By Thomas Ronge |
On August 8th 1914 the British barquetine Endurance left the port of Plymouth. The British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men planned to sail towards the Antarctic Weddell Sea in order to conduct the first transantarctic expedition.
After a short stopover in the whaling station Grytviken, South Georgia, the Endurance sailed towards Antarctic waters in early December 1914. For several months, the ship tried to negotiate its way through heavy ice and became icebound at 76°S on February 21st 1915. Without any hope to free the ship, Shackleton and his men were forced to overwinter. The winter went by without any incidents. However, in October the ice-induced pressure increased on the Endurances hull, leaving Shackleton no choice but to abandon ship on October 27th.
The men were forced to traverse the Weddell Sea, pulling three of their lifeboats over the pack ice. For four months the men defied the harsh conditions of the Antarctic environment until they reached open water in April 1916. With temperatures well below -30°C, the boats reached Elephant Island (named by British sealers because of the large Elephant Seal population) on April 15th 1916.
Today, almost exactly 100 years later, we are in a similar spot off Elephant Island. For a moment we let our work rest to commemorate the epic journey of Shackleton and his men.
While we can enjoy the conveniences aboard POLARSTERN, Shackleton’s odyssey was far from over. Elephant Island was uninhabited and no help was in sight. Shackleton decided to cannibalize two of their boats in order to improve the seaworthiness of the 6 m long James Caird. On April 24th Shackleton and five of his men sailed for South Georgia. Two stormy weeks later, sailing more than 1.300 km, the men reached the southern coast of the island.
But still, the men were not out of danger. As the southern shore of South Georgia was uninhabited, they had to cross the snow covered, more than 1000 m high mountains to reach the next settlement, the whaling station Husvik. As soon as they arrived in Husvik, Shackleton left no stone unturned in order to rescue his men from Elephant Island as soon as possible. After two failed attempts he managed to rescue his men aboard the Chilean tug boat Yelcho on August 30th 1916.
Despite all the dangers and uncertainties Shackleton lost not a single man. Back at home, the men were shocked to learn that the World War, which began when they left for their expedition, was still raging throughout Europe. Before the war was over, two men from the Endurances crew lost their lives in battle, many more were wounded all over Europe’s battlefields.
In 1921, Shackleton left for his last Antarctic expedition. Along the way, he suffered a heart attack and died, back in Grytviken, on January 5th 1922.