Chapter 14: Cape Town

On June 3rd we set course for Cape Town, where I should be able to get into communication with Mr. Rowett. We had had a pretty hard and trying time, but I should have liked to have one more season in the Enderby Quadrant. The Quest had her faults—too many—but yet I had learned to love this little ship for all her waywardness. I had come to believe that much might be accomplished by making Cape Town our starting point and setting out early in the season.On mature consideration, however, I realized that it was inevitable that we must return home, for I knew that we had almost reached the time limit arranged by Sir Ernest Shackleton. There was still much work to be done, for we had to call at St. Helena, Ascension Island and St. Vincent. If time permitted, I intended to include South Trinidad Island also. I was anxious for Douglas to make a geological examination of these places so that he might be able to link them up with the islands we had already visited.

After leaving Gough Island we had had head winds and seas, and consequently made little progress.

We slaughtered Bridget and cut her up, Dell being the murderer. She was very fat and in excellent condition, and made a welcome change of fare.

The wind fell off a little on June 4th and 5th and came abaft the beam, enabling us to shut off steam and proceed under sail only. We were now short of coal and had to economize so that we should have a supply sufficient to take us into port. The ship also was very light, as a result not only of the depleted bunkers, but also from the lightening of the fore-hold of the mails and stores which were put ashore at Tristan da Cunha.

I was now proceeding to enable Worsley to look for a reef reported by the whalers of South Georgia as seen in the neighbourhood of position lat. 35° 4´ S. and 5° 20´ W. long. (350 miles east by north of Tristan da Cunha). Captain Hansen, of the Orwell, was very positive on the matter, stating that whilst proceeding from Cape Town to South Georgia he had seen breaking water and strands of kelp in this position. We took a series of soundings, which showed no signs of shoaling, and the snapper revealed bottom specimens of white clay.

On June 6th we started cleaning up the paint-work in an endeavour to make the ship look moderately respectable for our entry into Cape Town, but I am afraid that as a result of the hard battering which she received in the South she still had a very weather-beaten appearance in spite of any efforts we made in this way. Dell again had some butchering to do. He skinned one of the Tristan sheep, which proved to be very scraggy.

We spent the day making a traversing cruise, looking for the reported reef, but saw absolutely no indications of its presence in this position. Three successive soundings showed not less than 1,900 fathoms, with the same globigerinous ooze bottom we had found since leaving Gough Island.

The Quest Entering Table Bay | Note The Scarring Of Her Timbers | Photo: J. A. Cook
The Quest In Dock At Cape Town Showing Her Size As Compared With That Of A Modern Sailing Ship | Photo: J. A. Cook
The Summit Of Ascension Island | Photo: Wilkins

On June 7th we still traversed in search of the reef. We made another attempt to obtain soundings, but the wind and sea increased so much that it was impossible to keep the ship over the lead. Dell, at the Lucas machine, had a trying time, for he was continually being immersed. After 580 fathoms of wire had been run out I ordered him to reel in, and we headed off direct for Table Bay. The wind continued to increase in force, and, coming ahead, blew up from the south-east with heavy squalls of rain.

On the 8th and 9th we had a strong gale in which the now much lightened Quest flung herself about in the most lively manner, and much water came over our rails.

On the 9th the Quest excelled everything she had ever done in the way of rolling, and though we were by now well accustomed to her little ways, it was only with the greatest difficulty that we could move about the decks, passing quickly from one support to another.

On this day Query was washed overboard. He had become so confident and sure-footed that we had long ceased to have any fears on his behalf. Dell had just finished skinning our second Tristan sheep, and was in process of hanging it to a stay on the bridge deck. Query, taking as usual an active interest in the proceedings, had followed him up. The ship was struck by a heavy sea, which caused her to throw herself violently to leeward, and Query was carried under the griping spar of the port life-boat. Jeffrey, who was on watch, immediately stopped the engines and attempted to wear ship, but in these heavy seas any attempt at a rescue was impossible. Poor Query! he must have wondered why the usual helping hand was not forthcoming, as it had so often been on previous occasions to help him out of his scrapes. His loss caused a real hurt.

On the 10th conditions were much the same, with heavy squalls at intervals. The wind hauled a point, and at 2 p.m. we set the foresail and stopped the engines. We logged 5 knots as an average, and 6 to 7 during the squalls. In the middle watch at night I saw a perfect lunar rainbow stretching in a big arc across our bows.

On the 11th and 12th the wind fell light and we had fine weather. I set all hands to cleaning up, for this work had been suspended during the bad weather. We could do nothing to the outside of the ship, which was so scratched and scarred as to make hopeless any attempt to improve it. We managed, however, to brighten up the wardroom and cabins a little. “Old Mac” scraped the foremast—a difficult job on account of the heavy rolling—but it greatly improved our appearance. This fine old seaman is a product of the old-time sailing ships, a real sailor of a type only too rare to-day. He has made three voyages to the Antarctic.

