Modern history

CALAMITY

We were weary for want of occupation, for want of variety, for want of the means of mental exertion, for want of thought, and (why should I not say it?) for want of society.

SIR JOHN ROSS, 1831

By the end of May, three feet of water filled the ship's hold, but Bessel preferred to turn his attentions to the impending expeditions and other things closer to his heart. The men had captured two flies near the observatory, the first seen since the winter, and the physician indulged his passion of studying the insects.

Budclington did order a halfhearted repair. The split along the starboard bow was caulked and tarred over and the iron plating replaced, lesulting in some improvement. Work could be performed only at iour-hour intervals because of the rising tide. Moreover, at the next high tide, the leak returned unabated. At that time the carpenter discovered a similar set of cracks extending eight feet aft from the port side and leaking copious amounts of seawater. For all his nighrly troubles, Coffin still managed to function as the ship's carpenter. There was nothing he could do, however, to make repairs to the o itside of the ship's hull. Because of the ice spur on which the Polcris sat, the ship had rolled and the port side remained underwater.

The weight of the water trapped within the hold placed an added strain on the ship's keel, so Buddington ordered the pumps used. Obstinate like its name, the donkey pump refused to start just then, so the men worked a smaller pump, nicknamed the “handy billy.” Four hours of pumping cleared the hold.

Distressingly, water continued to accumulate aft whenever the pumping stopped. A survey of the hold failed to pinpoint any leaks in the stern. Someone suggested the rising water might be from ice melting in the coal bunkers and running aft. The crew accepted this explanation and happily returned to their new prioritymaking beer.

Buddington wholly supported this endeavor, at the expense of repairing his ship, stating that the brewing “would do them good.” Three days of concerted effort produced a barrel filled to the brim with the sour brew. The cask occupied the center of the galley with a sign stating north pole lager beer saloon, no trust, cash.

The men quaffed their beer anxiously and watched June arrive while the water in the hold rose to five inches. The sound of water dripping into the forward hold during high tide joined the chorus of groans and creaks from the teetering hull, probably prompting the crew to drink all the more. The water contributed to the rot attacking the spare sails stored in the hold, but so far the foodstuffs and coal remained safe.

Tantalizingly, signs of summer appeared about the ship while ice still blocked the men's use of their longboats. The temperature rose daily. Pools of melted water covered the ice, melting streams cascaded from the bluffs, and rough patches of earth poked shyly through their white mantle. Moss, lichen, and ground willow stirred into life, creeping across the barren shale. All about the ship, the land was stirring. Summer is short in the Arctic. Life that depends on sunlight and warmth must rise to the occasion or be left behind.

On a visit to Captain Hall's grave, George Tyson found ground willow rooted among the piled rocks and extending interlocking fingers across the mounded dirt.

Ironically Buddington noted the changes in his journal, too, and the expedition's inaction crept into his words:

The plain is full of fine streamlets of water that give moisture to the ground. Saxifrages are blooming, and are distributed all over the plain. Insects are getting numerous. Flies and mosquitoes are met with. This single warm day has called many into life.

On the sixth of June, the Arctic cast a lure that no one aboard the ship could ignore: open sea appeared along the spur of land just north of t he observatory that they called Cape Lupton. Shining water lay dancing before them. Quickly the two whaleboats were slid over the ce to the edge of the open lead at Cape Lupton the next day. The vvay north by whaleboat beckoned.

Mr. Chester jumped at the chance. Euphoria abounded as by eight p.m. the evening of the seventh, he sped off with his whaleboat crew and a sled loaded with extra provisions. All winter long, plans for reaching the North Pole had circulated around the mess and throughout the forecastle. Combined with the months of inaction and dark less, the mission grew in many minds until it became not only a Holy Grail of sorts but an easy grail to achieve.

