Archives For Polar Regions

Confederate warship

CSS Shenandoah Captures Whaling Fleet in the Arctic Ocean

A central tenet of the nascent Confederate Navy’s strategy during the American Civil War was to make Yankee merchants howl from the loss of their vessels and cargos. In order to achieve this aim, the Confederates commandeered suitable vessels in Southern ports to convert to armed merchant raiders, issued letters of marque and reprisal and procured vessels abroad. Because the Confederacy was not recognized as a sovereign nation by Great Britain or France, the ships procured or built there had to be built ostensibly as merchant vessels and later outfitted with armaments after leaving British territorial waters. Among the ships acquired by Confederate agent James Bulloch was the steamer Sea King.

Launched in Glasgow in August 1863, the Sea King was a 1,160 ton steamer equipped with auxiliary sails. After being purchased by Bulloch, the Sea King put to sea in October and rendezvoused with another ship off Madeira. On October 19, 1863 after several days of transfering cargo and mounting her guns, the Sea King was commissioned as CSS Shenandoah after the beautiful and bountiful Virginia valley. The ship’s design was perfect for raiding merchant vessels as she could raise and lower her steam funnel at will in order to change her identity from steam vessel to sailing vessel.

From the Madeiras, the Shenandoah and her new captain, commander James Iredell Waddell sailed through the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and captured nine US vessels. Shenandoah called at Melbourne, Australia where she re-provisioned and added forty more men to her crew. After departing Melbourne, Shenandoah ravaged her way north through the Pacific Ocean capturing four more Yankee vessels en route to the lucrative North Pacific whaling fleet. Unbeknownst to the Shenandoah and her crew, the Confederacy had effectively collapsed with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. The news, though, would not reach the Shenandoah until after she had wreaked havoc among the American whaling fleet, capturing 24 ships in a period of 7 days from June 22 to June 28, 1865.

After learning of the Confederacy’s surrender on August 2 from newspapers aboard an English merchantman, Waddell successfully returned his ship to Liverpool where he struck the Confederate naval ensign and turned her over to the Royal Navy. An excellent account of the voyage, Last Flag Down, was published in 2007 by a descendant of one of the Shenandoah’s officers.

HMS Fury

August 25, 2013 — Leave a comment
HMS Fury

HMS Fury’s Sister Ship Trapped in Ice

The search for the fabled Northwest Passage captivated European explorers for much of the 1500s through the early 1900s. Alas, like Ponce de Leon’s mystical Fountain of Youth, the Northwest Passage proved elusive and commercially non-existent. Not until Roald Amundsen’s journey through the passage from 1903 to 1906 was someone able to complete the journey completely by sea.

Among the numerous expeditions sent to explore the far reaches of the Arctic Sea were two led by Royal Navy officer Sir William Edward Parry. For seaborne transportation Parry relied on two bomb ketches – the sister ships HMS Hecla and HMS Fury. Only a few months before the expedition’s return to England in October 1825, the Fury was severely damaged by ice floes which had trapped the ship. Despite numerous efforts to rescue the vessel, the Fury had to be abandoned on August 25, 1825.

Before she was abandoned, though, the vessel’s extensive stores were moved ashore and deposited into a supply cache. Four years later those supplies would save the life of Arctic explorer John Ross and his team before they were rescued. The site of the Fury’s loss is now called Fury Beach; however, it remains unclear if the Fury slipped beneath the waves when the ice floes parted or if she drifted off to sink into the clutches of the Arctic Sea in another location.


Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff is a thrilling tale of survival, heroism and discovery. Set in Greenland, Zuckoff switches between World War Two and the present day to relate the loss of three American military aircraft and the epic search for both the planes and their survivors. Zuckoff writing flows smoothly between the historic loss of the planes and the modern day search and the book’s 330+ pages seem much shorter as a result.

Perhaps one reason for Zuckoff’s engaging style is that he accompanied the 2011 expedition in search of the Coast Guard float plane that had gone down while searching for the other two missing planes. While set in World War Two, the book is not military history, but rather reads more like heroic survivor stories such as David Howarth’s We Die Alone or polar exploration tales like The Last Viking.

Frozen in Time showcases Zuckoff’s excellent attention to detail as the minutae of daily survival in a downed plane in arctic conditions is relayed to the reader; however, Zuckoff avoids the trap of losing the story (and the reader) in the minor details. The book also benefits from the generous use of photographs to document both the characters and the events described in the book. One amusing anecdote from the book is the author’s description of the whiskey his team chose to bring with them to Greenland – a modern recreation of Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey. Overall, Frozen in Time is a highly readable book that will appeal to anyone wishing to relieve the dog days of summer with a chilling tale of survival in a frozen land.

Bering Strait

Vitus Bering

Today marks the 288th anniversary of Russian Tsar Peter I ordering Danish explorer Vitus Bering to explore the eastern reaches of the Russian Empire in the area of Kamchatka (“That place you can attack Alaska from” in Risk). This expedition, along with a second, gave the world a better understanding of the far eastern regions of Russia and western reaches of North America.

