"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Antarctic Journals, Chapter Twenty-five, Hurricanes and Calm Passages

Soon after launching from Elephant Island, the James Caird encounters pack ice.  The men push and row their way through the chaos of bergs and pans of ice until they finally break free into open water that evening.

Ernest Shackleton realizes that this rare day of sunshine was providential, and that a further delay would see the pack ice so dense they could not have escaped it.  Now, though free of the ice, they are fully exposed to the dangers of Drake Passage and the Scotia Sea, the most stormy and treacherous water on the globe.

Even on this relatively easy day, the men are soon soaked by breaking waves.  They are wearing woolen underwear, cloth trousers, and woolen sweaters, gloves, socks, and balaclavas.  Over this they have Burberry overalls that are windproof, but not waterproof.

Meals are eaten under the covered deck, which has so little room that they are bent over double when they attempt to sit on the cold ballast rock.  The space they call “the salon” is only five by seven feet.  To reach their sleeping bags in the covered bow, they have to crawl over the rocks and duck under a low thwart, then attempt to sleep, knowing how impossible it would be to escape in an emergency.

Waves crash over the ship and soak the men every few minutes.  Bailing and operating the pump—a particularly onerous chore requiring a back-breaking position and holding the pump against the bilge with bare hands—are a constant necessity.

A depiction of the James Caird nearing South Georgia.

The temperature is so cold that ice forms, threatening to sink the James Caird.  Even more dangerous is chipping 15 inches of ice off the boat, sails, and canvas cover.  Vincent almost falls into the sea while stretched out on the slippery deck canvas and saves himself by grabbing a mast as he slides past.

Six days into the journey, Shackleton notices a line of light behind him during his watch and thinks the horrendous gale that has plagued them is breaking up.  Then he looks again and realizes the “light” is the crest of a wave of massive proportions.   “For God’s sake, hold on!  It’s got us,” he screams to the men.

They think they are goners.  Unbelievably, the James Caird rises through the inundation and the men bail water for their lives.  Finally, the James Caird feels like she is afloat rather than wallowing to her doom.

There are few clear skies that allow Worsley, the navigator, to take a sighting with his sextant.  On the ninth day he is able to determine they have covered 444 miles, more than half the distance to South Georgia.

Another gale blows up with heavy seas, and Worsley is unable to be certain of his sightings.   They decide to aim for the west coast of South Georgia, rather than the east side where the whaling stations are because it is entirely possible they could miss the island altogether and be lost in the huge expanse of the southern Atlantic.

On the 8th of May, they see the towering mountains of South Georgia, but hurricane force winds threaten to smash them against the cliffs of the island.

So close, so close, yet the storm has the men fighting to stay afloat.  Many think this is the end, that they will drown in this wretched storm.   They fight all night.

Morning brings little wind but heavy cross seas.  Five times the men sail toward the entrance of King Haakon Bay, and five times they are thwarted by the sea.

Finally, after 17 days in the worst possible dangers and conditions, the James Caird rides a swell over a reef and slides into a small cove near the entrance to King Haakon Bay.  They had left Elephant Island on April 24.  It is now the 10th of May.  They have sailed 800 miles in the worst possible conditions.

The men stumble ashore and secure the boat.

A depiction of the James Caird landing at South Georgia.

A small waterfall is nearby and the men fall to their knees and drink—the first fresh water they have had in several days.

For now, they are safe, though half-dead with exhaustion.  Help is on the other side of the island, but high mountains, glaciers, and deep snow are in between.  Though the coastline of South Georgia is known, the maps of the day show the interior as a white void. 

(Carolyn Alexander writes in The Endurance:  Undoubtedly they were conscious of having achieved a great journey.  They would later learn that a 500-ton steamer had foundered with all hands in the same hurricane they had just weathered.  But at the moment they could hardly have known—or cared—that in the carefully weighed judgment of authorities yet to come, the voyage of the James Caird would be ranked as one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished.)

Note:  Though he wanted to be a part of this journey, Frank Hurley stayed behind with the 21 men left at Elephant Island.  Thus there are no photographs of this part of the adventure.  The depictions above came from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyage_of_the_James_Caird

Shackleton and the five men of  the James Caird are now at South Georgia, as shown by the red line.


We left the Polish research station of Arctowski on King George Island as the sun was setting, but just before that, some folks took a refreshing swim in the Antarctic ocean.


As we sail southwest, the continent of Antarctica is on our port side, and the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula on the starboard.

In the morning we gather around the windows or on the open decks as we sail towards a British site called Port Lockroy.  The seas are calm and the weather is nice, a perfect day for sight-seeing through the massive icefalls and sheer snow cliffs of Neumayer Channel.

This tour boat out of Ushuaia is the only other ship we saw on our trip.
Overlooking Port Lockroy are the serrated peaks known as the "Seven Sisters."

The tell-tale pink lines of penguin colonies come into view as we near the landing site.  There are penguins everywhere.

Penguins, penguins, and more penguins.  The pink comes from penguin poo.


Port Lockroy, surrounded by penguins.

The Fram drops anchor and the Orange Men go ashore.  They cut steps into the side of a wall of snow and string ropes to assist us in our landing.

Ice climbing from the boat the Port Lockroy in deep snow.

The penguins have taken over the station during the winter when it was not manned.  Now, there are two women here, the first arrivals and they have opened and warmed up the gift shop.  There are eight pallets of freight onboard the Fram for them, so the gift shop pickings are pretty slim.

Gentoo penguin and snowy sheathbill.
These penguins have decided that underneath the building is their place.
The gift shop.
The post box.

But the important thing is the Port Lockroy station is that it is the only place where postcards can be mailed and franked in Antarctica.  I marvel at the idea that a postage stamp in the US costs almost a quarter of the postage here ($2.00 US), but anything mailed here has such a long wait for a supply ship and then transport to the country of address.  What a deal.

Also in the building that houses the gift shop is a small museum that contains many goods and equipment left from the early days of Antarctic programs.

One of my favorite photos of the whole trip.

Too soon it’s time to go back to the Fram.  We we sail further south late this afternoon, into the Lemaire Channel.

The snowman has become a snow woman.


  1. Love the shot of the two penguins "holding hands"! Why is the ice blue in one of the previous shots?
    What an adventure! I'm cold just looking at your photos!

  2. Ain't love grand! The penguin shot is adorable. Why is it, sitting here in Florida, every time I read another chapter of your Antarctica journey I have to fix myself a cup of hot chocolate?

  3. I see all the photos of desserts and I think .. "What a decision.. shall I eat these with my face or use my hands!" .. All the incredible food you were served would be a challenge to stop eating .. I believe that penguins are unique to the Southern Hemisphere .. outside of zoos .. they do NOT exist in the Northern Hemisphere .. how odd is this? .. like you and others I agree that the two penguins 'holding hands' was a great photo ..

  4. Yes, penguins are unique to the southern hemisphere, as polar bears are to the northern hemisphere.

  5. Some folks took a swim in those extremely icy water!!! I'm so glad you resisted...I know you wanted to take the plunge. TeeHee.

    If penguins weren't so darn cute, I think I'd have overdosed on them here in your recent posts. But, I'll gladly look at them forever.

  6. an incredible adventure. The scenery is spectacular. I might wish I didn't ask, but what is the temperature when you are ashore ?
    B & B