After the Norwegian ship the *Fram the Polaris was the strongest polar exploration ship in the world at the time. She was built in the Framnaes shipyards, Sandefjord, Norway in 1912. She was custom built for extreme polar conditions. She was designed to be used for exclusive cruises, catering for wealthy tourists and polar bear hunting parties in the Arctic. She was a three masted Barquentine, 144 ft long with a 25ft beam. She had both sail and power capacity with a 350 horsepower coal-fired steam engine capable of 10 knots. She had electric light throughout, ten large passenger cabins, a spacious dining saloon, a galley (kitchen) with accommodation for two cooks, a smoking room a bathroom and a dark room to allow passengers to develop photographs.
Being a new build, the designers were able to incorporate additional strength, resilience and ice compression resistance features from the beginning of construction. Special attention was given to the bow, the most vulnerable part of the ship. Additional frames of double thickness with cross bracing were added. She was planked with lairs of Norwegian fir and oak with an outer lair of greenheart sheathing. Greenheart is a very strong and dense South American hardwood. All the timber was carefully chosen to enable its natural shape to fit the curves of the Polaris without the need for bending. The propeller was two bladed in preference to the standard three bladed version. It was designed to stop vertically so it was protected from the ice by the rudder post. Losing a propellers to ice was common to ships sailing in the polar regions at the time.
Ernest Shackleton purchased the Polaris for his Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition. He renamed her Endurance after his family motto: Fortitudine Vincimus — “by endurance we conquer.” He had the interior stripped back to the bare hull with the exception of the photographic darkroom. The cabins were converted into a hold to carry coal. Kennels were built on the deck for the sledge dogs and additional stores.
In his book: South – The Endurance Expedition (Penguin Books). Shackleton wrote about the Endurance “……. Endurance have been almost past belief again and again. She has been nipped with a million-ton pressure and risen nobly. …………. She has been thrown to and fro like a shuttlecock a dozen times. She has been strained, her beams arched upwards, by the fearful pressure; her very sides opened and closed again as she was actually bent and curved along her length, groaning like a living thing. It will be sad if such a brave little craft should be finally crushed in the remorseless, slowly strangling grip of the Weddell pack after ten months of the bravest and most gallant fight ever put up by a ship. The Endurance deserved all that could be said in praise of her”
*Fram, meaning ‘forward’, was an unusual ship. All ships at the time avoided, at all cost, being locked-in by ice packs. Fram, on the other hand, was designed to enter the ice and withstand the pressure of being locked-in for long periods and becoming a laboratory. She generated electricity with her own windmill. Her hull was shaped like a bowl with the keel inside her frames enabling her to lift out of the ice and rest safely on the surface, drifting with the currents and the wind conducting scientific research. Unlike the Fram, the Endurance had a conventional shape not capable of self elevating through the ice to safety. Her strength was in her bow which was used as a battering ram to take on the ice full-on. She was always in danger of being crushed along her length if locked-in. Which is what happened.
Survival! The journey home.
The unintended voyage of the James Caird was a life-or-death rescue mission. The life of 28 sailors depended on its success or failure. It entailed Shackleton, Worsely, Crean, McCarthy, McNish and Vincent undertaking a 1,300 kms (800 miles) journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia in treacherous sea conditions in a small lifeboat named the James Caird.
When the crushing ice sank the Endurance on the 21st of November 1915, Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition came to an abrupt end. The situation now facing Shackleton and his men was dire. It was now a question of survival. After five months camping on a drifting ice floe the ice began to melt. Using three lifeboats, Shackleton decided to row to the remote Elephant Island. The voyage had now become a journey of hardship and suffering. At one stage they discovered that the currents had carried them 30 miles backwards. After a grueling seven days of cold, thirst and hunger they reached Elephant Island. There once again, they found themselves stranded without hope of rescue.
It was at this stage that Shackleton in a desperate situation, took the momentous decision to sail the James Caird the 800 miles to a whaling station on the island of South Georgia. The James Caird was named after a Scottish businessman, Sir James Key Caird, who part financed the expedition. She was a strong open 22ft 6 inches long whaler, specifically chosen by Endurance Captain Frank Worsley for the expedition. The expedition carpenter, Harry McNish was tasked with adapting and raising the sides, adding a shelter deck and a 7x5ft sleeping space for the hazardous journey in the roughest sea on earth. The only means of navigation was by sextant. If Frank Worsely miscalculated his position by even half a degree, they would miss South Georgia and be lost in the vast Ocean.
On the 24th of April 1916 the Caird set sail into the unknown. Seventeen days later, having survived a hurricane, cold wet and hungry against all the odds, they reached West South Georgia. This is considered to be the greatest sea journey in a small open boat in history. The Caird was damaged beyond repair. Shackleton, Crean and Worsley, had to make a 36-hour trek without sleep, across unmapped and dangerous terrain consisting of mountains, glaciers and deep crevices before reaching safety at a whaling station in Stormness. After 17 months, the sound of a steam whistle from the whaling station was the first sound they heard from the outside world. This was the first confirmed land crossing of South Georgia.
