and 24hours of darkness take its toll on the crew. Winter marches on. Slowly daylight returns and hunting expeditions in search of fresh provisions are resumed. In early August of 1851, almost exactly one year since the Investigator first encountered the Arctic, the ice begins its retreat and the open ocean looms on the horizon. In late September change comes quickly. The ice breaks up rapidly and the Investigator is under sail and manages to navigate around the western shores of Banks Island moving North. The ship rounds the island and makes the turn to the East in search of the Passage. More Ice. The ship is once again encircled and the wind drives them, bound by the ice flows, south into Mercy Bay. All told, the ship managed just four days of open sailing all year. In early October the hatches are closed, the stoves lit and a second winter begins in the shallow waters of Mercy Bay. With so little progress in the previous year, the crews rations are cut yet again – 6oz. of bread, 6oz. of preserved salted meat, 4oz. peas, 2oz. suet, 1 oz. tinned vegetables, 1 ½ oz. sugar, 1 ½ oz. of rum, 1 oz. of lime juice, 1 oz. of pickles, 1 oz. of chocolate and ¼ oz. of tea. All told, approximately 1500 calories a day - about 1/3 required for an adult male to function normally.