Vitus Jonassen Bering was born on August 5, 1681 in Denmark and first went to sea at age 18 which was relatively late for the time period. Bering joined the Russian Navy in 1704 and after twenty years of lackluster service, Bering was tapped by Peter the Great to lead the Kamchatka expedition described above. Due to his service in the Russian Navy, Bering also came to be known as Ivan Ivanovich Bering (not to be confused with Ivan Denisovich or Ivan Drago).

Bering and a team of 34 men embarked on their voyage of discovery in February of 1725 and spent the next five years searching for a land connection between Russia and North America. During their voyage, the expedition also prepared charts of the region and Bering was promoted to the noble rank of Captain Commander for his exploits.

Thirteen years later Bering set forth on yet another expedition to the area. During this second voyage, Bering was able to sail within sight of Alaska and discover part of the Aleutian Island chain. Sadly, Bering perished before the expedition could return to St. Petersburg and his remains were interred on what is now Bering Island. Even though Bering accomplished very few “firsts,” he was widely associated with the region which he explored and thus it is unsurprising that Captain James Cook named the strait between Alaska and Russia the Bering Strait.

german battleship

Scharnhorst fires on HMS Glorious
Photo: US Navy

The Nazi battleship Scharnhorst lived a charmed life from the early days of World War II until Christmas 1943. The ship was among the most powerful of the Kriegsmarine’s most powerful surface units and, until the launch of the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, she and her sister ship Gneisenau were the pride of the Kriegsmarine. Often operating as a pair, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy. In the opening days of World War II, the ships sank the armed British merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi and later sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (see photo above) during the 1940 invasion of Norway.

The sister ships also broke out into the North Atlantic and sent several Allied merchantmen to the bottom of the sea. After the loss of the Bismarck, the decision was made to withdraw Nazi surface ships from the French coast. In early February 1942, the ships, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, made a daring dash up the length of the English Channel. The Scharnhorst was then re-deployed to the northern waters of Norway in order to threaten Allied convoys supplying the Soviet Union.

On Christmas Day 1943, the Scharnhorst along with several destroyer escorts set sail from Norway to intercept an Allied convoy. Unbeknownst to the Kriegsmarine, the Royal Navy had intercepted and decoded the Scharnhorst’s orders and therefore laid a trap for the ship. Three Royal Navy cruisers screened the convoy from Scharnhorst while a squadron led by the battleship Duke of York raced to cut off the Nazi force from safety in Norwegian waters. After a fruitless pursuit of the convoy, the Scharnhorst cut off contact and began to return to base on December 26. In a three hour battle, the Scharnhorst was battered by the Royal Navy squadron and finally sank with only 36 survivors out of a crew of 1,968.

The wreck of the Scharnhorst was discovered in 2000 by the Norwegian Navy and further investigation revealed the extent of the damage inflicted by the Royal Navy. A total of 2,195 shells were fired at the ship along with 55 torpedoes. Eleven of the torpedoes found their mark and the torpedo and shell damage was extensive. The entire bow section of the ship was blown off the ship, most likely the result of an explosion in a forward magazine. Go here for a gallery of images from the Norwegian Navy’s investigation as well as period photos of the Scharnhorst.

Roald AmundsenIn his latest book, The Last Viking, author Stephen Bown documents the epic life of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen is best known for winning a dramatic race to the South Pole and becoming the first human to reach the bottom of the world. Bown presents readers with a modern retelling of Amundsen’s life and stunning achievements. Amundsen was not only the first to journey to the South Pole, he also was the first to reach the North Pole and to sail the Northwest Passage.

Divided into five parts, The Last Viking chronicles each of Amundsen’s polar explorations including his last ill-fated voyage to rescue the stranded crew of an Italian airship in the Arctic. Bown, though, resists the urge to focus solely on Amundsen’s explorations and presents readers with a portrait of a confident leader whose drive and attention to detail helped him become one of the most successful explorers of the 20th century.

Utilizing contemporary newspaper accounts and previously untapped archival materials, Bown describes in detail Amundsen’s voyages, personal financial problems and character flaws. The reader also learns of the behind the scenes struggles Amundsen endured with duplicitous agents, rival explorers driven by nationalism, and the cataclysm of World War I which hampered one of his voyages.

Each section of the book opens with a map of the region corresponding to the exploits Bown documents in that section. This is especially helpful to understand the vast distances Amundsen covered either by ship, sled, skis, airship or plane.

In a world where little is left to explore, Bown transports his readers to a time when great men battled nature to explore the earth’s last remaining terra incognita. As the winter months approach, readers would be well served to buy The Last Viking and curl up in front of a roaring fire to enjoy Bown’s gripping account of Amundsen’s epic polar adventures.

Vikings in America

Baffin Island
CC Image Courtesy of Mike Beauregard on Flickr

National Geographic reports that archaeologists working in Tanfield Valley on Baffin Island have uncovered evidence pointing to a second Viking camp in North America. Canadian archaeologists led by Memorial University adjunct professor Patricia Sutherland began excavations in the area in 2001. While excavating the ruins of an ancient building on the island, Sutherland and her crew found whetstones with traces of a copper alloy known to be used by Viking metalsmiths, but not natives of the region. Items with Viking origins have previously been found on the island including Viking yarn, tally sticks and whetstones.

