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FIDS / OAE's
Chapter 8 -
ESCAPE FROM THE ICE
ESCAPE FROM THE ICE
In the full daylight Clarence Island ceased to look like land and had the appearance of a berg of more than eight or ten miles away, so deceptive are distances in the clear air of the Antarctic. The sharp white peaks of Elephant Island showed to the west of north a little later in the day.
"I have stopped issuing sugar now, and our meals consist of seal meat and blubber only, with 7 ozs. of dried milk per day for the party," I wrote. "Each man receives a pinch of salt, and the milk is boiled up to make hot drinks for all hands. The diet suits us, since we cannot get much exercise on the floe and the blubber supplies heat. Fried slices of blubber seem to our taste to resemble crisp bacon. It certainly is no hardship to eat it, though persons living under civilized conditions probably would shudder at it. The hardship would come if we were unable to get it."
I think that the palate of the human animal can adjust itself to anything. Some creatures will die before accepting a strange diet if deprived of their natural food. The Yaks of the Himalayan uplands must feed from the growing grass, scanty and dry though it may be, and would starve even if allowed the best oats and corn.
"We still have the dark water-sky of the last week with us to the south-west and west, round to the north-east. We are leaving all the bergs to the west and there are few within our range of vision now. The swell is more marked to-day, and I feel sure we are at the verge of the floe-ice. One strong gale, followed by a calm would scatter the pack, I think, and then we could push through. I have been thinking much of our prospects. The appearance of Clarence Island after our long drift seems, somehow, to convey an ultimatum. The island is the last outpost of the south and our final chance of a landing-place. Beyond it lies the broad Atlantic. Our little boats may be compelled any day now to sail unsheltered over the open sea with a thousand leagues of ocean separating them from the land to the north and east. It seems vital that we shall land on Clarence Island or its neighbour, Elephant Island. The latter island has attraction for us, although as far as I know nobody has ever landed there. Its name suggests the presence of the plump and succulent sea-elephant. We have an increasing desire in any case to get firm ground under our feet. The floe has been a good friend to us, but it is reaching the end of its journey, and it is liable at any time now to break up and fling us into the unplumbed sea."
A little later, after reviewing the whole situation in the light of our circumstances, I made up my mind that we should try to reach Deception Island. The relative positions of Clarence, Elephant, and Deception Islands can be seen on the chart. The two islands first named lay comparatively near to us and were separated by some eighty miles of water from Prince George Island, which was about 150 miles away from our camp on the berg. From this island a chain of similar islands extends westward, terminating in Deception Island. The channels separating these desolate patches of rock and ice are from ten to fifteen miles wide. But we knew from the Admiralty sailing directions that there were stores for the use of shipwrecked mariners on Deception Island, and it was possible that the summer whalers had not yet deserted its harbour. Also we had learned from our scanty records that a small church had been erected there for the benefit of the transient whalers. The existence of this building would mean to us a supply of timber, from which, if dire necessity urged us, we could construct a reasonably seaworthy boat. We had discussed this point during our drift on the floe. Two of our boats were fairly strong, but the third, the James Caird, was light, although a little longer than the others. All of them were small for the navigation of these notoriously stormy seas, and they would be heavily loaded, so a voyage in open water would be a serious undertaking. I fear that the carpenter's fingers were already itching to convert pews into topsides and decks. In any case, the worst that could befall us when we had reached Deception Island would be a wait until the whalers returned about the middle of November.
Another bit of information gathered from the records of the west side of the Weddell Sea related to Prince George Island. The Admiralty "Sailing Directions," referring to the South Shetlands, mentioned a cave on this island. None of us had seen that cave or could say if it was large or small, wet or dry; but as we drifted on our floe and later, when navigating the treacherous leads and making our uneasy night camps, that cave seemed to my fancy to be a palace which in contrast would dim the splendours of Versailles.
The swell increased that night and the movement of the ice became more pronounced. Occasionally a neighbouring floe would hammer against the ice on which we were camped, and the lesson of these blows was plain to read. We must get solid ground under our feet quickly. When the vibration ceased after a heavy surge, my thoughts flew round to the problem ahead. If the party had not numbered more than six men a solution would not have been so hard to find; but obviously the transportation of the whole party to a place of safety, with the limited means at our disposal, was going to be a matter of extreme difficulty. There were twenty-eight men on our floating cake of ice, which was steadily dwindling under the influence of wind, weather, charging floes, and heavy swell. I confess that I felt the burden of responsibility sit heavily on my shoulders; but, on the other hand, I was stimulated and cheered by the attitude of the men. Loneliness is the penalty of leadership, but the man who has to make the decisions is assisted greatly if he feels that there is no uncertainty in the minds of those who follow him, and that his orders will be carried out confidently and in expectation of success.
The sun was shining in the blue sky on the following morning (April 8). Clarence Island showed clearly on the horizon, and Elephant Island could also be distinguished. The single snow-clad peak of Clarence Island stood up as a beacon of safety, though the most optimistic imagination could not make an easy path of the ice and ocean that separated us from that giant, white and austere.
"The pack was much looser this morning, and the long rolling swell from the north-east is more pronounced than it was yesterday. The floes rise and fall with the surge of the sea. We evidently are drifting with the surface current, for all the heavier masses of floe, bergs, and hummocks are being left behind. There has been some discussion in the camp as to the advisability of making one of the bergs our home for the time being and drifting with it to the west. The idea is not sound. I cannot be sure that the berg would drift in the right direction. If it did move west and carried us into the open water, what would be our fate when we tried to launch the boats down the steep sides of the berg in the sea-swell after the surrounding floes had left us? One must reckon, too, the chance of the berg splitting or even overturning during our stay. It is not possible to gauge the condition of a big mass of ice by surface appearance. The ice may have a fault, and when the wind, current, and swell set up strains and tensions, the line of weakness may reveal itself suddenly and disastrously. No, I do not like the idea of drifting on a berg. We must stay on our floe till conditions improve and then make another attempt to advance towards the land."
At 6.30 p.m. a particularly heavy shock went through our floe. The watchman and other members of the party made an immediate inspection and found a crack right under the James Caird and between the other two boats and the main camp. Within five minutes the boats were over the crack and close to the tents. The trouble was not caused by a blow from another floe. We could see that the piece of ice we occupied had slewed and now presented its long axis towards the oncoming swell. The floe, therefore, was pitching in the manner of a ship, and it had cracked across when the swell lifted the centre, leaving the two ends comparatively unsupported. We were now on a triangular raft of ice, the three sides measuring, roughly, 90, 100, and 120 yds. Night came down dull and overcast, and before midnight the wind had freshened from the west. We could see that the pack was opening under the influence of wind, wave, and current, and I felt that the time for launching the boats was near at hand. Indeed, it was obvious that even if the conditions were unfavourable for a start during the coming day, we could not safely stay on the floe many hours longer. The movement of the ice in the swell was increasing, and the floe might split right under our camp. We had made preparations for quick action if anything of the kind occurred. Our case would be desperate if the ice broke into small pieces not large enough to support our party and not loose enough to permit the use of the boats.
The following day was Sunday (April 9), but it proved no day of rest for us. Many of the important events of our Expedition occurred on Sundays, and this particular day was to see our forced departure from the floe on which we had lived for nearly six months, and the start of our journeyings in the boats.
"This has been an eventful day. The morning was fine, though somewhat overcast by stratus and cumulus clouds; moderate south-south-westerly and south-easterly breezes. We hoped that with this wind the ice would drift nearer to Clarence Island. At 7 a.m. lanes of water and leads could be seen on the horizon to the west. The ice separating us from the lanes was loose, but did not appear to be workable for the boats. The long swell from the north-west was coming in more freely than on the previous day and was driving the floes together in the utmost confusion. The loose brash between the masses of ice was being churned to mudlike consistency, and no boat could have lived in the channels that opened and closed around us. Our own floe was suffering in the general disturbance, and after breakfast I ordered the tents to be struck and everything prepared for an immediate start when the boats could be launched."
I had decided to take the James Caird myself, with Wild and eleven men. This was the largest of our boats, and in addition to her human complement she carried the major portion of the stores. Worsley had charge of the Dudley Docker with nine men, and Hudson and Crean were the senior men on the Stancomb Wills.
