The terror, p.49
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       The Terror, p.49


  That’s because the whaleboats have a single collapsible mast, said the Captain. It’s there folded under the Canvas the men have Rigged over her gunwales.

  I have noticed that canvas and wood covering all the boats, I said, to show that I was not totally unobservant. Is that to keep the snow out?

  Fitzjames was lighting his pipe. He had run out of Tobacco long ago. I did not want to Know what he was burning in it. The Boat Covers were put on to shield the Crews of all 18 Boats, even though we may only take 10 boats with us, he said softly. Most of the men in camp were sleeping. Guards paced coldly just at the edge of the lantern light.

  We’ll be under that canvas when we cross Open Water to the mouth of the Back’s Great Fish River? I asked. I had never pictured us hunkered down under Canvas and wood. I had always imagined us rowing happily in Sunlight.

  We may not use the Boats on the River, he said, puffing out aromatic clouds of what smelled like dried human excrement. If the Waters along the Coast open up this Summer, Captain Crozier would prefer to Sail us to Safety.

  All the way to Alaska and St. Petersburg? I asked.

  To Alaska at least, said the Captain. Or perhaps Baffin Bay if the Coastal Leads open to the North. He took several steps and swung the lantern closer to the Boats on Sledges. Do you know these Boats, Doctor?

  Are they different, Captain? I found that such terrible Fatigue was a great Inducement to Honesty without Embarrassment.

  Aye, said Fitzjames. These next two lashed to Mr. Honey’s special Sledges here are our Cutters. Surely you noticed them when they were Lashed on Deck or on the ice next to the Ships these past Three Winters?

  Yes, of course, I said. But are you saying these are different from the first, the whaleboats?

  Quite different, said Captain Fitzjames, taking the time to relight his pipe. Do you notice any masts on these boats, Doctor?

  Even in the dim light from the lantern I could see two masts rising from each of these craft. The Canvas had been Artfully shaped and cut and Stitched around them. I told the Captain my observation.

  Aye, very good, he said. He did not sound Condescending.

  Are these collapsible masts not collapsed for a purpose? I asked, as much to show that I had been listening earlier as for any better reason.

  They’re not collapsible, Dr. Goodsir. These masts are Lug Rigged … or you may know them as Gaff Rigged. Quite permanent. And do you see fixed rudders on these? And the deeper keels?

  I could. I did. The Rudders and Keels are the reason they could not be Dragged like the whaleboats? I ventured.

  Exactly. You have Diagnosed the Problem, Doctor.

  Could not the Rudders be removed, Captain?

  Possibly, Dr. Goodsir, but the deep Keels … they would have been Stuck or Ripped out by the first Pressure Ridge, now wouldn’t they?

  I nodded again and laid my mittened hand on the gunwale. Is it my imagination, or are these four boats slightly shorter than the whaleboats?

  You have a very good Eye indeed, Doctor. 28 feet long as opposed to 30 feet for the whaleboats. And heavier … the Cutters are Heavier. And square-sterned.

  For the first time I noticed that these 2 Boats, unlike the whalers, definitely had a Bow and a squared-off stern. No Canoes here. How many men will the Cutters carry? I asked.

  Ten. And they pull 8 Oars. They have Room for quite a few Stores, and there will be Room for us all to Huddle down out of the Storm, even on the Open Sea, and with the two masts the Cutters will offer twice the Canvas to the wind that the whaleboats do, but the Cutters will not be as good as the Whalers if we have to go up Back’s Great Fish River.

  Why is that? I asked, feeling that I should already know, that he had already told me.

  The deeper draft, sir. Let us look at the next two … the jolly boats.

  I found nothing jolly-looking about either of the next two boats. They seem longer than the Cutters, I said.

  They are, Doctor. 30 feet Long apiece … the same Length as our whaleboats. But Heavier, Doctor, Heavier even than the Cutters. A great Trial, with their 900-lb. Sledges to haul across the Ice … even this far … I assure you. Captain Crozier may choose to leave them here.

  I asked, Then should we not have left them behind at the ships?

  He shook his head. No. We need to choose which boats will best serve to allow 100 men to survive for several weeks or months at sea, or even on the river. Did you know that Boats … all of these Boats … have to be Rigged differently for sailing on the sea or catching the Wind going upriver, Doctor?