Sutherland’s latest discovery solidifies evidence for Viking contact with the peoples of Baffin Island and provides further foundation for her assertion that a northern transatlantic trade route existed between the Vikings and Arctic natives. The high demand in northern Europe for ivory and furs would have provided significant economic incentive for the Vikings to trade with Arctic natives.

Archaeologists first discovered evidence of Viking contact with North America at L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960. Numerous modern day adventurers have utilized Viking ships and navigation techniques to sail from the Vikings’ Scandinavian homeland to various points in North America. The feat was even accomplished 120 years ago when Norwegian Magnus Anderson built and sailed a Viking longship replica from Norway to Chicago for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition. The ship is now on display in Chicago, Illinois.

research vessel

R/V Sikuliaq
Photo: The Glosten Associates

Yesterday, Marinette Marine launched the arctic research vessel Sikuliaq which will enter service with the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2014. Sikuliaq, which means young sea ice in Inupiaq, will replace the 40 year old R/V Alpha Helix. The $140 million ship is not only newer, but also is more capable than Alpha Helix. Being designed specifically for arctic use, the ship is capable of cutting through ice up to 3 feet thick and can house 26 scientists for up to 60 days at a time. With the increase in commercial use of the polar regions, the ship will be put to good use studying the geology of the arctic, its fisheries and changes in ice levels. One of Inupiaq‘s designers was also responsible for the new Neil Armstrong research vessel class for the US Navy. The University of Alaska Fairbanks plans for the ship to be deployed on oceanographic expeditions for 270 days out of the year.

chinese ice breaker

Chinese Ice Breaker Xue Long
Photo: Ajai Shukla

This week has proven to be a historic one in Chinese naval affairs. On Tuesday, the Chinese Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning. Although still lacking a naval air wing capable of operating from the carrier, the Chinese Navy has joined the exclusive club of nations which operate aircraft carriers and set itself on a path to developing the skills requisite to its efficient operation. In addition, crowds in Shanghai welcomed home the ice breaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) as it completed a historic 18,500 mile scientific voyage and became the first Chinese ship to sail through the Northern Sea Route.

Manned by 119 scientists and crew, Xue Long departed Qingdao (best known for its Tsingtao beer, a relic of its Imperial German colonial past) on July 2nd. During her 3 month voyage, the Xue Long and her crew conducted various geophysical surveys and installed an automatic meteorological station. The ship also stopped over in Iceland to collaborate with scientists there and to perform joint oceanic surveys.

These two events further mark the strides China has made towards projecting its power on a global scale. Not since Admiral Zheng He’s 15th century sailing expeditions has China reached this far afield. A final event this week which could either end up a small footnote in diplomatic history or the catalyst to an Asian conflagration was the cruising of Chinese maritime surveillance cutters and naval frigates to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Long a subject of dispute between China and Japan and to a lesser extent Taiwan, Japan purchased the islands earlier this month from a private party. The presence of large oil reserves in the waters around the islands make them, like the Falklands, quite valuable economically. It remains to be seen whether the dispute is simply kicked down the road, spurs Japan to acquire a nuclear deterrent or erupts in limited to full scale conflict.

british destroyer

HMS Edinburgh Firing Sea Dart Missiles
© UK MOD/Crown Copyright 2012

Today the Royal Navy retired the HMS York, its second to last Type 42 destroyer. Its last Type 42, HMS Edinburgh, sailed on its final deployment earlier this week and will be retired upon its return. The Type 42 destroyer class has served the Royal Navy since the 1970s and two were lost in the Falklands War. York and Edinburgh will soon be replaced by new Type 45 destroyers which are among the most powerful and sophisticated anti-aircraft vessels in the world.

During her long career, York sailed 750,000 miles in defense of British interests and saw service in Iraq (2003), Lebanon (2006) and most recently Libya (2011). Her sister ship Edinburgh also served in the 2003 Iraq conflict and has deployed on numerous anti-terrorism and narcotics interdiction missions around the globe. Both ships are currently for sale on the UK MoD’s disposal site and their sale will be used as a diplomatic tool to further relations with another nation(s). Another notable warship sale occurred earlier this year when the US Navy sold for scrap the Sea Shadow, a copy of which appeared in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

The last vessel to bear the Edinburgh name was a Town-class cruiser lost in World War 2 in the Arctic Sea. The ship fell prey to Nazi sea and air forces while escorting a convoy from Murmansk, Russia to Great Britain. Aboard the vessel was 465 bars of gold bullion weighing 4.5 tons. Several salvage efforts were launched but it wasn’t until September 1981 that the first bar of gold was recovered. Over the course of two dive seasons, 460 of the 465 bars were successfully recovered. The recovery operations were performed under a contract similar to that between the UK government and Odyssey Marine for the Gairsoppa and Mantola recoveries in 2012.