Naive te, lack of experience, and alcohol compounded to simplify this daunting task in their minds to little more than a short row up the channel instead of a six-hundred-mile, life-threatening struggle. Rear Adm. C. H. Davis, in his official report of the Polarisexpedition, did his best to whitewash this almost unbelievable gullibility:

Durirg the whole winter the boat journeys had been talked about, and it had been shown over and over again how comparatively easy it was to go to the Pole. No difficulties were allowed to stand in the way, and the route was as clearly marked out as if it were a well-known channel. Undoubtedly the warm glow of the cabin stove had much to do w th the coloring thrown around this boat journey. So completely had the self-deception been effected, that people now looked with confidence to the result.

Exactly what occupied these men's minds that day is hard to fathom. Since late summer of the previous year, the expedition had stumbled and faltered whenever the Arctic showed its power. Sudden storms, cold, darkness, and ice buffeted them constantly and brushed aside their attempts at progress with uncaring force. Yet here they rushed forth eagerly to subdue the far North in fragile whaleboats where their stout sailing ship could do nothing.

Chester's crew vanished into the twilight a full day ahead of Tyson. On the eighth, Tyson dispatched his men to their boat as he and Bessel gathered last-minute odds and ends. All the while the assistant navigator fretted that Chester might beat him to the prize.

While Tyson stewed over his delayed departure and his crew waited by their boat, Chester and his crew launched theirs, the Grant, from Cape Lupton on the morning of the eighth. Ahead of them the slate-gray water stretched around the turn of the headlands. Pulling together, the men put their backs into the oars, and the heavily laden whaleboat knifed across the open water. Spirits soared as they rowed onward. A mile passed.

Two miles into their journey, an enormous ice floe rose out of the sunlit mists directly ahead. The white island slid silently toward the opening to which the men rowed. Driven by the onshore winds, the island would block their path unless the whale-boat reached the opening first. A desperate race ensued, the men of the Grant straining and cursing as they rowed while the frozen wall moved inexorably closer. Chester urged his men on, and the sharp prow of the skiff shot forward. Mere yards ahead the channel remained open.

Then a gust of wind spun the floe around, and ice met ice, closing the passage with a dull crunch. The longboat crashed into the sealed opening, and its prow rode onto the hard surface with a start.

Exhausted but hardly discouraged, Chester and his crew dragged the boat onto the floe and hauled the craft across the flat surface. Supplies spilled onto the ice, filling the grooves left in the melting surface by the boat's passage. Hastily Chester sent someone to retrieve the articles. Once across the ice, they again launched the boat and paddled on. Another mile passed.

Ahead jagged islands of ice choked the passage. Jostling, colliding, and capsizing under the wind and current, these impediments posed a serious concern. Unlike the field they had just crossed, these islands crumbled and tipped and turned and provided no level place to transit. Worse still, the heat of the summer sun, raising the temperature above freezing, attacked the floating islands until huge blocks of rotten ice sheared from their surfaces to tumble into a twisted rubble of melted slush.

Two grounded icebergs loomed ahead with a flat ice floe separating them. Amid the grinding islands, this tranquil spot beckoned. With no Inuit along to recognize the impending trap, Chester ordered his men to pull for that floe just as more ice slid into place behind them. The open channel had lured them into the ice field, but the abrupt change in the sea state and the advancing tide now blocked 11 hope of advance or retreat.

Chesier calculated that the turning tide would draw the pack ice back out to sea and ordered camp made to wait out the rising tide. The men pitched tents, preparing to stay the night, and lit fires. Soon tea boiled over the portable tin stoves. Worn out by their efforts, the men ate a hasty meal and turned in.

Frederick Anthing, the seaman who described himself as “born in Russia, on the Prussian border,” took the first watch atop a saddle of ice facing west. Chester and Meyer stretched out on India rubber sheets about twenty yards from the whaleboat. The other three sail 3rs crawled into a tent pitched beside the Grant.

No sooner had Chester closed his eyes than a warning shout jarred him awake.

“The ice is coming!” Anthing cried in alarm.

