Dramatic story of the St. Roch, which for the first time in history forced the Northwest Passage in one season

BRUCE McLEOD March 1 1945


Dramatic story of the St. Roch, which for the first time in history forced the Northwest Passage in one season

BRUCE McLEOD March 1 1945


Dramatic story of the St. Roch, which for the first time in history forced the Northwest Passage in one season


IT WAS going to be a tight squeeze. Nobody knew that better than the skipper, Sgt. Henry A. Larsen, as he stood on the bridge of his tiny 80-ton RCMP patrol schooner and bellowed commands into a fog that rolled around him like a cold grey surf. It blinded him, shrouded his ship, muffled the chug-chug of her engine.

“Seven fathoms!” boomed a voice from a bundle of fur and leather hunched over a rail near the bow of the ship. It was the leadsman, and as he shobted, his breath frost in his whiskers.

Larsen stomped sealskin boots against the deck and brushed a mittened fist across his eyes. Close by to starboard lay the main Arctic ice pack. He couldn’t see it in the sullen blackness of the night but he could hear it—millions of tons of ice grunting and squealing, wallowing and shifting, as it stretched for hundreds of miles in a treacherous white floor toward the Pole. And somewhere off to port lay the flat tundra land of Alaska, bleak and foreboding, with Pt. Barrow jutting like a finger of doom into the Arctic Ocean. Between the two—ice and land—through a slender ribbon of open water, Larsen nosed his ship.

“Keep sounding!” he roared into the fog, only to have his words lashed back in his teeth by the biting winds that blow eternally over that desolate stretch of the world.

The lookout, from his lonely post, picked up the skipper’s words and shivered. It was cold—zero now and the fog and wind sent the chill gnawing into him as if it were 40 below. He didn’t envy the leadsman hauling a wet line almost continually out of a sea so frosty its skin was already freezing. He knew it was past midnight now and he wished he was in his bunk

below deck. But there would be no sleep for him tonight. There’d been no sleep for anybody aboard since the little craft sailed out of Herschel Island two

days ago, with winter whistling a gusty threat across her stern.

She was the Arctic supply ship St. Roch, a doughty veteran of northern waters. Only two years earlier, following 28 months of frozen adventure, she had sailed her way into the history books as the first ship ever to navigate the long-sought Northwest Passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. Now, in the bleak hours of this late September morning, she was close to becoming the only craft in history ever to sail both ways across the top of the world.

She had just conquered the fabled Passage ag^in— only this time she had done it from east to west, over a deepwater route hitherto unknown to man. During the 56 days and more than 4,000 miles she had sailed since leaving Halifax, July 22, 1944, the St. Roch and her crew of 11 seagoing policemen had ventured north where no ship had ever sailed before. Behind her lay thousands of miles of perilous voyaging through icechoked waters and treacherous shallows strewn with the skeletons of ships and men. And now, under the masterful hand of her skipper, she was making a desperate bid to round Pt. Barrow and get through the Bering Strait before winter locked her in far above the Arctic Circle. If she could do that she would have done something no other ship had ever managed— completed a voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the roof of America in a few short weeks.

Only one other ship since the beginning of time had ever made the far northern crossing from east to west. That was the sealing sloop Gjoa, commanded by Roald Amundsen, and it had taken that intrepid Norseman three years (1903-1906) to force the Northwest Passage from Christiania to Nome.

And it was of Amundsen that Larsen was thinking now as the St. Roch crept westward at half speed through the fog. He was remembering how Amundsen, after spending two winters in the ice, had finally forced the Passage, only to be trapped by a third freezeup before he could get around Barrow and outside to freedom. If the St. Roch was to avoid Amundsen’s fate, Larsen knew he had to keep moving despite the fog and Arctic night, both of which warned him the sensible thing to do was to shut down at anchor until the weather cleared and he could see where he was going.

Suddenly out of the murk bobbed a ghostly procession of floes. The St. Roch rolled and shuddered as they struck her on the snout and thumped against her sides like giant fists. To Larsen, on the bridge,

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they were a deadly omen. The ice was closing in on him. His escape gap to the west was slimming down. Even now it might be too late to slip around Barrow, that graveyard of western Arctic shipping, where once winter comes it is impossible to tell where the land ceases and the ice pack begins.

