On the misty gale-torn morning of 6th September 1826, crashing surf and screeching winds brought about the end of the Whitby whaler Esk. Grounded just below the low water line at Marske-by-Sea in Cleveland, 17 miles from home, less than seven hours saw her a total wreck. Spars, rigging, timbers and cargo were strewn for miles along the coast.
The 350-ton Esk had led a chequered career. She had been built in 1813 and was owned by Broderick., Fishburn and Company of Whitby. Her command was offered to William Scoresby Junior, 23, who had already made a name for himself. Scoresby was 26 in 1816 when he set sail in the middle of March for Esk's fourth Greenland voyage. It was to be one he would never forget.
By April Esk was surrounded by closing ice in the Arctic sea which damaged her rudder. After repairs they resumed fishing, but in May the Esk was again trapped by ice and only by ice-sawing and towing by whaleboats were they able to escape on June 12. The fishing was good. 13 whales were caught and flensed, the blubber packed in Esk's hold then on 29th June she was again nipped by the ice. Scoresby recorded that ‘the pressure on the ship was by no means heavy, nor to appearance, dangerous,’ but after the ice gave, the carpenter sounded the hold to find it held 8½ feet of water.
William Scoresby Jnr
Scoresby immediately ordered the 50-man crew to the two pumps and hoisted a distress signal which brought a dozen boats from surrounding whalers. After some positive results the water began to gain on them. As the leak could not be found, ‘fothering’ was suggested (drawing a sail over the exterior of the hull as a second skin) but this proved impossible as they discovered a tongue of ice had torn away a 20 foot section of the after keel into a jutting spike.
Visiting captains declared the Esk a write-off. Scoresby would not give up so easily. He decided to allow the ship to fill then turn her over hull-upwards, using tackles. All the stores were unloaded onto the ice, then anchors were hung from Esk’s yards so the men at the long lines could stamp and haul. It did not work. The Esk would not turn over.
Ignoring the other captains who still urged a write-off, Scoresby’s men managed to rope the protruding spike of keel and rip it away, then apply a fothering sail. It worked. Meanwhile, the weather had changed and the other ships departed to continue fishing but for John of Greenock, commanded by Thomas Jackson, Scoresby’s brother-in-law. Scoresby made a bargain with him to escort Esk to Shetland in return for 50 of the 111 tons of Esk’s casked blubber, worth about £1500, and also £100 to be divided among the seamen as compensation for losing their fishing time.
It took two days of hard work to pack the split in her keel with canvas and oakum. Finally, carrying water ballast, they set sail. Alarmingly, Scoresby found Esk totally unmanageable due to the damaged keel, so John towed her to a mooring in the ice where an extra large ‘jury’ rudder was rigged while Scoresby, exhausted, slept for 20 hours.