Chesier sprang to his feet and his crew spilled out of their tent to see an advancing wall of pack ice rising above them so high that it appeared to block out the sky. The crowded wedge struck the iceberg sheltering them from the sea with a deafening roar.

The Inuit call this rapid and deadly attack of pack ice evu, and they fear it above all else. Sudden storms, rising tides, and current shifts will drive hundreds of tons of pack ice ashore with awesome powerand no warning. Tumbling like dominoes, twisting, and sliding o^er one another, enormously dense plates advance like an army. Nothing at sea level is safe from destruction. Even camps atop the windswept bluffs lining the coast fall prey to ice rafted and stacked until it towers more than one hundred feet high. Like colossal shears, the slabs scythe and crush everything standing before them.

The ground beneath Chester's feet buckled as the evu struck their iceberg, and the mate struggled to regain his footing. The force shattered the berg and sundered their campsite. Frozen boulders rained down from the fractured iceberg, crushing boxes and supply bags. The floe cracked into pieces. Dark open water splashed up from the sudden fissures, and the broken plates tilted and spun as more slabs showered upon them.

The three men by the boat jumped for their lives as their floor split apart. The Grant danced away in the second half. Before they could rescue their boat, a mountain of ice fell upon the craft, crushing it to splinters.

For endless minutes a deadly dance ensued as men sprang from one floating chip to the next. Keeping alive meant moving, but one slip or misstep would plunge a man through the cracks into the boiling sea. Opening and closing like a living net, the cracks proved as threatening as the ice attack. Anyone falling into a fissure would be crushed to death or drowned as the ice closed over him. All the while tons of ice from the shattered iceberg and the evu bombarded the hapless crew and sent their slippery footholds jumping and spinning.

Abruptly the attack ended. As quickly and as silently as it had begun, the evu passed on. Shocked and stunned by the violent event, the men could only stand and stare at their shattered world. Miraculously all survived.

Their material goods had not. The Grant had vanished into a pile of matchstick-size splinters drifting out to sea. Three rifles, a boxed chronometer, and Mr. Meyer's journal were all that survived. In its fury and whimsy, the ice attack had taken all else and left these random, unrelated items.

Hours ago they had rowed northward with high hopes of conquering the North Pole, and in the blink of an eye, the Arctic had dashed their hopes. Shaken, they huddled together on broken rafts of ice, stripped of all their possessions and with no alternative but to drag themselves back to their ship.

Ironically among the goods Mr. Chester lost was the Jonah American flag that the ill-fated Wilkes expedition had carried and that Grinnell later presented to Captain Hall.

A chastened Chester and his crew slogged the seven miles back, arriving aching and footsore from climbing over the shore ice piled along the bay. Instead of receiving sympathy for their misfortune, the rest of the crew treated them with the disdain they probably deserved: c irelessness lay at the root of the second boat team's disaster. Only Tyson's delay had saved his men from a similar fate, yet they acte d superior to the other boat crew.

Again the divisive spirit that pervaded the ship raised its ugly head. Tyson recorded the loss with ill-concealed glee: “Chester's party ha/e all returned, having had the misfortune to lose their boat, and nearly their lives.” He continued, “I called the cape near which th sy lost their boat Cape Disaster, and the bay they were on, beyond Cape Lupton, Folly Bay, which I believe was rather displeasing :o Mr. Chester.” Here Tyson sounds more like a schoolboy reveling n a classmate's failure than an adult who recognized that teamwork was essential to the success of their mission as well as their survival.

Perversely the Arctic fostered this division. Wind and water combine« 1 to once more offer an ice-free channel of open water. Smugly Tyson, Dr. Bessel, and four men launched their boat on the evening of the tenth.

