Chapter 5: Preparations In South Georgia

We can make good all loss except
The loss of turning back.
—KIPLING.

Though we all felt very keenly the loss we had suffered in the death of the Boss, we could not allow our depression of spirits to take too strong a hold on us, for there was much work to be done.

The season was now well advanced, and I had to make up my mind at once as to what we were going to do. Sir Ernest Shackleton’s death, occurring at this critical juncture, left me with no knowledge of his plans, for he had withheld any definite decision as to future movements until he should be able to arrange for another complete overhaul of the engines. Since hearing of the crack in the furnace he had outlined several alternative propositions without, however, showing any definite leaning to any one of them.

The entry in his diary of January 1st shows how fully he realized the condition of the engines. Yet he added: “But the spirit of all on board is sound and good”; and later, “I must always lead on”! There is not the slightest doubt that he intended to go on with the work, and I knew that had he lived he would have found some way to carry on.

My position, when summed up, was as follows:

I was out of communication with the rest of the world, and there was no possibility of my receiving any message from Mr. Rowett. I had therefore to act for myself.

The Antarctic open season was well advanced, and thus limited the time available for manœuvring in the ice. I had therefore to act without delay.

With regard to the ship, the recent heavy storms had shown her to be a fine sea-boat, capable of standing any weather at sea. Rigging and hull were sound. The troubles which had so continuously cropped up since our leaving England had shown, however, that the engines could not be regarded as reliable.

We were short of both food stores and equipment, for our depot for the South was to have been Cape Town, and as a result of all the delays involved since our start we had not been able to go there and take them up. The food stores included those things most suitable for cold regions. The general equipment included warm clothing, footgear, sledging gear and harness; special ice equipment in the way of ice-picks, ice-anchors and hand harpoons; oil and paraffin for the engines and dynamos, and a quantity of scientific gear.

As to personnel, I knew that I had with me men who would staunchly stand by me and support me in whatever decision I should come to.

Sir Ernest had spoken on one occasion, just before arrival at South Georgia, of proceeding down Bransfield Strait, finding a suitable spot somewhere on the western side of Graham Land, and freezing the ship in for the winter. When summer appeared he would cross Graham Land to the Weddell Sea and explore the coastline on that side as far as time and conditions should permit.

Of his different plans, this and his published programme of proceeding eastwards and making an attempt to penetrate the pack ice as near to Enderby Land as possible, and from there to push south, were the only two which I could consider.

As to the first, for the carrying out of this I should require a large quantity of stores, sledging equipment and good winter clothing. As before stated, these were at Cape Town, and unless I could obtain them in South Georgia this scheme must fall through.

Sir Ernest’s last message home had been that all was well with the ship and the expedition, and he had never had a chance to announce publicly the final situation. Mr. Rowett might therefore wonder at any change of plan occurring after his death. On this score, however, I was not greatly concerned, for I felt that in anything I should undertake I would have his support and carry his trust.

With regard to the original published programme, I realized that to enter an area which had hitherto proved impenetrable to every ship which had made the attempt, would with the Quest be a hazardous undertaking even under the most favourable circumstances. Any ship entering heavy pack ice runs a risk of being beset and frozen in, and when that has occurred her fate lies absolutely with the gods. Should the ship be crushed, the chances of escape from the area in which we should be working could only be regarded as remote, for even if we succeeded in escaping from the pack with our boats, the nearest point we could make for would be Cape Town, a distance of over two thousand miles, through stormy seas, dependent for water supply upon what we could collect in the way of rain.

Any fool can push a ship into the ice and lose her—my job was to bring her back again.

On careful weighing of the two alternatives the Graham Land proposition appealed to me more strongly, for it offered the prospect of good work; and in case of accident we should be within measurable reach of whalers, which in their search for whales penetrate deeply amongst the islands of the Palmer Archipelago.

Though I was faced with an innumerable number of smaller considerations, the above represents roughly the situation at the time.

Therefore with these points of view in mind before coming to any decision at all, I gave instructions to Kerr to examine thoroughly and overhaul the engines and boilers and report to me his considered opinion. This he did. The work done at Rio had been good and sound, and he considered the condition of the engines to be fit for proceeding. The boiler presented a difficult problem. On looking up the record of the Quest (or the Foca I as she was previously named) in the Norwegian Veritas, I discovered that though the ship was comparatively new, the boiler had been built in 1890, and was thus thirty-one years old.

Kerr made an examination from inside, and I had also the second opinion, by courtesy of Captain Jacobsen, of the chief engineer of the Professor Gruvel.

The report showed that the condition was not reparable, but at the same time was not likely to develop further and become serious.

