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Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels: Encyclopedia Arctica 9: Transportation and Communications
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

EA-Transportation
(H. I. Chapelle)

DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT OF ARCTIC TRADING VESSELS

Arctic trading vessels, as a distinct class or commercial type, were of
comparatively recent origin. Excluding the early whalers and sealers, who
usually carried on some trading with the Eskimos during the winter months when
opportunity offered, the arctic trading vessels were employed by either the
established fur-trading companies or by independents, usually trading as in–
dividuals. With respect to the fur companies, they did not engage in exten–
sive arctic trading until well toward the end of the 19th century, by which
time they had begun to establish trading posts in the Arctic. Once the posts
were in operation, it was a short step to the employment of trading craft work–
ing out of some of the posts or acting as carriers and supply vessels to isolated
stations. Most of these craft were primarily supply ships and so, in general,
the fur company craft were large. In the Eastern Arctic, particularly Hudson
Bay, some of the companies operated small craft between their large distributing
posts and the small outlying stations. In the Western Arctic trade was perhaps
more closely related withwhaling, as many whaling ships established permanent
posts ashore which not only carried on trade with the Eskimos for furs but also
employed these people in an extensive and, for a long period, a very prosperous
shore whaling industry. Following closely these whaling establishments, indiv–
idual traders from the American and Canadian Pacific coasts entered the Arctic;
these appeared in large numbers in the 1890's. In periods of gold-rush excite–
ment in Alaska and western Canada, the arctic trade underwent rapid expansion;

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

most of the trading vessels not only carried trade goods to the Arctic but
also engaged in passenger and freight carrying along the Alaskan coast. These
vessels operated out of the Pacific ports, particularly from Seattle and Van–
couver.
In the east the independent traders developed less rapidly; the fur com–
panies controlled most of the area and their establishments were made very
early, many of them coming into existence soon after the Greenland whaling
and sealing vessels first pushed into Hudson Bay. Some independent traders
succeeded in establishing themselves, however, but most of these used small
vessels hailing from Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Newfoundland ports. These east–
ern traders were never very numberous and cannot be said to have been as pros–
perous as the traders in the Western Arctic. The eastern traders not only suf–
fered from competition with the fur companies but also from the trading active–
ties of the European sealers and whalers. The eastern trade was at its height
about 1880 and declined thereafter.
To establish a distinct class of arctic trading vessel, it is necessary
to confine the discussion to the vessels of the independent traders to a great
extent. These craft were small and were used in daring voyages into uncharted
and often unexplored waters in search of trade untouched by the big fur compan–
ies. These independent traders rarely had a permanent post ashore and usually
operated as individuals, their only employees being their crews. The method
of operating this type of arctic trade and the economic limitations involved
produced some very interesting small craft. The large vessels of the fur com–
panies and some of the whalers, on the other hand, were either closely related
to the large whaling and sealing ships in both model and basic requirements or
were no more than well-built cargo ships carrying freight out of some of the

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

more important and accessible posts during periods of open navigation; these
could not be classed as arctic ships in most cases.
The earliest eastern traders employed small sloops and schooners, first
along the coast of Labrador and in Hudson Strait, then in Hudson Bay. Some
trading efforts were made as early as 1750 but what records are available in–
dicate this trade was a by-product of whaling rather than a wholly independent
business. In 1830, however, small Canadian fishing schooners were trading in
north Hudson Bay; this was done only during summer months and the vessels tried
to return to the Atlantic before ice closed the Strait. From this time on, the
eastern traders usually employed schooners of the fisherman type in their trad–
ing ventures and, after about 1850, many of them wintered in the Arctic, par–
ticularly near Southampton Island, Baffin Island, and on the western side of
Hudson Bay.
Nothing is known about the methods [: of ] these traders used to fit their small
craft for the ice but it is logical to suppose they followed the well-established
practices of the sealers and whalers in this matter. During the early 19th cen–
tury, their trading schooners were not greatly dissimilar to the New London seal–
ing schooners in appearance but were narrower and deeper, and less heavily rigged.
As the models of the Nova Scotia fishing schooners changed, so did those of the
traders, for the practice of building traders on the lines of fisherman became
very common. During the first years of the 20th century, the gasoline engine
became common in the small traders; auxiliary power sufficiently compact for a
small vessel had not been available in steam, though arctic navigation placed a
premium on a combination of mechanical and sail propulsion.
Figure 1 shows one of the relatively recent designs for small trading ves–
sels built for the Eastern Arctic. This small schooner was designed and built

