Between 1897 and 1922 several expeditions to Antarctica were carried out. Ignorance combined with insufficient budget often resulted in a very deficient risk assessment and bad planning, leading to mission failing, men injuring (physically or mentally) or dying… or absolute glory.
Endurance was a ship that took part in one of those expeditions. Initially built as a cruise for taking wealthy tourists to visit the Artic, it had one of the strongest hulls ever built until then. It was launched in Framnæs shipyard in Sandefjord, Norway, on 17 December 1912. It had been named Polaris, the North Star. However, the future owners of the ship failed to pay it, so the builder was forced to sell the ship to whoever could pay the bills. Whale hunters did not want it because it did not had enough storage space, as it was built with passengers in mind. On the other hand, it was a ship build for ice, so it was no good for any other cruise line.
In January 1914, Ernest Shackleton bought it for the expedition he was planning (and he changed its name to Endurance). Or better yet, Shackleton and the builder reached an agreement for paying the amount agreed when funding was fully raised. The amount did not cover all the builder’s expenses, but the builder saw this as a way to contribute for this endeavour (or maybe he just thought it was better to have some money than nothing at all). Yes, finding funding for projects was as hard then as it is now. Shackleton was trying to raise enough money since the beginning of 1913. Public funding was scarce, so the solution was to get private funding. At that time, many wealthy people, like industrialists or heirs, wanted to be connected with these great adventures: it was a way to get glory without risking their lives. In the case of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, convincing rich people to pay for it was not happening. Shackleton had received £ 10,000 from the British Government in December 1913, which represented only 2% of the minimum budget. Not nearly enough.
Fast forward to July 1914, war was building up when Shackleton finally had everything ready to go. Miraculously, he had found enough private funding and had already bought the two ships he needed (Endurance and Aurora), scientific instruments for the scientists on board, and equipment for the journey and the expedition itself, including sledge dogs. He had also undergone the recruitment process. From the 5,000 applications he had received, he chose 56 people, 28 for each ship. He tried to have experienced people among his crew, but most of them refused for not believing in his plan. Besides, the selection was deemed odd. “Do you know how to sing” was one of the possible questions applicants would have to answer during job interviews. Criteria were not clear nor logic. Many who got hired were eager, but with no experience remotely relevant, no training, and no idea what they were going to encounter. They just wanted to go on an adventure.
THE LOST OF ENDURANCE
On 14 December 1911, Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole, which was the goal sought for everyone at the time. Shackleton himself tried to do it in the expedition he led between 1907 and 1909: he got very close, but not close enough. So, what was next? Amundsen had reached the South Pole departing from McMurdo Sound and returning the same way. Explorers would get there by ship through the Ross Sea. The new idea was to reach the South Pole from the other side, from a landing spot on the coast of the Weddell Sea, and then keep going forward until reaching the coast of the Ross Sea. Endurance would take Shackleton and his small expedition team to the coast of the Weddell Sea. In the meantime, another ship, the Aurora, would take a support team through the Ross Sea to McMurdo Sound. This team would be responsible for setting depots as far as the Beardmore Glacier. Both teams would meet there and come back together to catch Aurora, which would be moored on the coast of the Ross Sea. What could possible go wrong?…
Back in 1910, William Speirs Bruce had presented a similar plan, which was appraised, but got no funding because another expedition was being prioritised. Although Bruce had allowed Shackleton to use his own plan, Shackleton totally ignored it. However, Shackleton took the failed attempt of Wilhelm Filchner in 1912 under consideration. Filchner got as far as the Weddell Sea, but failed to land at Vahsel Bay (as planned) and had to turn back. Vahsel Bay was where Shackleton wanted to land.
