The tale of the next sixteen days is one of supreme strife amid heaving
waters. The sub-Antarctic Ocean lived up to its evil winter reputation.
On December 5, 1914, Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance sailed
from Grytviken, South Georgia bound for Antarctica. Five hundred and
twenty-one days later, three refugees of the ice—Shackleton, Frank Worsley,
and Tom Crean—staggered into the whaling outpost of Stromness, a mere 16
miles from their starting point at Grytviken. For us, it takes the Akademik
Shuleykin just three fleeting hours to close the distance between Grytviken
and Stromness, a 16-mile journey that encloses the fateful beginning and
ending of Shackleton's harrowing odyssey.
On May 20, 1916, Shackleton and his two exhausted companions stumbled into Stromness station and entered the manager's villa.
For Shackleton, it was merely cruel irony that brought the beginning and end
of his journey so close together. For us, it is the vagaries of filmmaking.
Filming the scenes of the climax of Shackleton's odyssey comes just days
after we contemplate the hopeful departure of the Endurance. The Shuleykin
and the Laurel are moored in Stromness Bay just in sight of the shuttered
whaling station of Husvik. Today, we are travelling by zodiac boat to
Stromness station, about four miles away, one of a cluster of Norwegian
whaling settlements on the habitable north side of this mercurial island.
When Shackleton and his two companions made their epic journey in the James
Caird to South Georgia, they landed on the stormy south side, forcing them
to pioneer a route across the unexplored mountains and glaciers, clad in
Almost Grytviken's twin in appearance, Stromness feels empty and raw. With
furious purpose, the elements are systematically dismantling the station,
uprooting ragged sheets of metal and piping and flinging them through the
air. Asbestos molders beneath gaping grooves. The government has closed the station, and we must skirt more than 600 feet around its perimeter to
avoid the dangers within. The elephant seals obey no such prohibition and
lumber into the buildings, collapsing the floors with their massive bulk.
Silver-furred reindeer cluster on the slopes and watch cautiously;
introduced by the Norwegians early in the century, they are the only species
shy of humans. I slosh through the soft encompassing bog, making for the
bluffs and misted mountains high to the west, overlooking the harbor.
In this aerial shot of Stromness in the distance, one gets an approximation of Shackleton's view upon coming out of the mountains.
Turning on a steep graveled slope, I see what Shackleton and his men saw
descending into Stromness on May 20, 1916 after their 36-hour traverse. The
prospect is breathtaking. In these moments, they contemplated their lot and
their few possessions: "That was all, except our wet clothes, that we
brought out of the Antarctic, which we had entered a year and a half before
with well-found ship, full equipment, and high hopes. That was all of
tangible things; but in memories we were rich."
I begin to set up my digital camera for a 360° panorama (see Shackleton above Stromness QTVR, 324K), and the wind suddenly gusts. Before long, it is raking the mountain at 45 miles per hour, then as high as 57 mph, nearly sweeping me off the bluff. Four men are helping to brace the camera—and me—when we receive a radio
call. The winds are threatening to become too formidable to return to the ship by
zodiac. We have to leave.
Expedition leader Dave German waits on the shore. He pushes the zodiac
off and immediately lunges into the teeth of it. Despite the motor, we're
barely moving ahead. The wind carves roiling crests, which the pontoon boat
summits before dropping into troughs. Up ahead, spiraling air currents
called williwaws spin spray into white dervishes. The motor stalls on the
boat, and I wonder if we should turn back. But to what? A deserted whaling
station, scoured with howling winds? It's not logical. But then again,
neither is my fear; the guides on this expedition are unfailingly cautious
and have decades of polar experience among them.
The view from the Shuleykin during the storm.
The bow rears up and catches the wind, threatening to upset the boat before it sets
down on the next crest. Over the worst swells, the zodiac becomes airborne,
and the mood of the crew grows uneasy. Sheets of water slop the boat, until
we are drenched and our faces burn from the stinging salt. Now I see these
seas as Shackleton did: "Rolling, pitching, and tumbling, we labored before
the roaring grey-green seas that towered over us, topped with hissing white
combers that alas! always caught us." Halfway to the ship now, we're 40
minutes into a journey that took just 20 minutes this morning.