Stunj; by the unfair criticism, Chester begged for another boat. Camping between the two grounded icebergs had been an error, he realized low. The structural strength of a summer iceberg, weakened anc fissured by melting water, differed greatly from that of a winter berg. Rotten to the core and capable of breaking apart and capsizing at any time, summer icebergs offered dangerous sanctuary. Nevertheless, the floe between was the only spot suitable to land.

Chester's pleas brought mixed results. Buddington refused to release a lother longboat, fearing that all remaining boats might be needed ct home. With the Polaris sinking lower into the sea as Providence Berg's spur melted, each day found new cracks in the hull and rising water in the holds. Running the steam pumps for fifteen minutes every four hours cleared the bilges of water, but that required the steam donkey to maintain six to ten pounds of steam pressure at all times. Firing the boiler constantly consumed precious coal. The dead Hall's foresight in scrimping on fuel and the special boiler sabotaged in Disko must have haunted the men's thoughts. Burning seal oil in that unique steamer would have resolved tbeir mounting coal problem.

For all his efforts Chester finally got the Heggleman, the patented folding canvas boat. Assembling the portable craft proved challenging, so another day passed before Chester launched the canvas craft on June 12. Paddling after Tyson and Bessel, the men were described as in good spirits and singing “We're going to the Pole” as they rowed away.

Their enthusiasm soon soured and turned to glum determination as the poor design of the Heggleman revealed itself. Square-tipped on bow and stern, the puntlike craft, which might have been ideal for a summer outing on a placid lake, proved agonizingly slow and unwieldy. Its flat nose wedged solidly into any ice floe it encountered instead of pushing the ice aside as the sharp-prowed whaleboats did. Furthermore, the high sides and flat nose caught the wind like a sail. Nose on, the wind blew the boat backward, and a beam breeze left the stern man constantly fighting the tiller to keep on course. Added to all this was the boat's flimsy construction. Hickory and ash thwarts supporting stretched canvas made the boat look fragile as an eggshell compared to the massive blocks of floating ice threatening it. For sailors used to rowing a wooden-planked whaleboat, bobbing along in a cloth contraption must have proved nerve-racking.

The Heggleman's crew battled for a whole week to reach the same spot Tyson had achieved in two days. Weather and the awkward folding boat conspired against them. After a day and a half of hard rowing, the exhausted men collapsed on another floe for the night. A strong northerly wind rose while they slept and blew their floating island back down the channel. In the morning they awoke to find themselves south of their starting point the day before at Cape Lupton.

Things were not all rosy for Tyson's boat, the Robeson, however. Threading his vessel through the sea ice, Tyson passed Cape Folly and angled along Robeson Straits as far as Newman Bay. There ice thwarted him completely. A solid sheet of white sealed the waters north. Learning from Chester's mistake, Tyson beached his craft on solid ground, pitched camp, and waited for the channel to open. Unable to trap this group as it had Chester's men, the perverse nature of the far North struck at Tyson's team in another way.

Two days of staring at the endless fields of bright snow and ice reactivated Emil BessePs snow blindness. The intensity of the reflected light bouncing off the ice inflamed the doctor's eyes, robbing him of all useful sight. To combat this glare, the Inuit fashioned goggles of wood with narrow slits cut in them to limit the amount of light reaching the eye. Hans and Ebierbing used them, as did the late Capiain Hall and Tyson. Why Bessei did not is unclear. The goggles had to be made, so no extras were available. Certainly Bessel's attitude toward the Inuit guaranteed they would not offer him a pair. He might have disdained such a primitive device. However, his failure to use this protection cost him dearly, for dark glasses w ere yet to be developed.

Confined to the relative darkness of the tent, the doctor fretted away the long hours with his eyes swathed in rags. Discouraged to the poin: of despair, Bessei forced himself to finger the scraps of driftwood brought to him by the sailors and skin the various birds they caught. Equally maddening to this entomologist were the mosquitoes end black flies that buzzed about him and bit him but that he could not collect.