  It was my turn to shake my head.

  No matter, said Captain Fitzjames. We’ll get into the niceties of river rigging versus sea rigging some other time, preferably on a Sunny, Warm day far South of here. These last 8 Boats … the first Two are Pinnaces, the next Four are Ship’s Boats, and the final Two are Dinghies.

  The Dinghies seem much shorter, I said.

  Captain Fitzjames puffed on his literally execrable pipe and nodded as if I had revealed Some Pearl of Wisdom from Holy Scripture. Aye, he said sadly. The Dinghies are only 12 feet Long, as opposed to the Pinnaces’ 28-foot Length and the Ship’s Boats 22 feet. But none of them can be rigged for masts and sailing and they’re all lightly Oared. The men in these Boats would be in for some Hard Times if we went to the Open Sea, I am afraid. I would not be surprised if Captain Crozier chooses to Leave them Behind.

  I thought, Open Sea? The idea of actually sailing any of these craft on anything more expansive than Back’s Great Fish River, which I imagined rather like the Thames, had never occurred to me before tonight, even though I had been present at various war councils discussing such possibilities. It seemed to me, looking at the smaller and rather delicate-looking Dinghies and Ship’s Boats lashed on their Sledges, that the men going to sea in these would be doomed to watch the Pinnaces with their Two Masts and the Whaleboats with their single Tall Masts simply sail away over the horizon.

  The men in these Smaller Boats would be Doomed. How would the crews be chosen? Had they been chosen already, in secret, by the Two Captains?

  And which boat — and which Fate — had I been assigned?

  If we take the Smaller Boats, we’ll draw lots for them, said the Captain. The places in the pinnaces, jolly boats, and whaleboats would be assigned according to man-hauling teams.

  I must have looked at him in alarm.

  Captain Fitzjames laughed — a laugh that turned into a racking cough — and knocked out the ashes from his pipe against his Boot. The wind was coming up, and it was very cold. I had no idea of the time — sometime after Midnight. It had been dark for at least seven hours.

  Don’t worry, Doctor, he said softly. I wasn’t reading your mind. Only your expression. As I say, we’ll Draw Lots for the smaller boats, but we may not take the Smaller Boats. In either case, we won’t leave anyone behind. We’ll tie the ships together on the Open Water.

  I smiled at this, hoping that the Captain could see my smile in the lantern light but not my Bleeding Gums. I didn’t know that ships under sail could be tied to other ships not under sail, I said, showing my ignorance again.

  Most of the time, they cannot, said Captain Fitzjames. He touched me lightly on the back — a touch I could hardly feel through my outer Slops. Now that you’ve learned the Nautical Secrets of all 18 Boats that might end up in our little Fleet, Doctor, shall we get back? It’s rather cold, and I have to get some Sleep before I rise at Four Bells to check on the Watch.

  I bit my lip, tasting blood. I do have one last question, Captain, if you don’t mind.

  Not at all.

  When will Captain Crozier choose the boat we take and when will he put those boats in the water? I said. My voice was very hoarse.

  The Captain moved slightly and was silhouetted against the light from the bonfire near the Seamen’s Mess Tent. I could not see his face.

  I don’t know, Dr. Goodsir, he said at last. I doubt if Captain Crozier could tell you. Lady Luck may be with us and the
Ice may break up in a few Weeks … if it does, I’ll sail you to Baffin Island myself. Or we could be launching some of these craft against the current at the Mouth of the Great Fish River in three months … conceivably there could still be time to get to Great Slave Lake and the outpost there before Winter fully sets in, even if it takes until July to reach the River.

  He patted the curved side of the Pinnace closest to him. I felt a strange, quiet pride in being able to identify it as a Pinnace.

  Or perhaps it was one of the 2 Jolly Boats.

  I tried not to think of the condition of Edmund Hoar and what it forecast for all the rest of us if we did not begin the 850-mile Venture up Back’s River … the river they also call the Great Fish River … for another Three Months. Who could possibly be left Alive if a boat made it to Great Slave Lake months later than that?

