Lessons From the Past – Endurance, Part 1

The following is the amazing story of brave men that made an amazing voyage, which was said to have been “the last great journey during the heroic age of discovery.”

“Men wanted for hazardous journey.  Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness.  Safe return doubtful.  Honor and recognition in event of success.”

The above ad was placed by Sir Earnest Shackleton, an Irish-born veteran explorer, when preparing to start on his journey to be the first to cross the Antarctic via the South Pole.  While you may be thinking that this ad would have dissuaded men from applying for a position, it actually had the opposite effect.  Shackleton was inundated with over 5,000 men, boys, and even three girls who wanted to be a part of the expedition.  After conducting numerous interviews, which are said to have taken no more than five minutes a piece, Shackleton chose twenty-six men to make up his crew.  Shackleton’s method for choosing the men to accompany him was rather unusual, if he liked the looks of a man he was accepted, if he didn’t like the looks of a man he was not.  It is said that Shackleton was rarely wrong when judging a man’s character.

The following is a list of  the crew:

The Expedition Leader – Sir Earnest Shackleton (Irish)

Second in Command – Frank Wild (British)

Captain – Frank Worsley (New Zealander)

First Officer – Lionel Greenstreet (New Zealander)

Second Officer – Tom Crean (Irish)

Third Officer – Alfred Cheetham (British)

Navigator – Hubert Hudson (British)

Engineer – Lewis Rickinson (British)

Engineer – Alexander Kerr (British)

Surgeon – Alexander Macklin (Indian)

Surgeon – James McIlroy (Irish)

Geologist – Sir James Wordie (Scottish)

Meteorologist – Leonard Hussey (British)

Physicist – Reginald James (British)

Biologist – Robert Clark (Scottish)

Photographer – Frank Hurley (Australian)

Artist – George Marston (British)

Motor Expert and Storekeeper – Thomas Orde-Lees (British)

Carpenter – Harry “Chippy” McNeish (Scottish)

Cook – Charles Green (British)

Able Seaman – Walter How (British)

Able Seaman – William Bakewell (American)

Able Seaman – Timothy McCarthy (Irish)

Able Seaman – Thomas McLeod (British)

Boatswain – John Vincent (British)

Stoker – Earnest Holness (British)

Steward – Perce Blackborrow (Welsh),

On August 6, 1914, after two years of preparations, Endurance, along with most of the crew and sixty sledge dogs, set sail from Plymouth, England  to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Shackleton and Wild had to stay behind to finish some last minute financial arrangements, but a short time later they joined the rest of the crew in Buenos Aires.

While in Buenos Aires, a twenty year old young man, Perce Blackborrow (a good friend of William Bakewell) asked to join the expedition, but Shackleton refused because of his young age and inexperience.  Finally, on October 26, 1914, Endurance left Buenos Aires to sail to Grytviken, which was a whaling station on the island of South Georgia.  Unbeknownst to Shackleton, Bakewell had conspired with How and McLeod to secretly stow Blackborrow on board the ship.  The morning after Endurance set sail, the conspirators determined that they were too far from land for Shackleton to turn back, and Blackborrow came out of hiding.  WhenShackleton found out what had occurred, he was outraged.  As Shackleton was in the middle of berating Blackborrow harshly he suddenly stopped and quietly said, “Finally, if we run out of food and anyone has to be eaten, you will be eaten first.  Do you understand?”  At that Blackborrow, displaying terror, sheepishly smiled.  Shackleton assigned him to a position and nothing was ever said about his “stowing away” again.

On November 5, 1914, Endurance arrived at the Grytviken whaling station.  As she did so, the crew was greeted by depressing news.  Although conditions in the Weddell Sea were rarely good, whaling skippers who operated in the area said it was the worst ice conditions they had ever seen.  Spring and early summer in the Antarctica are actually November and December.  Hoping that conditions would improve, Shackleton decided to wait until December to set sail. Finally, on December 5th, they set sail from the whaling station.  Within the first few days the crew began to encounter ice.  The Endurance could easily make 200 miles a day in normal sea conditions, but by December 24, she was making less than 30 miles a day due to the ice packs they had to slowly navigate.  By this time, the Antarctic summer had officially begun and the sun was shining 24 hours a day.  Originally, the plan was to be on shore by the end of December, but they were still far from their destination having not even having crossed the Antarctic Circle yet.

