Wooden ships, iron men

“Sea of the Bear: Journal of a voyage to Alaska and the Artic, 1921”
by M. A. Ransom, U.S. Naval Institute, 1964; 119 pp. $35; Free on Google Books.

By Sandy Marsters

Stuck inside? Stuffing disinfectant-soaked towels under the door to keep out cold and COVID-19? Need an escape? Well, I read in the “Washington Post” today that all-inclusive resorts are super popular right now because when money’s tight the no-extra-charges thing helps you control your spending. Huh?

Books are also very popular and much cheaper and don’t involve wearing your mask and snorkel on that flight to the all-inclusive resort. Also, there are no extra charges once you own the book. And books, like boats, can be a great escape – especially when they are about boats.

Take “Sea of the Bear: Journal of a voyage to Alaska and the Artic, 1921,” by M. A. Ransom, published way back in 1964 by the United States Naval Institute in Annapolis, Md. You haven’t seen this on a best-seller list, but for adventures at sea with tough sailors on rugged boats in far-off places it can’t be beat. Ransom knows of what he writes, as he served on the Bear as a Coast Guardsman.

The barkentine Bear slid down the ways in Dundee, Scotland, in 1874. After 10 years in the Newfoundland sealing fleet, the U.S. Navy acquired her and immediately sent her on a mission alongside two ships you may have heard of, Thetis and Alert, to rescue six survivors of the Army’s Greely Arctic Expedition. The mission’s success brought the ship great fame.

But it was only the start of a series of great and treacherous adventures that would stretch for nearly a century and include another famous rescue of the crews aboard eight whaling ships trapped in the ice near Point Barrow, Alaska.

When ice stopped the Bear, the rescue party took to dogsleds and made a 1,600-mile journey to Point Barrow, collecting a herd of 450 reindeer along the way. The stranded sailors were discovered in a state described as “living death.” Eating reindeer and nursed by the expedition’s doctor, 97 of the 265 sailors survived the five months until Bear could make it to Point Barrow in mid-summer.

Of course the stranded whalers were not new to hardship at sea, as the notes of one of the captains makes clear. Wintering over in the north was hell, and the captain’s notes included references to numerous amputations that the captain had to perform himself.

On March 9, 1894, “the best part of both feet were amputated from a man belonging to the Narwhal.

“These feet were taken off well back,” the captain wrote, “the same way with the other amputations, with the difference that after the foot was cut to the bone, a piece of canvas was put on and the flesh hauled back and the bones then cut off. In this way, a flap was formed and the whole business turned out very well.”

Oh, splendid. Thanks for that.

The captain goes on to describe amputations of six fingers and three toes on one man, a couple of fingers from a couple of other men, “a part of one foot from a man belonging to the Beluga,” and the arm of the third mate of the Narvarch.

And you thought your cruise to the Vineyard last summer was exciting.

Co-founder of Points East, along with Bernie Wideman, Sandy Marsters is also the magazine’s former editor.