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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
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 God.
        —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.

Sledges Replicas of Shackleton's sledges are securely fastened down for the rough waters.
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.

Sandy Sissel Cinematographer Sandi Sissel is harnessed to the ship's rails to shoot Cape Horn rollers.
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 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 Shackleton.

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.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

Question of the Day
Mapmakers in the 16th century didn't even know if Antarctica existed. But they had a name for it anyway. What was it?

    Previous Questions

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 electrical distribution.

Sound of the Day
Waves crashing on bow with wind:
    RealAudio: 28.8 | ISDN | 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: (1-3) Kelly Tyler.

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