By the beginning of the new year they were finally through their first pack of ice and Endurance was able to start making good time traveling full speed ahead. Unfortunately, they soon encountered a gale force storm and a second pack of ice.  This pack, they discovered, was mainly made up of thick soft floes (sheets of floating ice) and consisted mostly of snow.  Shackleton decided that they would work through the pack.  As they did so, the soupy icy sea closed in around the ship in a soft mass.  After six days, because there wasn’t any wind, the ice began to pile higher and higher around the ship until Endurance was trapped and could no longer move.  Orde-Lees described the ship as being, “frozen, like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar.”

The whole pack of ice had been compacted and compressed by a northerly gale against a land mass in the distance.  The only way the ice would budge now would be if a gale started up from the opposite direction.  But this gale never materialized.  McNeish wrote in his diary, January 24, 1915, “Still fast and no sign of any opening.  The pressure is still a serious business and if we don’t get out of it soon I would not give much chance of ever getting away from here.”  On the 25th, he wrote, “Still fast.  We tried to cut away the ice to relieve the ship, but it was no use.”  On February 14th, Shackleton saw an opportunity to free the ship. Everyone, even the cook, worked together to try to free themselves from their prison of ice, but their efforts proved fruitless.  Their time was running out.  Soon the Antarctic summer would end and they would be left in complete darkness in extremely cold conditions without any hope that the ice would melt.

They now had only one choice: they would have to spend the winter on board the ship.  In order to prepare for the winter months ahead, the crew laid in large supplies of seal blubber, which they used for fuel and meat.  They also built “dogloos” for their sledge dogs out of blocks of ice and snow.  They moved the men to warmer quarters in the between-deck storage areas.  On top of everything else, 15 of their 69 dogs died due to worm infestation.  The only thing that lessened this loss was the arrival of two litters of puppies.  In addition, they could only find their exact map coordinates when the sun was shining.  When they were finally able to do this they discovered that the whole ice pack, with them trapped within it, had moved 130 miles in a little over two months.  Endurance was embedded in almost one million square miles of ice and was only a microscopic speck in comparison to its icy prison.  In the middle of the Antarctic winter, in the month of May, the sun disappeared for good.  In June, the temperature dropped to 17 degrees below zero.  Through their nine months together so far, the crew had formed a strong bond of friendship and trust.  This friendship and trust is what helped them stick together and make it in the face of unimaginable hardship and difficulty.

With a quantity of free time that they had on their hands now, the men came up with different activities to keep themselves busy while trying to keep to a strict schedule in order to keep up morale.  They had dog sledding races, played hockey, and came up with different skits and plays.  Every Sunday evening the men would gather and listen to music for one hour on their hand crank Phonograph, which they all looked forward to.  Unfortunately, the phonograph had to be rationed because there was a mix up when the needles were ordered – it wasn’t clarified that the needles were for a phonograph, and a large supply of sewing needles were put on the ship instead!  As you can imagine the men were very disappointed.

In the middle of July, there was a tremendous blizzard with winds up to 70 mph.  Shackleton gave the orders for no one to leave the ship with the exception of those who fed and took care of the dogs.  The wind blew so hard that the men who fed the dogs had to crawl on their hands and knees to keep from being blown away. It snowed heavily for two whole days and the floes around the ship were bending underneath the weight of the snow.  Before the storm, the pack had been almost one solid mass of ice, but now because of the storm, the pack was now broken into many pieces.  These individual pieces created pressure because they would move independently from each other as they were blown by the wind.  This pressure was extreme and would push one slab of ice on top of another while other slabs of ice buckled under the pressure, creating loud booms that sounded like the report of artillery.

