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The ill-fated attempt to turn Esk over for repairs. Note the anchors hanging from the mast trees.

The Esk2

    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.



above :  Narwhals, named Unicorns for their single 8 foot long tusk. These would be taken if Right whales were scarce

   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.

      After borrowing a pump from a passing ship they sailed through the bergs and drift ice, but trouble still courted Esk. A Few days later a storm tore away the fothering sail and all hands manned the pumps until a new one could be fixed. After only 24 hours, heavy seas again wrenched it off. When the problem was mastered, the stern post was found to be loosened by the pounding. If the post failed, the ship would founder immediately. John again took her in tow. On 23 July, Scoresby must have breathed a great sigh of relief when Shetland’s Hangcliff was sighted. John cast her off and stood out to the open sea while Scoresby coxed Esk to make to make landfall at Lerwick at 5.30 am on the 27th. Only after lengthy repairs did she set sail for Whitby.

         The Esk sailed again the following year for the whale fishery, Scoresby again in command, but it was a poor season. Discouraged, on return to Whitby he decided to give up the sea and become a minister, but only after a further whaling voyage in the Fame, of which he was a co-partner.

       The new master of Esk was Captain Dunbar who had sailed with Scoresby’s father and from whom the younger Scoresby had learned some of his fishing skills. For eight years Esk met with varying success and on 5th September 1826 she was making slow headway home against a southerly breeze after catching only four whales. After discharging the Shetlanders at Lerwick, her crew numbered 27, all eager to reach Whitby.

     Captain Dunbar took advantage of the inshore tide as Esk passed Hartlepool, but suddenly an easterly gale sprang up, driving her shoreward. Sails were shredded before they could be reefed as the frantic crew fought to bring her into the wind. At nightfall, the mainsail ripped from top to bottom, twisting her broadside to heavy seas which smashed against her beam ends. At 10.30 their fears were realised when she grounded opposite the cliffs at Marske. They fired guns and burnt a distress light when they saw lanterns through the spume, but crashing waves were by then sweeping the decks and lifting the ship, only to smash her back onto the seabed.

     At 5.15 am the Esk went to pieces.

     That morning, 6th September 1826, saw mountainous seas washing debris ashore, breakers revealing timbers and bodies tangled together in the indignity of death.

     William Scoresby junior later wrote he thought of the Esk with great affection, and it was he who conducted the memorial service at St. Mary’s church on Whitby cliff top. 3,000 people attended the service, and influenced by Scoresby’s preaching, gave generously for those families deprived of their breadwinners.

    Only three men survived the wreck.


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Dykes, Jack   Yorkshire’s Whaling Days                                     Dalesman 1980

Godfrey, A & Lassey,P.   Shipwrecks of the Yorkshire Coast

                                                                                                                   Dalesman 1974

Scoresby, Wm (jnr)  Narrative of the Loss of The Esk & Lively,

                                                           Greenland Whalers                    Rodgers 1826

Stamp, T & C.  William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist.              Caedmon 1976

Young, Rev G.   History Of Whitby Vol II (1817)                     Caedmon 1976

©2010 C.J.S.Wilson

Chris Scott Wilson                   Writer                                             

Story Of The Esk

Originally published as Sailing The Merciless Northern Seas in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette

scoresby jnrA

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

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