The Hunt for Leigh-Smith’s Ice Buster Eira
By Sean Kingsley, Editor-in-Chief, Wreckwatch
All photos courtesy of Milko Vuille
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For 140 years the Eira has been missing in action after it was trapped in 1881 in the ice of Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. In August 2021, Milko Vuille of the Swiss Association of Explorations and his joint partners at the Russian Arctic National Park are mounting the first scientific expedition to ground-truth and record the sunken ship.
The Eira was led by Benjamin Leigh-Smith, a quiet Cambridge-educated lawyer turned explorer. Humble Ben Smith, as he preferred to be called, was fascinated by the great explorers of the age who graced the front pages of England’s newspapers. He was deeply affected by the mystery surrounding Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in 1845 and the disappearance of the Jeannette in a US Arctic Expedition in 1879-1881. Ironically, one of his goals when his own ship sank was searching for the lost vessels of former Arctic expeditions.
The Eira was expected to help millionaire Leigh-Smith push through to his life’s goal of becoming the first man to reach the North Pole. The 39-metre, 240-ton screw barquentine ice-breaker was custom-built by Stephen and Forbes in Peterhead. The Arctic explorer led five voyages to the North Pole. In 1871 and 1872 he explored the virgin lands north of Spitzberg, discovering a current with a high temperature that backed up his theory that a passage crossed the Arctic through the Barents Sea. The high temperate also made him an early voice of concern over global warming. The specimens he collected ended up in the British Museum, Royal Botanic Gardens and London Zoo.
The Eira was supposed to be Leigh-Smith’s secret weapon. In June 1881 the explorer set off in search of new territories, pushing ever further towards the North Pole and studying deep sea currents and the Gulf Stream on the way. But on 21 August 1881 his ship was crushed between two icebergs off Cape Flora in Franz Josef Land on a perfect summer’s day. The crew salvaged stores and equipment before the Eira sank two hours later. They survived in a makeshift lodge built of rocks, earth and wood. A hero of these months was the courageous Bob the dog who barked the alert when the crew fell into the icy waters during fishing and hunting expeditions.
Leigh-Smith’s 24-man crew were marooned at Cape Flora with Bob the dog, a cat and a canary for 10 cruel months until the jaws of the ice pack reopened on 21 June 1882. The crew left Northbrook Island in four lifeboats salvaged from the wreck and headed towards Novaya Zemlya. After six exhausting weeks they were rescued on 3 August 1882 by the good ship Hope, which Leigh-Smith knew all too well from entertaining its surgeon on the Eira months before: a little known student from Edinburgh University called Arthur Conan Doyle, who was inspired to write The Captain of the Polestar in 1883 before giving birth to Sherlock Holmes.
The search for the Eira is the dream of Milko Vuille, a Swiss archaeological diver, underwater photographer, racing driver and former Camel Trophy competitor. Recent expeditions to Cape Flora have given him high hopes of discovering the wreck. In 2015 Vuille spotted archaeological remains on land, including what looked like ship’s timbers lashed together to make a Christian cross. Then in 2017 a Russian team stumbled across pottery and metal wares in the general vicinity where the iconic ship went down.
So far, no ‘x’ marks a spot. Hard scientific evidence is lacking. Vuille hopes that bringing in an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle will be a “scientific game changer,” helping his colleagues survey the suspected bay in two weeks. The wreckage found in 2017 needs assessing scientifically. The blurry video taken shows no hull, anchor or propeller that proves it’s the Eira. “Bear in mind that several other missions passed through here after Leigh-Smith discovered Franz Josef Land in 1881,” Vuille points out. “Frederick Jackson spent three years at Cape Flora and the jury’s still out whether the underwater finds may have washed out from one of his collapsed huts or even the Flora’s Cottage used by the crew of the Eira.”
Vuille came across the larger than life story of the Eira in 2003, while researching the explorer Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance for an English language course presentation in London. The compulsive adventurer was desperate to follow in the footsteps of his heroes. A few months later, on business in St Petersberg, he badgered the Russian Academy of Sciences to let him join an expedition to the North Pole. By a twist of fate, the Russians invited Vuille to join them hunting for Leigh-Smith’s lost ship in the hauntingly beautiful archipelago of Franz Josef Land.
“Instantly I got a flash in my mind of Shackleton and the Endurance. My immediate answer was ‘when do we leave?’ I soon realized almost nothing was known about Leigh-Smith or the Eira. Two decades later, we’re still trying to share his unbelievable story. Finding his lost ship will help cement his rightful place in the pantheon of Arctic explorer gods.”
Despite the failure of 1881, Leigh-Smith’s discoveries of local flora, fauna and minerals were universally acclaimed. But the quiet Ben Smith didn’t chase glory, only scientific truth, which is largely why his story is so little known. Legend has it that the explorer faked a cold to avoid having to pick up a medal from the Royal Geographical Society. He sent a friend in his place.
Today, Leigh-Smith’s ground-breaking adventures may be obscure outside hardcore exploration circles and the landmarks of Cape Leigh-Smith and other spots named after his family. But few, if any, Polar explorers come from such inspiring stock. Benjamin’s grandfather, William Smith, fought for the abolition of slavery alongside William Wilberforce. Benjamin helped his family fight for the rights of women and built homes and schools for the poor.
His sister, Barbara Leigh-Smith Bodichon, fought tirelessly for women’s rights to vote, manage and own property, as well as starting the first women’s newspaper and co-founding the Suffragette movement. Benjamin’s daughter-in-law, Dr Alice Leigh-Smith, discovered element 85 while researching with Irene Joliot-Curie (the daughter of Marie) in Paris. And to cap it off, the explorer’s niece? One Florence Nightingale in whose honour Benjamin named Nightingale Sound.
If any story of Victorian never-say-die exploration deserves the Hollywood treatment, it’s surely the life and times of Benjamin Leigh-Smith. Milko Vuille’s discovery of the Eira will also bring one of the world’s most hesitant stars of global exploration into the limelight he deserves.
But time is ticking. “For several years now, Franz Josef Land has been losing major quantities of ice and permafrost that can no longer play their natural millennia-old conservation role,” Vuille stresses. “With the increase of drifting icebergs, combined with ice melts and warming waters, the wreck of the Eira and other land artefacts will rapidly vanish. Preserving its finds is a common duty of mankind. It’s world heritage that belongs to the Russians, England, you and me.”
Vuille also owes a debt of honour. In his quest for the Eira he became close friends with Benjamin Leigh-Smith’s grandson Christopher who donated many family papers to him and dreamt of joining Vuille in an expedition to Franz Josef Land. Before he could dive on the wreck, Christopher passed away in 2014. For Vuille, the Leigh-Smith ancestral message is clear. With no direct descendants of the family left, the torch has been passed to him. “I have an obligation to share the story with researchers and the public and keep the memory of this most genius of families that did so much good in the world burning bright.”
For more about the non-profit Association Suisse d’Explorations, check out www.ase-explorations.ch.