Fighting the winter blues
Northern Sports - Tumbling on the Ice © Parks Canada
In the mid 19th century, numerous expeditions headed for the Canadian north in attempts to find the Northwest Passage or trace the ships of Sir John Franklin’s expedition. Life on these voyages followed a routine, and the vessels had bells that rang the hours of the day for the crew. First Bell sounded before sunrise, or by seven o’clock at the latest. The sailors stowed their bedding and ate breakfast. Then each man was assigned his duties, to be completed by noon, when lunch was served. After the meal, the men went back to work until supper. They were generally free after supper, though they had little spare time, since they had to be up early the next day. There was generally a religious service on Sundays, customarily read by the captain. Apart from navigational tasks, the crew was kept busy with calculations, scientific observations (measuring the ice and taking meteorological readings), sketching, making log entries, scrubbing the decks and keeping the ship in order.
Chasing Polar Bears © Parks Canada
In winter, however, the ships were held fast in the ice, and boredom became the crew’s main enemy. The routine was hard to maintain, since navigation was impossible, and there was little to do. Some captains, though, like Elisha Kent Kane, took steps to ensure that the daily round did not lapse. As he saw it, loss of routine was demoralizing for the crew, so he made sure that all duties that marked a sailor’s day remained in force: assignment of tasks, religious observances, table rituals, fires, lights, watch keeping and observations, and recording waves and the sky. “Nothing depresses and demoralizes so much as surrender of the approved and habitual forms of life. I resolved that everything should go on as it had done. The arrangement of hours, the distribution and details of duty, the religious exercises, the ceremonials of the table, the fires, the lights, the watch, even the labours of the observatory and the notation of the tides and the sky—nothing should be intermitted that had contributed to make up the day.”
During slack periods, exercise sessions such as races among the sailors were organized to keep the crew fit. On the Advance, for instance, the sailors had to take turns running around the entire ship without getting caught by the others. The one who managed to avoid capture the longest was declared the winner. Other kinds of games were staged for the crew’s amusement, such as tennis, football, rounders (the ancestor of baseball) and leapfrog. Other pastimes included card games and chess. Though practised year-round, hunting became a very important activity in winter, since it provided fresh meat and reinvigorated the men. Sledding expeditions were also regularly organized, allowing the men to both exercise and explore the surroundings.
Education was emphasized, and winter’s inactivity gave the sailors an opportunity to improve their knowledge. Classes in reading, writing, mathematics and basic navigation were given on board for the crew’s edification, and many books were made available to them (Sir John Franklin’s expedition carried some 3,000 volumes). Occasionally, men with specialized knowledge would give lectures on a range of subjects, such as chemistry as applied in everyday life, astronomy, what causes the wind, and elementary mechanics as applied in industry.
One of the most appreciated activities during the winter months was theatre. Plays were meticulously organized by the crew: the actors prepared for several weeks in advance, costumes were created for the occasion, a set was built, billboards were posted announcing the show, and musical interludes were arranged. A sailor aboard HMS Resolute recalls: “In this play, I was cast as a lady of the Court, Lady Lollypop, and since I could not find a dress in my size, I was obliged to appear in bloomers. I don’t think I have ever been as cold as on that night. My feet, crammed into satin slippers, were half frozen, and after the show I had to soak them in lukewarm water to revive them.”
Other expeditions had their own particular pastimes: Sir John Franklin’s carried a barrel organ on each vessel; the crew of the Advance wrote a journal, “The Ice Blink”, and that of HMS Enterprise made a billiard table of ice. Furthermore, special occasions like Christmas were celebrated in grand style and kept the crews busy. In short, while the sailors led very busy lives during the sailing season, many activities were organized for them in winter to fend off boredom.