It would take more than four months, and four attempts for Shackleton to rescue his men left behind on Elephant Island. The 28 scientists, officers and sailors, including the photographer Frank Hurley who sailed from England on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition on the 8th of August 1914 survived. The whole rescue operation did not end until the 30th of August 1916.
The James Caird was brought back to England and is now on public display in The James Caird Museum in Dulwich College, London.
Celebrating Tom Crean, a true hero
When Tom Crean died at the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork on July 27, 1938, his passing was hardly mentioned in the national press. There was just a standard 30-word obituary, with no mention of his epic feats of endurance. For a combination of courage and endurance, he was one of the most extraordinary men the 20th century. He was part of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. four years later Crean was one of the men who made the epic journey from the Antarctic to South Georgia in an open boat. Yet his extraordinary accomplishments were overlooked for decades.
Born near Annascaul, Co Kerry, on August 20, 1877, Crean joined the Royal Navy as a 15-year-old. In 1901 he went on Robert Scott’s first expedition to the Antarctic. When Scott put together his second expeditionary team for the race to the South Pole a decade later, Crean was one that Scott selected for the 16-man team, which set out on the 920-mile (1,500KM) trek to the South Pole on October 24, 1911.“Crean is perfectly happy, ready to do anything and go anywhere, the harder the work, the better,” Scott noted in his diary. As the team progressed, they set up stations with supplies for the return journey. Groups of men were sent back as they were no longer needed to pull the dwindling supplies. Crean was one of the last three to be sent back on June 4, 1912. “Poor old Crean wept,” Scott noted in his diary as he set out on the final 180-mile leg of the journey to the South Pole. On the way back, Edward Evans became ill from scurvy. Crean and William Lashley relieved him of pulling supplies. When Evans became too weak to walk, they pulled him on a sledge for four days covering 53 miles. After it snowed heavily on February 18, they were no longer able to move the sledge. Lashley remained to look after Evans in a tent, while Crean covered the final 34 miles in 18 hours to get the help to rescue them the following day. Meanwhile, Scott made it to the South Pole, only to find that a Norwegian expedition had got there first. On the way back Scott and two of his colleagues got to within 11 miles of safety before they perished. Crean had walked more than three times that distance on his own to get help for his colleagues. It was actually Crean who opened the tent in which the bodies of Scott and his two colleagues were found the following October.
When Ernest Shackleton put together his Antarctic Expedition, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Crean was a natural for selection. The plan was to cross the Antarctic from one side to the other via the South Pole, but they never actually set foot on the Antarctic. Their ship, the Endurance, got stuck in an ice flow and began to break up. The 28 men made for the uninhabited Elephant Island, about 100 miles away, in three lifeboats. They sheltered there under their upturned boats for more than four months. With the southern winter approaching and no sign of help, Shackleton decided that six of them would undertake the perilous 800-mile voyage to South Georgia for help in the sturdiest of their lifeboats. In the early hours of Easter Monday 1916, while the Rising was about to begin in Dublin, Shackleton and Crean set out on their epic journey with four colleagues. They got caught in a Hurricane in which a steamer bound for South Georgia foundered, but they managed to reach the island after 16 eventful days. It was too dangerous to sail around the island in the stormy seas, so Shackleton decided that three of them would cross the island for help on foot. He, Frank Worsley, and Crean had to wait for more than a week for the weather to break before they could cross a treacherous mountain range to reach the whaling base at Stromness. At one point the three of them locked themselves together on a coiled rope and glissaded down a steep slope into the unknown in the clouds below them. “The speed was terrific,” Worsley recalled.“Then to our joy, the slope curved out, and we shot into a bank of soft snow. We estimated we had shot down a mile in two or three minutes, and had lowered our altitude by two or three thousand feet.”It took 36 hours to cover the 40 miles to Stromness. They were a pitiable sight, having not washed for months, and their clothes were in rags. Next morning they went on a whaler to rescue their three colleagues on the other side of the island. They then set out to rescue the men on Elephant Island. They were forced back three times by the bad weather. They found their twenty two colleagues on August 30th 1916, still living on penguin meat under their upturned boats.
Crean retired from the Navy in 1920 and returned to Annascaul, where he opened the South Pole Inn. He died following a ruptured appendix on July 27, 1938. Had he been of “the officer class”, he would undoubtedly have been celebrated as one of the greatest explorers in history. Although the Crean Glacier was named in his honour in South Georgia, and the Australians named a mountain after him in the Antarctic, Crean was largely forgotten in this country. It was only with the publication of Michael Smith’s celebrated biography, Tom Crean: Unsung Hero, that he finally began to get the recognition he deserved. Guinness commemorated him in an advertising campaign, he is the subject of a critically acclaimed one-man play, and RTE celebrated his Antarctic exploits with its two-part television documentary – Charlie Bird on the Trail of Tom Crean. He has finally got the recognition he deserve.
This article, by Ryle Dwyer, was published in the Irish Examiner on 26th July, 2013