Slowly, almost painfully, the ship plowed westward. Then, shortly before one o’clock, came an excited cry from the bow of the schooner: “The bottom has gone away! It’s gone away ! I can’t find it at 25!”

It was the leadsman, and his throaty cry sent a thrill tingling through the ship. To the weary-eyed crew it meant they had rounded Barrow. The crisis was over. They were headed outside!

Greatest Skipper

THREE weeks later the St. Roch crept into Vancouver, 86 days and 7,295 miles out of Halifax, via the Northwest Passage. RCMP officials were jubilant. They described the epic journey as a feat of exploratory travel, which in normal times would have echoed around the world. Larsen, already holder of the Polar Medal for his first historic west-to-east crossing of the Passage, became known ta Canadians and sailing men everywhere as “the greatest Arctic skipper alive.”

He shrugs and shakes his head when you call him that. A tall thick-chested Norwegian Canadian, with the yellow hair, ruddy cheeks and sharp blue eyes of his Viking ancestors, Larsen is tight-lipped when talking about himself or his deeds. He admits the ice is a deadly adversary, but living in it, fighting it for weeks at a time, is to him as commonplace as a cup of tea or a puff on a cigarette.

“Whenever a ship is in ice,” he grins, “it is in danger. There is no sleep for her crew. Often for weeks at a time you never take off your clothes. A wrong decision, a split-second delay, might cost you your life—and that of your crew and ship. But after a few days you get used to it. It sometimes gets monotonous and very boring.”

For hundreds of years many men perished trying to find the coveted northern waterway to Cathay and the riches of the East. Kings and princes sent their best ships and men across the oceans to unlock this great northern mystery, but none ever found the way to their desires. Indefinite history has it that in 1487 the Portuguese tried and failed. Cabot, Willoughby, Corte-Real, all succumbed to the lure of the elusive Passage but were doomed to disappointment.

In 1619 the Danes sent an expedition to ferret out the Passage but it crumpled against the sharp teeth of the Polar ice. All but three of its men perished. The East India Company, Henry Hudson, Baffin, John Davis, Frobisherall met disaster or were thwarted in their attempts. Parry tried to smash through the Arctic shield in 1819 and 26 years later Sir John Franklin sailed to his death in the icy wastes of the Passage. It wasn’t until Amundsen’s (1903-1906) expedition that man finally broke through one of nature’s last frontiers.

Historians then might well blink their astonishment when Larsen, the only man ever to skipper a ship both ways over this fabulous route, shrugs off his feat with a nonchalant “It wasn’t very much. We were ordered to take the St. Roch through. So we did.”

Just like that. Which is fine, except it doesn’t tell you how on his first run through the Passage, sailing from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Larsen and his crew mates were twice overtaken by the Arctic winter once at Walker Bay and again at Pasley Bay in the BoothiaPeninsula, not far from the Magnetic Pole. There, in temperatures of 50 below zero, they were locked in by the ice for 11 months and a day.

Nor does Larsen’s “It wasn’t very much” tell you about the gruelling hardships of that second trip when he and 10 other Redcoats flirted with death almost daily to prove the Passage could be navigated in a single summer.

“She’s a Good Ship”

AND it tells you nothing about the ship herself— that sturdy little schooner whose scarred timbers bear the wounds of many a battle against the Arctic ice. As Larsen says, “One look at her and you know she’s a good ship.” And he ought to know. He’s been her skipper ever since the day she was launched in 1928.

The men who built her knew what ice can do to a vessel trapped in it. So they gave the St. Roch armor to make her tough. Her hull is practically solid with heavy frames set so close together as to give it about 21 in. of thickness. Her planking is 2% in. thick and

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over this is an inch and a half of ironwood sheathing. Inside she’s cozy, well equipped. Her cabins accommodate 13 men and she can tuck 150 tons of cargo into her hold. There’s electric lighting, a two-way radio, a Diesel engine and modern heating facilities. There’s even a new oil stove for the ship’s cook.

Underwater, the St. Roch is constructed on the “saucer” plan. This special design helps thwart ice pressure. Instead of being crushed in the floes the ship is lifted by them as they jam in around her.