The zodiac rounds the point, where a cross-sea is rolling in the opposite
direction, and fights its way into the head of the bay. I am reassured by
German's intense focus as he makes determined progress toward the ship.
Ahead, through the flying sheets of seawater, I can see the Laurel. The
Shuleykin is also in sight, but the winds rushing down the surrounding mountains
send us skidding sideways. German peels off diagonally, and we start to make
progress. On deck, I can make out out flashes of red. Mustang survival
jackets, people on deck; in this weather, they can only be out to watch for
us. Finally, we arrive. Looking up, we see relieved faces above. Our
deliverer German seems exhilarated by his duel with the elements.
The zodiac bearing the film crew safely returns to the Shuleykin.
In the evening, the winds still gust fiercely, every now and then rocking
the ship and swinging it about on its anchor. They blow at 40 miles per hour,
with shrieking peaks closer to 60. We will venture forth again, only soon it
will be our prize, our replica of the James Caird, that we entrust to the
whims of the Southern Ocean.
Question of the Day
Your transcontinental journey will be 1,700 miles. The maximum daily
distance traveled by the most accomplished explorers is 15-20 miles. The
daily food supply for a dog sled party of three men weighs exactly 2 pounds
Your team will also need to pull a sled and essential equipment weighing 180
pounds. Past expeditions have found that the maximum weight a dog sled party
can carry is 150 pounds. Is this a good plan? If you don't think so, what
would you try?
Answer to October 31 Question of the Day:
What kind of ship will you sail to the Antarctic to withstand the pack ice
and high seas?
For a vessel to operate effectively in Antarctic waters, one should consider
a number of factors regarding the ship's construction. Wooden vessels
constructed for ice work, such as the one used by Shackleton, were different
in design and could therefore enter hummocked pack ice, which would be
dangerous for a modern steel vessel, even if reinforced for icework. Wooden
vessels constructed for ice work have a rounded bow, which is reinforced
internally, permitting the vessel to ram, bore, and slew through the pack
ice without damage. The resiliency of the structure and, in many cases, the
hull section, with its sharp, dead rise and rounded bilge, makes it possible
for the vessel to withstand considerable pressure in the pack. For sailing
vessels, the exposed martingale and jib-boom (strengthening wire and support
located beneath the bowsprit) must be kept clear of high ice, since damage
to the bowsprit would remove the head-stays, thereby depriving the vessel of
headsails and, hence, maneuverability. However, the most vital parts of any
ship working in ice are the propellers and rudders, and when working the
ship through the ice, one must take care to avoid swinging the stern too
much, as submerged ice tongues can cause severe damage to delicate
underwater fittings positioned in the after part of the vessel.
Modern icebreakers are designed with a bluff, stepped stem and may have an
intricate tank system in the bow and stern. With empty ballast tanks, the
ship charges the ice, rising up onto it until the forward motion has ceased.
The forward tanks may then be flooded, and the concentrated weight usually
breaks the ice floes, allowing the vessel to proceed. The bow tanks would
then be emptied, and the process repeated. The design of the bows also aids
the break-up of the ice. The reinforced plating, both above and below the
waterline, the stepped bow, and the ice knife below the waterline, allow the
ship to ride up onto the ice floes and then cut down into the ice with
greater ease. This bow design, combined with the ballast system, enables
such ships to make progress through ice fields devoid of leads.
Should a modern icebreaker become stuck in ice, the intricate ballast system
can assist in freeing it. Quickly transferring large amounts of
fuel/oil/water from one side to the other in a short period of time
(typically 275 tons in 90 secs), sets up a rocking motion that helps the
ship to break free from the ice. If fitted with bow and stern thrusters, the
ship is also able to induce a yawing movement that can also assist escape.
—Lt. Stuart Long RN is currently serving as the Meteorological Officer
onboard HMS Endurance, the British Royal Navy icebreaker serving in the Antarctic.