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Flagon of Rum Proves Major Discovery of 19th Century Arctic Shipwreck

Yo ho ho. Where I come from there’s a saying to help us get through the cold, wet, and brutal winters: “drink yourself a sweater.”  It’s not a lifesaving tip, quite the opposite actually, but when used responsibly the liquor sweater is an invaluable technology. Like most invaluable technologies, this one was also discovered long ago and handed down through the ages. It seems the 19th century arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith also knew the magic of the liquor sweater. The shipwreck of Leigh Smith’s luxury steam yacht, the Eira, one of the most important vessels in Arctic exploration until it smashed between two ice floes in 1881, was recently discovered after the search began 12 years ago. According to the Siberian Times, the Russian team who discovered the shipwreck say the key to proving the identity of the yacht was a big ol’ flagon of rum.

Divers successfully recovered ceramic fragments from the shipwreck, including from a ceramic flagon of rum. The flagon fragment reads ‘Robert K….Wine & Spirit(s)—Peterh(ead).’ Peterhead is the Scottish port where the Eira was built for Benjamin Leigh Smith. Further fragments in the ship’s laboratory marked “London” further confirm the ship’s British origin. Combined with the design of the ship, the team says that this is “100% proof” that they have discovered the Eira, which carried Leigh Smith, his crew, a canary, a cat, and a dog named Bob from Peterhead to the Arctic Circle in 1881.

The Eira

The Eira is stuck. Photo: Public Records Office of Northern Ireland

You’d be forgiven for thinking this all sounds a bit “Wolf of Wall Street.” Luxury yacht. Rum. Bob the dog. Wrecked luxury yacht.  Was Captain Ben just out there, ruined on pirate juice, smashing up his yacht against ice floes? Was Bob at the helm?

No, Benjamin Leigh Smith wasn’t a liquored up maniac, and neither was Bob. According to Peter Capelotti, author of Shipwreck at Cape Flora: The Expeditions of Benjamin Leigh Smith, England’s Forgotten Arctic Explorer:

His leadership was so successful that the veteran Arctic whaling captain David Gray was moved to call him the very model of ‘quiet, cool, thoroughbred English pluck’

When the Eira caught between two ice floes off Franz Josef Land,  Leigh Smith and the crew were forced to abandon ship. They were left stranded in the middle of the Arctic as winter fast approached. Leigh Smith directed his crew to build a cabin, fastened out of driftwood and whatever they could pull from the Eira in the two hours it took for her to sink, and there they managed to survive six months in the total darkness of the arctic winter. When spring finally came, Benjamin Leigh Smith led his his crew on four lifeboats—fashioned with sails made from salvaged tablecloths—to Novaya Zemlya in Northern Russia, where they were rescued by a British search party.

Eira shipwreck

What a very bad day looks like. Photo: Public Records Office of Northern Ireland

Afterwards, Leigh Smith refused any and all awards and commendations and even refused to meet with Queen Victoria, thus he has been largely forgotten by history.

Yet, as heroic as Benjamin Leigh Smith was, the true MVP of the Eira was Bob the dog. According to Leigh Smith’s grandson Christopher:

“Bob the dog was invaluable in this and without his unremitting courage none of it would have been possible. On several occasions during fishing and hunting expeditions one or even several men would fall into the icy waters. Bob the dog always managed to save them, sometimes even running back to the camp for help.”

The next time you need to drink yourself a sweater, give a toast to Captain Ben and Bob the dog.