But for all her sturdiness and modern design the St. Roch was dogged by trouble early on that second epic voyage. She was barely 40 miles out to sea off Halifax on the morning of July 19, 1944, when her engine broke down. Three days later she was back at I sea but again she went temperamental ! on Larsen and he was forced to dock at Sydney for new repairs. Had he and his crew been superstitious men they might have called the whole trip off then and there.

It wasn’t until July 24 that the St. Roch was finally on her way, northward bound between Newfoundland and Labrador in the teeth of a stiff gale.

By Aug. 3 the St. Roch was in the ice off Cape St. David. It was young ice, broken but tightly packed, and that night when the crew sat down to supper there was an excited expectancy among them—the tingling eagerness of a champion on the eve of his big bout, i All of them—Cpls. G. W. Peters and P. G. Hunt; Constable J. M. Diplock and Special Constables G. Russell, P. Dickens, F. Matthews, C. R. Johnsen, S. McKenzie, O. Andreasen and W. Cashin—knew that from now on it would be touch and go. They knew, too, it would take great cunning and courage to crack the icy armor Nature had already thrown into the battle against them.

Soon after dark the ice jarred the ship to a stop. The whine of her straining engine sliced the frosty air but she could not budge. Larsen shut down and drifted for the night. At dawn he tried butting through toward Cape Walsingham but the ice, packed tight to the shore line, yielded only a few. yards. Again he shut down and drifted.

“It began to look like a long trip,” Larsen recalls. “But we had come prepared for that. We didn’t know how long we might be caught in the Arctic, so we had lots of food aboard. Tea, coffee, fresh and canned fruits,

vegetables, fresh and canned meats, sugar, bread, canned milk and fish. Then, of course, we had equipment for catching our own fish. And later we were prepared to kill walrus and maybe a few bear. In the Arctic a man needs a feed of seal meat or walrus every now and then. It peps him up.”

If the long Arctic winter overtook them they were prepared to fight boredom with books, the radio and longshore patrols. “Sometimes we go on long patrols just to break the monotony,” Larsen explained. “On my first trip through the Passage, when winter locked us in not once but twice,

I made one patrol of about 1,000 miles, taking a census of the Eskimo population and letting them know that the white man’s law was never far away.”

One thing they rarely ever do aboard ship, Larsen says, is play cards. “Cards sometimes are not friendly. When a man’s nerves are bad he should never get in a card game. And sometimes our nerves are not so good after long months of isolation and hardship in that forsaken land of ice and snow and temperatures of 50 below zero.”

It was late afternoon on Aug. 4 when Larsen began a series of vicious rammings that shook the St. Roch from stem to stern. But they paid off and after six hours she had breached the ice and was retreating toward open water.

“We cut over to the Greenland side,” Larsen remembers. “And by dawn we could see the icecap and brooding peaks of that barren land.”

Never Saw Such Fogs

Fifty miles off shore Larsen set his course northward, and then on Aug. 6 he swung west for Baffin Island. But Nature was ready for him with fog and ice and within 24 hours the St. Roch lay dead in the pack, blanketed by a thick, freezing fog. Larsen, a grizzled veteran of Arctic sailing for more than

II years, says he had never seen such fogs.

“If you think too much about it, fog is bad on your nerves,” he says. “After a while you feel it is choking you. You want to scream at it; beat it with your hands. We were not sorry when it lifted and we saw the sun again on Aug. 8.”

The lookout had to be changed frequently that day. A heavy mirage and deathly calm made it almost impossible to pick out leads in the ice. Then the compass broke down. Navigation became a nightmare.

“We were in dangerous waters,” Larsen remembers, “and the mate and

I felt, like blind men trying to cross a busy intersection. We took some bad knocks that day from large floes that came rocking at us out of the fog like great grey ghosts and finally we decided to tie up to a large floe. We stayed moored there for three days.”

It was midday on Aug. 12 when the St. Roch got moviag again and before sundown she nosed into Ponds Inlet, near the northern tip of Baffin Island, more than 2,500 miles out of Halifax.

Here Larsen had the Eskimo women at the trading post sew winter clothing for his crew, and the ship took on reserve supplies of oil. “We also took aboard an Eskimo guide, his wife and five kids and their wrinkled old grandmother,” he recalls. “They pitched a tent on the deck and lived there until we got to Herschel Island, almost 2,000 miles away. The guide tended a team of Huskies we had aboard, caught fish as food for his family, and played cowboy songs for us on his gramophone.”