Eventually Chester's men reached Tyson's camp. While the two boai teams waited, more precious time dwindled away. On the sixteenth of July, a flock of geese passed overhead. To the men's alarm, the geese were flying south this time, not north as beforea sure sign that summer was drawing to a close. The next day it snowed.

Behind them the channel leading back to Thank God Harbor closed as pack ice crowded ashore. Now they could row neither north ncr south. Without dogs and sleds, the Robeson proved too heavy to drag overland, and no one wanted to set foot inside the Heggleiran boat again.

In desperation Tyson suggested that the two teams combine forces aid mount an overland attacka “pedestrian exploring party,” he named it. His plan called for squads of men leapfrogging their wav north on foot, leaving caches of food as they went for the journey Dack. Struck again by a flash of blinding optimism, Tyson described his incredible plan: “In this way, taking our guns with us to assist in procuring food, we could have walked to the pole itself if the land extended so far, without any insuperable difficulty during the Arctic summer.”

To his amazement his plan failed to inspire his fellow shipmates. “But, I could get no one to join,” he wrote in consternation. “Some were indisposed to the exertion of walking, and some did not know how to use the compass, and were probably afraid of getting lost; and so the project fell through.”

In their collective wisdom, the sailors realized that summer was over. Instinctively they also sensed that Captain Hall's speculation was accuratethat they stood on the northern tip of Greenland and the end of all land. Had Tyson occupied a well-defined place in the command structure, he would have built up his authority as well as earned the trust of the crew, and the men might have followed his plan. Being placed in limbo by Hall's nebulous appointment, Tyson had none of those things working for him.

An equally frightening thought lurked in the back of each man's mind: Captain Buddington could not be trusted to wait for their return to the ship. More than once Buddington had voiced to Tyson and Chester that if the way south opened for the Polaris and if he “got a chance to get out he would not wait.” That scuttlebutt spread below deck faster than the speed of light. Even the lowest seaman clearly knew the captain's mind in that matter. If they pressed farther north, chances were slim that their ship would be waiting for those lucky enough to find their way back to Thank God Harbor.

Back on the Polaris Captain Buddington wrestled with his own demons. Rising water in the holds had ruined a number of provisions. The worsening leaks now required the pumps to be run every other hour. Having burned every bit of scrap wood, the captain resorted to fueling the boilers with coal bags soaked in turpentine to conserve their dwindling supply of precious coal.

Next a northeast gale struck, blasting the harbor with winds exceeding forty knots. Providence Berg shifted and ground along the shallow floor under the force of the storm, and all hands feared that their mooring platform would break free and drift out to sea with the rest of the pack ice. The captain ordered the observatory cleared of its instruments and every fragment of wood salvaged for fuel. As fie advance boat parties feared, Buddington was preparing to retreat.

Complying with Bessel's impractical “sketch,” he left written instructions for the two boats. Here another flaw in the doctor's plan made Buddington's message useless. Unknown to Buddington, ice prevented any movement of the scouting boats. With the crew already preparing to abandon their craft, they would be unable to follow him south.

The gale passed, clearing all ice out of the harbor and turning the way s 3uthwest into one broad expanse of water. But Providence Berg remained firmly grounded and the twelve-foot-thick spread of ice linking the Polaris to the iceberg unbroken.

Frant cally Buddington tried another powder charge to no avail. Asr es of coal dust spread around the ship cloaked the ice like funeral bunting and aided in melting the top few inches. Resorting to ice saws, the engineers erected derricks and commenced sawing the vessel free. Close to the hull, the ice grew to fifteen feet in thickness, exceeding the ability of the saws, so the men resorted to pulleys.

Four iouble blocks of tackle rigged around the last remnants of entrapping ice broke loose this last impediment. A cheer rose from the men working the capstan as the Polaris slipped off the tongue of ice that had imprisoned her for so long and slid into the water. The ship »vas floating at last.

Being adrift only aggravated the ship's leaking. The steam donkey pumped all day while the crew frantically stopped whatever leaks the) could.

