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Endurance - Ships of the Polar Explorers

Sir Ernest Shackleton Trans Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917

Antarctic Ships: Overview  Historical: L'Astrolabe & Zelee | Aurora | Belgica | Discovery | Endurance
Erebus / Terror: Ross-Antarctica Franklin-Arctic Franklin time-line Franklin-Map | Fram Fram 2 | Nimrod | Terra Nova
Modern: Ice-strengthened and icebreakers | James Clark Ross | Kapitan Khlebnikov | Yamal
Ships then and now - a comparison

The Ship

Barquentine / 1 funnel, 3 masts / L,B, 144' x 25' - 43.9m x 7.5m / 300 tons / Hull: wooden / Compliment: 28 / Engine: steam 350 hp, 1 screw, 10.2 kts / Built: Framnaes Mek, Verstad, Sandefjord, Norway 1912.

Expeditions

Endurance by a lead in the pack ice
The Endurance in the early days in the pack ice in the Weddell Sea, beside a "lead" in ice.

Endurance at night
One of Frank Hurley's most famous photographs of the Endurance taken at night by the light of 20 magnesium flashes. By this stage, the ship was well and truly iced in and would never sail free again.
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Endurance slips beneath the ice
The Endurance in her final death throes, crushed beyond hope by the ice and only held above the sea by the floe itself
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Shackleton Trans Antarctica expedition, original footage from the voyage, released 1919South - Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (1919)

The actual footage shot by Frank Hurley on Shackleton's ill fated Trans-Antarctic expedition. Hurley's camera work gives a good indication of what the 28 men endured. No drama could take the place of the actual footage from the expedition seen in this documentary. It is spellbinding. Lack of the men's voices (it is the 1910's after all) and lack of narration is no impediment, the pictures tell the story well enough, and the piano soundtrack just adds to the feeling of time gone by.

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Endurance, The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told, book Endurance, The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told. Alfred Lansing (Preface)   
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Paperback - 277 pages (2001)

Ernest Shackleton never lost a single man in Antarctica. This is the story that begin with the epic intent of being the first to cross the Antarctic continent. Shackleton and his men never even came close to the pole, but theirs was one of the greatest adventures of all time. 

 

The Expedition

The ship that was to be renamed Endurance was built originally for tourist cruises in the Arctic by a partnership between Lars Christensen, a Norwegian ship owner and the Belgian Adrien de Gerlache, leader of the Belgian Antarctic expedition in 1897-99, and called the Polaris.

The ship became available for the Antarctic expedition when the tour scheme collapsed as de Gerlache was unable to pay his share on the completion of the ship in summer 1913. She had 10 cabins, a darkroom for amateur photographers and no cargo space. She was useless as a sealer and not sufficiently luxurious for use as a yacht. 

Buyers were not easy to find until Shackleton informed de Gerlache in January 1914 that he was in search of an expedition ship for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The Polaris was purchased for £11,600 (225,000 Kroner). She was reckoned to be one of the strongest ships ever built for ice work.

Shackleton had wanted to name the ship in his previous expedition "Endurance", but had not been able to so that ship remained the Nimrod and this latest instead was to bear the name taken from the Shackleton family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus "by endurance we conquer".

The Endurance sailed for Antarctica from Plymouth at noon on the 8th of August 1914. Shackleton was not on board as he still had matters to attend to at home, instead, he left from Liverpool on a mail boat the Urugayo around the 26th of September to join the Endurance in Buenos Aires, from where she departed on the 26th of October.

Three days out of Buenos Aries a stowaway was found hiding in a locker. He was nineteen year old Percy Blackborow, a Welsh sailor who had tried to join the ship in port with the Canadian William Bakewell, but had been turned away on account of his age while Bakewell was taken on. Some of the crew were concerned that the ship was short-handed, which Shackleton must also have known. After being bawled out by Shackleton, and reminded that it was customary in particularly hard circumstances to first of all eat the stowaways, he was taken away, fed and put to work where he proved himself a good sailor.