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

under the supervision of her master, a man with wide experience in arctic trade
and so may be accepted as a vessel suited for the work. The design of the hull
is in no way dissimilar to that of a small fishing schooner; the compact and
easily handled rig is the only departure. The short "schooner" bow has been
a matter of disagreement among the traders, however; some prefer less overhang.
The small size of the traders generally makes any tendency to ride up onto the ice
useless, as the small weight of these boats is usually in- sufficient to break ice
of any great thickeness and so the cutaway stem profile might cause the boat to
get "hung up" on an ice floe.
But while a design such as used in Nansen's Fram, to allow riding-up under
pressure, was not of much advantage except to fairly large craft, a slightly
analogous method for escaping ice pressure was sometimes used by small trading
vessels. One such was the power schooner North Star , built on the Pacific coast
around 1910 for Martin Andreasen, and experienced and successful trapper-trader,
to draw only about three feet forward when fully loaded, a foot more aft. Stef–
ansson's The Friendly Arctic , pages 102-103, has an account of this vessel, of
Captain Andreasen's theories about her, and of his method for escaping ice pres–
sure, which explains the method, as follows:
". . . Matt Andreasen and the North Star had a system . . . . The basic
idea is that on most of the north coast of Alaska and north coast of Canada the
ocean is shallow inshore, with a number of rivers in the spring bringing warm
water from the land to melt away the inshore ice. It happens frequently that
while the heavy ice still lies offshore so strong that no ice breaker yet con–
structed could possibly get through it, there is a lane of thaw water along the
land through which a boat of very small draft can worm her way, following the
beach. Andreasen had purposely built the North Star to draw only four feet two

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

inches of water, loaded, and in place of a keep l a centerboard that could be with–
drawn into the body of the ship. He had demonstrated through several seasons
that he could wriggle along faster than strong whalers could bunt and break their
way eastward.
"Andreasen had made no attempt to build the North Star strong, for he had a
method of which he may have been the inventor, of dealing with the closing in of
the ice around her. The ship was only about fifty feet long and could turn a–
round almost in her own length. When he saw the ice closing in and there seemed
to be no chance of getting out of the way entirely, he would select in the neigh–
borhood some big ice cake that sloped down to the water's edge on one side. He
would then steam full speed against this floe. The bow of the North Star was so
shaped that instead of hitting the ice a hard blow, she would slide up on it,
standing level because she had a flat bottom. Thus by her own power she was
able to put herself half-way on top of the ice. The crew were prepared to jump
out, fasten an ice anchor, and with blocks and tackle to haul the ship entirely
up on the floe, so that when the ice cakes closed in and began to crowd each
other their pressure did not come upon the ship but merely upon the ice on which
she was standing. If this was a solid piece it was likely not to break, and as
a matter of fact, on the one or two occasions when Captain Andreasen had been
compelled to use this method the ice selected had stood the test. Later when
it slackened out and there was a chance to continue navigation, a small charge
of powder placed in an augur hole in the ice would shatter the cake and let the
ship down into the water again."
Recently eastern traders have been experimenting with small double-ended
diesel-powered freighters, of the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick model. These have
slightly cutaway bows and canoe sterns; they are single-screw and most of them

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

carry small steadying sails in either a ketch or schooner rig. The most re–
cent vessel of this class was about 120 feet in length and was without rig;
she was built for a fur company to serve as a supply and freight boat. For
this reason, she does not represent a type that most of the independent traders
consider useful. Generally, these men appear to look upon a boat of less than
80 feet in length as best in a schooner, 100 feet in a diesel double-ender.
The availability of fuel at Hudson and James Bay ports have allowed the use of
powerboats in the Eastern Arctic trade to a steadily increasing degree. Never–
theless, many traders prefer some sail power to the out-and-out powerboat, when
working far from a shore base.
The Western Arctic traders followed the trend seen in the east; the early
trading vessels were in the main on fishing schooner models. In the '80's and
'90's the Alaskan schooner was a sharp, deep fisherman-type hull, rigged as a
two-master but carrying a leg-of-mutton mainsail. Some of these vessels had
yacht-like hulls and were built to sail fast. Some three-masted schooners were
employed but there are indications that the large schooners were found unsatis–
factory in the ice and uneconomical in the trade. The schooners trading in
Bering Strait in the '70's and '80's were rarely over 65 feet in length. The
leg-of-mutton mainsail with a peculiar topsail, triangulare in shape with its
short side secured to the topmast and its clew sheeted to the mainboom end, was
very popular and, in fact, did not alter much until the gasoline auxilliary en–
gine came into use around 1905.
By the early years of the present century, the Alaskan traders had develop–
ed two types of trading schooners, usually fitted with auxiliary engines and
a single screw. One type, the most common among the larger trading vessels,
was the keel schooner on the model of the Pacific halibut fishermen. This type