  Or, he said softly, if Lady Luck is not with us, these hulls and keels may never feel water under them again.

  There was nothing to say to that. It was our Death Sentence. I turned from the light to walk back to the Sick Bay Tent. I respected Captain James Fitzjames and I did not want him to see my face at that Moment.

  Captain Fitzjames’s hand fell on my shoulder, stopping me.

  Should that be the case, he said, his voice fierce, we’ll just have to bloody well walk home, shan’t we?



  Lat. 69° 37′ 42″ N., Long. 98° 41′ W.

  22 April, 1848

  Pulling toward the arctic sunset, Captain Crozier knew the mathematics of this purgatory. Eight miles this first day on the ice to Sea Camp One. Nine miles the next, if all went well, ending in a midnight arrival at Sea Camp Two. Eight miles — including some of the hardest going near the coast where the sledges had to be hauled up over the barrier where pack ice met coastal ice — the third and final day. And there the tentative safe haven of Terror Camp.

  Both crews would be together for the first time. If Crozier’s sledge teams survived this ice crossing — and kept ahead of the thing following them on the ice — all 105 men would be together on the wind-scoured northwestern coast of the island.

  The early sledge trips to King William Land in March — most of them in darkness — had made such slow going that often the men with their sledges had camped the first night on the ice within sight of the ship. One day, with a storm blowing in their faces out of the southeast, Lieutenant Le Vesconte had made less than a mile after twelve hours of constant effort.

  But it was much easier in the sunlight with the sledge trail laid down and the path through pressure ridges reduced in difficulty, if not actually leveled.

  Crozier had not wanted to end up on King William Land. His visits to Victory Point had not convinced him, despite the huge dump of food and gear there and the preparation of tent circles, that the men could survive there for long. The weather blowing almost always out of the northwest was murderous in winter, atrocious in the spring and brief autumn, and life threatening during the summer. The late Lieutenant Gore’s experience of wild lightning storms during the first visit to the landmass in the summer of 1847 had been repeated again and again that summer and early autumn. One of the first things Crozier authorized hauling to land the previous summer had been the ship’s extra lightning rods along with brass curtain rods from Sir John’s quarters to jury-rig more.

  Right up until the crushing of Erebus on the last day of March, Crozier had hopes that they could set off for the east coast of the Boothia Peninsula, the possible stores there at Fury Beach, and the probable sighting by whalers coming in from Baffin Bay. Like old John Ross, they could hike or boat north along the east coast of Boothia up to Somerset Island or even Devon Island again if they had to. Sooner or later they would spy a ship in Lancaster Sound.

  And there were Esquimaux villages in that direction. Crozier knew this for a fact — he’d seen them on his first voyage to the arctic with William Edward Parry in 1819 when he was twenty-two. He’d returned to the area again with Parry two years later in a quest to find the Passage and again two years after that, still searching for the North-West Passage — a search that would kill Sir John Franklin twenty-six years later.

  And might yet kill us all, thought Crozier and shook his head to get the defeatist thought out of it.

  The sun was very close to the southern horizon. Just before it set, they would stop and eat a cold dinner. Then they would harness up again and walk another six to eight hours through the deep afternoon, evening, and nighttime darkness to reach Sea Camp One a little more than a third of the way to King William Land and Terror Camp.

  There was no sound now except for the panting of the men, the creak of leather, and the rasp of runners. The wind had died completely but the air was even colder with the dimming of the twilight afternoon sun. Ice crystals of breath hung above the procession of men and sledges like slowly collapsing spheres of gold.

  Walking near the front of the line now as they approached the tall pressure ridge, ready to help with the initial pulling and lifting and shoving and soft cursing, Crozier looked toward the setting sun and thought of how hard he had tried to find a way to Boothia and the whalers from Baffin Bay.

  At age 31 Crozier had accompanied Captain Parry into those arctic waters a fourth and final time, this time to reach the North Pole. They’d accomplished a “farthest north” record that easily stood until this day but had eventually been stopped by solid pack ice that stretched to the northern limits of the world. Francis Crozier no longer believed in the Open Polar Sea: when someone finally reached the Pole, he was sure they’d be doing it by sledge.

