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Voe Skeery: July 28th-30th, 1811

By Sunday July 28th, Scoresby judged that the lines were now dry and in good order, so they were put away. The following day, in a turbulent sea, to the north of the Shetlands, the captain of the Aimwell visited. Later, around 2AM, land was spotted:

[P]resently we saw a rock above water and about a mile and [a half] distance found it to be the Voe Skeery (The Voe Skeery is the most dangerous spot on this Coast to make lying surrounded with sunken rocks very low and 10 miles from the main deep water (45 Fathoms) at [1.5] miles distance. The Aimwell … supposing we did not see the land hoisted a light and fired 2 or 3 musquets.)

Jackson assumes, probably correctly that this was Ve Skerries, off the west coast of Shetland. Considering how dangerous these rocks seem to have been, it is surprising that a lighthouse was not built there until 1979.

As the sun came up the Aimwell‘s “Shetland men” left the ship on one of the boats, and returned home. The following day, July 30th, some returned, to sell fish and eggs to the whalers. One of the men who came on board the Resolution from Shetland had sailed on Scoresby’s father’s ship, the John. He had arrived at the island 22 days earlier, and reported that the John had 16 whales of “size” on a voyage lasting less than two months. Two ships of war seen in the distance.

A Kind of Goose: July 27th, 1811

Widgeon

As the Resolution made its steady progress southward, reaching Lat 61 on July 26, and Lat 60, by the 29th, Scoresby observed more birds than before, including gulls, and what he called “a kind of … Goose a Brown Bird with a White spot on each wing”. Jackson wonders if this could be a Greylag goose, but I think it was more likely a Eurasian Widgeon, which is native to Iceland, Scandinavia, and the northern British Isles. The male bird displays a white shoulder spot in flight.

As the presence of birds suggested, “At 3PM descried land … [which] proved to be the black barren Cliffs of Farroe”. Scoresby records a “strange sail” in sight at dusk, and as night fell, the Enterprize “hoisted her Ancient” and left the convoy, heading for the Pentland Firth on her journey to Peterhead.

The image above comes from whatbird.com

Approximation to Some Land: 25th-26th July, 1811

Thursday July 25th brought thick fog and “much rain”. The 15 lines which had been drying on deck were stowed away. Friday brought better visibility, and Scoresby tried to sail faster by keeping the wind “on the quarter”, that is, not sailing directly with the wind. This allowed him to take advantage of the stay sails on the mizen mast. The Southwesterly swell slowed their progress, however.

With the Resolution still in convoy with the Aimwell, Enterprize, and Volunteer, Scoresby took the appearance of Arctic Gulls and “Looms” (Jackson suggests guillemots), to suggest that they were near to the Faroe islands, and so it was, but he was far from sure: “our Compass differs so much that we cannot tell exactly how we steer sometimes”.

Southings: July 19th-24th, 1811

Over the next five days, Scoresby records very little in his journal besides the ship’s position, and their rate of progress. Starting on Friday at Lat 70 deg 12N, by the following Wednesday they had reached Lat 66 deg 12N, and were heading mostly South and West, towards the Faroes, Shetland, and Orkney.

On Monday, in fog, Scoresby fired a gun to signal the convoy to tack, and he recordes that the Aimwell answered. The Enterprise was discovered to be no more than 50 yards away, which was dangerously close in “impenetrable Fog”. Progress was often slow, the ship travelling at around 2 to 4 knots for most of the week, but in Tuesday the fog cleared, the wind increased, and Scoresby noted that they had “Made 90 Miles Southing”.

On the 24th, Scoresby’s journal records that with coal supplies running low “the fire is extinguished immediately after the Dinner is cooked”. It was also discovered, in these damp, foggy latitudes, that some of the sails were becoming mildewed, and they made an effort to “loose them at all opportunities”. Later in the day, as the weather turned fine: “Loosed all sails to dry began to suspend two Boats lines in the Suns rays”.

The Convoy Heads South: July 16th-18th, 1811

Over the next ten days the little occasional convoy consisting of the Resolution, the Aimwell, Volunteer, Lively, and the Peterhead whaler Enterprize, made more steady progress south from their position at Lat 71 deg N. On the 17th a gale sprang up, and with rain predicted Scoresby ordered all hands to bring in the whale lines, which had been drying on deck.

