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Original Endurance

The Original Endurance and Sir Ernest Shackleton

The original ship Endurance was initially built to carry polar bear hunting parties into the arctic. As such she was designed to withstand icy seas and a significant degree of pressure. Christened the Polaris she was bought by the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition and renamed the 'Endurance' by Sir Ernest Shackleton, an Antarctic explorer, specifically for his attempt at crossing the Antarctic continent. In August 1914 she sailed from London with South America as her first port of call where the remainder the expedition members and dogs would join.

In 1901 Sir Ernest Shackleton had first been to the Antarctic as a member of Robert F Scotts National Antarctic Expedition. In 1907 he had led his own expedition with the aim of reaching the South Pole, but was forced to turn back 97 miles short, having run out of food. The Norwegian Roald Amundsun was the first to reach the South Pole in 1912, but Shackletons fascination for the continent and urge for exploring was not quelled. He proposed to lead the first expedition to cross the continent.

The plan was simple; a team would approach from the Ross Sea (on the other side of the continent) and lay food caches at intervals to the pole, returning then to their ship. Another team would approach from the Weddell Sea (the Endurance party) sledging with dogs to the pole using their own rations, and using the caches previously laid down for them on the journey to the Ross Sea.

At Buenos Aires the Endurance embarked the expeditions photographer, Frank Hurley, along with 69 Canadian bred dogs to be used for pulling the sledges. The ship and its 28 men (including one stowaway) sailed from Buenos Aires on 26 Oct 1914 bound for South Georgia, the last port of call before the Antarctic itself. Arrival into Grytviken was on the 5 November. Whilst they were made welcome by the predominantly Norwegian whalers, demoralising news awaited. The whaling skippers reported that the ice in the Weddell sea was the worst it had ever been, and attempted to persuade Shackleton to wait until the following year. Never one to give up, Shackleton decided only to delay in the hope that the progressing summer would result in the melting of the ice. While they waited the men were entertained by and extended hospitality to the whalers of not only Grytviken, but also Stromness, a whaling station some 15 miles up the South Georgia coast from Grytviken. The ice situation did indeed improve and on the 5 December 1914 the Endurance sailed from Grytviken for the Weddell Sea.

The Weddell Sea (link to map) is roughly spherical, hemmed in on 3 sides by land masses. On one by the Palmer Peninsula, the Antarctic continent on another and the islands of the South Sandwich group on the 3rd. Thus the ice tends to be trapped and unable to float out to the warmer north and melt and a significant amount remains throughout the year. The prevailing current that moves in a clockwise direction tends to pack the ice hard against the Palmer Peninsula. This is almost directly opposite where Shackleton intended to land (Vahsal Bay), and he hoped that as summer progressed enough ice would melt and the pack would break up to the point where Endurance could pass behind the ice along the lee shore.

They reached the pack ice (sea ice as opposed to glacial ice, that extends out from the ice shelf and is in effect the top layer of frozen sea) on the 11 December, and were unable to make more than 30 miles a day (in open seas they had previously been covering 200 miles a day). Fortune smiled upon them and they were able to clear the pack on Jan 9th, making progress down behind the ice between it and the lee shore, but on the 18th of Jan their luck ran out, the ice closed in and froze around the ship. Despite building up a full head of steam the Endurance was unable to make progress in any direction, the ice was too thick. On the 24th Feb, after nearly 6 weeks frozen in place Shackleton acknowledged that as summer was drawing to a close they were unlikely to be able to break free that season cancelling the sea watches, and instead setting up a system of night-watchmen. The ship was frozen into the ice, and as such was likely to be carried with the ice as it moved around the bay in a clockwise direction. In this manner although beset by ice the ship was covering approximately two and a half miles a day around the bay. Unfortunately this was now taking the ship away from the intended landing site, and completion of the expedition began to look less likely.

In the first few days of May the sun slipped below the horizon for the last time that year, and although a eerie half-light persisted for a few weeks it was soon complete night. The average temperature in June was -17 degrees celsius, and it dropped as low as -35. For the most part though the winter was cold and still, with few storms or gales. The men were able to shoot or club seals to supplement their dried and tinned rations, and the thick blubber was used as fuel for cooking to conserve the coal for the steam engines when the ship was finally able to break free of the ice.

As the ice rotated around the Weddell Sea, the first sounds of pressure were heard on August the 1st. Initially the ship was fine, safe in the middle of her solid floe. But as the floes began to break up more and more pressure was transmitted through her. It is almost impossible to imagine the amount of pressure transmitted through millions of tonnes of ice, moving against itself, driven by currents and winds. In short, despite Endurance's fine design she was held fast, and on 27 October 1915, 210 miles from land) her bow split and after 48 hrs of bailing and pumping, the order was given to abandon ship and a camp known as Ocean Camp set up on the ice. Stores were transferred from the ship, and the 3 ships boats, the James Caird, Dudley Docker, and Stancomb Willis (all named for the expeditions sponsors) were removed from the stricken vessel. By this time the survival rather than crossing of the Antarctic was fast becoming the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expeditions aim. And when on 21 November 1915 the Endurance sank slowly beneath the ice it became the only possible option.