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

first fitted with a bowsprit, came into use in the '90's and had the round
bow in place of the earlier clipper stem. The noted arctic trader Teddy Bear
was on this model. Because of trouble with it in maneuvering among heavy ice,
the bowsprit was omitted after 1905 or thereabouts, and the "knockabout" rig
(becoming popular in the east) was adopted. Figure 2 shows the lines of a
typical arctic trader of about 1909; this vessel was built at Seattle, Washing–
ton. It will be seen that the Western Arctic trader differed in details from
the model used in the east; these were the type of stern, rudder and aperture
employed, the deck arrangement and cargo capacity in proportion to dimensions.
The round stern was very popular in the western boats, though the transom was
occasionally employed.
The specifications of the vessel shown in Figure 2 called for a 75 h.p.
gasoline engine, and accommodations for five men in the forecastle and six men
aft, two in the pilothouse. Taking fresh water from ponds on the drifting sea
ice was customary but 250 gallons of fresh water were carried in tanks for use
outside icy seas. Two large fuel tanks abreast the engine allowed 2,500 gallons
of gasoline to be carried, giving a cruising radius under power of about 4,000
miles. The anchor windlass forward was power-driven by a shaft and chain drive,
operated by the main engine. The vessel had sawn frames and 3-1/2-inch planking,
all fir, and was sheathed from keel to deck with greenheart, about 1-1/2 inches
thick. The bow and stern were iron sheathed and there was a plate-strake along
the load waterline about 30 inches wide. The metalling was with 1/2 inch gal–
vanized plate. Sails were of No. 6 canvas. A crow's-nest, fully enclosed, 5
feet high and 5 feet by 6 feet on the floor, was located at the head of the
foremast. Heavy towing bitts were fitted against the after end of the trunk
abaft the pilothouse. The deck structures were built very strongly and, in fact,

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

the whole construction was very massive. Both a hand and a power-driven winch
were fitted; the latter was driven by the main engine. A small gasoline-driven
generator was also installed. Heating was done by stoves. The propeller was
about 45 inches in diameter and 30-inch pitch, three-bladed, made of bronze;
the shaft was very heavy and oversize for the engine power (3-1/2 inches). The
rudder post and heel fitting were bronze. Shoe on keel was greenheart. Shrouds
were 3/4-inch wire rope, set up with turnbuckles. The sail plan was without
light sails of any kind, no topmasts being fitted.
Since the vessel shown in Figure 2 was designed, the ketch rig has become
popular but this entails reduction in sail area and increased reliance on power.
The introduction of the diesel has increased cruising radius under power and
reduced the explosion hazards. With more complete dependence upon engines,
traders have reduced the draft and dead rise and altered the stern somewhat but,
in general, the model shown has remained popular.
The deep-draft trader, such as represented by Figure 2, operated in the
same manner as the whalers, seeking a safe harbor before ice imperiled the
vessel. If the vessel were caught in floe ice, she was usually abandoned and
an establishment set up ashore. During the winter months trading vessels in
winter quarters often had additional deck houses built up, usually enclosing a
large portion of the deck amidships; these structures were sometimes carried
during the voyage in the Arctic and not removed until the vessel was ready to
sail for home. Obviously, the necessity of obtaining a reasonably safe harbor
before navigation closed was a serious limitation on operations and some traders
sought to overcome this to the maximum extent.
It was apparent that more could be accomplished in arctic trade if the
trading vessel (like the already-mentioned North Star ) were built very shoal

