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The Polar Year - new stamp issue 14 August 2007

To coincide with International Polar Year, Isle of Man Post Office is delighted to present a set of six stamps which portray the tremendous feats of human endurance encountered by Captain Ross and his crew in their attempts to reach the Magnetic North Pole.

In 1829 a coke-fuelled Manx paddle steamer became the first steam-powered vessel to be used in polar exploration. In a planned 15-month expedition lasting four and a half years, her crew located the Magnetic North Pole and recorded an epic of endurance, trapped in the ice for three and a half years.

The Victory was the first steamer to be built exclusively for service between Douglas and Liverpool, designed in 1826 to be able to load and unload within the tidal harbour at Douglas at half flood and half ebb tides.

Having failed to get Admiralty support for a new search in Canada’s artic waters for the elusive North West Passage to the Pacific, Captain John Ross obtained private sponsorship.

The Victory was acquired because her shallow draught would enable her to operate close inshore in unchartered waters. Her hull was reinforced to withstand the crushing pressure of ice. Meanwhile, to enable the Victory to operate as a sailing ship if required, her iron paddle wheels were made fully retractable from the water and her funnel could be lowered on to the deck.

With Captain Ross’s nephew, Commander James Clark Ross, as second in command and a crew of 19, the Victory left Gravesend on May 24, 1829, without a planned supply ship, calling at Douglas on June 4-6 where local opinion was that the timber reinforcements had not added to her beauty. There were problems already with a leaking boiler and pipes and later, in a storm, Victory’s foremast gave way just above the lower rigging.

The Victory had a refit in Greenland. When steaming among the ice floes and icebergs the Victory kept losing steam because of leakages. Eventually the engine was ripped out and abandoned. In temperatures down to 92 degrees below freezing, the Victory became trapped by ice floes, sometimes almost being toppled over by their pressure. Her final resting place was named Victory Harbour – later renamed Victoria Harbour. To provide extra shelter, the Victory’s top deck was roofed over by canvas sails. Rockets and flares were used to guide survey parties back to the vessel. Friendly contact with local Inuit’s became a key survival factor.

In one 28-day overland mission, Commander Ross located the Magnetic North Pole on June 1, 1831, flew the British flag and erected a cairn. When provisions ran low, the explorers abandoned Victory on May 29, 1832 for a trek to a known shipwreck where there were stores and beached whaleboats.

On July 1, after travelling a circuitous 300 miles, they reached their objective, repaired the whaleboats and a month later attempted to break out to sea to find some whalers. By October 7, ice floes drove them back and the three whaleboats were abandoned on a beach. For shelter the crew built inland a timber-framed structure with a roof of folded canvas sail, the entirety enclosed by ice blocks.

The following July the crew undertook a six-day trek to get to their abandoned whaleboats. On August 13, a gale created an opening in the ice. The crew embarked in their whaleboats and 12 days later encountered several whalers, one of them the Isabella from Hull, which had been commanded by Captain Ross in a prior arctic expedition.

International honours for Captain Ross included a knighthood and he became a Rear Admiral. Commander Ross also undertook further polar expeditions, for which he was knighted for. The Ross name would be perpetuated in the Ross’s Gull and Ross’s Goose.

In 2003 Inuits gave surviving parts of Victory to a British explorer who returned them to Britain.

Meanwhile the Manx flag was flown at the Geographic North Pole as from 21.40GMT, April 18, 1983. It was raised by Alan Killip, former Superintendent and Deputy Chief Constable of the Manx Police, who flew there from Resolute Bay aboard a twin otter aircraft, fitted with skis.

Issue date: 20th August 2007

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