The frost performs its secret ministry
Unhelped by any wind.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Shackleton and Company
were iron men in wooden ships, but, alas, we are made of less stern stuff.
Departing South Georgia for Elephant Island, the Shuleykin encountered fierce
resistance from the Drake Passage, and few among us were exempt from seasickness. The
ship lunged forward onto swells as high as 24 feet,
propelling waves and spray as high as the uppermost deck of the ship, some 20 feet above
the waterline. Seasickness is an odd and random malady. Some of the most devoted sailors
on board are laid low every time, while one novice is unaffected. For myself, pitching
bow to stern, even in big swells like these, isn't disturbing, but combine it with a
wallowing roll and I'm done for. We are all unified in our exasperation that the
adjustment process begins anew each time we raise anchor.
The Drake Passage's enormous seas drench the decks of the Shuleykin.
After leaving South Georgia behind, the ship plowed south, and our passage
into the polar seas was evident. The icebergs bounding our path had become
massive tabular bergs,
some more than a mile long, resembling flat white islands with brilliant
hollowed caves. At night, the search beams of the ship became streaked with
driving sleet and snow. White-breasted cape petrels, their black wings
stamped with snowy blotches, flocked alongside the ship, while humpback whales
breached ahead in our path. The wind freshened to 35 knots, stingily snatching
heat from our bodies with a wind chill of -18°F and icing the bow with a frozen
tracery of spray. These days daylight stretches from sunrise at 4 a.m. to sundown
near 10:30 p.m., a thin austere twilight that lingers greyly aboard the ship.
Elephant Island appeared off the ship's bow yesterday, a series of black crags
jutting into a lowering sky. It is a forbidding place, with a more sinister majesty
than South Georgia. The northernmost of the South Shetland Islands, it was
Shackleton's last hope before being swept into the maelstrom of the Drake
Passage. After five stark months camped on the open pack ice of the Weddell Sea,
Shackleton gave the order to launch the lifeboats on April 9, 1916. The drift of
the ice had swept them inexorably past their original targets, first Snow Hill
Island, then Paulet Island. Ironically, stores purchased by Shackleton were
cached on Paulet 13 years before when he took part in a rescue mission to find
the lost polar explorer Carl Larsen.
A zodiac heads to Elephant Island, whose eerie basaltic crags vanish into a lowering cloudbank.
Yesterday, we rocked off shore in zodiacs below Elephant Island's black basalt
cliffs, in sight of Shackleton's landing place, buffeted by swirling aquamarine water.
The rare scientific or tourist parties who venture there seldom land; our expedition
leader Dave German told us
it is one of the ten most difficult small-craft landings in the world. There is no
safe anchorage here, and the Shuleykin drifted offshore while we went in,
dipping into six-foot troughs of clear water and riding up on the wide sea swell.
Point Wild is a narrow spit of land, with sea on each side; we made our way around
the other side of the point for a new attempt at landing. It was rough. Eddying
currents betrayed rocks, and hard waves threatened to sweep the boats in. Finally
we landed and stood on the site of Shackleton's camp, exposed on two sides to the
raging sea wind and behind to howling katabatic winds rushing down the cliffs. That
hostile place was their safe haven. It is impossible to imagine even a wan light of
hope burning there in the months after Shackleton left in the James Caird.
Point Wild appeared uncannily as it did in Frank Hurley's
photographs. Its ascetic beauty, in black and white in his photographs, was
mirrored in reality. Snow blanketed its sheer black cliffs, home to thousands
of duotone chinstrap penguins. Unlike the king and gentoo penguins we encountered
in South Georgia, which seemed to enjoy serene meditative companionship, Elephant's
chinstraps were a raucous brawling bunch, slapping each other silly with flailing
flippers and filching stones from one another's nests. A soft-eyed Weddell seal
and her furred pup stared in dazed astonishment at the mass melee before them.
Resembling day-old stubble, a colony of chinstrap penguins now claims the site where Shackleton's men camped on Elephant Island.
This morning, we began loading equipment into zodiacs to travel to shore once
again. The zodiacs lurched a full six feet below the gangway and up again while
we tried to embark. Landing on Elephant Island proved even more treacherous,
a violent high tide churning the boats onto the rocks. Antarctic coordinator
David Rootes declared it
unsafe and returned the crews to the Shuleykin. There was no telling when
the steady nine-foot swell and pall of mist would recede, and we could not afford
to wait. In less than an hour, the ship weighed anchor, and we set a course south
for the Weddell Sea. In less than a day, we will arrive in Erebus and Terror Gulf
and Antarctic Sound, where Carl Larsen was lost and Shackleton cast adrift amid the pack ice.
Answer to November 10 Question of the Day:
Your ship is sinking. What kind of supplies do you try to salvage from the ship first?
When Sir Ernest Shackleton abandoned the first Endurance, he calculated that
the ship was in excess of 500 miles from civilization and more than 350 miles from
the nearest land. His priority was survival and eventual escape to civilization.
Yet he realized that his means of survival would be entirely of his own making.
There would be no rescue party dispatched to find him. In the early part of the
20th century, communication technology was limited. Shackleton and his party were
completely alone, their precise location would not have been known outside the
ship. Their isolation and complete self-dependency were the elements that made
surviving then so difficult, in comparison to being rescued today. For today,
communications are such that a modern ship operating in Antarctic waters could
be in daily contact with support groups ashore. While the loss of a ship would
still represent a supreme test of human resources, the dispatch of rescue teams
would at least be assured.
During the days of October 1915 when the Endurance began to break up,
Shackleton must have assessed his priorities and calculated which items of
equipment would serve him most usefully. Boats and sledges for transport,
tents and bedding for shelter, navigational charts and instruments, food for
survival, and clothing for warmth were the priorities. When the Endurance was
finally abandoned and Ocean Camp was established, personal effects were strictly
limited. Each man was limited to two pounds of personal possessions, and, acting
as an example, Shackleton discarded a handful of gold sovereigns and his gold
watch on the ice. Only those items considered useful for survival and escape
to civilization would be taken. The attitude of the team and the belief that
they would survive was also crucial to their success.
If a ship were to founder or be crushed in the ice today, the initial priorities
would be similar to those of Shackleton. Small boats, shelter, bedding,
navigation equipment, food, and clothing would all be needed. However,
those items of the highest priority would be communications equipment and
especially items of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. GMDSS
is an international safety system ensuring that all vessels, wherever they
are in the world, can immediately summon help and assistance in times of
emergency. While rescue in the icy wastes of Antarctica may well take some
time, the survivors of an accident today would only have to cope for a matter
of days rather than months, and assistance would be dispatched immediately.
The book South by Ernest Shackleton recounts the epic struggle of Shackleton
and his team in their quest for survival. Their story rivals any ever written
and stands as a testament to their strength of will and the power of human
endurance. It is probably their willpower and self belief, more than any
item recovered from the sinking Endurance, which enabled them to survive.
After abandoning Endurance on October 27, 1915, the majority of the
crew were only finally rescued from Elephant Island on August 30, 1916. For
in excess of 10 months this small group of men survived against all odds
on a diet primarily of penguins and seals, with no outside support and no
guarantee of rescue. That feat of survival was their success, the like of
which will probably never be repeated. It is possible that modern-day
explorers could survive for the short number of days prior to being rescued,
but it is arguable that only someone of Shackleton's character could instill
the belief required to survive for longer.
—Lt. Jonathan Fuller, RN is the Hydrographic Survey Operations Officer aboard
HMS Endurance, a modern British naval icebreaker.