The Endurance was now a more ordered and a happier ship than on the journey to Buenos Aries under the rather weak and indisciplined command of Frank Worsley. When Shackleton caught up with the ship he relieved Worsley of direct command and discharged the worst seamen for disloyalty, insubordination and drunkenness. It was also a noisier and dirtier place due to the arrival of the sledge dogs with Frank Wild, Shackleton's now second in Command.

After an uneventful journey, they came to the Island of South Georgia - the "Alps in mid-ocean" - on the 5th of November. The ships company was made welcome by the community of some two thousand Norwegian whalers who manned the Grytviken whaling station in the summer months. Shackleton and his crew expected to spend only a few days there, but the whalers told them that it was a particularly bad year for ice and so days turned to weeks. 

The crew of the Endurance seemed to gel with the whalers, perhaps both parties feeling that they belonged better where they were than they did back home. The dogs in particular enjoyed ideal days eating whale meat until they could eat no more, at that time, the whale meat was largely otherwise wasted, bar that used to fatten pigs kept on the island.

The expedition was underway again on the 5th of December heading into the ice-strewn waters of the Weddell Sea. Three days later on the 8th they saw the first pack ice at 57 degrees south - the warnings of the whalers had been correct, it was a particularly bad season for ice.

At the entry point of the pack, the Endurance was 600 miles from the nearest landfall, not that the men on board could have known this as that particular coast would not be discovered for another fifteen years. They were about 1000 miles from their intended landing place at Vahsel Bay. 

The ship battled and pushed through the ice that would variously tighten up, then loosen and slacken off again. Progress was slow, but progress was made and by the 10th of January 1915 land was sighted at 72°2' south, this was the icy front of Coats Land first seen in 1902. The crew began to prepare for a landing at Vahsel Bay and there was a feeling on board that they were reaching journey's end. The next few days gave good sailing conditions with calm seas and little ice to bother the ship, on the 15th of January, she made 120 miles.

Soon though pack ice began to  impede progress again and large numbers of crabeater seals heading north proved to be an unsettling presence perhaps fleeing from an early winter while the Endurance pushed on ever southwards.

On January the 18th, they were some 80 miles from Vahsel Bay and the pack closed in once again at 76°30'S, 31°30'W. A week later they were still there, the loose ice appeared to be freezing together. It should have been the peak of the summer, instead, the Endurance was surrounded by a plain of unbroken congealed ice.

After reaching the furthest south point of 76°58' on the 21st of February, slowly it became apparent that the ship was being taken northwards by the movements of the ice. After a maiden voyage of 12,000 miles including 1,000 of it hard won through pack ice, the ship was thwarted only 60 miles from its destination. Shackleton informed the men that they should prepare for a winter in the pack ice. His own disappointment must have been intense, it had been a great financial strain to mount the expedition at all and was perhaps his last chance of a successful Antarctic adventure. At one point, they could even see very faintly in the distance the land above Vahsel Bay as the movements of the ice took them past.

The crew resigned themselves to their fate, Shackleton kept up the hope that once released from the pack in the spring, they would be able to sail back to Vahsel Bay and complete their goal of the Trans-Antarctic crossing. They were drifting in unknown waters, the Antarctic Peninsula lay to the West, but the nearest known feature was 600 miles away at the tip of Alexander Island. The greatest threat was from the mixture of characters on board the ship in the circumstances of boredom, inactivity, disappointment at not achieving their goal and worries of the hopelessness of their fate.

Shackleton rose to the challenge of being the leader in these circumstances, though perhaps he was distant from the men and seemed to not have any close friends amongst them, as Roland Huntford says in his biography:

"Shackleton's companions had begun to feel that although they might not trust him with their money, they would implicitly trust him with their lives."

The 60 or so dogs remaining had been moved from the ship onto the ice floe surrounding it. They lived in kennels made by the carpenter or in small igloos constructed by others. The presence of the dogs was a welcome diversion, the dogs were arranged in teams with appointed regular drivers and often went for journeys across the ice. Shackleton still was talking about preparation for the journey across Antarctica in the following season and this practice and familiarizing with dog travel was ostensibly for this event. The practice was certainly needed as despite having the dogs as a primary form of transport, none of the expedition members were experienced in travel with them. Shackleton had tried to take an experienced dog driver with him, but for various reasons, he ended up taking none of the men put forwards for this.

