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Weddell Sea Expedition - Shackleton Blog - 2 January 2019

by Mensun Bound
Shackleton Blog Series
Weddell Sea Expedition 2019

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How did we celebrate New Year on Agulhas II?

We enjoyed a barbeque on the helicopter deck and then went down to the ship’s bar.  Although this will be a ‘dry’ ship, alcohol was served this evening as an exception.  The most popular drink was Endurance Beer made by the Shackleton Brewing Company in South Africa.  The older scientists (and here I include myself) are not really the jovial, hearty, beer-swilling, back-slapping types so we retired to bed early leaving those who are younger in spirit to see in the New Year.  Contrast this with New Year’s on the Endurance exactly one hundred and fourteen years ago:

On this day in 1914 the Endurance was, like us, off the eastern shoulder of the Weddell Sea, but interestingly we are further south of where they were.  We are at Lat. 70⁰ 10.3’ S,  Long. 002⁰  07.0’ W; the Endurance had only just crossed the Antarctic Circle and was at 66⁰ 47’ S, 15⁰ 45’ W.  According to the charts on our bridge, this puts her then position at 363 nautical miles north-west of us.

Despite being behind schedule the Endurance had covered 480 miles since entering the pack and was, in fact, only 149 miles from the point on the coast where Shackleton planned to off-load supplies and set up his winter quarters in a pre-fabricated hut which, in large part, must still be in the wreck at the bottom of the sea.

Interestingly, it was on the morning of New Year’s Eve in 1914 that Shackleton’s party had their first real taste of the prodigious power of gathered ice when they were brought to a standstill by two closing slabs (each about 15 X 50 ft and 4 ft thick) which caught the Endurance in a pincer movement and heeled her six degrees to starboard. To extract themselves they extended an ice anchor across the pack from the stern and then, by putting their engines to Full Astern and warping in on the anchor, were able to draw her to safety. The moment they were free, the two slabs that had held them, slammed together and rafted up 12 feet over one another at an angle of 45⁰. 

By the afternoon conditions had improved to the extent that they were able to go out on the ice and captured four adelie penguins and one emperor for the pot.  In his journal the skipper of the Endurance, New Zealander Frank Worsley, gave a vivid description of the ice conditions and what happened at midnight:

‘Since noon the character of the pack has improved.  Though the leads are short, the floes are rotten and easily broken through if a good place is selected with care and judgement.  In many cases we find large sheets of young ice through which the ship cuts for a mile or two miles at a stretch. I have been conning and working the ship from the crow’s-nest and find it much the best place, as from there one can see ahead and work out the course beforehand, and can also guard the rudder and propeller, the most vulnerable parts of a ship in the ice.  At midnight, as I was sitting in the ‘tub’ I heard a clamorous noise down on the deck, with ringing of bells, and realized that it was the New Year.’

The ship’s bell was struck sixteen times then Worsley descended the ratlines to join Shackleton, Wild and Hudson on the bridge where they were soon united by the others. They shook hands and wished each other a Happy New Year and then went below to the wardroom, or ‘Rookery’, where they drank toasts to the King, the Expedition and the success of their country at war. Wild then called for three cheers for the Boss which, noted Hussey (the team’s meteorologist) , ‘caused Shackleton much embarrassment.’  They then sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and went to bed. 

New Year’s Day found them making good progress as they sliced south through brittle young ice. The ship’s carpenter,  41-year-old Harry (Mr Chips) McNish, a blunt-talking, curmudgeonly Glaswegian, shaved off his beard which he had not touched since leaving the River Plate. ‘I feel the wont of my whiskers,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘but I won’t do it again until next Hogmanay and then we will be turning towards home and those we love best.’  And this was the view of all on board, none of them could have had any inkling that, by the next Hogmanay, the Endurance would be at the bottom of the Weddell Sea and that they would be living on the ice.

Diaries for the following New Year, 1916, are extremely interesting.  There had been stress within the team resulting in some depression.  Just three days before there had been a one-man mutiny.  They had been hauling the boats when McNish, who was exhausted and suffering from piles, refused to go on or be told what to do by Worsley.  His argument was that, because the ship had sunk, he was no longer obliged to follow orders.  Shackleton was furious and read everybody the ship’s articles which all had signed and which made clear that, although they were ‘on shore’, they still had to perform their duties according to instructions. 

The incident brought out some of the simmering resentments that existed within the expedition. Thomas Orde Lees, a team oddball who cherished a particular dislike of McNish (which was reciprocated with fervour), mentioned in his diary how the ‘objectionable, cantankerous carpenter’ had been ‘grossly insubordinate.’ Shackleton wrote ‘Every one working well except the carpenter. I shall never forget him in this time of strain and stress.’ 

For his part McNish made no mention of the what had happened, but in his diary for New Year’s Eve he wrote: ‘Hogmanay and a bitter one too, being adrift on the ice instead of enjoying the pleasures of life like most people.  But as the saying is, there must be some fools in this world’. 

No doubt the highlight of McNish’s day was a ‘monster sea leopard over 12 foot long’ which chased a much frightened Orde Lees around a floe until Frank Wild (the team’s deputy leader) shot it.

Click here to learn more about the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Published by : Explorers Club Staff

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