Lost at Sea
November 21, 1999
By Kelly Tyler
For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott....For a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen; and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.
First light dawned, sickly pale, at 4:36 a.m. on a confused sea with a big swell.
The Shuleykin was at 61°05'S 54°24'W, with Elephant Island dead ahead. Floating past
the ship were the dismembered remains of penguins, the handiwork of leopard seals.
Cape petrels flocked restlessly along the starboard side. I hesitated to learn the
fate of the three wooden boats, lost at sea. Up on the bridge, two officers were on
the watch. Seaman Denis Rodionov motioned to me. He handed me a pair of binoculars
and pointed ahead.
I scanned the sea with dread, seeing nothing. Again and again, I searched the
waters between the ship and island, and again, nothing. Then suddenly, familiar
forms rose up from behind a swell. It was the boats, all three still afloat.
The ship retraced an oval maneuver, as it had all night. Passing again, I saw
that the boats were still tethered together. The Stancomb Wills, in the center,
was capsized, the Dudley Docker was afloat with vintage boxes of sledging
rations secured within, and the James Caird was taking on water and wallowing low in the swell.
As quickly as they appeared, they vanished again into a trough. People began to
filter onto the bridge, all watching for the boats. There was talk of how to recover
them. The swell was still big, and at 6:15, the wind freshened to 27 knots. The boats
had moved 2.3 nautical miles overnight. Bob Wallace,
boat designer and skipper, reported that the James Caird's lead ballast was
sealed in, so it would likely take the other two down if it was swamped. Conditions were too
poor to launch zodiacs, and it was too dangerous to put sailors into the foundering boats.
The only solution, it seemed, was to cut the James Caird and Stancomb Wills loose,
leaving them to their ends, and try to salvage the Dudley Docker. The crew would attempt
to throw out a hook and reel the boat in.
The James Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills are cast adrift off Elephant Island after breaking their tow lines in Drake Passage weather.
Crew members lashed themselves to safety lines on the stern cargo deck of the Shuleykin,
then waited for the captain to circle around. Just as the Shuleykin pulled alongside,
the Stancomb Wills righted herself, albeit filled with water. Cutting her and the
James Caird loose at that moment would be the end, but it was the only chance left
to save the Dudley Docker.
The lines were cut at 7:28 a.m., and the boats drifted in our wake at 61°03.46S 54°20.74W.
The James Caird submerged, bow up. It was a heartrending sight.
The ship again circled, moving alongside the Dudley Docker by 8:15 a.m. The swell rose to
20-22 feet, a wall of water on each side of us when the ship dropped into a trough. A
grappling hook was heaved into the boat, and hit home. The Dudley Docker began a purposeful
tow behind the boat, but after a few minutes, the hook slipped loose. A zodiac anchor was thrown
out successfully, but it bent and wrenched out after a few minutes. The Dudley Docker was
adrift again, and the ship repeated another circling move, as the Dudley Docker receded in the distance.
As the ship neared the Dudley Docker again, Wallace heaved a 50-pound anchor into the little
boat. It held and the Dudley Docker was again under tow. But after five minutes, she cut loose.
Moments later, a furious wave crashed on the rear of the cargo deck. It was no longer safe to continue.
The Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills cling briefly to the Shuleykin after their lines are cut.
I stood on the deck with Wallace, watching as the bow of the James Caird rose and fell in the
surging swell. The Stancomb Wills was gone; the Dudley Docker was bobbing indomitably. After a
long spell, Wallace spoke. "Those boats belong here."
Andy Fletcher and Stuart
Hoagland, who built the boats
with Wallace, agreed.
"It was mystical, really, every time those boats went out," Fletcher said. "When we
rowed in to Elephant Island, I realized we were doing exactly the same things Shackleton's
men did, steering around the same rocks, struggling with the same currents. It was
Hoagland was philosophical: "It was hard to see them go, but there was no more
fitting place to lay them to rest."
Soon after, the Shuleykin left for the south side of the island, seeking calmer waters.