Soon after breakfast the ice closed again. We were standing by, with our preparations as complete as they could be made, when at 11 a.m. our floe suddenly split right across under the boats. We rushed our gear on to the larger of the two pieces and watched with strained attention for the next development. The crack had cut through the site of my tent. I stood on the edge of the new fracture, and, looking across the widening channel of water, could see the spot where for many months my head and shoulders had rested when I was in my sleeping-bag. The depression formed by my body and legs was on our side of the crack. The ice had sunk under my weight during the months of waiting in the tent, and I had many times put snow under the bag to fill the hollow. The lines of stratification showed clearly the different layers of snow. How fragile and precarious had been our resting-place! Yet usage had dulled our sense of danger. The floe had become our home, and during the early months of the drift we had almost ceased to realize that it was but a sheet of ice floating on unfathomed seas. Now our home was being shattered under our feet, and we had a sense of loss and incompleteness hard to describe.
The fragments of our floe came together again a little later, and we had our lunch of seal meat, all hands eating their fill. I thought that a good meal would be the best possible preparation for the journey that now seemed imminent, and as we would not be able to take all our meat with us when we finally moved, we could regard every pound eaten as a pound rescued. The call to action came at 1 p.m. The pack opened well and the channels became navigable. The conditions were not all one could have desired, but it was best not to wait any longer. The Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills were launched quickly. Stores were thrown in, and the two boats were pulled clear of the immediate floes towards a pool of open water three miles broad, in which floated a lone and mighty berg. The James Caird was the last boat to leave, heavily loaded with stores and odds and ends of camp equipment. Many things regarded by us as essentials at that time were to be discarded a little later as the pressure of the primitive became more severe. Man can sustain life with very scanty means. The trappings of civilization are soon cast aside in the face of stern realities, and given the barest opportunity of winning food and shelter, man can live and even find his laughter ringing true.
The three boats were a mile away from our floe home at 2 p.m. We had made our way through the channels and had entered the big pool when we saw a rush of foam-clad water and tossing ice approaching us, like the tidal bore of a river. The pack was being impelled to the east by a tide-rip, and two huge masses of ice were driving down upon us on converging courses. The James Caird was leading. Starboarding the helm and bending strongly to the oars, we managed to get clear. The two other boats followed us, though from their position astern at first they had not realized the immediate danger. The Stancomb Wills was the last boat and she was very nearly caught, but by great exertion she was kept just ahead of the driving ice. It was an unusual and startling experience. The effect of tidal action on ice is not often as marked as it was that day. The advancing ice, accompanied by a large wave, appeared to be travelling at about three knots; and if we had not succeeded in pulling clear we would certainly have been swamped.
We pulled hard for an hour to windward of the berg that lay in the open water. The swell was crashing on its perpendicular sides and throwing spray to a height of sixty feet. Evidently there was an ice-foot at the east end, for the swell broke before it reached the berg-face and flung its white spray on to the blue ice-wall. We might have paused to have admired the spectacle under other conditions; but night was coming on apace, and we needed a camping-place. As we steered north-west, still amid the ice-floes, the Dudley Docker got jammed between two masses while attempting to make a short cut. The old adage about a short cut being the longest way round is often as true in the Antarctic as it is in the peaceful countryside. The James Caird got a line aboard the Dudley Docker, and after some hauling the boat was brought clear of the ice again. We hastened forward in the twilight in search of a flat, old floe, and presently found a fairly large piece rocking in the swell. It was not an ideal camping-place by any means, but darkness had overtaken us. We hauled the boats up, and by 8 p.m. had the tents pitched and the blubber-stove burning cheerily. Soon all hands were well fed and happy in their tents, and snatches of song came to me as I wrote up my log.
Some intangible feeling of uneasiness made me leave my tent about 11 p.m. that night and glance around the quiet camp. The stars between the snow-flurries showed that the floe had swung round and was end on to the swell, a position exposing it to sudden strains. I started to walk across the floe in order to warn the watchman to look carefully for cracks, and as I was passing the men's tent the floe lifted on the crest of a swell and cracked right under my feet. The men were in one of the dome-shaped tents, and it began to stretch apart as the ice opened. A muffled sound, suggestive of suffocation, came from beneath the stretching tent. I rushed forward, helped some emerging men from under the canvas, and called out, "Are you all right?"
"There are two in the water," somebody answered. The crack had widened to about four feet, and as I threw myself down at the edge, I saw a whitish object floating in the water. It was a sleeping-bag with a man inside. I was able to grasp it, and with a heave lifted man and bag on to the floe. A few seconds later the ice-edges came together again with tremendous force. Fortunately, there had been but one man in the water, or the incident might have been a tragedy. The rescued bag contained Holness, who was wet down to the waist but otherwise unscathed. The crack was now opening again. The James Caird and my tent were on one side of the opening and the remaining two boats and the rest of the camp on the other side. With two or three men to help me I struck my tent; then all hands manned the painter and rushed the James Caird across the opening crack. We held to the rope while, one by one, the men left on our side of the floe jumped the channel or scrambled over by means of the boat. Finally I was left alone. The night had swallowed all the others and the rapid movement of the ice forced me to let go the painter. For a moment I felt that my piece of rocking floe was the loneliest place in the world. Peering into the darkness; I could just see the dark figures on the other floe. I hailed Wild, ordering him to launch the Stancomb Wills, but I need not have troubled. His quick brain had anticipated the order and already the boat was being manned and hauled to the ice-edge. Two or three minutes later she reached me, and I was ferried across to the Camp.
We were now on a piece of flat ice about 200 ft. long and 100 ft. wide. There was no more sleep for any of us that night. The killers were blowing in the lanes around, and we waited for daylight and watched for signs of another crack in the ice. The hours passed with laggard feet as we stood huddled together or walked to and fro in the effort to keep some warmth in our bodies. We lit the blubber-stove at 3 a.m., and with pipes going and a cup of hot milk for each man, we were able to discover some bright spots in our outlook. At any rate, we were on the move at last, and if dangers and difficulties lay ahead we could meet and overcome them. No longer were we drifting helplessly at the mercy of wind and current.
The first glimmerings of dawn came at 6 a.m., and I waited anxiously for the full daylight. The swell was growing, and at times our ice was surrounded closely by similar pieces. At 6.30 a.m. we had hot hoosh, and then stood by waiting for the pack to open. Our chance came at 8, when we launched the boats, loaded them, and started to make our way through the lanes in a northerly direction. The James Caird was in the lead, with the Stancomb Wills next and the Dudley Docker bringing up the rear. In order to make the boats more seaworthy we had left some of our shovels, picks, and dried vegetables on the floe, and for a long time we could see the abandoned stores forming a dark spot on the ice. The boats were still heavily loaded. We got out of the lanes, and entered a stretch of open water at 11 a.m. A strong easterly breeze was blowing, but the fringe of pack lying outside protected us from the full force of the swell, just as the coral-reef of a tropical island checks the rollers of the Pacific. Our way was across the open sea, and soon after noon we swung round the north end of the pack and laid a course to the westward, the James Caird still in the lead. Immediately our deeply laden boats began to make heavy weather. They shipped sprays, which, freezing as they fell, covered men and gear with ice, and soon it was clear that we could not safely proceed. I put the James Caird round and ran for the shelter of the pack again, the other boats following. Back inside the outer line of ice the sea was not breaking. This was at 3 p.m., and all hands were tired and cold. A big floeberg resting peacefully ahead caught my eye, and half an hour later we had hauled up the boats and pitched camp for the night. It was a fine, big, blue berg with an attractively solid appearance, and from our camp we could get a good view of the surrounding sea and ice. The highest point was about 15 ft. above sea-level. After a hot meal all hands, except the watchman, turned in. Every one was in need of rest after the troubles of the previous night and the unaccustomed strain of the last thirty-six hours at the oars. The berg appeared well able to withstand the battering of the sea, and too deep and massive to be seriously affected by the swell; but it was not as safe as it looked. About midnight the watchman called me and showed me that the heavy north-westerly swell was undermining the ice. A great piece had broken off within eight feet of my tent. We made what inspection was possible in the darkness, and found that on the westward side of the berg the thick snow covering was yielding rapidly to the attacks of the sea. An ice-foot had formed just under the surface of the water. I decided that there was no immediate danger and did not call the men. The north-westerly wind strengthened during the night.