It was a quick run through open water north from Ponds Inlet to Wolaston Island in Lancaster Sound where the ship arrived Aug. 18—but here Larsen and his men found a new enemy waiting in ambush. A screaming gale swept down on them from the south. Overhead the skies lost their fiery hue, dulled to amber then a sullen grey. The snow came, drawing a curtain of white across the sun, smothering the ship as she pitched in a violent sea. Larsen ran for cover. He found it off Cape Warrender, North Devon Island, where the St. Roch scooted into the lee of a giant berg and huddled there for six hours until the blizzard had howled itself out. The sun was a red lip on the edge of the sea that afternoon when the little ship cruised into Dundas Harbor and dropped anchor.

Shadow of Disaster

Three days later they were in Erebus Bay oft' Beechey Island, not far from the Magnetic Pole. It’s a bleak bit of land where famous explorers of other expeditions had stopped and left cairns marking their passage. Larsen took a party ashore and they found records left by Captain Bernier in 1906 and the ruins of a cache left by Commander Pullen in 1854. Also on the island lay the scattered planking and keel pieces of the yacht Mary, left there in 1850 in the forlorn hope that survivors of the missing Sir John Franklin expedition might find her and use her to get back to safety.

“If the men needed any reminder that they lived in the shadow of disaster,” Larsen recalls, “the five graves we found on Beechey provided mute evidence that not all who dare the Arctic’s wrath live to tell about it.” Four of the graves bore names. The fifth, a lonely hump in the frozen earth, was unmarked, unknown.

It was Aug. 22 when the St. Roch got under way again but Larsen turned

her sharply north instead of west. He wanted none of the more southerly waters through which his predecessors had tried to force the Passage only to meet with disaster. They were hostile waters studded with treacherous shallows and uncharted reefs. Larsen had a hunch that deeper water lay to the north'. That if one was willing to risk the frightening dangers of the ice, he’d find a more feasible passage to the west. And he was right.

About 400 miles north of the mainland, beyond Somerville and Brown Islands, he sailed. The ice thickened, growled and crackled as the St. Roch smashed through hut they ran into no trouble until they began running open leads toward Bathurst Island. Suddenly, the ice hugged the ship tight and she drifted, a helpless hulk, for almost 24 hours in Graham Moore Bay. Blinding snow drove the crew below deck and on Aug. 25 when Larsen made a desperate effort to crash out he gained less than seven miles in four hours of frantic steaming. When the pack stopped him completely Larsen sent a patrol overboard armed with chisels, picks and black powder. Cake by cake they blasted and tore open a channel in the ice and finally, aided by a stiff wind, the St. Roch broke free.

fiver northward Larsen pushed his ship. He took her around the north point of Byam Martin Island, about 600 miles north of the Magnetic Pole, and as far north as he dared go.

From Dealey the St. Roch churned and twisted its way to Winter Harbor, Melville Island, and then heeled southwest across hazardous, ice-choked Melville Sound. Here the ice piled up around her, slashed at her with new fury. Larsen knew he’d need all his skill and a good measure of luck if he was to keep his ship from being ripped to pieces.

Prisoner of the Ice

Sept. 1 brought a new nip to the air, a frosty bite that cracked lips and made eyes dry when they looked into the dazzling shimmer of the sun on the snow and ice. That day crewmen caught their first glimpse of the Prince of Wales Strait, but it lay miles beyond them across a floor of heavy ice ... a barrier that held the ship like a strait jacket. She was helpless, a prisoner of the ice.

That night, over bear steaks, Larsen told his men, “We’re in trouble. Be glad your ship is sturdy. The ice may give us a bad squeeze before we get out of here.”

He wasn’t wrong. First the fog came, shutting them out from even the cold comfort of the sky as they lay for three days with the ice grinding a chorus of destruction around them. To the inexperienced it was a terrifying ordeal. As the ice crowded in on them the ship was placed under a tremendous pressure. A weird vibration set the ship trembling. Every beam and timber

] vibrated like a plucked bowstring. Larsen was thankful far the 21-inch timbers in her hull and the sturdy Australian gumwood ui her stem and ; stern. Every man aboard her knew if it was not for her “saucer” design underwater the ice would have crushed her ! like a peanut shell between a strong man’s fingers. Instead, the ice was j lifting her, but sometimes, as she lurched or was thrown bodily out of the water, Larsen wondered if maybe she wouldn’t soon break up.

