Dreaming of a Polar Christmas.

Tis the season to be jolly. History is however full of many Christmases that lack something of the proper Christmas spirit. How rare then to find an example of the warmth and fun of the season, in an account of a Polar explorer. In hopes therefore of a white Christmas I send you on a brief adventure with Sir Ernest Shackleton, who we find ploughing on South towards Antarctica through the Weddell Sea, intending to attempt a crossing of the continent from one end to the other. Bad weather and heavy swells were proving tricky to navigate, most frustrating was the appearance of the Pack Ice much farther north than expected and much thicker. December nevertheless had been spent in good spirits, with no great setbacks except delays. The situations faced in Christmas week 1914 gives quite a good impression of the type of delays Shackleton was experiencing each day, and the spirit of the crew.

Endurance under sail amongst icebergs. W.E.N.  National Museum of the Royal Navy.
Endurance under sail amongst icebergs. W.E.N. National Museum of the Royal Navy.

“The conditions did not improve during December 19. A fresh to strong northerly breeze brought haze and snow, and after proceeding for two hours the Endurance was stopped again by heavy floes. It was impossible to manoeuvre the ship in the ice owing to the strong wind, which kept the floes in movement and caused lanes to open and close with dangerous rapidity. The noon observation showed that we had made six miles to the south-east in the previous twenty-four hours. All hands were engaged during the day in rubbing shoots off our potatoes, which were found to be sprouting freely. We remained moored to a floe over the follow- ing day, the wind not having moderated ; indeed, it freshened to a gale in the afternoon, and the members of the staff and crew took advantage of the pause to enjoy a vigorously contested game of football on the level surface of the floe alongside the ship. Twelve bergs were in sight at this time. The noon position was lat. 62° 42′ S., long. 17° 54′ W., showing that we had drifted about six miles in a north-easterly direction.

The Crew of Endurance.
The Crew of Endurance.

Monday, December 21, was beautifully fine, with a gentle west- north-westerly breeze. We made a start at 3 a.m. and proceeded through the pack in a south-westerly direction. At noon we had gained seven miles almost due east, the northerly drift of the pack having continued while the ship was apparently moving to the south. Petrels of several species, penguins, and seals were plenti- ful, and we saw four small blue whales. At noon we entered a long lead to the southward and passed around and between nine splendid bergs. One mighty specimen was shaped like the Rock of Gibraltar but with steeper cliffs, and another had a natural dock that would have contained the Aquitania. A spur of ice closed the entrance to the huge blue pool. Hurley brought out his kinematograph-camera in order to make a record of these bergs.

Fine long leads running east and south-east among bergs were found during the afternoon, but at midnight the ship was stopped by small, heavy ice-floes, tightly packed against an un-broken plain of ice. The outlook from the mast-head was not encouraging. The big floe was at least 15 miles long and y) miles wide. The edge could not been seen at the widest part, and the area of the floe must have been not less than 150 square miles. It appeared to be formed of year-old ice, not very thick and with very few hummocks or ridges in it. We thought it must have been formed at sea in very calm weather and drifted up from the south-east. I had never seen such a large area of unbroken ice in the Ross Sea.

Southwards the Endurance.

We waited with banked fires for the strong easterly breeze to moderate or the pack to open. At 6.30 p.m. on December 22, some lanes opened and we were able to move towards the south again. The following morning found us working slowly through the pack, and the noon observation gave us a gain of 19 miles S. 41° W. for the seventeen and a half hours under steam. Many year-old adelies, three crab-eaters, six sea-leopards, one Weddell and two blue whales were seen. The air temperature, which had been down to 25° Fahr. on December 21, had risen to 34° Eahr. While we were working along leads to the southward in the after- noon, we counted fifteen bergs. Three of these were table- topped, and one was about ’70 ft. high and 5 miles long. Evi- dently it had come from a barrier-edge. The ice became heavier but slightly more open, and we had a calm night with fine long leads of open water. The water was so still that new ice was forming on the leads. We had a run of 70 miles to our credit at noon on December 24, the position being lat. 64° 32′ S., long. 17° 17’W. ….

Heavy floes held up the ship from midnight till 6 a.m. on December 25, Christmas Day. Then they opened a little and we made progress until 11:30 a.m, when the leads closed again. We had encountered good leads and workable ice during the early part of the night, and the noon observation showed that our run for twenty for hours was the best since we entered the pack a fortnight earlier. We had made 71 miles S. 4° W. The ice held us up till the evening and then we were able to follow some leads for a couple of hours before the tightly packed floes and the increasing wind compelled a stop. The celebration of Christmas was not forgotten. Grog was served at midnight to all on deck. There was grog again at breakfast, for the benefit of those that had been in their bunks at midnight. Lees had decorated the wardroom with flags and had a little Christmas present for each of us. Some of us had presents from home to open. Later there was a really splendid dinner, consisting of turtle-soup, whitebait, jugged hare, Christmas pudding, mince-pies, dates, figs, and crystallised fruits, with rum and stout as drinks. In the evening everybody joined in a ” sing-song.” Hussey had made a one-stringed violin, on which, in the words of Worsley, he ” discoursed quite painlessly.” The wind was increasing to a moderate south-easterly gale and no advance could be made, so we were able to settle down to the enjoyments of the evening.”

Football on ice.
Football on ice. Just like at the park.

A great ordeal awaited them all. In many ways the race for the poles mirrored the later race to the Moon, and Shackleton’s great feat of perseverance and survival probably ranks equal to the successful failure of Apollo 13, in that they failed in their objective but returned safely home. That this was achieved in a far more hostile environment than perhaps even space, without the aid of the outside world, is all the more reason to find a way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Imperial Trans Polar Expedition, with Shackleton 100. A true testament to what man can achieve when faced with the impossible.

Coming in late as I am, I would like to direct readers to the Shackleton 100 website and Twitter account, please have a look and follow them to show your support.
If your interest has been wetted, there are a good few places to go to satiate your thirst. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwhich has a great page about Shackleton here. A visit to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, now showing an exhibition dedicated to Shackleton must be considered as well. For those who would like a little more hands on approach without the inconvenience of frostbite, there is the RSS Discovery, the ship of Captain Scott, of similar but fatal Antarctic fame, whose death trying to beat Amundsen to the Pole triggered the ITPE in 1914, is docked in Dundee.

source: South by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Merry Christmas from Adventures in Historyland, may you all never cease exploring.

0 Replies to “Dreaming of a Polar Christmas.”

  1. The Shackleton family live in nearby Lucan. A few short years ago the “Endurance” was the name of the Shackleton expedition to the South Pole. During its run, it brought record crowds to the National Museum of Ireland Collins Barracks. A spectacular.

    Next year this Museum is tasked with staging the National production of the 1916 Centenary. No doubt this will be another Spectacular. And its Free!

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