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Locked In The Ice - Voyage of the Albion, 1847

The following quote is taken from pages 41-45 of Ravenscrag: the Allan Royal Mail Line, by Thomas E. Appleton. The Albion left Greenock, Scotland on Thursday, March 25, 1847, heading for Quebec. Bryce Allan was the Master of the vessel. The voyage was going well until April 10 when they encountered ice about 40 miles from Cape Ray ("gatepost to the Cabot Strait").

"Tuesday, 13th April. For two days we continued boring through it with a fair wind but last night a gale from the East springing up with snow caused us to lay the ship and furl all sail. Today the wind is right ahead, blowing a gale, and we are still drifting in the ice without a stitch of canvas set. We are all heartily sick of it and would be thankful for a glimpse of clear water. Four of us entered the ice in company, the Great Britain, Eromanga and St. Andrew. I hope, if we all get out safe, this will be a warning not to dispatch ships so early in the Spring.
Wednesday 14th April. This voyage hitherto has been one full of adventure. On Monday night we succeeded in getting the good ship into clear water. About 40 miles from Cape Ray we found a clear passage of 30 miles between the ice and Newfoundland, but as we approached the Cape the passage became narrower until I scarcely found room to work the ship, and had last night not been calm, I do not know what we would have done as the land being white with snow it is very difficult to ascertain our distance off at night. We therefore this morning came in here, Port-aux-Basques, where we now lie at anchor. This afternoon I went to the top of a high hill where I had a view of the Gulf and found, by the aid of a good glass, that there was nothing to be seen but ice, ice as far as the eye could see.
Thursday 15th. Here we are still lying in Port-aux-Basques harbour, although I would much rather be again at sea if the ice is cleared away, but as I see that there is come slight damage to the vessel, I am afraid to attempt the ice until I see a prospect of getting through. Oh that the Great God who has hitherto been so kind as to take me out of my difficulties may yet carry me in safety to my place of destination.
Friday 16th. I am afraid my troubles are not yet at an end. Last night it came on a strong gale from the east which brought in a large body of ice into the harbour and caused our anchor to drag, and the ship took the ground by the heel. I assure you I spent a very miserable night; it rained a great deal and I was on deck until three o'clock this morning. The ship floated whenever the tide rose and came off herself the wind having changed, but today we are hemmed in on all sides with ice, and we can neither move the ship one way or another, nor communicate with the shore. I have now made up my mind to leave this place as soon as I can get out for I would rather be in the ice than here.

The ensuing period was the most miserable in Bryce Allan's life at sea. He was able to get ashore occasionally but his climb to the hilltop brought only the sight of other ships driving about in the ice outside with the unsettling thought that they might get out while he remained safe but imprisoned. Meanwhile the passengers amused themselves as best they could. There were six men, eight women and two children at the cabin table and one servant. The gentlemen of the party caught trout, speared flounders and shot ducks, none of which was of much comfort to the anxious captain, except to liven up the menu as supplies ran lower and lower. With the need to conserve food and candles, life on board was becoming cold and dark.

Ten days later the mate made the daily trip to the observation point ashore and hurried back with the news of clear water outside. All hands were called on deck, the topsails were loosed. Manning the capstan with a will after eleven days at anchor, the crew of the Albion toiled at halliards and braces as they made sail and tacked out to the Cabot Strait, only to find that they had joined the ships Eromanga and Belleisle to form a captive trio in heavy ice and bitter cold - all very discouraging.

Tuesday 27th. I daresay you will be calculating that I am by this time safe in Quebec, but we are still some 600 miles from it and no prospect of getting there for some time to come. We are only 100 miles nearer than we were on the 8th. I feel very dull at our long detention. We are already 32 days out and very little prospect of getting out of this ice. We were trying today to cut it with an axe but could make no progress and had to give up in despair. The steward is already telling me that his stores are nearly out. I was obliged to tell the passengers last night to be more careful of candles. One great blessing is we have plenty of water having filled six casks at Port-aux-Basques where we had little else to do.

By this time the passengers were walking on the ice for their daily constitutional, visiting the imprisoned Belleisle for a couple of hours and the Albion in turn was boarded by two men from Cape Breton who had come from a sealing schooner on the ice edge, not much more than a mile distant. They brought news which was hopeful but exasperating - the Gulf was clear of ice.