Nobody slept. The ice slid and raftered and crunched around her. Inside the hull the vibration increased. Sometimes it became a low hum. Suddenly it would rise to a piercing scream. When it seemed almost certain she would burst at the seams, a changing wind brought sudden respite and on Sept. 3 the St. Roch was able to move laboriously through slender leads in the shifting ice.

It was a thankful moment for all aboard when after a quick run in and out of the Richard Collinson Inlet she reached Peal Point, Victoria Island, j and veered into the Prince of Wales Strait between Victoria and Banks Islands. The sun came out and the ice vanished. Down in the galley the cook was heard to shout something Larsen i couldn’t quite catch, but it sounded like, “Yipee!”

It was a quick run beyond Ramsay Island and Walker Bay to Holman Island hut west of there the St. Roch was in the ice again. On Sept. (5 she passed the Smoking Mountains and reached Cape Bathurst.

But Nature wasn’t through with them yet not by a long shot. The ice in the Beaufort Sea swept down on them relentlessly and a strong current and west gale kept driving them shoreward all day. In the afternoon a howling blizzard descended on them and Larsen was forced to moor to heavy ground ice off Toker Point. It was little comfort to know that he was in such shallow water that sometimes as the ship pitched violent ly she humped bottom.

Sept. 8 was a grim day too, and the crew was exhausted when the little craft finally knifed through the ice field to the harbor entrance at Pt. Brabant on Tuktuk Island, near the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Darkness forced her to sit the night outside the harbor and that’s where the hurricane caught them.

“We were sitting ducks,” Larsen recalls, “and the storm pounded us without mercy. We dropped two j anchors in four fathoms of water, but it j was hellish, with the ship wallowing and pounding against the bottom until 1 thought she’d split ojien.”

At Pt. Brabant normal tides are

only two feet. Now the water rose 10 feet, drowned 30 dogs, almost washed away the Hudson Bay Company post. It was the worst blow in Tuktuk’s history, and it was 24 hours before Larsen and his sorely battered crew could get ashore to survey the damage. Nor did it brighten things much when Point Barrow radioed the ice there was the worst in a decade. Herschel Island, east of Barrow, reported ice conditions were hopeless and when thick snowsqualls and fog swept down on Tuktuk day after day, Larsen all but abandoned hope of breaking through to the Pacific before freezeup.

Larsen Wins Again

A week later, after a hurried conference with his crew, he decided to take the chance. Nobody thought he’d make it but on Sejit. 18 Herschel Island flashed the news that the St. Roch had licked the ice again and was moored offshore a scant 51 days and 4,019 miles out of Halifax.

Three days later Larsen was ready to go again ready for the last breathtaking dash north and west beyond Barter, Cross and Thetis Islands and around Pt. Barrow. And again he confounded fate with a daring feat of navigation that got him “outside” before winter could catch and clamp him in ice for the long, dreary months between freezeup and breakup. The day he took the St. Roch out of Herschel, headed for Barrow, the natives shook their heads. One told him, “Not even a fish would try and get around Barrow this late in the year.”

That lie did was no great surprise to persons who know him intimately. They know him as a man in whose veins flows the restless blood of his Viking forebears. The crash of the ice, the howl of the wind is music in his ears. Born at Fredrikstad, Norway, he often used to stand as a hoy and watch the swirling waters of his native fjords and dream great dreams of adventure. The lust of the explorer was already within him when he went to sea at the age of 12 and it needed only a chance meeting with Amundsen, in 1921, to send him into the north, eager to ojien the frozen trails that had swallowed so many of his boyhood idols.

Roald Amundsen was horn near Sarjisborg a town so close to Larsen’s native Fredrikstad that Norwegians speak of them as a single community. Many persons regard it as more than mere coincidence that these two commanders, who alone of all the world’s great voyagers were able to force the Northwest Passage, should have come from towns so close together.

Perhaps they are right.