A Description of the Manner in which His Majesty’s Ship Isabella was fitted for a Voyage of Discovery to the Arctic Seas.


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Any thing that will contribute to illustrate the record of an event belonging to history must be considered as acceptable to the historian, more particularly when that event has passed by without the probability of a similar one taking place in our day. In this light we regard the late Arctic voyages, forming, as they do, one of the most important features in the geography of our northern hemisphere, and one no less remarkable in the annals of British skill and enterprise. We are therefore induced to lay before our readers a plan and section of the Isabella, the ship commanded by Captain Ross, on his first expedition, when, unhappily for himself, although too easily satisfied of the contrary, he pointed out the very course which led to the discoveries of his more fortunate successor, Sir Edward Parry. In the narrative of Captain Ross’s voyage, some account is given of the method adopted in fitting out the ships for this service, but as it is accompanied by no plan, shewing the various additional timbers that were introduced in the fabric of the ships, it is necessarily imperfect. We shall, however, avail ourselves of it, in order to render our own a complete record of the various preparations which the Arctic ships underwent for their several voyages in the 19th century.


One strake of plank was taken out from the bottom, all fore and aft, at the heads and heels of the timbers composing her frame, to ascertain the condition of the ship; in lieu of which, a strake of oak, seven inches thick, was introduced, with a rabbet on each edge, to make good the substance, and receive the doubling of the bottom, which was of oak three inches thick; the original bottom was then well examined, caulked, and payed with the common mixture of pitch and tar; after which, a coat of felt (a composition of animal hair and tar, in its properties both elastic and adhesive) was laid all over the whole surface, on which the doubling oak plank was brought, and secured through the original plank timbers, and inside lining of the ship, with bolts well clenched: this doubling extended up the counter abaft, as well as to the after part of the stern-post, in which a fresh rabbet was formed, abaft the original one, within about four inches of the back, to receive the ends, or butts, of the said doubling. The bows were still more strongly and substantially fortified, prior to the doubling being brought on; pieces of timber were worked vertically next the stem, in the angle formed by that and the bow, to sharpen the form of the vessel; underneath these pieces, a coat of felt was first laid, the pieces well caulked, and another coat of felt then laid thereon, to receive the doubling, which was worked from twelve to thirteen inches thick, at the fore ends, to fashion out and make a fair line with the front or fore part of the stem ; the after ends were diminished to the thickness of the doubling of the bottom. On the fore ends of these thick strakes, after they had been caulked, iron plates of about three-quarters of an inch thick were secured round their ends over the stem, to protect them from being injured by the ice: these plates were continued in close connection all the way down the bow as low as the fore foot, or gripe, and the whole doubling well caulked and payed, similar to the mode practised with the original bottom. 

The keel of the vessel was secured in the following manner:[1] The original garboard strakes were taken off the bottom, and a thick strake of elm placed on each side of the keel in lieu, with a coat of felt underneath, and bolted athwartships through the keel, and likewise up and down through the floor timbers, and the bolts well clenched within-board: in the outer edges of the said strakes, rabbets were formed, to receive the doubling of the bottom, from which place the doubling extended up to within about three feet of the gunwale, terminating there in a thick strake of oak, rabbeted in like manner, and let home to the timbers of the topside, bolted through, and well clenched; the whole of the chains were secured, and guarded by thick pieces of timber, payed and bolted under the channel, covering the links, and thus protecting them from injury, or being carried away by the ice.