On the 14th of July there was a noise from beneath the Endurance aft. Shackleton tried to pass it off as a whale, but McNeish the carpenter, knew it for what it was - the movement of the ice beginning to nip. Shackleton knew that if the ship were squeezed by the ice, then she had little chance of survival, other ice ships such as the Fram had rounded bottoms, so that they could rise up above the ice in such circumstances. Shackleton had been warned when he bought the Endurance that she would not do this.

The ice had begun to move much faster than it had done until now and the ship was carried northwards twice as fast as previously. Ice blocks would slide over each other and be pushed up to 15 and 20 feet before breaking and landing with a thud, then again all would be quiet as the pressure was released. 

The Endurance had developed a list to port, beams had buckled and the rudder was damaged. Worsley climbed the mast and reported that the surrounding pack was broken, buckled and in a "state of chaos". For months it had all been calm, flat and smooth. Icebergs which in the still of winter had been fixed landmarks were moving position.

For now, it was thought that the Endurance had had a narrow escape, one particularly dramatic pressure wave had stopped about 15 feet short of the ship, she would almost certainly have been crushed had it continued. The general assumption was however that soon the ship would be floating free. Through August the men waited.

On the first of September more pressure waves came, the ship creaked and groaned and timbers snapped, the ice had hold, she was not rising above it and it was simply her massive structure that was resisting the force of the ice. The ship also appeared twisted and out of line. Ever the optimist Shackleton nevertheless ordered that a wheelhouse be built for the comfort of the steersman once the ship floated free.

On the 15th of October the Endurance broke completely free and was floating in open water again in a narrow lead, on the 17th the pressure waves came again and the ice closed in and squeezed the hull. She was thrown over at a list of 30 degrees, slowly to right herself again. On the 20th, the boiler was filled and steam raised, expectations were high though the men knew that the ice could keep them from sailing for days or months.

By the 23rd McNeish had built a coffer dam in the engine room, water was flooding in through opened seams caused by the ice twisting the ship. Despite the dam, steam pumps had to be kept working constantly to pump out the flood water with back up from hand pumps working at all times. The Endurance had settled lower in the water now than she had been, any slight possibility of her rising when nipped was now gone, if the ice took hold again it would have a better grip on a weakened ship. The ice continued to move, to creak, break and groan. Apart from this there was no other sound, no indication of why the ice should be moving in such a way.

The force for the pressure waves was coming from the westerly current pushing the floes up against the land of the Eastern side of the as yet unexplored and undiscovered Antarctic Peninsula. Extra momentum perhaps coming from some far off gale that was pushing the ice ever harder.

By the morning of October the 25th it became clear that the battle to save the Endurance was being lost and the men stopped pumping. More and more seams were opening. The ship was being squeezed from the sides and also from the stern.

The 27th brought increased pressure again, but Green the cook continued making supper in the galley. The men all assembled in the wardroom for the last meal onboard the ship, eaten in silence. At 5pm Shackleton ordered all hands out onto the ice floe. The men had all been affected by what they had seen, they hadn't just lost their ship, their home, but had watched it tortured over a period of weeks and had fought to save her, failing in the process.

The crew were now on the ice floe that was increasingly on the move, starting to show signs of melting at the edges and had only themselves to look to for any chance of a return home.

The wreck of the Endurance remained above the ice for some time allowing for salvage of stores. The crew were camped some miles away in a more stable area. On the 21st of November at 4.50pm they saw and heard movements as final contortions of the ice allowed the wreck to slip beneath the surface.

Frank Hurley - "We are not sorry to see the last of the wreck"... "an object of depression for all who turned their eyes in that direction"

Sir Ernest Shackleton - "At 5pm she went down by the head: the stern the cause of all the trouble was the last to go under water. I cannot write about it.

On the south western side of Elephant Island at Stinker Point, is a place called Wreck Bay, where there is some wreckage from a ship. In 1998 these remains were recognized as being probable flotsam from Shackleton's Endurance.

More about Sir Ernest Shackleton and this expedition

Historical photographs on this page by permission of National Library of Australia


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