  Perhaps by sleds pulled by dogs, the way the Esquimaux preferred to travel.

  Crozier had seen the natives and their light sleds — not real sledges at all by Royal Navy standards, but only flimsy little sleds — sliding along behind those strange dogs of theirs in Greenland and along the east side of Somerset Island. They moved much faster than Crozier’s team ever could with this man-hauling. But most central to his plan to head east if at all possible was the fact that the Esquimaux were out there to the east somewhere at Boothia or beyond. And, like Lady Silence, whom they had seen going ahead to Terror Camp following Lieutenants Hodgson’s and Irving’s sledge teams earlier that week, these natives knew how to hunt and fish for themselves in this godforsaken white world.

  After Irving reported to him way back in early February about the young lieutenant’s difficulties in following Lady Silence or communicating with her about where and how she got the seal meat and fish Irving swore he had seen her with, Crozier contemplated threatening the girl’s life with pistol or boat knife to make her show them how she found the fresh food. But in his heart he’d known how such a threat would end up — the Esquimaux wench’s tongueless mouth would stay firmly shut and her huge dark eyes would stare unblinkingly at Crozier and his men until he had to back down or make good on his threat. Nothing would be accomplished.

  So he’d left her out in her little snow-house Irving had described to him and allowed Mr. Diggle to give her the occasional biscuit or scrap. The captain had tried to put her out of his mind. That he had been shocked to be reminded she was still alive when the lookout reported her following a few hundred yards behind Hodgson’s and Irving’s relay trip to Terror Camp last week showed Crozier that he had succeeded in not thinking about the wench. But he knew he still dreamed about her.

  If Crozier were not so very, very tired, he might have taken some small pride in the design and durability of the various sledges that the men were now man-hauling southeast across the ice.

  In mid-March, even before it was certain that Erebus would break up from the rising pressure, he had Mr. Honey, the expedition’s surviving carpenter, and his mates, Wilson and Watson, working day and night to design and build sledges that could haul the ships’ boats as well as gear.

  As soon as the first prototype larger oak-and-brass sledges were finished that spring, Crozier had the men out on the ice testing them and learning th
e best ways to haul them. He had the riggers and quartermasters and even the foretopmen constantly fiddling with the design of the harnesses to give the men the best pulling leverage with the least interruption of their movement and breathing. By mid-March, the sledge designs were set, more were being built, and it seemed that a design of harnesses for eleven men for the large sledges carrying boats and seven men for the smaller supply sledges would be best.

  This was for the initial supply crossings to Terror Camp on King William Land. If they took to the ice after that, Crozier knew, with some of the men too sick to pull and perhaps others dead by then, eighteen boats and sledges, each loaded to the gunwales with survival rations and gear, requiring man-hauling by one hundred men — or fewer — it would mean fewer than eleven men pulling each burden. More work and even heavier loads for men who presumably would be deeper in the pit of scurvy and exhaustion by then.

  By the last week in March, even as Erebus was in her death throes, both crews were out on the ice in darkness and the brief sunlight, competing in man-hauling contests with the different sledges, finding the right match of men to sledge, learning the right techniques, and putting together the best teams composed of men from both ships and all ranks. They were competing for cash — silver and gold — and even though Sir John had planned to buy many souvenirs in Alaska, Russia, the Orient, and the Sandwich Islands and there were chests of shillings and guineas in the dead man’s private storeroom, these coins came out of Francis Crozier’s pocket.

  Crozier wanted badly to head toward Baffin Bay as soon as the days grew long enough to support long-distance sledging. He knew instinctively and from listening to Sir John’s tales and from reading George Back’s history of ascending more than 650 miles of the Back’s Great Fish River to Great Slave Lake fourteen years ago — the volume was in Terror’s library and now in Crozier’s personal pack on one of the sledges — that the odds of any of them finishing or surviving the trip were low.

  The 160-some miles between Terror’s position off King William Land and the mouth of Great Fish River might not be traversable, even as a prelude to the arduous voyage up the river. It combined the worst of coastal ice with threats of open leads that could make them abandon the sledges and — even if there were no leads — the assured agony of hauling sledges and boats across the frozen gravel of the island itself, all while exposed to the worst of the pack-ice storms.

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