Large shelf-pieces were introduced all fore and aft under the beam-ends at the side, and dowelled or coaked up to the underside of the beams, and bolted in and out through the ship’s side, as well as in an up and down direction through the said beams, and well clenched; pieces of a similar kind were introduced at various other parts of the ship, on the ceiling, and dowelled thereto opposite the other thick strakes on the outside of the bottom, as before mentioned, which made good the thickness of the doubling on the bottom; and these strakes were well bolted through the ship’s side to each other, and clenched within-board, thereby connecting the fabric, and supporting the ship against the strain likely to occur by her being struck at the extremities by the ice: these pieces were continued from the bow to the stern, and united by breast-hooks and crutches, to strengthen those parts of the ship also: a tier of large beams was introduced about five feet below the lower deck, to support the ship’s sides against pressure, provided the ship should be squeezed, in the event of her being caught between two fields or floes of ice. The ceiling was taken off the bow as far aft as the fore-step below, and several feet further aft at the lowerdeck beam, in a diagonal direction; the openings between the timbers, and in the wake thereof, were then filled in solid, caulked and payed, on which surface were laid sixteen large breast-hooks, (in lieu of the plank taken off,) their sides well payed close to each other, from the deck down to the fore-step, all across the bows, well bolted through the outside stuff, and clenched within-board: the ends of those hooks were likewise confined by the fore-part of the lower-deck shelf-piece, which finished with a large hook over the others, and the same confining the fore-ends of all the fore and aft thick strakes that were dowelled to the ceiling, as before mentioned; against this large breast-hook, shores were placed, and bolted under the beams, with carlings between the said beams, their under sides dowelled to the upper sides of the shores, and bolted through, and clenched securely to each other. The shores were placed in a direction as square as possible from the curve of the bow, as may be perceived by the sketch or plan of the lower deck: shores were placed under the fore platform beams in like manner, and the whole most substantially secured. Hooks and ekings were placed in the bows above the lower-deck hook. Various other works were performed, more than can be fully explained: the fitting the bed-places of the officers and crew in such a manner that they might be taken on shore with ease, and formed into a dwelling, in case of shipwreck; the galley, and other fire-places, airing-stoves, with tubes for conveying hot air to different parts of the ship, with every convenience requisite for the voyage, mode of stowing the boats, davits, skids, and a roof, or covering of tilt, over the ship’s deck, in case of her being frozen fast in the ice, and obliged to remain a winter in that situation.

The ship was furnished with forty chaldrons of coals, stowed in the hold as ballast. The ship was armed with six eighteen-pounder carronades, with powder and shot for three years, and gunner’s stores of every description for the same period.

References to the Plan.

A—Iron straps or plates across the bows, to prevent the ice from injuring the ship.

B—Thick doubling.

C—Timbers to fashion out the bows, to present a better figure for resisting the ice.

D—Original planking and doubling.

E—Timbers composing the original frame of the bows.

F—Riders fayed against the aft part of the breast-hooks, as an additional security to bind and connect them together.

G—Solid breast-hooks, their sides fayed close to each other, inside the bow, to strengthen the fore-part of the vessel.

HShores and carlings under the beams of each deck, dowelled and bolted, the fore ends butting against the riders, by way of trussing, and thus affording additional strength.

IThick strakes of seven inches, worked in the bottom, at the heads and heels of the timbers, with a rabbet on each edge, to receive the doubling; to break the joints of the plank of the bottom, bolted through the timbers, and longitudinal pieces inside, for the better connecting the whole fabric of the ship together.

K—Shelf-pieces for stiffening the sides and supporting the beam-ends.

L—Longitudinal pieces running all fore and aft, terminating against the breast-hooks forward.

M—Plank of the bottom covered with adhesive, or water-proof felt, before the doubling is brought on.

N—Doubling of oak, three inches thick, brought on over the felt, and the original bottom of the ship.

O—Thick garboard strakes bolted across the inner keel, and up and down through the floor timbers.

P—Inner keel composing the fabric of the ship.

Q—Outer or false keel, which may be carried away by the ship striking the rocks with violence without endangering her safety.


S—Upper Keelson to add strength to the lower part of the vessel.

T—Lining of oak, to prevent the chains from being carried away by the ice, solid pieces having been previously fitted, under the channels, against the side of the ship.

UCapstans for heaving the ship ahead.

W—Rudder hung with a long bolt in braces, allowing it to lift two feet, or to be taken off when in contact with the ice.

Captain Ross, on his return, certified, that neither the masters, the mates, nor those men who had been all their lives in the Greenland service, had ever experienced such imminent peril; and they declared that a common whaler must have been crushed to atoms. Their safety, he said, must be attributed to the perfect and admirable manner in which the vessels had been strengthened when fitting for service.

[1] The boxing was cut away, and a piece fitted and bolted in lieu, forming a connection with the lower part of the stem and forepart of the keel.