The morning of April 11 was overcast and misty. There was a haze on the horizon, and daylight showed that the pack had closed round our berg, making it impossible in the heavy swell to launch the boats. We could see no sign of the water. Numerous whales and killers were blowing between the floes, and Cape pigeons, petrels, and fulmars were circling round our berg. The scene from our camp as the daylight brightened was magnificent beyond description, though I must admit that we viewed it with anxiety. Heaving hills of pack and floe were sweeping towards us in long undulations, later to be broken here and there by the dark lines that indicated open water. As each swell lifted around our rapidly dissolving berg it drove floe-ice on to the ice-foot, shearing off more of the top snow-covering and reducing the size of our camp. When the floes retreated to attack again the water swirled over the ice-foot, which was rapidly increasing in width. The launching of the boats under such conditions would be difficult. Time after time, so often that a track was formed, Worsley, Wild, and I, climbed to the highest point of the berg and stared out to the horizon in search of a break in the pack. After long hours had dragged past, far away on the lift of the swell there appeared a dark break in the tossing field of ice. Aeons seemed to pass, so slowly it approached. I noticed enviously the calm peaceful attitudes of two seals which lolled lazily on a rocking floe. They were at home and had no reason for worry or cause for fear. If they thought at all, I suppose they counted it an ideal day for a joyous journey on the tumbling ice. To us it was a day that seemed likely to lead to no more days. I do not think I had ever before felt the anxiety that belongs leadership quite so keenly. When I looked down at the camp to rest my eyes from the strain of watching the wide white expanse broken by that one black ribbon of open water, I could see that my companions were waiting with more than ordinary interest to learn what I thought about it all. After one particularly heavy collision somebody shouted sharply, "She has cracked in the middle." I jumped off the look-out station and ran to the place the men were examining. There was a crack, but investigation showed it to be a mere surface break in the snow with no indication of a split in the berg itself. The carpenter mentioned calmly that earlier in the day he had actually gone adrift on a fragment of ice. He was standing near the edge of our camping-ground when the ice under his feet parted from the parent mass. A quick jump over the widening gap saved him.
The hours dragged on. One of the anxieties in my mind was the possibility that we would be driven by the current through the eighty-mile gap between Clarence Island and Prince George Island into the open Atlantic; but slowly the open water came nearer, and at noon it had almost reached us. A long lane, narrow but navigable, stretched out to the south-west horizon. Our chance came a little later. We rushed our boats over the edge of the reeling berg and swung them clear of the ice-foot as it rose beneath them. The James Caird was nearly capsized by a blow from below as the berg rolled away, but she got into deep water. We flung stores and gear aboard and within a few minutes were away. The James Caird and Dudley Docker had good sails and with a favourable breeze could make progress along the lane, with the rolling fields of ice on either side. The swell was heavy and spray was breaking over the ice-floes. An attempt to set a little rag of sail on the Stancomb Wills resulted in serious delay. The area of sail was too small to be of much assistance, and while the men were engaged in this work the boat drifted down towards the ice-floe, where her position was likely to be perilous. Seeing her plight, I sent the Dudley Docker back for her and tied the James Caird up to a piece of ice. The Dudley Docker had to tow the Stancomb Wills, and the delay cost us two hours of valuable daylight. When I had the three boats together again we continued down the lane, and soon saw a wider stretch of water to the west; it appeared to offer us release from the grip of the pack. At the head of an ice-tongue that nearly closed the gap through which we might enter the open space was a wave-worn berg shaped like some curious antediluvian monster, an icy Cerberus guarding the way. It had head and eyes and rolled so heavily that it almost overturned. Its sides dipped deep in the sea, and as it rose again the water seemed to be streaming from its eyes, as though it were weeping at our escape from the clutch of the floes. This may seem fanciful to the reader, but the impression was real to us at the time. People living under civilized conditions, surrounded by Nature's varied forms of life and by all the familiar work of their own hands, may scarcely realize how quickly the mind, influenced by the eyes, responds to the unusual and weaves about it curious imaginings like the firelight fancies of our childhood days. We had lived long amid the ice, and we half-unconsciously strove to see resemblances to human faces and living forms in the fantastic contours and massively uncouth shapes of berg and floe.
At dusk we made fast to a heavy floe, each boat having its painter fastened to a separate hummock in order to avoid collisions in the swell. We landed the blubber-stove, boiled some water in order to provide hot milk, and served cold rations. I also landed the dome tents and stripped the coverings from the hoops. Our experience of the previous day in the open sea had shown us that the tents must be packed tightly. The spray had dashed over the bows and turned to ice on the cloth, which had soon grown dangerously heavy. Other articles off our scanty equipment had to go that night. We were carrying only the things that had seemed essential, but we stripped now to the barest limit of safety. We had hoped for a quiet night, but presently we were forced to cast off, since pieces of loose ice began to work round the floe. Drift-ice is always attracted to the lee side of a heavy floe, where it bumps and presses under the influence of the current. I had determined not to risk a repetition of the last night's experience and so had not pulled the boats up. We spent the hours of darkness keeping an offing from the main line of pack under the lee of the smaller pieces. Constant rain and snow squalls blotted out the stars and soaked us through, and at times it was only by shouting to each other that we managed to keep the boats together. There was no sleep for anybody owing to the severe cold, and we dare not pull fast enough to keep ourselves warm since we were unable to see more than a few yards ahead. Occasionally the ghostly shadows of silver, snow, and fulmar petrels flashed close to us, and all around we could hear the killers blowing, their short, sharp hisses sounding like sudden escapes of steam. The killers were a source of anxiety, for a boat could easily have been capsized by one of them coming up to blow. They would throw aside in a nonchalant fashion pieces of ice much bigger than our boats when they rose to the surface, and we had an uneasy feeling that the white bottoms of the boats would look like ice from below. Shipwrecked mariners drifting in the Antarctic seas would be things not dreamed of in the killers' philosophy, and might appear on closer examination to be tasty substitutes for seal and penguin. We certainly regarded the killers with misgivings.
Early in the morning of April 12 the weather improved and the wind dropped. Dawn came with a clear sky, cold and fearless. I looked around at the faces of my companions in the James Caird and saw pinched and drawn features. The strain was beginning to tell. Wild sat at the rudder with the same calm, confident expression that he would have worn under happier conditions; his steel-blue eyes looked out to the day ahead. All the people, though evidently suffering, were doing their best to be cheerful, and the prospect of a hot breakfast was inspiriting. I told all the boats that immediately we could find a suitable floe the cooker would be started and hot milk and Bovril would soon fix everybody up. Away we rowed to the westward through open pack, floes of all shapes and sizes on every side of us, and every man not engaged in pulling looking eagerly for a suitable camping-place. I could gauge the desire for food of the different members by the eagerness they displayed in pointing out to me the floes they considered exactly suited to our purpose. The temperature was about 10° Fahr., and the Burberry suits of the rowers crackled as the men bent to the oars. I noticed little fragments of ice and frost falling from arms and bodies. At eight o'clock a decent floe appeared ahead and we pulled up to it. The galley was landed, and soon the welcome steam rose from the cooking food as the blubber-stove flared and smoked. Never did a cook work under more anxious scrutiny. Worsley, Crean, and I stayed in our respective boats to keep them steady and prevent collisions with the floe, since the swell was still running strong, but the other men were able to stretch their cramped limbs and run to and fro "in the kitchen," as somebody put it. The sun was now rising gloriously. The Burberry suits were drying and the ice was melting off our beards. The steaming food gave us new vigour, and within three-quarters of an hour we were off again to the west with all sails set. We had given an additional sail to the Stancomb Wills and she was able to keep up pretty well. We could see that we were on the true pack-edge, with the blue, rolling sea just outside the fringe of ice to the north. White-capped waves vied with the glittering floes in the setting of blue water, and countless seals basked and rolled on every piece of ice big enough to form a raft.
