Talbot County Free Library




Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > A Tale of Ice, Wind, & Sea at the Library

A Tale of Ice, Wind, & Sea at the Library

by Bill Peak

Frank Worsley was a man of many talents. In addition to being an excellent writer and storyteller, he was a world-class sailor of the old school. In 1887, at the ripe old age of 15, Worsley went to sea for the first time, signing on as a junior midshipman on the clipper ship Wairoa. For all intents and purposes, he walked a deck for the rest of his life.

Early in that life, Worsley became known for his abilities as a sailor, navigator, and leader of men. It was thanks to these skills that, in 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton asked him to serve as captain of the Endurance, a three-masted ship that would carry Shackleton, Worsley, and his crew to Antarctica … and, arguably, the greatest adventure story of all time.

There have been many books written about Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition, but my hands-down favorite is Worsley's, published in 1924. I first read it thirty or forty years ago, and I have re-read it many times since. The book never fails to thrill and charm me.

The thrilling part is easy to describe, if almost impossible to imagine living through. Having sailed down through the roaring 40s, the furious 50s, and the screaming 60s—likely the most dangerous latitudes in all the world's oceans—the Endurance, under Worsley's command, reached the pack ice of the Wendell Sea on Christmas day, 1914. By January 18, the wooden hulled ship had become hopelessly locked in the ice.

For ten months, the ship's crew lived aboard the vessel as the snapping, grating ice took it on a slow journey around the bottom of the world, passing from longitude 30° W to longitude 60° W. In late October, the ship's ribs finally gave way, the crew abandoned her, and she sank on November 21st.

For the next four and a half months, the crew made their way gingerly across the semi-solid pack ice, hauling with them in three small ship's boats what supplies they had managed to salvage from the Endurance. On April 9th, 1916, with the ice breaking up beneath them, they launched the boats and sailed through killer whale-infested pack ice to nearby, uninhabited Elephant Island.

There, they made camp on a rocky beach hemmed in by two mighty crags and a massive glacier. On the first night their tents were torn apart in a gale and they awoke to find themselves blanketed in snow. Thereafter, they slept beneath their boats.

With no hope of anyone finding them or even looking for them (World War I had begun in July of 1914), Shackleton and Worsley, and four men they judged fit enough to attempt the journey, set out for South Georgia Island, 800 miles away. For their trip, the men chose the largest of the ship's boats, the James Caird, an open boat 22 feet long with a freeboard (distance from the waterline to the boat's gunnels) of just 2 feet. In this frail craft the six men would sail back up through the same treacherous latitudes that had first brought them to Antarctica, depending entirely upon Worsley's skills with a simple sextant, a cheap compass, and dead reckoning to reach their goal.

When they finally did make landfall on South Georgia, sixteen harrowing days later, the last of the gales they'd faced forced them to do so on the island's southern shore, the wrong shore. South Georgia's only inhabited site, a whaling station, sat on the north shore. With the James Caird too battered to attempt to sail around the island, the men's only hope was to hike across the uncharted mountain range that occupied the island's interior.

Traveling through the night and the next day, traversing countless crevasses and defiles, stumbling through thigh-deep snow, Shackleton, Worsley, and Thomas Crean made the trek, arriving at the whaling station 36 hours after they'd begun, exhausted and almost unrecognizable as human beings. It is estimated that the relentlessly stormy weather at that latitude would permit such a crossing of South Georgia on, at best, only one or two nights a year. Providence had smiled upon them.

After reaching the whaling station, it took Shackleton several months to arrange for new ships, but, eventually, he managed to rescue all the men he'd left on Elephant Island. Over the course of what had been a two-year travail, he did not lose a single man.

Speaking of the great polar explorers, Sir Edmund Hillary wrote, “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

That would have been Worsley's view too. Which is why his account of the adventure, Shackleton's Boat Journey (919.89 W), never fails to charm as well as thrill me. Respect for one's leader is an old-fashioned virtue, seldom encountered in today's world; but throughout his account of the expedition Worsley's admiration for Shackleton never wavers. I find his ability to recognize and unambiguously honor goodness in a fellow human being rather splendid. Many, I'm sure, could profit from his example.

Frank Worsley passed away in 1943. His ashes were scattered over the waters near Tilbury, where the Thames empties into the sea.

© Talbot County Free Library