In his journal on the 17th Scoresby also notes his habit of allowing 2.75 to 3 points of variation in the compass, to compensate for the magnetic attraction of the ship. His work on magnetism, and theorising about the effect of ships’ ironwork on the compass, would continue until his death, in March 1857.

By the end of Wednesday, Scoresby estimated that they had covered 87 miles to the SW. On the following day he reports “various courses were steered and little progress made.”

Ship of War: July 15th, 1811

As the fog cleared a strange ship was spotted astern of the convoy, and Scoresby mustered “all hands to quarters loaded up the guns” while shortening sail to bring the convoy into closer formation. This was an alarming development, since an enemy ship might attempt to capture the whale ships, while an English ship might try to take members of the crew:

The Ship in Chase fired several Guns. At length we hove too took in Top Gallt Sails Stay Sls &c. She proved to be an English Frigate [the Niobe] stationed in high Latitudes to protect the Greenland Ships. We alone were boarded by a Lieut. in a jolly Boat he particularly enquired after the number of Ships left in the Country &c. They had seen my Father 18 Days ago with 16 Fish Chock full the Henrietta the Lion and James they had also seen. They had no intention of impressing men.

Scoresby reports being entrusted with letters to take home, and that after this visit they completed the new Top Gallant and Royal masts. He reflects that the ship was “much improved in appearance by it”.

Interestingly, before their departure, the naval officers gave Scoresby their estimate of their position. Scoresby disagreed quite strongly when it came to Longitude, and said so in his journal. The officers of the Niobe thought they were at Lat 72 deg, 59 and Long 5 deg 28E:

I continue my Longitude from my former estimation since I suspect the Niobes Reckoning to be too far Westerly they having had no Lunar observation or Correction of the Timekeeper since they saw the North Cape.

Scoresby’s own estimate of position was Lat 72 deg 17N and Long 6 deg 57E. Jackson notes that at 72 deg North, “the difference of almost 3 degrees of longitude [from Scoresby’s estimate on July 14th] … is equivalent to about 55 nautical miles (100km)”. Scoresby concludes his account of the day with a rueful comment that as the Niobe had left England in May, there was “little or no news.”

Two Strange Sail in Sight: July12th-14th, 1811

Between Friday and Sunday the Convoy made progress to southward, travelling from Lat 74 to Lat 72. The ice began to dwindle, though occasional large pieces had to be avoided. By Saturday morning, however there was “no Ice to see” and the crew continued their maintenance and repair of the ship:

… washed and scrubbed the sides with sand and urine then soap and water. Rigged the TG [Top Gallant] Masts and sent up Royal Masts. Aimwell Enterprize Lively and Volunteer in Company.

Thick fog followed on Sunday, and as the ‘Sky Scraper‘ sail was set for the first time, Scoresby made the ominous note: “Two strange sail in sight”.

Skyscraper

According to W.H. Smythe’s Sailor’s Word Book, Skyscraper sails were triangular sails set above the square Skysails, which were themselves set above the main sails. On the journey homeward Scoresby describes erecting royal masts above the main masts to accommodate more sail, since the Resolution needed to return home as quickly as possible.

Where the royal masts were tall enough, such as on a clipper ship, a further square sail, known as a Moonraker or Moonsail, could be added above the Skysail.

Placing the Guns: July 11th, 1811

On Thursday the Resolution was still around Lat 74, but as the convoy moved southward, it would come under threat of attack from both French and American frigates, and Scoresby thought it prudent to place the guns as a precaution. Work was underway to stow the whaleboats in the hold, and to “scrape” the ship’s sides: “Carpenter employed making new Top Gallt. Masts Crosstrees, Royal Masts and Poles”. The sea was still strewn with ice, and Bottlenose and Fin whales were spotted, but Scoresby was delighted with his role as commodore, and the way the convoy followed his lead:

At 8PM having passed several disseminated pieces of Ice and seeing much loose Ice a head (NWd) tacked our example was followed by all Ships in sight (viz. 7 in sight) as well as our Convoy.