We had been making westward with oars and sails since April 9, and fair easterly winds had prevailed. Hopes were running high as to the noon observation for position. The optimists thought that we had done sixty miles towards our goal, and the most cautious guess gave us at least thirty miles. The bright sunshine and the brilliant scene around us may have influenced our anticipations. As noon approached I saw Worsley, as navigating officer, balancing himself on the gunwale of the Dudley Docker with his arm around the mast, ready to snap the sun. He got his observation and we waited eagerly while he worked out the sight. Then the Dudley Docker ranged up alongside the James Caird and I jumped into Worsley's boat in order to see the result. It was a grievous disappointment. Instead of making a good run to the westward we had made a big drift to the south-east. We were actually thirty miles to the east of the position we had occupied when we left the floe on the 9th. It has been noted by sealers operating in this area that there are often heavy sets to the east in the Belgica Straits, and no doubt it was one of these sets that we had experienced. The originating cause would be a north-westerly gale off Cape Horn, producing the swell that had already caused us so much trouble. After a whispered consultation with Worsley and Wild, I announced that we had not made as much progress as we expected, but I did not inform the hands of our retrograde movement.
The question of our course now demanded further consideration. Deception Island seemed to be beyond our reach. The wind was foul for Elephant Island, and as the sea was clear to the south-west; I discussed with Worsley and Wild the advisability of proceeding to Hope Bay on the mainland of the Antarctic Continent, now only eighty miles distant. Elephant Island was the nearest land, but it lay outside the main body of pack, and even if the wind had been fair we would have hesitated at that particular time to face the high sea that was running in the open. We laid a course roughly for Hope Bay, and the boats moved on again. I gave Worsley a line for a berg ahead and told him, if possible, to make fast before darkness set in. This was about three o'clock in the afternoon. We had set sail, and as the Stancomb Wills could not keep up with the other two boats I took her in tow, not being anxious to repeat the experience of the day we left the reeling berg. The Dudley Docker went ahead, but came beating down towards us at dusk. Worsley had been close to the berg, and he reported that it was unapproachable. It was rolling in the swell and displaying an ugly ice-foot. The news was bad. In the failing light we turned towards a line of pack, and found it so tossed and churned by the sea that no fragment remained big enough to give us an anchorage and shelter. Two miles away we could see a larger piece of ice, and to it we managed, after some trouble, to secure the boats. I brought my boat bow on to the floe, whilst Howe, with the painter in his hand, stood ready to jump. Standing up to watch our chance, while the oars were held ready to back the moment Howe had made his leap, I could see that there would be no possibility of getting the galley ashore that night. Howe just managed to get a footing on the edge of the floe, and then made the painter fast to a hummock. The other two boats were fastened alongside the James Caird. They could not lie astern of us in a line, since cakes of ice came drifting round the floe and gathering under its lee. As it was we spent the next two hours poling off the drifting ice that surged towards us. The blubber-stove could not be used, so we started the Primus lamps. There was a rough, choppy sea, and the Dudley Docker could not get her Primus under way, something being adrift. The men in that boat had to wait until the cook on the James Caird had boiled up the first pot of milk.
The boats were bumping so heavily that I had to slack away the painter of the Stancomb Wills and put her astern. Much ice was coming round the floe and had to be poled off. Then the Dudley Docker, being the heavier boat, began to damage the James Caird, and I slacked the Dudley Docker away. The James Caird remained moored to the ice, with the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills in line behind her. The darkness had become complete, and we strained our eye to see the fragments of ice that threatened us. Presently we thought we saw a great berg bearing down upon us, its form outlined against the sky, but this startling spectacle resolved itself into a low-lying cloud in front of the rising moon. The moon appeared in a clear sky. The wind shifted to the south-east as the light improved and drove the boats broadside on towards the jagged edge of the floe. We had to cut the painter of the James Caird and pole her off, thus losing much valuable rope. There was no time to cast off. Then we pushed away from the floe, and all night long we lay in the open, freezing sea, the Dudley Docker now ahead, the James Caird astern of her, and the Stancomb Wills third in the line. The boats were attached to one another by their painters. Most of the time the Dudley Docker kept the James Caird and the Stancomb Wills up to the swell, and the men who were rowing were in better pass than those in the other boats, waiting inactive for the dawn. The temperature was down to 4° below zero, and a film of ice formed on the surface of the sea. When we were not on watch we lay in each other's arms for warmth. Our frozen suits thawed where our bodies met, and as the slightest movement exposed these comparatively warm spots to the biting air, we clung motionless, whispering each to his companion our hopes and thoughts. Occasionally from an almost clear sky came snow-showers, falling silently on the sea and laying a thin shroud of white over our bodies and our boats.
The dawn of April 13 came clear and bright, with occasional passing clouds. Most of the men were now looking seriously worn and strained. Their lips were cracked and their eyes and eyelids showed red in their salt-encrusted faces. The beards even of the younger men might have been those of patriarchs, for the frost and the salt spray had made them white. I called the Dudley Docker alongside and found the condition of the people there was no better than in the James Caird. Obviously we must make land quickly, and I decided to run for Elephant Island. The wind had shifted fair for that rocky isle, then about one hundred miles away, and the pack that separated us from Hope Bay had closed up during the night from the south. At 6 p.m. we made a distribution of stores among the three boats, in view of the possibility of their being separated. The preparation of a hot breakfast was out of the question. The breeze was strong and the sea was running high in the loose pack around us. We had a cold meal, and I gave orders that all hands might eat as much as they pleased, this concession being due partly to a realization that we would have to jettison some of our stores when we reached open sea in order to lighten the boats. I hoped, moreover, that a full meal of cold rations would compensate to some extent for the lack of warm food and shelter. Unfortunately, some of the men were unable to take advantage of the extra food owing to seasickness. Poor fellows, it was bad enough to be huddled in the deeply laden, spray-swept boats, frost-bitten and half-frozen, without having the pangs of seasickness added to the list of their woes. But some smiles were caused even then by the plight of one man, who had a habit of accumulating bits of food against the day of starvation that he seemed always to think was at hand, and who was condemned now to watch impotently while hungry comrades with undisturbed stomachs made biscuits, rations, and sugar disappear with extraordinary rapidity.
We ran before the wind through the loose pack, a man in the bow of each boat trying to pole off with a broken oar the lumps of ice that could not be avoided. I regarded speed as essential. Sometimes collisions were not averted. The James Caird was in the lead, where she bore the brunt of the encounter with lurking fragments, and she was holed above the water-line by a sharp spur of ice, but this mishap did not stay us. Later the wind became stronger and we had to reef sails, so as not to strike the ice too heavily. The Dudley Docker came next to the James Caird and the Stancomb Wills followed. I had given order that the boats should keep 30 or 40 yds. apart, so as to reduce the danger of a collision if one boat was checked by the ice. The pack was thinning, and we came to occasional open areas where thin ice had formed during the night. When we encountered this new ice we had to shake the reef out of the sails in order to force a way through. Outside of the pack the wind must have been of hurricane force. Thousands of small dead fish were to be seen, killed probably by a cold current and the heavy weather. They floated in the water and lay on the ice, where they had been cast by the waves. The petrels and skua-gulls were swooping down and picking them up like sardines off toast.
We made our way through the lanes till at noon we were suddenly spewed out of the pack into the open ocean. Dark blue and sapphire green ran the seas. Our sails were soon up, and with a fair wind we moved over the waves like three Viking ships on the quest of a lost Atlantis. With the sheet well out and the sun shining bright above, we enjoyed for a few hours a sense of the freedom and magic of the sea, compensating us for pain and trouble in the days that had passed. At last we were free from the ice, in water that our boats could navigate. Thoughts of home, stifled by the deadening weight of anxious days and nights, came to birth once more, and the difficulties that had still to be overcome dwindled in fancy almost to nothing.