Anxious to sail, Buddington found that retrieving his anchors proved a lother problem. Without them the vessel could not be stopped. Both starboard and port anchors had been deployed to save the ship. Providence Berg lay on top of the starboard anchor, so it could not be raised. Reluctantly its cable was cut. The port anchor lay so deeply embedded in the ocean floor that it could not be broken fr«3e.

While they struggled with the anchors, more and more pack ice drifted in :o the mouth of the bay. Buddington watched his chance for freedom slowly slipping away with each arriving block of ice. In desperation the captain ordered his last anchor marked with a buoy and unshackled.

Steaming out of the bay, Buddington quickly encountered a solid wall of pack ice blocking the passage. Throughout the night he steamed back and forth, searching in vain for an open lead. By morning the captain admitted defeat and returned to Thank God Harbor to hook onto his waiting port anchor.

To make matters worse, the ship rode even lower in the water than before. A hasty inspection revealed that the drain holes in the bulkheads were plugged by debris shaken loose while the ship sailed. Tons of seawater filled the forepeak, the chain lockers, and the main hold. Boring additional drain holes in the bulkheads allowed the water to gush forth. The water drained into the bilge, where the overworked steam donkey pumped it overboard, correcting that problem, but salt water had ruined even more provisions.

The rising tide provided mixed blessings for the beleaguered officer. The port anchor broke free, and the clear water surrounding the ship revealed the full extent of the damage done to the hull by the long winter's rocking. The heavy oak stem section of the keel was ripped loose and twisted to port, while a half-inch gap separated the two planks near the six-foot marking on the same side. Buddington retreated to his bunk that night to listen to the clank of the steam pumps and ponder what kept his ship from sinking outright.

Two gunshots the next morning announced the return of Kruger and Sieman with a note from Mr. Chester asking for supplies of bread. Buddington eagerly moved to absorb the two sailors back into his ship's company. Barely able to handle his newly liberated vessel with so shorthanded a crew, he denied the request and ordered the men to stay. He would sail north and pick up the rest of their party, he boldly announced, and then he would sail even farther north.

Two halfhearted attempts yielded nothing of the sort. While burning precious coal, Buddington steamed about but never cleared the harbor. Ice blocked his way, and the badly split stem discouraged any thought he might have entertained of crashing his way through the ice fields. After failing in his last attempt to break out, Buddington wrote in his journal that the low sun had blinded his eyes and kept him from seeing far enough ahead to navigate safely. Faced wit h this bumbling, Kruger and Sieman urged Buddington to release them and walked back with his orders for Chester to return at once.

North of Cape Lupton, Chester and Tyson greeted the command with contempt. “I won't go!” Chester shouted when ordered to turn back. Every man clustered around the beached boats sensed that this vvas their last chance to press farther north. To their embarrassment none of them had ventured farther north than Captain Hall and Ebierbing had gone almost nine months before. Repeatedly well- provisioned teams of healthy men had failed to pass the mark reached by those two in a dogsled.

Tysor overheard the sailors muttering, “if the captain got a good chance, he would sail south without waiting for anyone.” Kruger aid Sieman's report confirmed the crew's assessment of their drunken commander. In disgust one man spat out that he “didn't cure” if Buddington left or not, that they had a better chance of escaping south in their whaleboat before winter arrived.

Ebierbing's arrival two days later settled the debate. Solemnly the Inuit s tepped off his sled and handed a written order to Chester. Return at once, it commanded. Chester could not disobey a written order. Boih he and Tyson knew that the crafty Buddington would have copies of that specific order safely preserved for any later hearing. Buddington's blunt command had incisively ended any further exploration by them.

With heavy hearts they turned back. Buddington would sail south as quickly as he could, they all realized. Regardless of what he boasted, he would never take the Polaris farther northward. No more forays north to plant the Stars and Stripes on undiscovered territory would come from their expedition, either by land or by sea.