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

and small enough to be hauled out on a beach. As a result a number of small
schooners were built, fitted with centerboards and sometimes with small auxil–
iary engines; these vessels were not only very light in draft and weight but
also could be operated by a very small crew. When operating in the Arctic they
carried portable ways and winches that enabled them to be hauled ashore and
carried up beyond danger from the sea ice. Hence, these small traders did not
have to seek a safe harbor early in the season but could continue cruising until
there was actual danger of being frozen in; then only a good beach with safety
from the shore ice, need be sought, for the boat could be quickly drawn up on
shore. This class of trader was not particularly well fitted for the long sea
voyage to the Arctic, so when she once reached the Arctic she remained there
and operated from shore establishments, or from nearby bases in Alaska.
These light-draft and small craft were very cheap to build and maintain,
compared to the regular trader. As a result, Eskimo traders acquired these small
boats in large numbers and they have gradually replaced the whaleboats once owned
extensively by the well-to-do Eskimos. Figure 3 is probably typical of the so–
called "Eskimo schooners;" the boats were light in build and usually lap-strake
planked with small closely spaced steambent frames. The boats carried but three
sails, usually schooner rigged, and the minimum of rigging. As can be seen,
these traders were really no more than large decked boats. With the introduction
of gasoline engines into the Arctic, these craft have slowly been converted into
motor launches, many without any vestige of sail power being retained. The usual
model employed in these boats, when fitted with sail, was one that would work
very well as a motor boat of moderate power. The shape of the stem shown in the
plans, Figure 3, the straight keel, the raking square stern and the lap-strake
construction was to be found in the majority of these boats; sometimes they had

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

a raised deck forward. With motor power, stability was no longer an important
matter and the houses were then lengthened and raised to give more comfortable
quarters. The boats varied a great deal in detail and dimensions but the pop–
ular size was between 40 and 50 feet in length. Except for occasional use of
some metal sheathing at the bow, and along the waterline, little attempt was
ever made to protect these boats from floating ice. Their light weight and
the care of their crew was considered adequate in navigating under sail among
ice floes. With the introduction of motors, ice sheathing has become common
as the speed of the boat under power became a factor in increasing the dangers
of ramming ice.
The changes in the design of traders and particularly the trend from auxil–
iaries to powerboats can be accounted for by the alterations in operating con–
ditions on the northern coasts of Alaska and Canada. Where, in early days,
the trader had to be independent of bases ashore for long periods and so almost
entirely self-contained, now the increasing number of shore establishments be–
longing to the fur companies and United States and Canadian governments make
obtaining fuel and supplies in arctic waters possible and so permits the use of
craft that are not self-contained in all respects. To a great extent, therefore,
the modern trading boat is a small power vessel or launch, of light draft and
strong construction, fitted for a very moderate cruising range and with more
space given to the comfort of the men manning her than was to be found in earlier
traders. However, where operations are still carried on far from shore bases,
the small auxiliary trading vessel is in use; the need for low fuel consumption
under such a condition make the employment of some sail power almost mandatory,
even today.
The arctic trader, like other commercial vessels operating under dangerous

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

conditions of navigation, must be a compromise between the factors of economy
of build and operation and those of safety in the area of performance. The
problem, then, is not of producing the best and most complete boat or vessel
for arctic operations alone; rather it is to produce an economical craft, to
build and operate, that will be reasonably safe in the arctic seas. To do this,
there could not be reliance upon any system of maintenance and repair establish–
ments ashore, for these would be too expensive to maintain and operate within
the economic limitation of the trade. While making many concessions to the use
of mechanization in these vessels, the traders preferred to rely upon strong,
simple, and reliable engines and gear in preference to the use of complete, or
automatic, operating machinery. The aim was to employ only fittings and gear
that would be good enough for the work, and no more, in order to keep costs
within the firmly established financial limitations of arctic trade. During
a trading voyage, it would be fatal to a profitable venture to have to spend
time in repairing or replacing machinery not absolutely necessary in the primary
functions of a trading vessel or boat. This is made apparent when the modest
size of the craft best suited to the trade is considered, as well as the simple
organization and small financial returns characteristic of the independent trad–
ers. Even the well-established fur companies must operate along these lines,
though their trading posts may permit the use of one or two large supply ships
or freighters, as well as some small craft.
Until engines and machinery can be built that will be low in cost and cap–
able of operating over long periods without constant care and attention under
the most severe conditions, mechanization in small trading craft in the Arctic
must be relatively modest. The manner of life of an arctic trader makes him
unusually self-reliant and this element in his character undoubtedly influences

EA-Transportation. Chapelle: Design and Development of Arctic Trading Vessels

his choice of vessel and fittings toward simplicity, reliability, and primary
usefulness rather than placing emphasis on "labor-saving" devoices, such as
automatic operation supposes, or upon matters of engineering efficiency alone.
His idea is to obtain a vessel that will transport his crew and goods without
the need of special attention and without breakdown, wholly reliable, reason–
ably self-contained if that is a factor in his operations, and low in cost,
yet suited to arctic conditions. This ideal has yet to be attained in full
but was probably approached by some of the older trading craft, which makes
their study worthwhile in an examination of arctic shipping.
Howard I. Chapelle
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