During the afternoon we had to take a second reef in the sails, for the wind freshened and the deeply laden boats were shipping much water and steering badly in the rising sea. I had laid the course for Elephant Island and we were making good progress. The Dudley Docker ran down to me at dusk and Worsley suggested that we should stand on all night; but already the Stancomb Wills was barely discernible among the rollers in the gathering dusk, and I decided that it would be safer to heave to and wait for the daylight. It would never have done for the boats to have become separated from one another during the night. The party must be kept together, and, moreover, I thought it possible that we might overrun our goal in the darkness and not be able to return. So we made a sea-anchor of oars and hove to, the Dudley Docker in the lead, since she had the longest painter. The James Caird swung astern of the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills again had the third place. We ate a cold meal and did what little we could to make things comfortable for the hours of darkness. Rest was not for us. During the greater part of the night the sprays broke over the boats and froze in masses of ice, especially at the stern and bows. This ice had to be broken away in order to prevent the boats growing too heavy. The temperature was below zero and the wind penetrated our clothes and chilled us almost unbearably. I doubted if all the men would survive that night. One of our troubles was lack of water. We had emerged so suddenly from the pack into the open sea that we had not had time to take aboard ice for melting in the cookers, and without ice we could not have hot food. The Dudley Docker had one lump of ice weighing about ten pounds, and this was shared out among all hands. We sucked small pieces and got a little relief from thirst engendered by the salt spray, but at the same time we reduced our bodily heat. The condition of most of the men was pitiable. All of us had swollen mouths and we could hardly touch the food. I longed intensely for the dawn. I called out to the other boats at intervals during the night, asking how things were with them. The men always managed to reply cheerfully. One of the people on the Stancomb Wills shouted, "We are doing all right, but I would like some dry mitts." The jest brought a smile to cracked lips. He might as well have asked for the moon. The only dry things aboard the boats were swollen mouths and burning tongues. Thirst is one of the troubles that confront the traveller in polar regions. Ice may be plentiful on every hand, but it does not become drinkable until it is melted, and the amount that may be dissolved in the mouth is limited. We had been thirsty during the days of heavy pulling in the pack, and our condition was aggravated quickly by the salt spray. Our sleeping-bags would have given us some warmth, but they were not within our reach. They were packed under the tents in the bows, where a mail-like coating of ice enclosed them, and we were so cramped that we could not pull them out.
At last daylight came, and with the dawn the weather cleared and the wind fell to a gentle south-westerly breeze. A magnificent sunrise heralded in what we hoped would be our last day in the boats. Rose-pink in the growing light, the lofty peak of Clarence Island told of the coming glory of the sun. The sky grew blue above us and the crests of the waves sparkled cheerfully. As soon as it was light enough we chipped and scraped the ice off the bows and sterns. The rudders had been unshipped during the night in order to avoid the painters catching them. We cast off our ice-anchor and pulled the oars aboard. They had grown during the night to the thickness of telegraph-poles while rising and falling in the freezing seas, and had to be chipped clear before they could be brought inboard.
We were dreadfully thirsty now. We found that we could get momentary relief by chewing pieces of raw seal meat and swallowing the blood, but thirst came back with redoubled force owing to the saltness of the flesh. I gave orders, therefore, that meat was to be served out only at stated intervals during the day or when thirst seemed to threaten the reason of any particular individual. In the full daylight Elephant Island showed cold and severe to the north-north-west. The island was on the bearings that Worsley had laid down, and I congratulated him on the accuracy of his navigation under difficult circumstances, with two days dead reckoning while following a devious course through the pack-ice and after drifting during two nights at the mercy of wind and waves. The Stancomb Wills came up and McIlroy reported that Blackborow's feet were very badly frost-bitten. This was unfortunate, but nothing could be done. Most of the people were frost-bitten to some extent, and it was interesting to notice that the "oldtimers," Wild, Crean, Hurley, and I, were all right. Apparently we were acclimatized to ordinary Antarctic temperature, though we learned later that we were not immune.
All day, with a gentle breeze on our port bow, we sailed and pulled through a clear sea. We would have given all the tea in China for a lump of ice to melt into water, but no ice was within our reach. Three bergs were in sight and we pulled towards them, hoping that a trail of brash would be floating on the sea to leeward; but they were hard and blue, devoid of any sign of cleavage, and the swell that surged around them as they rose and fell made it impossible for us to approach closely. The wind was gradually hauling ahead, and as the day wore on the rays of the sun beat fiercely down from a cloudless sky on pain-racked men. Progress was slow, but gradually Elephant Island came nearer. Always while I attended to the other boats, signalling and ordering, Wild sat at the tiller of the James Caird. He seemed unmoved by fatigue and unshaken by privation. About four o'clock in the afternoon a stiff breeze came up ahead and, blowing against the current, soon produced a choppy sea. During the next hour of hard pulling we seemed to make no progress at all. The James Caird and the Dudley Docker had been towing the Stancomb Wills in turn, but my boat now took the Stancomb Wills in tow permanently, as the James Caird could carry more sail than the Dudley Docker in the freshening wind.
We were making up for the south-east side of Elephant Island, the wind being between north-west and west. The boats, held as close to the wind as possible, moved slowly, and when darkness set in our goal was still some miles away. A heavy sea was running. We soon lost sight of the Stancomb Wills, astern of the James Caird at the length of the painter, but occasionally the white gleam of broken water revealed her presence. When the darkness was complete I sat in the stern with my hand on the painter, so that I might know if the other boat broke away, and I kept that position during the night. The rope grew heavy with the ice as the unseen seas surged past us and our little craft tossed to the motion of the waters. Just at dusk I had told the men on the Stancomb Wills that if their boat broke away during the night and they were unable to pull against the wind, they could run for the east side of Clarence Island and await our coming there. Even though we could not land on Elephant Island, it would not do to have the third boat adrift.
It was a stern night. The men, except the watch, crouched and huddled in the bottom of the boat, getting what little warmth they could from the soaking sleeping-bags and each other's bodies. Harder and harder blew the wind and fiercer and fiercer grew the sea. The boat plunged heavily through the squalls and came up to the wind, the sail shaking in the stiffest gusts. Every now and then, as the night wore on, the moon would shine down through a rift in the driving clouds, and in the momentary light I could see the ghostly faces of men, sitting up to trim the boat as she heeled over to the wind. When the moon was hidden its presence was revealed still by the light reflected on the streaming glaciers of the island. The temperature had fallen very low, and it seemed that the general discomfort of our situation could scarcely have been increased; but the land looming ahead was a beacon of safety, and I think we were all buoyed up by the hope that the coming day would see the end of our immediate troubles. At least we would get firm land under our feet. While the painter of the Stancomb Wills tightened and drooped under my hand, my thoughts were busy with plans for the future.
Towards midnight the wind shifted to the south-west, and this change enabled us to bear up closer to the island. A little later the Dudley Docker ran down to the James Caird, and Worsley shouted a suggestion that he should go ahead and search for a landing-place. His boat had the heels of the James Caird, with the Stancomb Wills in tow. I told him he could try, but he must not lose sight of the James Caird. Just as he left me a heavy snow-squall came down, and in the darkness the boats parted. I saw the Dudley Docker no more. This separation caused me some anxiety during the remaining hours of the night. A cross-sea was running and I could not feel sure that all was well with the missing boat. The waves could not be seen in the darkness, though the direction and force of the wind could be felt, and under such conditions, in an open boat, disaster might overtake the most experienced navigator. I flashed our compass-lamp on the sail in the hope that the signal would be visible on board the Dudley Docker, but could see no reply. We strained our eyes to windward in the darkness in the hope of catching a return signal and repeated our flashes at intervals.
My anxiety, as a matter of fact, was groundless. I will quote Worsley's own account of what happened to the Dudley Docker:
"About midnight we lost sight of the James Caird with the Stancomb Wills in tow, but not long after saw the light of the James Caird's compass-lamp, which Sir Ernest was flashing on their sail as a guide to us. We answered by lighting our candle under the tent and letting the light shine through. At the same time we got the direction of the wind and how we were hauling from my little pocket-compass, the boat's compass being smashed. With this candle our poor fellows lit their pipes, their only solace, as our raging thirst prevented us from eating anything. By this time we had got into a bad tide-rip, which, combined with the heavy, lumpy sea, made it almost impossible to keep the Dudley Docker from swamping. As it was we shipped several bad seas over the stern as well as abeam and over the bows, although we were ‘on a wind.' Lees, who owned himself to be a rotten oarsman, made good here by strenuous baling, in which he was well seconded by Cheetham. Greenstreet, a splendid fellow, relieved me at the tiller and helped generally. He and Macklin were my right and left bowers as stroke-oars throughout. McLeod and Cheetham were two good sailors and oars, the former a typical old deep-sea salt and growler, the latter a pirate to his finger-tips. In the height of the gale that night Cheetham was buying matches from me for bottles of champagne, one bottle per match (too cheap; I should have charged him two bottles). The champagne is to be paid when he opens his pub in Hull and I am able to call that way. . . . We had now had one hundred and eight hours of toil, tumbling, freezing, and soaking, with little or no sleep. I think Sir Ernest, Wild, Greenstreet, and I could say that we had no sleep at all. Although it was sixteen months since we had been in a rough sea, only four men were actually seasick, but several others were off colour.