Their mission had failed. The North Pole would remain unclaimed. The United States would add its name to that of England, France, R issia, Denmark, and every other nation that had mounted an expedition to the North Pole … and failed.

Nothiig remained but to get back alive.

They abandoned the unwieldy collapsible boat to the Arctic, leaving the winds to tear the canvas and the lemmings and voles to gnaw the wooden struts. The remaining useful whaleboat presented another problem. The sturdy oak planking that served so well against the floating ice made the craft too heavy to drag across the broken ice fields. Loading it on a sledge would work, but Ebierbing's sled was not the heavy type built especially by the half-mad Coffin to carry sledges. Besides, the sled was gone. The half-blind Bessel snatched at his chance and rode back to the ship in the Inuit's sled basket.

They dragged the whaleboat high onto the bluffs, where the tide and the evu would not wreck it, and covered it with canvas. It took all hands and forty-eight hours to haul the skiff up a ravine to the safest place they could find. Caching an extra tent and boxes of provisions too heavy to carry, Meyer buried another copper cylinder nearby with their meager achievements and the record of Captain Hall's death.

Hiking the twenty miles back to the ship took two days. Worn out on arrival, Chester found Captain Buddington at his wit's end. All throughout the Fourth of July, a northeastern gale had battered the ship and driven blocks of ice against the hull. The men had spent their holiday fending off the icy battering rams with long poles.

That night the ship's company watched helplessly as an iceberg half the size of the Polaris cruised down on their moored vessel. Streaming directly toward the midships like a well-aimed torpedo, the icy ram would easily stave in the side. Moored powerlessly to Providence Berg, the Polaris had no chance to escape. Backing them, this frozen mountain would act as the anvil to the charging iceberg's hammer, ensuring greater damage to the weakened hull.

Buddington and his crew gritted their teeth, gripped the rail, and forced their watering eyes to peer into the blowing snow while they watched their destruction cruising silently closer. One hundred, seventy-five, fifty yards nearer drifted the iceberg. Men prayed and sinners repented as their white destroyer loomed overhead with cold indifference. The icy breath of the iceberg chilled their lungs, the air growing more frigid with each long second that passed.

Twenty yards from the ship, the iceberg struck the underwater beak of Providence Berg. With a grinding rumble, the iceberg turned aside and swept past the astonished men, mere feet from the wooden railing. The submerged tongue of Providence Berg that had tortured :he ship's keel for so long had deflected the charging monster and protected the vessel.

Dodging more ice, Buddington moved his ship closer and closer to shore. Two days before Chester and Tyson returned, a thick fog had descended on the bay. Disoriented, Buddington ran the ship iground in eleven and one-half feet of water. As the tide ran out, the ship heeled over until the port-side scuppers slipped underwater. This added more water to the beleaguered bilge and necessitated burning more coal for the steam pumps. Shorthanded, Buddington could not free the ship. Fortunately the tide rose and lifted the ship enough to raise the scuppers out of the sea, but the keel remained firmly wedged into the floor of the bay. As soon as Chester and Tyson arrived, the full crew rowed the remaining anchor out into deeper water, and all hands laid on the capstan to warp the ship free. The anchor bit into the bottom ground, the men strained 2 gainst the wooden bars protruding from the capstan, and the drum slowly wrenched the ship into the deeper sea, where it refloated.

Unbe ievably the Polaris had dodged two disasters in close succession, but the near misses wore away at whatever resolve Buddington s :ill had to continue their mission to reach the North Pole. Nothing on earth could compel him to face those floating white mines again.

Grasping for straws, he decided the scientific portion of the expedition c ould be claimed a great success. Emil Bessel had stocked the hold lull of collected rocks, bones, and specimens preserved in those boti les of alcohol that had not been drunk. Pages of scientific readings, measurements of seawater temperature, magnetic flux, and star sightings filled dozens of notebooks that Mauch, Meyer, Bryan, an d the good doctor had kept. All that must count for something, Buddington reasoned. He hoped it would help offset their dismal failure to reach the top of the world and the death of Charles F ancis Hall.