The rest of this portion of the trip was uneventful till, on the 17th, we sighted on the horizon the Cape of Good Hope and saw Table Mountain appear from behind the clouds. We entered Table Bay early in the morning of Sunday, June 18th.

At Cape Town we were met by our agents and Mr. Cook, who was acting as Mr. Rowett’s representative. They brought us a big mail. If was interesting to see the members crowd round till they had received their letters, when each man sought out a quiet corner to which he might retire and read them undisturbed by anyone.

After the usual formalities had been gone through, we were piloted to a snug berth in the Alfred Dock. It was not until I had seen the comments in the Cape Town Press that I realized how much battered our little ship had been in her arduous struggle with the heavy seas and ice. One paper spoke of her as “small, unpretentious, but grizzly looking, and bearing signs where the ice had scored furrows in her planks.” Another described her as “a black, stubby little boat, steaming into Cape Town unknown, unannounced … the leaden skies, the cold green waters of the harbour, the sullen murkiness of the distant sea, the little furtive showers of rain, all seemed to claim the little ship as part of themselves, catch her up and absorb her into them as an essential part of the picture….”

All were amazed at her size, and few believed that so small a craft could have accomplished so much and covered so great a distance. We had the warmest of welcomes from the people of South Africa, and during our stay were so lavishly entertained by these hospitable folk that each one of us must carry for ever a warm spot in his heart for Cape Town and its inhabitants.

We were received by the Prime Minister (General Smuts) and entertained by him and his wife at their beautiful house at Groote Schur.

The ship was visited by many of the prominent people of South Africa, including members of the House of Parliament, which was then in session. All of them took a very keen interest in the regions we had visited, especially in Tristan da Cunha, the islands about it, and Gough Island. Much sympathy was expressed at the state of destitution in which we had found the people of Tristan da Cunha, and the Cape Argus, an enterprising and very efficiently staffed daily paper, immediately started making arrangements for a relief ship to visit them, and asked our advice as to the most suitable type of vessel for the work. It was hoped that she would be able to sail about the beginning of January, that being the most suitable time of year for effecting a landing on the island.

The Enderby Quadrant of the Antarctic is also of special interest to South Africans because the climatic conditions there have a large bearing upon the weather of Cape Colony. The Meteorological Office of South Africa was anxious for a preliminary report of our meteorological work, which McIlroy gave them.

I gave Douglas permission to spend his time in Johannesburg, for as a geologist he was very anxious to visit the mining areas. He was accompanied by Wilkins.

Invitations poured in for the various members to visit the different parts of the country about Cape Town, but though I much regretted having to decline them, I was unable to give any further leave, as the different members were required for work about the ship.

As is common on the occasion of the return of an expedition from the Antarctic, most of the party were attacked by “colds in the head.” Influenza was prevalent in the town and found two ready victims, first in Macklin, who contracted it soon after our arrival, and, later, myself.

Much repair work and general overhauling was necessary on the Quest. I had it put in hand at once. The engines, which under the careful nursing of Kerr, Smith and their staff had withstood the hard conditions remarkably well, now required an overhaul before we could again put to sea. The rigging was reset up and all necessary repairs completed. The ship received a new coating of paint, which completely transformed her battered appearance and made her once more a smart-looking little vessel. Fresh stores were taken aboard, and, the work completed, we left next day for the naval  dockyard at Simonstown. Several of our friends made the trip with us, including a number of Boy Scouts who had been assisting aboard the ship, but the Quest, reverting quickly to her old antics, made them wish they had stayed ashore.

We were most kindly received by Admiral Sir William Goodenough, who gave us a snug berth in the harbour. I am much indebted to him for his kindness during the time we remained in Simonstown. Here again we received every kindness from the officers of the ships attached to this base, especially those of H.M.S. Lowestoft and Dublin, who welcomed us with the proverbial open-handedness of the Navy.

On July 13th, the day of our departure, we had the honour of a visit from the Governor-General, H.R.H. Prince Arthur of Connaught, who, accompanied by Admiral Sir William Goodenough, made an inspection of the ship and took a keen interest in everything he saw.

My attack of influenza had been a very severe one and left me feeling very weak. I was fortunate in making an uncomplicated recovery. My best thanks are due to Mr. and Mrs. John Jeffrey, old friends with whom I stayed during my illness and whose many kindnesses I shall not easily forget.

In order not to delay the sailing of the Quest, I rejoined her earlier, perhaps, than was advisable, and on arrival at the dockyard felt so exhausted that I was compelled to take to my bunk at once.

Before finally leaving we swung the ship to adjust compasses. This was again done for us by Commander Traill-Smith, R.N., who had so kindly performed this office on our leaving Plymouth, and who had since our departure been transferred to this base.

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