"The temperature was 20° below freezing-point; fortunately, we were spared the bitterly low temperature of the previous night. Greenstreet's right foot got badly frost-bitten, but Lees restored it by holding it in his sweater against his stomach. Other men had minor frost-bites, due principally to the fact that their clothes were soaked through with salt water. . . . We were close to the land as the morning approached, but could see nothing of it through the snow and spindrift. My eyes began to fail me. Constant peering to windward, watching for seas to strike us, appeared to have given me a cold in the eyes. I could not see or judge distance properly, and found myself falling asleep momentarily at the tiller. At 3 a.m. Greenstreet relieved me there. I was so cramped from long hours, cold, and wet, in the constrained position one was forced to assume on top of the gear and stores at the tiller, that the other men had to pull me amidships and straighten me out like a jack-knife, first rubbing my thighs, groin, and stomach.
"At daylight we found ourselves close alongside the land, but the weather was so thick that we could not see where to make for a landing. Having taken the tiller again after an hour's rest under the shelter (save the mark!) of the dripping tent, I ran the Dudley Docker off before the gale, following the coast around to the north. This course for the first hour was fairly risky, the heavy sea before which we were running threatening to swamp the boat, but by 8 a.m. we had obtained a slight lee from the land. Then I was able to keep her very close in, along a glacier front, with the object of picking up lumps of fresh-water ice as we sailed through them. Our thirst was intense. We soon had some ice aboard, and for the next hour and a half we sucked and chewed fragments of ice with greedy relish.
"All this time we were coasting along beneath towering rocky cliffs and sheer glacier-faces, which offered not the slightest possibility of landing anywhere. At 9.30 a.m. we spied a narrow, rocky beach at the base of some very high crags and cliff, and made for it. To our joy, we sighted the James Caird and the Stancomb Wills sailing into the same haven just ahead of us. We were so delighted that we gave three cheers, which were not heard aboard the other boats owing to the roar of the surf. However, we soon joined them and were able to exchange experiences on the beach."
Our experiences on the James Caird had been similar, although we had not been able to keep up to windward as well as the Dudley Docker had done. This was fortunate as events proved, for the James Caird and Stancomb Wills went to leeward of the big bight the Dudley Docker entered and from which she had to turn out with the sea astern. We thus avoided the risk of having the Stancomb Wills swamped in the following sea. The weather was very thick in the morning. Indeed at 7 a.m. we were right under the cliffs, which plunged sheer into the sea, before we saw them. We followed the coast towards the north, and ever the precipitous cliffs and glacier-faces presented themselves to our searching eyes. The sea broke heavily against these walls and a landing would have been impossible under any conditions. We picked up pieces of ice and sucked them eagerly. At 9 a.m. at the north-west end of the island we saw a narrow beach at the foot of the cliffs. Outside lay a fringe of rocks heavily beaten by the surf but with a narrow channel showing as a break in the foaming water. I decided that we must face the hazards of this unattractive landing-place. Two days and nights without drink or hot food had played havoc with most of the men, and we could not assume that any safer haven lay within our reach. The Stancomb Wills was the lighter and handier boat—and I called her alongside with the intention of taking her through the gap first and ascertaining the possibilities of a landing before the James Caird made the venture. I was just climbing into the Stancomb Wills when I saw the Dudley Docker coming up astern under sail. The sight took a great load off my mind.
Rowing carefully and avoiding the blind rollers which showed where sunken rocks lay, we brought the Stancomb Wills towards the opening in the reef. Then, with a few strong strokes we shot through on the top of a swell and ran the boat on to a stony beach. The next swell lifted her a little farther. This was the first landing ever made on Elephant Island, and a thought came to me that the honour should belong to the youngest member of the Expedition, so I told Blackborow to jump over. He seemed to be in a state almost of coma, and in order to avoid delay I helped him, perhaps a little roughly, over the side of the boat. He promptly sat down in the surf and did not move. Then I suddenly realized what I had forgotten, that both his feet were frost-bitten badly. Some of us jumped over and pulled him into a dry place. It was a rather rough experience for Blackborow, but, anyhow, he is now able to say that he was the first man to sit on Elephant Island. Possibly at the time he would have been willing to forgo any distinction of the kind. We landed the cook with his blubber-stove, a supply of fuel and some packets of dried milk, and also several of the men. Then the rest of us pulled out again to pilot the other boats through the channel. The James Caird was too heavy to be beached directly, so after landing most of the men from the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills I superintended the transhipment of the James Caird's gear outside the reef. Then we all made the passage, and within a few minutes the three boats were aground. A curious spectacle met my eyes when I landed the second time. Some of the men were reeling about the beach as if they had found an unlimited supply of alcoholic liquor on the desolate shore. They were laughing uproariously, picking up stones and letting handfuls of pebbles trickle between their fingers like misers gloating over hoarded gold. The smiles and laughter, which caused cracked lips to bleed afresh, and the gleeful exclamations at the sight of two live seals on the beach made me think for a moment of that glittering hour of childhood when the door is open at last and the Christmas-tree in all its wonder bursts upon the vision. I remember that Wild, who always rose superior to fortune, bad and good, came ashore as I was looking at the men and stood beside me as easy and unconcerned as if he had stepped out of his car for a stroll in the park.
Soon half a dozen of us had the stores ashore. Our strength was nearly exhausted and it was heavy work carrying our goods over the rough pebbles and rocks to the foot of the cliff, but we dare not leave anything within reach of the tide. We had to wade knee-deep in the icy water in order to lift the gear from the boats. When the work was done we pulled the three boats a little higher on the beach and turned gratefully to enjoy the hot drink the cook had prepared. Those of us who were comparatively fit had to wait until the weaker members of the party had been supplied; but every man had his pannikin of hot milk in the end, and never did anything taste better. Seal steak and blubber followed, for the seals that had been careless enough to await our arrival on the beach had already given up their lives. There was no rest for the cook. The blubber-stove flared and spluttered fiercely as he cooked, not one meal, but many meals, which merged into a day-long bout of eating. We drank water and ate seal meat until every man had reached the limit of his capacity.
The tents were pitched with oars for supports, and by 3 p.m. our camp was in order. The original framework of the tents had been cast adrift on one of the floes in order to save weight. Most of the men turned in early for a safe and glorious sleep, to be broken only by the call to take a turn on watch. The chief duty of the watchman was to keep the blubber-stove alight, and each man on duty appeared to find it necessary to cook himself a meal during his watch, and a supper before he turned in again.
Wild, Worsley, and Hurley accompanied me on an inspection of our beach before getting into the tents. I almost wished then that I had postponed the examination until after sleep, but the sense of caution that the uncertainties of polar travel implant in one's mind had made me uneasy. The outlook we found to be anything but cheering. Obvious signs showed that at spring tides the little beach would be covered by the water right up to the foot of the cliffs. In a strong north-easterly gale, such as we might expect to experience at any time, the waves would pound over the scant barrier of the reef and break against the sheer sides of the rocky wall behind us. Well-marked terraces showed the effect of other gales, and right at the back of the beach was a small bit of wreckage not more than three feet long, rounded by the constant chafing it had endured. Obviously we must find some better resting-place. I decided not to share with the men the knowledge of the uncertainties of our situation until they had enjoyed the full sweetness of rest untroubled by the thought that at any minute they might be called to face peril again. The threat of the sea had been our portion during many, many days, and a respite meant much to weary bodies and jaded minds.
The accompanying plan will indicate our exact position more clearly than I can describe it. The cliffs at the back of the beach were inaccessible except at two points where there were steep snow-slopes. We were not worried now about food, for, apart from our own rations, there were seals on the beach and we could see others in the water outside the reef. Every now and then one of the animals would rise in the shallows and crawl up on the beach, which evidently was a recognized place of resort for its kind. A small rocky island which protected us to some extent from the north-westerly wind carried a ringed-penguin rookery. These birds were of migratory habit and might be expected to leave us before the winter set in fully, but in the meantime they were within our reach. These attractions, however, were overridden by the fact that the beach was open to the attack of wind and sea from the north-east and east. Easterly gales are more prevalent than western in that area of the Antarctic during the winter. Before turning in that night I studied the whole position and weighed every chance of getting the boats and our stores into a place of safety out of reach of the water. We ourselves might have clambered a little way up the snow-slopes, but we could not have taken the boats with us. The interior of the island was quite inaccessible. We climbed up one of the slopes and found ourselves stopped soon by overhanging cliffs. The rocks behind the camp were much weathered, and we noticed the sharp, unworn boulders that had fallen from above. Clearly there was a danger from overhead if we camped at the back of the beach. We must move on. With that thought in mind I reached my tent and fell asleep on the rubbly ground, which gave a comforting sense of stability. The fairy princess who would not rest on her seven downy mattresses because a pea lay underneath the pile might not have understood the pleasure we all derived from the irregularities of the stones, which could not possibly break beneath us or drift away; the very searching lumps were sweet reminders of our safety.
