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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
November 1, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Stromness, South Georgia Wind: 19-49 knots, N
Latitude: 54 degrees 11'S Air Temp: 43°F
Longitude: 36 degrees 40'W Water Temp: 42°F
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.

        —Ernest Shackleton
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.

Villa and ridge 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 rags.

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.

Stromness from NW 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.

Windy waters 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.

Zodiac returns 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.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

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 per man.

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?

    Previous Questions

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.

Sound of the Day
Zodiac motor pulling up to gangway:
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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: (1,2,4) Kelly Tyler; (3) Rob Meyer.

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