Taissumani, July 26

Ghost Ship – The Disappearance of the Baychimo


The Baychimo, abandoned in 1931, as she appeared in 1933. (HARPER COLLECTION)

The Baychimo, abandoned in 1931, as she appeared in 1933. (HARPER COLLECTION)

The Baychimo was a Hudson’s Bay Co. supply ship that plied the waters of the western Canadian Arctic.

Built in Sweden for the Baltic trade in 1914, she was 229 feet in length and powered by triple-expansion three-cylinder engines. The Hudson’s Bay Co. purchased her in 1921, renamed her Baychimo, and refitted her in Europe.

She sailed for Montreal that same year and was put into immediate service, going north to Pond Inlet to establish the Bay’s farthest northern post.

By 1925, she had been reassigned to serve the Western Arctic. A sailor who traveled aboard her described her unflatteringly in these terms: “She was a strange and disappointing craft. I looked desperately for some redeeming feature… She bore no resemblance to the traditional barque-rigged steam whalers. She hardly differed from a hundred other coasting tramps. She was iron and steam, all bulk, not designed to fly with canvas… She was no beauty.”

Captain Cornwell, who commanded her, was apparently no beauty either; he was described as “short, tubby, red, somewhat like John Bull in a bowler hat.”

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In 1931, the Baychimo arrived late into Canadian waters. At Coppermine, with no hope of reaching Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven, Cornwell turned her back westward. In mid-September, she reached Point Barrow, but ice again prevented her further advance.

By Oct. 10, it was clear that the Baychimo was imprisoned for the winter. The captain sent a wireless message for an aircraft to take out most of his men. The remaining crew built huts on the beach. The Baychimo was only a half mile offshore. Their plan was to remain near the ship, and sail her out the following summer.

On Nov. 24 the temperature rose dramatically, from minus sixty to zero. A blizzard raged for three days and no man dared venture out of his shack. When the storm abated, there was no sign of the Baychimo. Where she had been, only a pressure ridge of ice remained. They presumed her to have sunk.

Imagine their surprise when, some days later, Inuit arrived with news that they had seen the Baychimo while out seal hunting. She was about 45 miles south and 15 miles offshore.

Captain Cornwell and some men immediately set off by dog sled to check out the story. They found her sitting at a slight angle on the ice, still intact. They took some supplies off her, on two trips.

When they came back again, the ship was gone. This time for good, they thought. In March the captain and the rest of his crew were flown out.

But that same month she was seen again, twice. Inuit from Point Barrow boarded her. And a man travelling to Nome by dog sled reported finding her, sitting high atop an ice floe, squeezed out by the pressure of the ice. Nothing more was seen of her that season, and Arctic hands assumed that she went down with the breakup of the ice.

But she reappeared that summer, once again off Point Barrow. Thirty Inuit travelling in three umiaks reached the ship and salvaged some of her furnishings.

The following summer, three vessels sighted the Baychimo, not far from where she had been abandoned two years earlier. A Scottish writer, Isobel Wylie Hutchinson, was aboard one ship and wrote that the Baychimo was sitting atop the ice, “her giant hull, rust-stained and battered by the frozen seas, looming tower-like above the little Trader.”

She boarded the ship, and wrote, “The main hold was open to the winds, but its half-rifted depths still contained sacks of mineral ore, caribou skins, and a cargo of various descriptions.” The crew of the Trader lamented that, if only their ship had more power, they could have towed the Baychimo south.

The Trader returned to open water where she found a United States government vessel, the Northland, anchored at the edge of the icepack. She too had heard reports of the reappearance of the phantom ship and hoped to salvage her.

But when the fog lifted the next morning, the Baychimo was gone. As the Trader was returning to Point Barrow, she reappeared. The next morning the Trader’s passengers saw her again, moving in the direction of Barrow.

Hutchinson even saw the phantom as an arctic mirage, a view of things far distant reflected upside down in the sky: “Sometimes through the glasses we could see reflected the mirage of the ice-field and shore far to the northward, hanging upside down in the sky,” she wrote. Her last view of the Baychimo was “in this curious manner, standing on her head in a mirage.”

Three years later Capt. Parker of the cutter Northland unexpectedly came upon the phantom ship again. He hoped to get alongside, but before he could do so the vessel was enshrouded in fog. When the fog eventually blew out, the Baychimo had once again vanished.

The Baychimo has reportedly been seen many times since. The last recorded sighting was in 1969. Inuit hunters saw her in the pack ice of the Beaufort Sea near Point Barrow.

The Arctic’s most enduring phantom ship was crewless, rusting, and unreachable, as she had been for most of the 38 years since her abandonment.

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