Ice, 6-feet deep. Temperature, minus 53 degrees.
Locked into Hudson Bay, with snow built up around the afterdeck for insulation against the Arctic cold, the schooner Era isn’t going anywhere soon. In fact, Capt. George Comer and his crew of 20 would call this home for the better part of two years.
Comer was no stranger to the northern reaches. He went to sea at age 17, entering the northern whaling trade, and ended up spending half of his adult life among the ice floes and Eskimos, surviving two shipwrecks and two near-drownings along the way. From 1875 through 1919, when he retired, he was away from home for a total of 23 years.
The captain also knew how to pack for a voyage. He made 14 of them, and their average duration was 27 months. For its 1903-’05 cruise, the Era was loaded down with 21,000 pounds of bread, 1,900 pounds of coffee, and just under a ton of sugar, along with canned goods and other preserves and food for the dogs, two of which are in the photo.
His goal was to find the North Pole, collecting whale oil and whalebone along the way to help pay for the voyage. “Captain Comer is confident the … expedition will find the pole,” wrote a New York Times correspondent before one voyage. “He says he expects to steer the vessel into some of the northward-bound currents and let it drift. He thinks most of the currents will lead to the pole.”
They didn’t, and he never did. Instead, Capt. Comer became an acknowledged international expert on the Inuit culture. In fact, the Eskimos provided food, assistance and companionship to the ice-bound adventurers during the harsh winter months.
Mystic Seaport’s Schaefer Gallery is holding an exhibition of Capt. Comer artifacts, including photos, voice recordings, clothing, tools, and a re-creation of the captain’s quarters aboard the Era and an Inuit igloo. The exhibit is open through April 2009. Visit www.mysticseaport.org for information.