Breadalbane (ship)

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Breadalbane and Phoenix.jpg
Breadalbane (left) and Phoenix off Beechey Island from the Illustrated London News
Career (United Kingdom)
Name: Breadalbane
Operator: McNeil & Co
Builder: Hedderwich & Rowan
Launched: 1843
Fate: Crushed by ice on 21 August 1853
General characteristics
Type: Wooden merchant ship
Tons burthen: 428 bm
Length: 38.1 metres (125 ft)
Beam: 7.3 metres (24 ft)
Depth of hold: 5.5 metres (18 ft)
Sail plan: Barque

Breadalbane was a British three-masted barque, a mid-19th century merchant ship that was crushed by ice and sank in the Arctic.

Notable as the northernmost shipwreck known,[1][2][3] she is also the best-preserved wooden ship ever found in the sea.[4] Historically, Breadalbane is considered to be a time capsule.[1]

On 21 August 1853, she became trapped by an ice floe and was crushed. She sank to the bottom of the Northwest Passage near Beechey Island in Lancaster Sound, approximately 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle.[5][6] Her entire crew of 21 abandoned ship in time, and were rescued by her companion, HMS Phoenix.

After 127 years, the wreck was found and visited by numerous expeditions, and was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1983 because the ship was used in the search for John Franklin’s lost expedition.[7]


Breadalbane was built by Hedderwich & Rowan for a Scottish merchant consortium[8] in a shipyard on the Clyde River,[7] in Scotland in 1843.[4] The ship was originally used to transport wine, wool and grain to Europe, and spent her first ten years sailing between England and Calcutta carrying various goods.[7]


Breadalbane was a 428-ton,[7] wooden square-rigged sailing ship. The design was similar to hundreds of other trans-oceanic ships used in early Victorian times. She was 38.1 metres (125 ft) long, with a beam of 7.3 metres (24 ft) and a hold depth of 5.5 metres (18 ft).[8]

Call to Arctic service[edit]

In the spring of 1853, the Royal Navy called the ship into service to transport coal and other supplies to the North Star, a depot ship.[8] She left the Thames River in 1853, accompanied by HMS Phoenix (the first propeller ship in the Arctic),[8] and arrived at a rallying point at Beechey Island later that year.[7] Her new mission would be to carry supplies to Sir Edward Belcher's high Arctic search expedition in the Resolute Bay area (now part of Nunavut). Since 1852, Belcher's expedition had been searching for the Franklin Expedition. The ship and crew had gone missing while searching for a passage through the Arctic seas. Belcher's expedition both the largest, and the last sent by the Royal Navy.

Trapped in the ice[edit]

On 21 August 1853, the Breadalbane was anchored to an ice floe[8] half a mile south of Beechey Island in Lancaster Sound, approximately 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle.[2] It had become surrounded by slow-moving ice.[7] Shortly after midnight, a slab of ice penetrated the starboard bow.

About ten minutes past four a.m., the ice passing the ship awoke me, and the door of my cabin from the pressure opened: I immediately hurriedly put on my clothes, and on getting up found some hands on the ice, endeavoring to save the boats, but they were instantly crushed to pieces; they little thought, when using their efforts to save the boats, that the Breadalbane was in so perilous a situation. I went forward to hail the Phoenix, for men to save the boats, and whilst doing so, the ropes by which we were secured parted, and a heavy nip took the ship making every timber in her creak, and the ship tremble all over. I looked in the main hold, and saw the beams given away; I hailed those on the ice and told them of our critical situation, they not for one moment suspecting it. I then rushed to my cabin, hauled out my portmanteau on the deck, and roared like a bull to those in their beds to jump out and save their lives. The starling effects on them might be more easily imagined than described. On reaching the deck those on the ice called out to me to jump over the side, that the ship was going over

—William H Fawckner[9]