Early next morning (April 15) all hands were astir. The sun soon shone brightly and we spread out our wet gear to dry, till the beach looked like a particularly disreputable gipsy camp. The boots and clothing had suffered considerably during our travels. I had decided to send Wild along the coast in the Stancomb Wills to look for a new camping-ground, and he and I discussed the details of the journey while eating our breakfast of hot seal steak and blubber. The camp I wished to find was one where the party could live for weeks or even months in safety, without danger from sea or wind in the heaviest winter gale. Wild was to proceed westwards along the coast and was to take with him four of the fittest men, Marston, Crean, Vincent, and McCarthy. If he did not return before dark we were to light a flare, which would serve him as a guide to the entrance of the channel. The Stancomb Wills pushed off at 11 a.m. and quickly passed out of sight around the island. Then Hurley and I walked along the beach towards the west, climbing through a gap between the cliff and a great detached pillar of basalt. The narrow strip of beach was cumbered with masses of rock that had fallen from the cliffs. We struggled along for two miles or more in the search for a place where we could get the boats ashore and make a permanent camp in the event of Wild's search proving fruitless, but after three hours' vain toil we had to turn back. We had found on the far side of the pillar of basalt a crevice in the rocks beyond the reach of all but the heaviest gales. Rounded pebbles showed that the seas reached the spot on occasions. Here I decided to depot ten cases of Bovril sledging ration in case of our having to move away quickly. We could come back for the food at a later date if opportunity offered.
Returning to the camp, we found the men resting or attending to their gear. Clark had tried angling in the shallows off the rocks and had secured one or two small fish. The day passed quietly. Rusty needles were rubbed bright on the rocks and clothes were mended and darned. A feeling of tiredness—due, I suppose, to reaction after the strain of the preceding days—overtook us, but the rising tide, coming farther up the beach than it had done on the day before, forced us to labour at the boats, which we hauled slowly to a higher ledge. We found it necessary to move our makeshift camp nearer the cliff. I portioned out the available ground for the tents, the galley, and other purposes, as every foot was of value. When night arrived the Stancomb Wills was still away, so I had a blubber-flare lit at the head of the channel.
About 8 p.m. we heard a hail in the distance. We could see nothing, but soon like a pale ghost out of the darkness came the boat, the faces of the men showing white in the glare of the fire. Wild ran her on the beach with the swell, and within a couple of minutes we had dragged her to a place of safety. I was waiting Wild's report with keen anxiety, and my relief was great when he told me that he had discovered a sandy spit seven miles to the west, about 200 yds. long, running out at right angles to the coast and terminating at the seaward end in a mass of rock. A long snow-slope joined the spit at the shore end, and it seemed possible that a "dugout" could be made in the snow. The spit, in any case, would be a great improvement on our narrow beach. Wild added that the place he described was the only possible camping-ground he had seen. Beyond, to the west and south-west, lay a frowning line of cliffs and glaciers, sheer to the water's edge. He thought that in very heavy gales either from the south-west or east the spit would be spray-blown, but that the seas would not actually break over it. The boats could be run up on a shelving beach.
After hearing this good news I was eager to get away from the beach camp. The wind when blowing was favourable for the run along the coast. The weather had been fine for two days and a change might come at any hour. I told all hands that we would make a start early on the following morning. A newly killed seal provided a luxurious supper of steak and blubber, and then we slept comfortably till the dawn.
The morning of April 17 came fine and clear. The sea was smooth, but in the offing we could see a line of pack, which seemed to be approaching. We had noticed already pack and bergs being driven by the current to the east and then sometimes coming back with a rush to the west. The current ran as fast as five miles an hour, and it was a set of this kind that had delayed Wild on his return from the spit. The rise and fall of the tide was only about five feet at this time, but the moon was making for full and the tides were increasing. The appearance of ice emphasized the importance of getting away promptly. It would be a serious matter to be prisoned on the beach by the pack. The boats were soon afloat in the shallows, and after a hurried breakfast all hands worked hard getting our gear and stores aboard. A mishap befell us when we were launching the boats. We were using oars as rollers, and three of these were broken, leaving us short for the journey that had still to be undertaken. The preparations took longer than I had expected; indeed, there seemed to be some reluctance on the part of several men to leave the barren safety of the little beach and venture once more on the ocean. But the move was imperative, and by 11 a.m. we were away, the James Caird leading. Just as we rounded the small island occupied by the ringed penguins the "willywaw" swooped down from the 2000-ft. cliffs behind us, a herald of the southerly gale that was to spring up within half an hour.
Soon we were straining at the oars with the gale on our bows. Never had we found a more severe task. The wind shifted from the south to the south-west, and the shortage of oars became a serious matter. The James Caird, being the heaviest boat, had to keep a full complement of rowers, while the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills went short and took turns using the odd oar. A big swell was thundering against the cliffs and at times we were almost driven on to the rocks by swirling green waters. We had to keep close inshore in order to avoid being embroiled in the raging sea, which was lashed snow-white and quickened by the furious squalls into a living mass of sprays. After two hours of strenuous labour we were almost exhausted, but we were fortunate enough to find comparative shelter behind a point of rock. Overhead towered the sheer cliffs for hundreds of feet, the sea-birds that fluttered from the crannies of the rock dwarfed by the height. The boats rose and fell in the big swell, but the sea was not breaking in our little haven, and we rested there while we ate our cold ration. Some of the men had to stand by the oars in order to pole the boats off the cliff-face.
After half an hour's pause I gave the order to start again. The Dudley Docker was pulling with three oars, as the Stancomb Wills had the odd one, and she fell away to leeward in a particularly heavy squall. I anxiously watched her battling up against wind and sea. It would have been useless to take the James Caird back to the assistance of the Dudley Docker since we were hard pressed to make any progress ourselves in the heavier boat. The only thing was to go ahead and hope for the best. All hands were wet to the skin again and many men were feeling the cold severely. We forged on slowly and passed inside a great pillar of rock standing out to sea and towering to a height of about 2400 ft. A line of reef stretched between the shore and this pillar, and I thought as we approached that we would have to face the raging sea outside; but a break in the white surf revealed a gap in the reef and we laboured through, with the wind driving clouds of spray on our port beam. The Stancomb Wills followed safely. In the stinging spray I lost sight of the Dudley Docker altogether. It was obvious she would have to go outside the pillar as she was making so much leeway, but I could not see what happened to her and I dared not pause. It was a bad time. At last, about 5 p.m., the James Caird and the Stancomb Wills reached comparatively calm water and we saw Wild's beach just ahead of us. I looked back vainly for the Dudley Docker.
Rocks studded the shallow water round the spit and the sea surged amongst them. I ordered the Stancomb Wills to run on to the beach at the place that looked smoothest, and in a few moments the first boat was ashore, the men jumping out and holding her against the receding wave. Immediately I saw she was safe I ran the James Caird in. Some of us scrambled up the beach through the fringe of the surf and slipped the painter round a rock, so as to hold the boat against the backwash. Then we began to get the stores and gear out, working like men possessed, for the boats could not be pulled up till they had been emptied. The blubber-stove was quickly alight and the cook began to prepare a hot drink. We were labouring at the boats when I noticed Rickenson turn white and stagger in the surf. I pulled him out of reach of the water and sent him up to the stove, which had been placed in the shelter of some rocks. McIlroy went to him and found that his heart had been temporarily unequal to the strain placed upon it. He was in a bad way and needed prompt medical attention. There are some men who will do more than their share of work and who will attempt more than they are physically able to accomplish. Rickenson was one of these eager souls. He was suffering, like many other members of the Expedition, from bad salt-water boils. Our wrists, arms, and legs were attacked. Apparently this infliction was due to constant soaking with sea-water, the chafing of wet clothes, and exposure.
