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Wednesday, August 21, 2019
SA Agulhas II

A search could be mounted early next year for one of the most famous ships in British Antarctica exploration, the Endurance, of Sir Ernest Shackleton, lost in 1915.

Next January or February, as part of the Weddell Sea Expedition 2019, a team of scientists will attempt to locate the wreck when they visit the area where she sank to study the Larsen C Ice Shelf which broke off last July. The wreck is believed to be about 100 to 150 miles from the Ice Shelf.

They will be using the Antarctic research ship S A Agulhas II, 12,897gt, owned by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs. The ship, completed in 2012, carries out scientific research and also supplies South African research stations in Antarctica. If the scientists have the time and the opportunity arises, they will send an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to the area where the wreck is thought to be.

Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, at Cambridge University, said: “The UAVs are fitted with downward-looking multi-beam echo-sounders which can map out on a grid the shape of the seafloor. You look at that for any signs of the ship and then focus in with cameras if you find something interesting.”

On Aug 1, 1914, the British South Polar Expedition, led by Sir Ernest, set out from London in the research ship Endurance. Also known as the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition, its aim was the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent.

The Endurance had been built by the Framnaes Mek Verksted, of Sandefjord, in 1913 as the wooden sailing ship Polaris, 348grt, designed to carry tourists on cruises to East Greenland and Spitzbergen. But the venture collapsed and the ship was sold to Sir Ernest in 1914 and renamed Endurance.

At Buenos Aires, the Endurance was joined by Sir Ernest who had sailed south in the Houlder Line passengercargo ship El Uruguayo, 8,631grt. The Endurance carried three small boats, the James Caird, Nimrod and Dudley Docker.

Despite warnings from the whaling community on South Georgia that the ice conditions in the Weddell Sea were the worst in memory, the Endurance left South Georgia on Dec 5 for the Weddell Sea. On board were a crew of 28 and 69 sledge dogs. The Endurance was heading for Vahsel Bay, on the Luitpold coast.

On Dec 7, the Endurance encountered the ice pack, and then spent six weeks working her way through the pack ice. On Jan 18, when the Endurance was less than 24 hours from her destination, the ice closed in around the ship, backed by a northerly gale. The Endurance became trapped in the ice and was slowly sinking.

On the ice, the men set up Ocean Camp, realising that they would be there for some time. That southern winter, the food began to run out and the men were forced to eat penguins, seals and the sledge dogs to survive.

Sir Ernest made two attempts to march to land, which was some 300 miles to the north. The dogs successfully pulled the sledges loaded with food and supplies, but the ship’s three boats would be vital to the men’s survival when they met the ocean so the men hauled the three loaded boats over the ice.

On Oct 27, the men set up camp, Patience Camp, to await the coming spring weather and their chance to sail in the boats to land.

On Apr 9, 1916, the men set off in the James Caird, Nimrod and Dudley Docker, for Elephant Island, some 100 miles away to the north. It was terrible journey. They reached the island on Apr 16. It was a desolate place, with winds of upto 100mph. The crew knew that rescue was impossible.

Sir Ernest decided that he and five of his strongest men would sail in the James Caird for South Georgia, more than 800 miles away. On Apr 24, the boat set out, the only navigation equipment they had being a sextant and a compass. It was a horrendous journey in high seas and bitterly strong winds.

The 22 men who remained behind used the Nimrod and Dudley Docker as an improvised shelter and the men had to eat penguins and seals as they waited for their leader to return.

Around noon on May 8, land was spotted by Sir Ernest and his men and then on May 10, after 17 days in stormy seas, the James Caird arrived in the deserted King Haakon Bay on the west coast of South Georgia.

Ten days after landing, Sir Ernest, Capt Worsley and Tom Crean set off on foot and after some 22 miles, they arrived on May 20 at the Stromness whaling station where they were greeted by the whalers. The three men that had been left behind at King Haakon Bay were quickly recovered.

More on this and other news in Sea Breezes Magazine - June 2018 Issue
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