The crew quickly salvaged as many supplies and personal items as possible.[7] The 21-man crew then abandoned the ship. Within fifteen minutes, the vessel sank to the floor of Barrow Strait[7] in an approximate position of 74°41′N 91°50′W / 74.683°N 91.833°W / 74.683; -91.833Coordinates: 74°41′N 91°50′W / 74.683°N 91.833°W / 74.683; -91.833. The crew was rescued by HMS Phoenix.[2]

The shipwreck[edit]

The sinking of Breadalbane (left)

Breadalbane remained unfound at the bottom for 127 years. She rests at 100 metres on her keel, with her broken bowspirit pointing eastward.[1] While diving in 1975, Joseph B. MacInnis found a fragment of the Breadalbane.[8] The first expedition to find the wreck of Breadalbane was headed by MacInnis in August 1978. In August 1980, after a three-year search, the ship was discovered by Coast Guard cutter John A. Macdonald using side-scan sonar. The first images showed her hull intact, and two of her masts still standing.[1][4][8]

In 1981, supported by the Canadian Coast Guard, the National Geographic Society, and others, the group returned.[1] A remotely-piloted submersible, the Benthos RPV which was designed, built and piloted by Chris Nicholson,[10][11] was used to do the first complete photographic survey of the shipwreck.[12] The RPV and pilots took thousands of colour photographs and video footage. The crystal-clear photo images showed the bow, masts, rudder, anchor, ship's wheel and instruments. The wooden and copper-clad hull appeared like new.[1]

In 1983, further visits to the Breadalbane were conducted by the RPV ROV[13] and the Wasp ADS manned diving suite WASP, an atmospheric diving suit similar to the Newtsuit.[1][14] Chris Nicholson was the chief ROV pilot on this expedition along with co-pilot, Martin Bowen.

The RPV ROV was used to record all the undersea photographs and video of the shipwreck in both 1981 and 1983 as well as to monitor and provide a safety backup to the manned Wasp ADS operations. The Wasp and the RPV were both used to recover artifacts from the shipwreck which are now on display in a Canadian museum.

The Breadalbane expeditions were also a meeting place for various talented players in the undersea world at the time, and have subsequently proven to have been a fertile environment for the development and funding of future ROV technology for undersea exploration worldwide.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g MacInnis, Joseph B. "Breadalbane". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2011-12-31. 
  2. ^ a b c "The Farthest North Known Shipwreck: the H.M.S. Breadalbane | Arctos Canadensis". 2009-03-08. Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  3. ^ "Archives & Special Collections". Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  4. ^ a b c Payne, Doug (15 January 1981). "Technology lights up an Arctic shipwreck". New Scientist (Reed Business Information) 89 (1236): 136–139. ISSN 0262-4079. Retrieved 2011-12-23. 
  5. ^ Anchorage Daily News - Sep 15, 1981
  6. ^ By Andrew H. Malcolm (1982-01-03). "A Find That Would Shiver Anyone's Timbers". Arctic Regions: Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h "". 1983-06-13. Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Paine, Lincoln P. (2000). Ships of Discovery and Exploration. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin. pp. 26–27. ISBN 0-395-98415-7. Retrieved 2011-12-31. 
  9. ^ Illustrated London News, 22 October 1853
  10. ^ "R2D2 of the Deep Debuts Swimmingly". Changing Times, The Kiplinger Magazine. In Science 37 (6): 18. June 1983. 
  11. ^ AP (September 17, 1981). "Robot Camera Captures Sunken Ship". The Kansas City Times. 
  12. ^ "Arctic Dive Opens the Way for Oil Hunt". New Scientist. Tecnology 98 (1363): 863. June 23, 1983. 
  13. ^ Luton, Gary (1984). "Under the Ice at the Top of the World". Arctic News Record (Spring): 56. 
  14. ^ MacInnis, Joseph B. (July 1983). "Exploring a 140-Year-Old Ship Under Arctic Ice". National Geographic (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society) 164 (1): 104A–104D. 

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