After the blizzard, the crew got their first glimpse of the sun that they had not seen since the beginning of winter 79 days before.  Although they were happy to see the sun and have the promise of warmer temperatures, there was also a general feeling of uneasiness among the crew.  McNeish described what was on all the men’s minds in his diary, “We are looking for higher temperatures now but we don’t want this floe to break up until there is some open water for it would mean the ship being crushed if we got adrift at present.”  Six days later, as the dog team drivers were shoveling snow away from the kennels, a miracle happened.  There was a tremble and Endurance suddenly rose up and then dropped back into the water.  The floe was broken and the ship was free.

Shackleton was immediately on deck shouting orders to the crew.  The crew jumped into action, wrenching the dog chains from the ice and getting all the dogs on the ship.  All this was accomplished in eight minutes, but it was almost too late.  As the gangway was being hoisted back up onto the ship Endurance moved violently forward and sideways.  The floe that had been protecting Endurance for the past ten months now became her enemy, battering her sides while dashing the dogloos into bits all around her.  This intense pressure went on for 15 minutes until Endurance was pushed onto the floes ahead.  During the night the wind picked up and by morning was blowing a gale making the large chunks of ice around the ship re-freeze into a solid mass.  Safe again, for the next month the pack remained peaceful and still.  This, combined with the returning of the sun, brought back the high spirits of the crew and they resumed their sledding races and hockey games.

The peace ended around midnight on August 26, 1915, when the ice around the ship began to crack and chunks of ice again battered her sides.  Worsley wrote about the experience of the second attack on the ship, “Just after midnight there was a series of loud and violent cracks, groans and bumps to the ship making her jump and shake fore and aft.  Many dressed hastily and rushed on deck.  Personally, I’ve got tired of alarms against which we can do absolutely nothing, so when the loudest crash came I listened to make sure that no ripping, tearing sound of smashing timbers was indicating an entrance of the ice into the hold, then turned over and went to sleep.”  On September 1, Greenstreet wrote, “She is stronger than we thought, and providing we don’t get heavier pressure….we should pull through all right.”

After a short period of reprieve the pressure began again on September 30, and lasted about an hour.  Worsley recorded in his diary, “She shows almost unconceivable strength….every moment it seems as though the floe must crush her like a nutshell.  All hands are watching and standing by, but to our relief, just as it appears she can stand no more, the huge floe weighing possibly a million tons or more yields to our little ship by cracking across, 1/4 of a mile, and so relieves the pressure.”  There was pressure off and on throughout October, but nothing terrible had happened.  On the night of the 22nd of October, McNeish wrote in his diary, “….very quiet, but there looks as if there was going to be a bit of pressure.”  Unfortunately, McNeish was right.  On October 24, the pressure started again with a vengeance never before seen by the crew.  The pressure moved through the whole pack like a shock wave changing the entire surface of the ice into a chaos of churning destruction.  The situation became worse when a heavy mass of ice tore the sternpost partly away from her starboard planking allowing water to pour in.  Part of the crew started the pumps while others went over the side of the ship to cut lines in the ice hoping it would create weakness and relieve pressure.

All that night the crew worked furiously.  By morning, everyone was exhausted.  After a couple hours rest they had to attack it again.  Shackleton ordered the dog team drivers over the side of the ship to ready the dogs and sledges in case of an immediate abandonment.  The pressure increased again, warping the ship along her entire length.  As the situation worsened, Shackleton ordered Worsley to lower the boats and get all their essential gear onto a floe that looked the least likely to break.  The next day, the pressure buckled the decks and the beams broke, the stern was thrown upward 20 feet, the rudder and sternpost were torn from the ship, and water poured in the new breach and froze, weighting down the ship.  The men still pumped, but it was no use.  Endurance was finished and they knew it.  On October 27, 1915, Wild simply said, “She’s going boys.  I think it’s time to get off.”  As they prepared to leave the ship the men worked with deliberate urgency, hardly speaking to one another, but without any display of alarm.  The crew of Endurance were deep in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea, almost halfway between the South Pole and the nearest outpost of humanity 1,200 miles away.  It had been almost a year since they had been in contact with civilization.  No one knew where they were.  No one knew they were in trouble.  They were all alone.


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