We have only about a mile to go but that mile will cost us some trouble and we must have a fair wind. We are farther from Quebec now than we were on Sabbath last. I am getting more dispirited every day but am confident that it is very sinful as I ought to put my trust in God...who afflicteth not willingly, and I have no doubt that my trials and detention are sent to try my faith. O that they may produce a more beneficial effect and, instead of despairing, may my faith become stronger and stronger. Tomorrow will be the 1st of May, a day of enjoyment to many thousands in Scotland. God grant that it may be a day of enjoyment for me but if we are still in the ice I am afraid that there will be very little to remind me of May Day.

In a few days the three ships were seriously short of provisions. Always willing to help those worse off than himself, Captain Allan sent 100 pounds of beef across to the Belleisle, all that could be spared. On 5th May the wind came on to blow from the west, the ice drifting remorselessly under enormous pressure towards a lee shore on the west coast of Newfoundland.

At 9 o'clock I ordered all hands to be called and the boats to be got ready and in the meantime made the steward fill some bags with biscuit, and the passengers to put on warm clothing. It was a fearful time of excitement, expecting every minute to strike upon a sunk rock which lies about a mile from the shore, but we were providentially delivered and the wind has died away since, so that I have great hopes we will have a fair wind to carry us off this barren coast. Not a house have we seen for miles. O that God may grant me the strength to carry me through, and enable me to act the part of a Christian in every trial.

By this time Bryce Allan and his passengers had restricted themselves to two meals a day and the crew had been put on short allowance. Captain Ramsay of the Eromanga walked across the intervening ice with one of his passengers who as a Free Church minister, a visit which nearly ended in tragedy:

We joined in prayer and were all much refreshed. I think they were very rash in attempting to come; as the ice was so bad they had great difficulty in reaching us and when they were returning the ice gave way and I was obliged to launch my lifeboat and get them safe on board, for which we were very thankful.

On 10th May crew and passengers were put on an allowance of half a pound of biscuit a day. The captain kept some beef for this sailors, for the strength of their muscles was the machinery on which all depended. On 12th May he noted:

I daresay you have never experienced what it is to feel very hungry and have nothing to satisfy the carving and I trust you never may. I can now sympathize with the poor starving Irish and Highlanders, Although we are not so badly off as many of them with half a pound of bread. I am trying to save some for fear of being obliged to reduce still further and frequently feel hungry when I have to refrain from eating.

On the following day, 10th May, the ice was again solid and found to be six feet thick. The Albion was as firm as if in drydock and although it was four miles to the Belleisle Captain Ramsay again paid a visit. The two masters talked things over and when Ramsay left Bryce remarked "He is, like the rest of us, very anxious to get out and heartily tired of the Canada trade."

On 17th May all hands were put to work at cutting round the ship with axes and saws, at best a hopeless proposition but a least a positive activity. In three days they moved the Albion four feet, the crew working to exhaustion in wet and cold, their hands and feet numb from constant exposure. On the 21st the Belleisle unexpectedly got clear and in full view from the Albion romped away as she set sail above sail to a strong breeze which blew up to a gale that night. Next morning, with the wind whistling in the rigging, it was snowing again and very cold. The ship remained motionless in the ice as firmly as ever. The Eromanga had got out on the 15th and the Albion was now alone in her long drift up the north-west coast of Newfoundland towards Point Rich. It was anything but a cheerful prospect as food ran out, far away from the track of other ships approaching the Strait of Belle Isle. At last came the day of deliverance:

Monday 24th May. It blew a gale yesterday from the South which broke up the ice and caused a heavy swell to come up. The ship made a fearful noise; the heavy ice beating alongside caused us to shake and quiver all over. Today I am thankful to say we have a last got into clear water. We were 46 days from the time we enter the ice until we got out again and 28 of these we never had a man at the helm; the ship was frozen so hard that it would not move.

On Friday 4th June at four in the morning the Albion arrived at Quebec...."

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© Marjorie P. Kohli, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1997-2007
Last updated: February 17, 2007 and maintained by Marj Kohli