Days before the departure of Endurance, World War I broke. Shackleton sent word to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, offering the ships, the crew, and the provisions to be in service of the war. Winston Churchill told him to proceed with the expedition and, therefore, Endurance departed from Plymouth on 8 August 1914. The plan was to do the crossing between October 1914 and March 1915. However, on 5 November 1914, when they reached the whaling station situated in South Georgia, they realised weather conditions were worse than expected, so they postponed the departure for Antarctica for one month. Unfortunately, they failed to inform the support team on board of Aurora.
Aeneas Mackintosh was hired to lead the support team. The Aurora ship had been built for whale hunting and it had been involved in rescue missions before becoming the ship of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. It was stationed in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. When Mackintosh arrived in Australia, he was informed that Aurora’s budget had been half reduced and many crew members had resigned. So, he had to raise money to make the journey and hire new people. By the time he got Aurora ready, he was already behind schedule. They arrived at McMurdo Sound on 15 January 1915 and Mackintosh, worried that the expedition team might be already on their way, began the preparations for setting the depots. The team was poorly prepared for the harsh conditions in terms of equipment and clothes, had almost no experience or training, and bad things were happening left and right. For making things worse, in May 1915, Aurora got loose from its moorings and soon after got stuck in the ice, being dragged out to the sea. 10 men, Mackintosh included, were unable to get on board in time and were left on shore with only the clothes they were wearing and the provisions for the expedition team. They went to Hut Point, which served as support base for previous expeditions, and found extra clothes and provisions. At the end of 1915, assuming that Shackleton team was coming late, they managed to put the necessary depots in place with extreme difficulty. However, after all was set and done, one member of this team died with scurvy. Some months later, Mackintosh and another crew member decided to walk to Cape Evans, where the ship would dock, but were caught by a blizzard and were never seen again. The remaining 7 men stayed at Hut Point waiting for Shackleton’s expedition team to arrive. In vain.
Aurora support team had no idea what was going on with Endurance. As soon as the ship arrived at the Weddell Sea, in December 1914, it was caught up by a pack ice. In January 1915 it was completely stuck and had been drifted away from the intended landing spot. The ship sank on 21 November 1915. Luckily, they had seen it coming and Shackleton had ordered the abandonment of the ship some weeks before. They camped on the ice for months until the ice broke and they could use the lifeboats. They arrived on Elephant Island in April 1916. The island had no provisions and whalers never went there. Therefore, Shackleton and five others got in one of the lifeboats to look for help. This small party did get to the whale station on South Georgia against all odds, but were only able to rescue the men at Elephant Island on 30 August 1916. By that time, moral was very low, health conditions had deteriorated for some, and they were already thinking of eating the first one that would die.
In the meantime, in February 1916, Aurora had finally got free from the ice, but it was damaged and the crew decided to travel back to New Zealand. Aurora’s crew did not have money to go back and rescue the 10 men that were left behind, so the governments of New Zealand, Australia, and United Kingdom came together and funded the rescue. The 7 remaining men were finally rescued by Aurora on 10 January 1917. They had been trapped and isolated in Antarctica for about 1 year and 8 months.
The crossing of the Antarctica was finally achieved with the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955–1958) .
On 5 March 2022 a research team discovered the lost Endurance ship . It only took 106 years, 3 months and 12 days. Frank Worsley, the Captain of Endurance, had registered the coordinates of the place where the ship sunk by estimation. The actual site was not very far.
In 2019, an attempt to locate the wreck had failed due to extremely bad ice conditions and the loss of equipment. The Weddell Sea is permanently full of a pack ice that traps and crushes whatever dares to cross its path. However, this time, the conditions were not as bad as usual. Whether the Weddell Sea has decided to make a truce or climate change is making life easier for those who dare to go there. In any case, the ship was found and it is in perfect conditions. As there is no accumulation of sediment or wood-eating bugs, the ship looks like it just left the shipyard. It is upright, which means it landed on its “feet” and has not moved one bit.
The ship will remain in its final ground and it is considered a protected heritage. Therefore, the research team was not allowed to take anything from it, only to film it. But we know now it is there. Rest in peace.
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