I was very anxious about the Dudley Docker, and my eyes as well as my thoughts were turned eastward as we carried the stores ashore; but within half an hour the missing boat appeared, labouring through the spume-white sea, and presently she reached the comparative calm of the bay. We watched her coming with that sense of relief that the mariner feels when he crosses the harbour-bar. The tide was going out rapidly, and Worsley lightened the Dudley Docker by placing some cases on an outer rock, where they were retrieved subsequently. Then he beached his boat, and with many hands at work we soon had our belongings ashore and our three craft above high-water mark. The spit was by no means an ideal camping-ground; it was rough, bleak, and inhospitable—just an acre or two of rock and shingle, with the sea foaming around it except where the snow-slope, running up to a glacier, formed the landward boundary. But some of the larger rocks provided a measure of shelter from the wind, and as we clustered round the blubber-stove, with the acrid smoke blowing into our faces, we were quite a cheerful company. After all, another stage of the homeward journey had been accomplished and we could afford to forget for an hour the problems of the future. Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier, and our chilled bodies grew warm. Then we dried a little tobacco at the stove and enjoyed our pipes before we crawled into our tents. The snow had made it impossible for us to find the tide-line and we were uncertain how far the sea was going to encroach upon our beach. I pitched my tent on the seaward side of the camp so that I might have early warning of danger, and, sure enough, about 2 a.m. a little wave forced its way under the tent-cloth. This was a practical demonstration that we had not gone far enough back from the sea, but in the semi-darkness it was difficult to see where we could find safety. Perhaps it was fortunate that experience had inured us to the unpleasantness of sudden forced changes of camp. We took down the tents and re-pitched them close against the high rocks at the seaward end of the spit, where large boulders made an uncomfortable resting-place. Snow was falling heavily. Then all hands had to assist in pulling the boats farther up the beach, and at this task we suffered a serious misfortune. Two of our four bags of clothing had been placed under the bilge of the James Caird, and before we realized the danger a wave had lifted the boat and carried the two bags back into the surf. We had no chance of recovering them. This accident did not complete the tale of the night's misfortunes. The big eight-man tent was blown to pieces in the early morning. Some of the men who had occupied it took refuge in other tents, but several remained in their sleeping-bags under the fragments of cloth until it was time to turn out.
A southerly gale was blowing on the morning of April 18 and the drifting snow was covering everything. The outlook was cheerless indeed, but much work had to be done and we could not yield to the desire to remain in the sleeping-bags. Some sea-elephants were lying about the beach above high-water mark, and we killed several of the younger ones for their meat and blubber. The big tent could not be replaced, and in order to provide shelter for the men we turned the Dudley Docker upside down and wedged up the weather side with boulders. We also lashed the painter and stern-rope round the heaviest rocks we could find, so as to guard against the danger of the boat being moved by the wind. The two bags of clothing were bobbing about amid the brash and glacier-ice to the windward side of the spit, and it did not seem possible to reach them. The gale continued all day, and the fine drift from the surface of the glacier was added to the big flakes of snow falling from the sky. I made a careful examination of the spit with the object of ascertaining its possibilities as a camping-ground. Apparently, some of the beach lay above high-water mark and the rocks that stood above the shingle gave a measure of shelter. It would be possible to mount the snow-slope towards the glacier in fine weather, but I did not push my exploration in that direction during the gale. At the seaward end of the spit was the mass of rock already mentioned. A few thousand ringed penguins, with some gentoos, were on these rocks, and we had noted this fact with a great deal of satisfaction at the time of our landing. The ringed penguin is by no means the best of the penguins from the point of view of the hungry traveller, but it represents food. At 8 a.m. that morning I noticed the ringed penguins mustering in orderly fashion close to the water's edge, and thought that they were preparing for the daily fishing excursion; but presently it became apparent that some important move was on foot. They were going to migrate, and with their departure much valuable food would pass beyond our reach. Hurriedly we armed ourselves with pieces of sledge-runner and other improvised clubs, and started towards the rookery. We were too late. The leaders gave their squawk of command and the columns took to the sea in unbroken ranks. Following their leaders, the penguins dived through the surf and reappeared in the heaving water beyond. A very few of the weaker birds took fright and made their way back to the beach, where they fell victims later to our needs; but the main army went northwards and we saw them no more. We feared that the gentoo penguins might follow the example of their ringed cousins, but they stayed with us; apparently they had not the migratory habit. They were comparatively few in number, but from time to time they would come in from the sea and walk up our beach. The gentoo is the most strongly marked of all the smaller varieties of penguins as far as colouring is concerned, and it far surpasses the adelie in weight of legs and breast, the points that particularly appealed to us.
The deserted rookery was sure to be above high-water mark at all times; and we mounted the rocky ledge in search of a place to pitch our tents. The penguins knew better than to rest where the sea could reach them even when the highest tide was supported by the strongest gale. The disadvantages of a camp on the rookery were obvious. The smell was strong, to put it mildly, and was not likely to grow less pronounced when the warmth of our bodies thawed the surface. But our choice of places was not wide, and that afternoon we dug out a site for two tents in the debris of the rookery, levelling it off with snow and rocks. My tent, No. 1, was pitched close under the cliff, and there during my stay on Elephant Island I lived. Crean's tent was close by, and the other three tents, which had fairly clean snow under them, were some yards away. The fifth tent was a ramshackle affair. The material of the torn eight-man tent had been drawn over a rough framework of oars, and shelter of a kind provided for the men who occupied it.
The arrangement of our camp, the checking of our gear, the killing and skinning of seals and sea-elephants occupied us during the day, and we took to our sleeping-bags early. I and my companions in No. 1 tent were not destined to spend a pleasant night. The heat of our bodies soon melted the snow and refuse beneath us and the floor of the tent became an evil smelling yellow mud. The snow drifting from the cliff above us weighted the sides of the tent, and during the night a particularly stormy gust brought our little home down on top of us. We stayed underneath the snow-laden cloth till the morning, for it seemed a hopeless business to set about re-pitching the tent amid the storm that was raging in the darkness of the night.
The weather was still bad on the morning of April 19. Some of the men were showing signs of demoralization. They were disinclined to leave the tents when the hour came for turning out, and it was apparent they were thinking more of the discomforts of the moment than of the good fortune that had brought us to sound ground and comparative safety. The condition of the gloves and headgear shown me by some discouraged men illustrated the proverbial carelessness of the sailor. The articles had frozen stiff during the night, and the owners considered, it appeared, that this state of affairs provided them with a grievance, or at any rate gave them the right to grumble. They said they wanted dry clothes and that their health would not admit of their doing any work. Only by rather drastic methods were they induced to turn to. Frozen gloves and helmets undoubtedly are very uncomfortable, and the proper thing is to keep these articles thawed by placing them inside one's shirt during the night.
The southerly gale, bringing with it much snow, was so severe that as I went along the beach to kill a seal I was blown down by a gust. The cooking-pots from No. 2 tent took a flying run into the sea at the same moment. A case of provisions which had been placed on them to keep them safe had been capsized by a squall. These pots, fortunately, were not essential, since nearly all our cooking was done over the blubber-stove. The galley was set up by the rocks close to my tent, in a hole we had dug through the debris of the penguin rookery. Cases of stores gave some shelter from the wind and a spread sail kept some of the snow off the cook when he was at work. He had not much idle time. The amount of seal and sea-elephant steak and blubber consumed by our hungry party was almost incredible. He did not lack assistance—the neighbourhood of the blubber-stove had attractions for every member of the party; but he earned everybody's gratitude by his unflagging energy in preparing meals that to us at least were savoury and satisfying. Frankly, we needed all the comfort that the hot food could give us. The icy fingers of the gale searched every cranny of our beach and pushed relentlessly through our worn garments and tattered tents. The snow, drifting from the glacier and falling from the skies, swathed us and our gear and set traps for our stumbling feet. The rising sea beat against the rocks and shingle and tossed fragments of floe-ice within a few feet of our boats. Once during the morning the sun shone through the racing clouds and we had a glimpse of blue sky; but the promise of fair weather was not redeemed. The consoling feature of the situation was that our camp was safe. We could endure the discomforts, and I felt that all hands would be benefited by the opportunity for rest and recuperation.
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