The Roaring Forties
October 23, 1999
By Kelly Tyler
Location: The Atlantic Ocean
Wind: 20.4 knots, NE
Latitude: 48 degrees 10' S
Air Temp: 52°F
Longitude: 46 degrees 10' W
Water Temp: 53°F
Beyond 40 degrees south there is no law. Beyond 50 degrees south there is no
—19th century whaler's saying
If the whalers' word still rules, then today we are outlaws. Approaching the
50th parallel, we feel the first hint of what lies beyond. The buoyant
rocking of the ship we experienced the first two days has evolved into a
deep pitch and roll, first from stem to stern, then from port to starboard.
Waves boom against the bow as it plows deeper south. Those of us who finally
gained our sea legs wonder if we can keep them. There are disconcerting
moments of weightlessness followed by pressing G forces as the ship crests
the 20-foot swells, then lunges into troughs. And everything must be tied
down now—my untethered computer just rocketed off the desk into my lap.
Replicas of Shackleton's sledges are securely fastened down for the
These latitudes are notorious for wild and unpredictable weather. The
knowing seafarers christened them "the roaring forties and screaming
fifties." Just beyond 50° is the unpredictable anarchy of the Drake Passage.
In this part of the world, weather systems and water circle the globe
unobstructed by landmasses. Gathering momentum, the powerful waves dubbed
Cape Horn rollers are suddenly squeezed between the tip of Tierra del Fuego
and the Antarctic Peninsula, concentrating their energy into a blast of fury
unleashed directly on South Georgia Island—our destination.
Cinematographer Sandi Sissel is harnessed to the ship's rails to shoot Cape
Weighing 1,754 tons and 236 feet long, the steel Akademik Shuleykin is
considered a small ship, which is why we are really feeling the buffeting. A
former research vessel built in Finland, she keeps the upper hand in her
determined southing, but not without constant reminders that the sea rules.
There are more than a few cases of mal de mer, or seasickness, aboard. The
maximum speed of 12.5 knots is strangely close to that of Shackleton's
Endurance, which could make 10-11 knots with its coal-fired burners. But the
similarity ends there. At 300 tons and 144 feet long, she was a wooden
icebreaker with sides seven feet thick, a bow made of four feet of solid
oak, and a sheathing of greenheart, a wood heavier than iron that requires
special tools to work. She was the last of her kind built at the famed
Framnaes shipyard in Norway, the end of an era of wooden sailing ships built
to brave the polar seas. Named Polaris at purchase, Shackleton quickly
renamed the ship Endurance, after his prescient family motto: Fortitudine
Vincimus, By endurance we conquer.
Sunset from the top deck of the Akademik Shuleykin.
The sail to South Georgia in the Endurance was undoubtedly difficult.
Shackleton is silent on the subject of the Drake's disposition en route in
his book about the expedition, South, but the account of his previous
expedition, Nimrod, is quite clear on the subject of how the Passage deals
with wooden ships: "The Nimrod rolled over 50 degrees from the perpendicular
to each side...[she was] plunging, swerving, and rolling in a high sea..."
Stuart Hoagland, one of the master shipwrights who built the Endurance
lifeboat replicas, thinks the Endurance was actually better in a storm than
the Shuleykin. "All that rigging has a dampening effect, so she probably
pitched much less than our ship." But even to Hoagland, the thought of the
James Caird in these seas is chilling.
Like our own expedition, Shackleton's 28-man crew was a mix of seasoned polar hands and energetic amateurs,
none of whom was entirely immune to the effects of the continuously
pitching ship. Perhaps hardest hit was Perce Blackborow, a 19-year Welsh
boy who stowed away aboard the ship in Buenos Aires. On the third day out,
he was collared in his hiding place, wretchedly ill, and hauled out. With a
stormy look, Shackleton asked Blackborow if he knew that stowaways were
always the first eaten if an expedition ran short of food. Without missing a
beat, Blackborow offered that they'd get more meat from the stout
As we sat at dinner tonight, trying to eat with utensils and plates sliding
down the table, the captain announced that he's turning the ship toward
South Georgia. The change in course means that our destination, the
abandoned whaling station of Grytviken, is less than two days' sail. The
whaling station was Shackleton's last contact with civilization before
he vanished into the Antarctic for 17 months. It also means that the Shuleykin
will be taking on these big seas broadside. We're advised again to batten
down everything that moves. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
Answer to October 21 Question of the Day:
Did Shackleton take a gaffer or a bo'sun with him to Antarctica?
Able seaman John Vincent served as bo'sun, slang for boatswain, aboard the
Endurance. He was in charge of the lifeboats and sails. Photographer Frank
Hurley may have liked to have a gaffer at his service, but he didn't. The
gaffer on our current expedition is in charge of film lighting and