the exploits of Alex Ritchie
A story of courage, perseverance and determination to rival the great shipwreck stories of history.
Alex Ritchie, 1863-1955
"Born in Gourdon in 1863, Alex Ritchie was brought up with the sea as a constant backdrop and like most other young men from similar backgrounds, became a seaman learning his trade on the fishing boats sailing daily from the village. After several years he decided to change direction: in 1908 he signed on to the Arctic whaler Snowdrop, a 63 ton ketch sailing from Dundee for the prolific whaling grounds around Baffin Island to the north of Hudson Bay. She was built in 1886 in Scarborough: bought and fitted out for whaling by Osbert Clare Forsyth-Grant of Ecclesgreig Castle, near Montrose.
The voyage across the Atlantic as far as Cape Farewell in Greenland took them thirteen days. They were headed for Forsythe-Grant’s Arctic base at Cape Haven on Hall Peninsula near the southern end of Cumberland Sound. At the base, known as Signia, Forsythe-Grant had arranged to meet native people who were to assist the whalers.
Snowdrop in the Arctic ice
The Inuit families waiting at the settlement would, throughout the Snowdrop’s stay in the Arctic, guide and teach the whalers. They were on board when the Snowdrop foundered: a gale sprung up with heavy snow and very heavy seas and drove them ashore. The shipwreck happened in Countess of Warwick’s Sound, a long way from any outside help. If they were to survive they would have to rely on themselves and their native companions. Between them they salvaged what they could from the wreck and part of the ship’s cargo and stores which were washed ashore.
The Inuit hunters, their families and the crew left the wreck site to walk to the settlement at Signia, covering the distance of about ninety miles in only ‘five or six days’. The Inuit families took in, fed and cared for the crew of Snowdrop who stayed in Signia from September 1908 until February 1909.
The nomadic lifestyle of the natives meant they could not continue staying at Signia and, on the sixteenth of December 1908, six families left to hunt for food and furs. Alex decided to go with them.”
And here is where Alex's adventures really begin!
The above information is an edited version of an article by Sandy Inglis of Gourdon entitled "Hogmanay on Ice" which was originally published in the Leopard magazine. The full text of the article can now be read on Sandy's website here.
IN HIS OWN WORDS...
Alex Ritchie’s subsequent adventures with the Inuit people and his struggles to reach a point at which rescue was possible are told in great detail by Alex himself in a BBC recording made in the 1950s:
Alex Ritchie recovered from this ordeal and, on his return home, resumed fishing in Gourdon. He later became part owner of the Happy Return ll which features in the story of the Bella which can also be read here.
Alex Ritchie (photo courtesy of Robert Ritchie)
Our thanks go to Sandy Inglis for allowing us to reproduce part of his article, and to Robert Ritchie for contributing the photograph of Alex.
As Alex's story was being recorded by the BBC, the son of Alex’s cousin, eleven year old Tom Ritchie, sat and listened. Long fascinated by this amazing story, Tom enthusiastically attempted to write the story down: now, after over 70 years, the handwritten story has come to light among Tom’s mother’s belongings.
Other than a small additional amount of punctuation to aid readability, the story can now be read below.
In September 1908 we were lying at anchor in a place called Countess of Warwick Sound in Baffinland. It came onto a blow a gale from the east with heavy snow and a very heavy sea. We were lying on a lee shore. Captain Brown said to me as I was keeping his watch to come and let him know if the wind freshened. I went and told him at 11 o’clock at night and said, “We had better clear out if possible, it is very dangerous.” When he came on deck he gave orders for the engine to be started and we got the engine started and to full speed ahead but the cable never slackened. The next order to set a small piece of mainsail and mizen and cut the anchor cable. All the cable was out and the windlass was broken down with the strain of the cable jerking. By this time the cable began to cut through the hawsepipe into the hull and it was impossible to let go of the shackle at the end of the cable. I was personally sent down to cut the cable with a hacksaw and another man with a candle to let me see. I broke all the hacksaw blades by the jerking of the chain as it was very heavy. I asked for a hammer and a cold chisel and I worked and tried to cut the cable until none of the crew would hold the candle and I was left in darkness, they were frightened for the cable breaking where I was cutting it as if the cable broke everyone in the chain locker would have been killed. So I had to come up on deck as I could not work in darkness. It was nearly 3 o’clock in the morning as I had been there at 11 o’clock. I reported to the captain it’s a failure. He ordered to veer out another anchor and we veered out the second anchor and made it fast to the base of the foremast and just as we had everything complete both anchors gave way and we drove on the rocks. The first hit she gave knocked the stern post right up and the ship began to sink and began to break up, we had 65 Eskimo men, women and children onboard and there was 10 of our crew and there as we thought was no means of escape unless we got a rope on [missing] which seemed possible, the captain asked volunteers for someone to go onshore with a rope and no one spoke as everyone thought it was hopeless. Then I said I would have a try and I did manage but before I left the ship I was asked to come back after I made the rope fast on land which was about 300 yards distance. There was a little amount of ice between the ship and shore and by this line we were able to hand every Eskimo from man to man till everyone was ashore and the Eskimos made tents out of the ship’s sails that were washed ashore. We stayed in these tents till the storm lasted out which was about 4 days. We were with the Eskimos for a whole year and more before we were picked up.
Our thanks to Tom for allowing us permission to reproduce his story.
More on this amazing story can be read on the following newspaper websites: