Reading: Shackleton's Boat Journey by Frank Worsley

Pulling away from the Andes as we head out through the Beagle Channel

After twenty-two hours at sea we are well into the Drake passage, the notorious, brutal seas dividing Cape Horn from the spur of Antarctica. According to those who have been to the bridge and read the latest fax, there is horrible weather to the west, foaming its way towards us, but at the moment the seas are comparatively calm. Essentially we are in a race to see if we can reach the more sheltered waters of the island system surrounding the Antarctic peninsula before the storm barrels down upon us. The Alexey Maryshev, our luxuriously appointed former fishing trawler, already has a good roll going, but the weather is glorious. A bit of white chop dusts the tops of the rollers in the surroundings seas, like confectioner's sugar, but the sun is shining through a patchwork of expansive puffy clouds. Black-browed (2788) and Wandering Albatross have accompanied us throughout the day as we power southwards at a steady eleven knots. All of us are wearing seasickness patches, which time-release the former truth-serum drug scopalomine into our necks, but the seas so far seem hardly to merit it. The problem with seasickness remedies, like all prophylactics, is that one only knows if they are not working.

When Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, set out in a twenty-two foot open boat in the opposite direction, heading from the islands of the Antarctic peninsula towards South Georgia, it is unlikely that any of the rowers had these miraculous flesh-colored round dime-sized band-aids affixed behind their ears. Seasickness was the least of their worries. Worsley's commission, the Shackleton expedition's ship, had been crushed to splinters in the sea ice some two hundred nautical miles to the east of the peninsula, leaving the entire crew stranded amidst an endless vista of pack-ice just as their camp was melting and fracturing. As watery channels began to open up like wrinkles on an octogenarian, the twenty-eight intrepid explorers launched what had been the Endurance's lifeboats, aiming for Elephant Island, just to the north of the annual freeze-zone. From here Shackleton proposed to take the most able-bodied of the group and continue on to the nearest inhabited land at South Georgia, hundreds of nautical miles to the north-east, where they knew of an active but seasonal whale-flensing station.

After a lengthy pause in my personal narrative, during which I climbed above the bridge to the observation deck, and swayed back and forth while looking for the pelagic ornithological specialities of the Drake passage, we are now some thirty hours into our journey. The storm still threatens from the west, and it is dark once more. There is no view of the horizon from my porthole to keep one grounded in the midst of the inexorable swaying and rocking of the stateroom. The Alexey Maryshev is some two hundred and sixteen feet long, built of steel in Finland. We've just enjoyed a gourmet three-course meal of brie-en-croute, fresh mixed salad, and breaded boneless lamb over couscous, served with copious measures of fine Argentine tinto, making it hard to imagine the deprivations suffered by Shackleton's men in the same waters. The ship is rocking more than ever, but the scopalomine patch seems to be doing the trick, and at the moment I fear hangover more than seasickness. To each side of the ship, hanging in the davits, are spacious, fully enclosed, virtually submersible plastic lifeboats, looking like orange versions of the cartoon yellow submarine. They have curved roofs and locking hatches, so that were we to be shipwrecked we could bob about in them on almost any seas, making satellite phone calls and eating the high-calorie rations packed within. Yesterday afternoon, during the fire drill, we made great sport of clambering in and out of them in our life-preservers, laughing at the unlikelihood of their ever seeing use.

We all live in a Yellow Submarine...

How do you say "Zulu" in Russian?

It was Professor Alan Ashworth, my friend and camp-mate in the Dry Valleys of Antarctic, who told me that in my mania for Antarctic literature I must absolutely be sure and read Worsley's book, unimaginatively titled Shackleton's Boat Journey. "It's a quick read," Ashworth said, "but I think it might be my favorite of all the books of the greats of Antarctic exploration." This was about the time that "Douglas, don't eat me," had become the battle cry, or at least the in-joke amongst our slowly-frying crew. Although we were camped far from the rest of humanity in the Friis Hills, I duly noted the title and ordered a copy as soon as I was back at McMurdo in reach of a computer.

There are many things to like about this book, beyond, in the context of numerous contemporaneous six-hundred page epics, its merciful brevity. Worsley is honest, virtually ego-less, and far more willing to tell a ribald tale than the rest of his stodgy, self-censoring, Victorian peers. (Were we to believe, prior to Worsley, that countless parties of polar explorers, Norwegian, British, Australian, all male, spent years away from home parked in close quarters on the ice without making a single tits or ass joke?) He writes simply and directly for paragraph after paragraph and is a master of a sort of final and often sarcastic summary sentence that drives the narrative forward.

At seven on the morning after our second night on board I clambered up to the pitching observation deck, where I spent most of yesterday observing prions, petrels and albatrosses under sunny skies. This morning could not be more different. In the night we have crossed the Antarctic convergence, and here the water is several degrees colder. All around the ship the cobalt black ocean lies churning and pounding beneath an impenetrable and infinite blanket of dense fog. Yesterday's pleasant breeze is gone, and with it the whitecaps, but the swell has thickened, and the Maryshev is feverishly rolling like a baker on a deadline. To try to walk to the rail is to find oneself running full-speed downhill on the damp steel deck; just as you fear your momentum will carry you over the edge, the ship rolls back up and you find yourself clambering up a mountainside reaching for an elusive handhold.

Thankfully the controls on the Alexey Maryshev are completely intuitive, so that should the Russian crew become incapacitated I should have no problem taking over and "flying the plane."

I did not sleep well this night, despite the crisp Egyptian cotton duvet in my stateroom. I slid up and down the length of the bed so often I am surprised that I am not covered with friction burns like an extended-stay hospital patient. I lay awake, measuring the extent of the pitch and roll by various noises in my suite. On a mild surge the curtain hooks above my head would slide down the rail; a more severe one rattled the bottles in the wine rack and unlatched the bathroom cabinet door. The worst lifted the toilet seat up to slam against the bathroom wall.

According to my hand-held GPS, Elephant Island lies some 150 nautical miles to the east of our present position. It was to that forbidding lump of rock that Shackleton and Worsley rowed the Endurance's lifeboats from their precarious camp on the pack ice. Worsley begins his account with this miserable excursion, a remarkable thing in itself; as captain of the Endurance he had just suffered the defeat of watching her destroyed and sunk. Most explorer accounts of the era would have started this story with several hundred pages chronicling every trial and tribulation of the expedition, from the provisioning of the Endurance and the hiring of the ship's carpenter right through to the sad sight of her last splinter being blown across the ice-sheet. Instead Worsley dispenses with the Endurance in the first two terse paragraphs of his book and plunges into the far more horrifying adventure of her crew, marooned in the uninhabited deepest south.

As the floe beneath their tents started to reach the edge of the pack ice and break apart, the party loaded into three open boats on the eve of Antarctic winter. Very shortly they emerged into the open seas of the Drake passage. With the boats in constant danger of swamping, as they had only inches of freeboard, Shackleton camps on a floating berg and determines that they must jettison the best part of their stores if they are to sail any further:

"...we abandoned one week's supply of food. While we pitched the tents and secured the boats, Green raided the abandoned stores. Presently he produced the best and largest meal we had eaten for five months."

After some days of drifting back down towards the dreaded south the trio of rowboats suddenly found they were able to make headway through the treacherous minefield of pack-ice fragments and baby bergs in which the were bobbing. A favorable wind sprung up and they were delivered.

The Maryshev in brash ice

Worsley had, he writes, one hour of sleep out of the hundred it took to reach Elephant Island. The others had scarcely more:

"It had been impossible to sleep in the two open boats [the James Caird, the largest and best of the boats, had been decked over, in situ]. In the Docker we laid our flimsy tent on the ice-clad boxes of stores. Pulling its folds over us, we compressed ourselves into a shivering mass of humanity. We were like those monkeys which, during a cold night in the forest, lock themselves into a ball for mutual warmth. If one gets left out and, pushing in, disturbs the others, a furious row ensues. So it was with us. When some shivering unfortunate on the outside tried to push in, there instantly arose a frightful burst of profanity and dire threats of vengeance from the disturbed men.
Greenstreet and I bore this till some time after midnight. We then crawled out, swung our arms, stamped our feet, punched each other, and occasionally solaced ourselves by smoking. We used four valuable matches.
When daylight came we stood looking for some time at the writhing mass of suffering men clearly outlined under the tent. It shook and heaved up and down. It trembled and wriggled. Ever and again, at some fresh convulsion, it emitted terrible oaths profaning the morning air. Suddenly we could stand it no longer. We burst into such yells of laughter that we roused the crews of the other boats as well as our own. We were possibly a bit overwrought, but even now, years after, I laugh whenever I recall that scene."

Jeff, Maximilian, Kim, Anitra, Kai and Will huddle together for warmth in the Zodiac

As for ourselves, on this, the next morning, we headed out in Zodiacs, twenty foot black rubber inflatable motor launches, to Cuverville Island, home to one of the world's largest Gentoo Penguin colonies. Within seconds of getting into the boats a Leopard Seal rose to the surface and showed us his teeth. Spectacular, gray-blue and white and sleek and fast, the Leopard Seal is the major predator of the region, capable of gobbling penguins like jellybeans. A Minke Whale breached in the distance, and once on shore we tramped amongst hundreds of Gentoos and a few Antarctic Fur Seals in a spectacular and stark landscape of floating blue icebergs and towering black cliffs. Towards the end of our visit to the penguin colony the wind came up, first to fifteen, then to twenty and twenty five knots. Our support staff determined that it was too dangerous to return to the Maryshev where she lay 800 meters away, so we arranged a rendezvous in the sheltered ice-cove behind Cuverville Island. Here a party of Humpback Whales were cavorting, a spectacular sight, but I could not help thinking that Shackleton's open boats were much the same size as our zodiacs, and that in them his sailors had braved sixty miles of unsheltered wind-whipped open ocean, fearful that Orcas would upset their fragile craft and devour them whole.

On Cuverville Island, one-hundred-year-old bleached whale-ribs, the only trash we saw on the entire journey, remnants of the thriving whale-slaughtering industry of the last century.

Gentoo penguins are better equipped for the icy rain than the sound recordist

As impressive and death-defying as the open-boat journey to Elephant Island was, it was only a prelude to the daring and seemingly suicidal crossing from Elephant Island to South Georgia, many hundreds of miles to the north-east. Shackleton, Worsley, Tom Crean and three others determined to make the attempt in the James Caird, the most seaworthy of the three boats. Some years ago, long before it had ever occurred to me that I might one day have the chance to visit Antarctica, when the Shackleton exhibition was touring museums around the country, I went to it, almost by chance. The exhibit which most impressed me was one simulating the conditions under which Worsley would have had to take bearings while on board the Caird. A video screen presented a tilting horizon of savage waves in motion, constantly wandering from the horizontal. The idea was to "shoot the sun" with a sextant. My repeated efforts were all miserable failures that would have had me steering the James Caird into the oblivion of the South Atlantic. Worsley describes his observational tactics:

"The day before I had taken observations of the sun, cuddling the mast with one arm and swinging fore and aft round the mast, sextant and all. This day I found the best way was, sitting on the deck, to jam one foot between the mast and halyards, the other against the shroud, and catch the sun when the boat leaped her highest on the crest of a sea, allowing the 'height of eye' accordingly."

It was a rare day that Worsley was able to see the sun at all; after thirteen days out he notes that "since leaving Elephant Island I had only been able to get the sun four times, two of these being mere snaps or guesses through slight rifts in the clouds." The rest of his navigation was by dead reckoning, the mental averaging of compass direction (and Worsley notes that "at all hours the iron rod of the pump was working up and down within a few inches of the compass") with estimated boat speed, apparent current, and wind-drift, all unmeasurable on the James Caird.

Soaked through to the skin almost from the moment they cleared the lee of Elephant Island, the men soon began to suffer from thirst, for they had come free of the ice so fast on their first day out that, having neglected to collect chunks of it as a water supply they spent much of the remainder of the three-week journey licking their lips and scanning the sea for errant northward-drifting bergs. Worsley is a master at conveying the grotesque unpleasantnesses suffered by the six sailors trying to carry out those most basic of functions, eating and sleeping, in their cramped and soggy circumstances.

"The worst feature of meals," he writes, "was insufficient headroom to sit upright. One has no idea, before making the experiment, how uncomfortable, even distressing, this is. The chest is pressed down on the stomach; one swallows with difficulty, and the food appears to have no room to go down. To ease matters, one leant first on one elbow and then on the other, and tried lying on stones and boxes, imagining one was a Roman emperor reclining luxuriously at an epicurean banquet."

Of sleeping he writes that "we had stowed all stores to the best possible advantage on the ballast. Our sleeping bags were laid in the bows on top of food boxes, whose sharp corners stuck into our bodies in inconvenient and painful fashion. It was a strange cabin, seven feet long, five feet wide at one end, tapering to a point at the other. Barely room to sit up after crawling in through the narrow space between the ballast and stores below and the thwart above. What a crawl! It became a nightmare. The first part on hands and knees over sharp stones--nasty knobbly stones and round stones over which you slipped off and on, the Southern Ocean meantime draining out of your clothes and finneskoe boots. Then came the passage! You braced yourself up--or rather down; crawling and wriggling on chest and stomach, you insinuated yourself between the ballast and the thwart. Halfway through you paused for breath--you became exhausted and doubted if life was worth living, but then came a gentle nudge from the next man's head or shoulder against your after-end, and you again moved reluctantly forward...."

Home, sweet home; not your average twenty-two foot-long wooden tub...

To complete the picture one must now imagine the incessant drenchings and churnings of the twenty-two foot Caird lurching, rising, falling, and slamming her way through the eight, ten, twenty and thirty foot seas of the Southern Ocean. I can easily imagine these horrors, for on board the Alexey Maryshev, a Finnish-built steel research vessel more than two hundred feet long, half of us are green, and the roll-indicator on the bridge frequently grazes the thirty degree mark, sending books, microphones, ipods and hats and gloves skittering across the floor of my stateroom. Cosseted and coddled, served three gourmet meals a day prepared by a chef flown in from New Zealand specifically for this excursion, many of us still manage to be miserable on the seas of the Drake passage. Fresh towels are provided daily. I have my own head, complete with hot shower. How embarrassing.

Will the chambermaids be stopping by shortly to tidy up my quarters?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What fantastic pictures on this blog - inky seas and
spume miles high.
Is that fog? spray? mirage?
Thanks for keeping us posted.