George Fred Tilton Tried to Save the Whalers Frozen in Ice

I can’t remember a book that I more look forward to picking up than this history of the Cape and Islands by Paul Schneider. Maybe because he delves into so many topics  in the same book…the Pilgrim’s early foray into settling in the area, and then the details about the lives of whalers and life aboard whaleships. It’s the details that he includes;  the things they ate, the way they talked, that gives this book such vitality.

Today’s reading was highlighted by the story of George Fred Tilton, a Vineyarder who was famous for his daring attempt to rescue the crews of eight whaling ships that ended up frozen in the Arctic after staying too long in their pursuit of whales. The boats were breaking up, being trapped in the ice as supplies dwindled. Somebody had to come to the rescue.

Tilton climbs snowy mountains so high that they can’t even bring the sled dogs. At one point Tilton and his men jump onto an ice floe  and  hope that the wind would push them toward the other side, and not out to sea. When he reached the point between mainland Alaska and Kodiak Island they were faced with a 37-mile water crossing. With nothing but sleds, he needed a boat. He tore  up his underwear and some leather strips to put in between the cracks, and crafted a boat out of the planks of the sleds.

Yet this heroic journey of more than 1700 miles across snow and ice and water had little impact on the ships he was trying to save. The crews had found enough caribou to survive on and so the resupply ship merely allowed the ships that were still intact to hunt through the next season.

In Tilton’s final chapter, he moved to Chilmark, raced horses, and later became a modern day “greeter” a la Joe Louis, aboard a former whaling ship permanently docked in New Bedford.  He regaled the crowds with stories of his long ago glory days of whaling and seafaring but never went back out to sea himself.