It was a quiet day on ship, contrasting with the fury outside. We finally arrived at
anchorage at noon. We hoped to continue filming, but a 25-knot wind showed no signs of
abating. Our filming at Elephant Island was at an end.
Bob Wallace stands by with an anchor to hook the Dudley Docker.
The struggle with the elements at Elephant Island took its toll on Shackleton and his
men, too. "Privation and exposure had left their mark on the party, and the health and
mental condition of several men were causing me serious anxiety," he wrote in South.
They couldn't live indefinitely in this state on Elephant Island, out of shipping lanes
and destined never to be found. He knew before they even arrived that another boat journey
was in store, an inconceivable one: sailing 800 miles from Elephant Island to South
Georgia across the Drake Passage.
We came here because, against all odds, Shackleton succeeded. Now we understand those
odds firsthand. As the Shuleykin sails north into the Drake Passage, we stand in
deepened awe of Shackleton's achievement. And we begin to appreciate the enormity of
what Wallace's three boats have done in these past weeks: flirting with howling
katabatic winds, negotiating jammed pack ice, skirting towering icebergs. I see these
improbable images in my mind's eye, and a final one: The Dudley Docker defiant to
the last, bound for some polar Valhalla.
Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.
Question of the Day
After your 800-mile open boat journey, you land on South Georgia. But you've landed on
the south side, and the populated harbors are on the north side—on the other side of
glaciers and mountains that have never been crossed before. Should you try and hike it
or sail around the island?
Watch our next dispatch for guest commentary from polar explorer Frank Nugent.
Answer to November 18 Question of the Day:
You've got a discontented crew member. You're worried his attitude will hurt morale.
Do you leave him on Elephant Island when you try to sail to South Georgia, or take
him with you on this arduous journey?
A leader must think of the welfare of the large team, including those to stay behind
on Elephant Island. Perhaps an obvious decision might be to take the best team on the
boat journey. After all, this would be a bold venture requiring daring and skillful
seamanship. Shackleton clearly saw the big picture and held as primary importance
the welfare and morale of his men. It was not just a case of taking the best team.
He had to leave the remaining team in the best possible position to attempt their
own rescue should he fail. In addition, Shackleton, always the image of optimism
himself, worked tirelessly at maintaining the morale and keeping the men busy in
I believe Shackleton determined that if in Vincent there was the risk of unruliness
and a challenge to authority, then he, Shackleton, should be the one to deal with it—and he was a force to be reckoned with! Would I have made the same decision when
so much depended on the success of the boat journey? I'd like to think so, but I
might have chosen another seaman for such an important voyage and left Vincent for Wild to manage.
—In 1985-86 Gareth Wood and two British companions
became the first people to trek unsupported to the South Pole, a feat Outside
magazine described as "one of the ten greatest feats of the decade." For more
information, see www.garethwood.com.
Sound of the Day
Cape petrels flocking on the starboard side of the ship near Elephant Island:
Get RealPlayer software
View Expedition Maps
Survival Training (October 19, 1999)
The James Caird Embarks (October 21, 1999)
The Roaring Forties (October 23, 1999)
Crossing the Convergence (October 24, 1999)
Arriving in South Georgia (October 27, 1999)
Grytviken (October 28, 1999)
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival (October 31, 1999)
Stromness (November 1, 1999)
Kingdom of Blizzards (November 3, 1999)
King Haakon Bay (November 5, 1999)
The James Caird Sets Sail (November 8, 1999)
Glacier Traverse (November 10, 1999)
Elephant Island (November 11, 1999)
Erebus and Terror Gulf (November 12, 1999)
The Weddell Sea (November 15, 1999)
Visions of Endurance (November 18, 1999)
Return to Elephant Island (November 20, 1999)
Lost at Sea (November 21, 1999)
The End of the Quest (November 24, 1999)
Bound for South Georgia (April 7, 2000)
Return to King Haakon (April 10, 2000)
Farewell to Peggotty Camp (April 12, 2000)
Climbing South Georgia (April 13, 2000)
Stromness Revisited (April 15, 2000)
Reflections on Endurance (April 18, 2000)
Photos: (1,2) Kelly Tyler; (3) Rob Meyer.
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