Washington would appreciate their difficulties, he hoped. In spite of them, Hall had carried the flag higher than any white man had previously done. And there was all that new land named after President Grant, Secretary Robeson, and Senator Sumner.

Drinking heavily now, he announced to Chester and Tyson that there existed “no probability” whatsoever for them to do anything other than help him head home. Realizing how the two boat teams had robbed him of sufficient hands to man the ship, he resolved never to repeat that error. As the men rightly feared, their mission was finished.

Sadly his poorly concealed anxiety only subjected him to more of his sailors' scorn. Arising out of Buddington's patent dread of the floating ice, a growing, open contempt for him developed on the part of his crew. An incident described by Tyson highlighted this disdain.

Shortly after the boat crews returned, Tyson suggested the three watches be assigned to use the hand pumps instead of the steam donkey. Doing so would save burning their dwindling supply of coal yet provide pumping round the clock. While Buddington considered the idea, a sudden rush of fresh seawater flooded into the hold. The amount of this new leakage far exceeded the capacity of the hand pumps, so the steam pumps remained active and the idea of the men's taking turns pumping by hand was abandoned.

The suddenness of the new leak and its timing raised suspicions that someone in the engine room had deliberately opened the seacocks and flooded the bilges. Tyson suggested this idea to Budding-ton, citing that it was done “so that those in favor of hand pumping ‘should have enough of it.’ “

Showing uncharacteristic resolve, Buddington marched down to the engine room to see for himself. He arrived outside the engine room only to have the door slammed in his face. Those inside presumably Emil Schuman; the assistant engineer, Odell; and the two firemen, Campbell and Boothrefused to allow their commanding officer to enter. Adding insult to injury, they also refused to answer his orders to open the door.

Chagrined, Buddington could do nothing but return to the cockpit and hope that the new leak had indeed arisen from a deliberate act of sabotage to gain his concession. When word reached those below decks that the idea of hand pumping had been scrapped, the massive new leak miraculously ceased. This dangerous act of defiance greatly threatened the command and safety of the ship but went unpunished.

Since Charles Francis Hall's suspicious death, discipline and cohesion o the expedition had weakened and dissolved by degrees over the long winter. Now little remained of the United States North Polar expedition but an unruly, self-serving mob bent on having their own way with no regard for the consequences.

Like grains of sand silently scattered by the wind until the wall they support collapses, minuscule events, affecting both men and materiel, were conspiring to fatally hamstring the Polaris expedition. The chain of command had virtually vanished from the crew while irreplaceable losses went largely unappreciated.

Reckless burning of the ship's coal both onboard and in the observatory had squandered the engine's fuel so that only a few days' supply remained. Because the men were too lazy to man the hand pumps, the bunkers held barely enough coal to steam directly south to Disko. Errors and foolishness had reduced their chances of survival and left the expedition with a razor-thin margin for error. Any delay or diversion while steamingwhether from pack ice, gales, or fogwoi Id mean disaster.

The hip's starboard anchor was lost. Already events had demonstrated the fact that a single anchor could not hold the vessel in a strong gale. A lone anchor would drag through the poor holding ground made up of powdered stone known as glacial flour found in the shallow bays. The backbone of the keel was cracked and splintered beyond repair, disposing the vessel to spring ever-increasing leaks when stressed. Here was a ship destined to sink if it did not run aground first. The status of their lifeboats should have concerned all aboard.

But three of the rowed boats had been lost. Half the ship's complement c-f boats was gone. The Heggleman and one stout whale-boat lay twenty miles north, covered in canvas and abandoned. Nothing xmained of the other whaleboat but splinters drifting southward. Little was thought of this at the time, but the shortage of whaleboats would soon threaten the lives of all aboard the doomed I olaris.

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