Shackleton hoped that the movement of the ice would eventually bring them up close against the Antarctic peninsular or one of the islands. He thought that as summer progressed they would be able to launch the boats as the ice melted, and make their way to one or the other. From there it would become possible to send one of the boats as a rescue mission to South Georgia the Falkland Islands or Cape Horn.

Meantime the business was survival in one of the most hostile environments on earth. The main danger was the cold, but starvation and the threat of the 11ft leopard seals were also very real. Although initially abundant, penguins and seals seemed to disappear around early January. With the stores from the ship the men were able to rig tents so that they were sleeping above the ice, which was slightly warmer. They slept in reindeer skin sleeping bags, and had reindeer skin boots which protected them from the worst of the cold, although not the wet.

As summer crept on the ice grew softer, and although the pack was still likely 10-15 ft thick minimum the surface ice began to melt. On the 23rd Dec after several days of disassembling and preparations they set off in the direction of land, with the dog teams pulling the stores and the men harnessed to the boats which they lifted onto runners. They made painfully slow progress covering a scant 9 miles in 5 days. The pressure had thrown up huge ridges of ice all over the pack, which were almost impossible to negotiate with sledges. Additionally the increasing summer temperatures meant that the surface ice was turning to slush and the men were soaked, repeatedly falling through what proved to be a thin surface crust over a 2 foot deep puddle. They accepted defeat and set up Patience Camp on the first of Jan 1916. Here they remained, demoralised and hungry as the food stores ran ever lower. On 24 March the dog teams were shot as they could no longer justify the food used to feed them, and it looked less and less likely that they would be able to sledge anywhere.

Early April as more and more ice melted, the floe upon which Patience Camp was situated became more and more unstable, cracking twice right through the camp, and resulting in several men being plunged into the icy waters. By now the men had only the clothes they stood up in as all others had been left behind in the interest of speed and weight. Sleeping bags were soaked through and those unlucky men who fell into the water could only be kept moving until their clothes had dried. The men were keen to move to a iceberg, but Shackleton wary of their inherent instability resisted. Finally on 9 April 1916 it appeared that there was sufficient water to risk launching the boats, and insufficient ice floe on which to safely remain. There was no real choice and the camp moved into the 3 boats.

A thoroughly unpleasant 10 days followed during which the men were persistently soaked by squalls and waves. They were seized by an easterly current which took them a good 20 miles back towards the centre of the Weddell, away from land whilst sailing in the opposite direction. They hung on in there and despite several changes of planned landfall as the winds, tides and currents took them unpredictable ways, with a good deal of luck, they finally landed after about 10 days cramped and soaked to the skin in the boats, on Elephant Island (the first time they had been on land for 479 days).

After a few days during which the Stancomb Willis and Dudley Docker were brought ashore to provide a crude shelter, and penguins and seals were caught for food, it was announced that a small party would set sail for South Georgia, hopefully to mobilise a vessel to rescue the remainder of the team. It was planned to take the James Caird as she was the most seaworthy of the 3 vessels. The group of 6 departed on the 24 April to cover some 800 miles, hoping their navigation would be accurate enough and their seamanship good enough to find a small island approx 90 miles long. This, through Drakes Passage, an area of seas notorious for its appalling weather, both seas and gales. Through an amazing feat of navigation and seamanship as well as a great deal of luck, and tenacity they made landfall on May 10 at King Haakon Bay South Georgia, the South side of the Island. Weakened and with the prevailing tide/weather against them they had no chance of making the sheltered north side where the whaling stations were. As the only alternative they had to walk across the islands interior. This had never been done or mapped, and although the distance was a short 29 miles it was across a treacherous glaciers with no equipment. It took 2 and a half days as they had to retrace their steps several times when faced with impassable features.9link to booties press release) With no sleeping bags or extra clothing between them, their existing clothing thin tattered and salt-encrusted, their survival was down to nothing more than a combination of sheer determination and luck. On the morning of the 22 May 1916 they walked down into Stromness whaling station, some 522 days after sailing from Grytviken, some 17 months since they had had any contact at all with the outside world.

It took a further frustrating months and 3 separate attempts, thwarted by the winter ice to rescue the remainder of the party from Elephant island, but on the 30 August 1916 they were finally recovered.

It is somewhat difficult to imagine what faced the men of the Endurance 90 years ago. They were isolated and alone in the most hostile country in the world, and their survival is due in no small part to the determination of human spirit. The naming of the Endurance, for Shackletons own family motto 'Fortitudine vincimus', translating to 'by endurance we conquer' with hindsight, seems particularly apt.

Read all the latest news about the ship's deployment by following the links below, with additional pictures in the Picture Gallery.. HMS Endurance Tracking Project pages