I threw upon Kerr the onus of deciding as to whether the engines and boiler were fit to continue with into the ice or not. With true native caution (he comes of Aberdeen stock) he replied that there was always a risk of breakdown, but not an unreasonable one; he was willing to take it himself.

So far as that was concerned I decided to go ahead.

My next step was to see about the special winter equipment which Sir Ernest had hoped would be available here.

I learned to my dismay from Mr. Jacobsen that Filchner’s store had been opened up and the contents scattered. There were no dogs on the island. They had proved so voracious and such a nuisance to the station that they had been shot. Food could be obtained, and a certain amount of clothing from the slop chests[7] of the different stations, but this was considered of doubtful quality and not recommended for our purpose. I thought bitterly of the good stuff lying in a Cape Town warehouse.

These considerations caused me reluctantly to rule out the Graham Land proposition.

There remained now only to carry on as the Boss had intended or to go back. As a matter of fact, I hardly gave the latter a thought. To go back was intolerable and quite incompatible with British prestige. To carry out against all difficulties the work the Boss had set out to do appealed to me strongly. I made my decision, and let it be known to all hands, giving each one a chance to back out before it was too late. I believe there was not one who ever so much as thought of it, and none seemed to doubt but that we would go on. Such is the onus of leadership. Where you must concern yourself for the safety and welfare of those under your charge, they place in you their trust and do not worry at all. This is as it should be.

I told Macklin, who was in charge of stores and equipment, to take a complete and accurate tally of everything we had aboard and then work out and make a list of requirements for the period to be spent in the ice.

When this was done I sent him to visit the different stations and pick out from their slop chests anything that he might consider necessary in the way of clothing.

Nothing was available at Gritviken, and so on January 16th we left for Leith Harbour, where we received the greatest kindness from Mr. Hansen, the manager of the whaling station. His keen interest and practical assistance meant a great deal to me at this critical time, and his genial qualities and kindly hospitality did much to dissipate the gloom which had fallen upon us. We obtained from him all the food stores we required and a general outfit of clothing and blankets, which, though by no means the equivalent of our own specially prepared stuff, was at least adequate to meet the demands of a single season. Amongst other things, each man was provided with a fur-lined leather cap, an abundance of socks and mitts, a pair of stout ankle boots, a pair of sea boots, a quantity of warm underclothing, heavy pea-jacket, light windproof jacket, a stout pair of trousers, three good blankets and a warm coverlet.

It was necessary before starting to fill the bunkers with coal. Mr. Hansen had none to spare, but he took me round in a whaler to Husvik Harbour, where Mr. Andersen, the manager, promised to supply me with what we required.

The “Plan” At Gritviken, With A Whale In Process Of Being Flensed | Photo: Dr. Macklin
Leith Harbour, South Georgia | Photo: Wilkins

On January 14th I told Worsley to take the Quest to Husvik, where she was placed alongside the Orwell, the station oil carrier, from which we took aboard 105 tons of best Welsh coal. In the meantime work had been going on busily on board, for Worsley and Jeffrey had much to do in their preparations for the ice. The forward water tank had been made sound and a hand pump fitted. Dell, McLeod and Marr tested all running gear and rigging, which was set up in good order and any defective material replaced. Marr, since leaving Rio, had been replaced in the galley by Naisbitt, and now assisted Dell about the deck, a job very much more to his taste. He was also appointed “Lampy,” having charge of all the non-electrical lighting of the ship.

Wilkins and Douglas, who had preceded us here from Rio de Janeiro in order to have more time for their scientific work, rejoined us, and were much shocked at the news we had to give them.

We were now ready for sea, but returned first to Leith Harbour to pick up two ice anchors and a number of hand harpoons, ice picks and ice axes which Mr. Hansen had turned out for us in his workshop.

We received from the Norwegian people in South Georgia during the whole of our stay nothing but the greatest kindness and sympathy and the most valuable practical assistance in our somewhat extensive preparations. This is the more remarkable in that they are not of our nationality and Norway has ever been our keenest rival in Polar exploration. They were, however, as Sir Ernest would have said, “of the Brotherhood of the Sea,” and that explains much.

We were about to embark upon what would most certainly prove to be the most arduous part of our programme, which I had briefly outlined in a last letter to Mr. Rowett as follows:

As I am at present out of communication with you, and in view of the lateness of the season, which necessitates that any attempt to enter the ice must be carried out without delay, I have decided to carry on the work of the expedition, adhering as nearly as circumstances permit to the plans as most recently expressed by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Consequently … I intend pushing to the eastward to a position dependent upon the date as marking the advancement of the season, striking south through the pack ice, and making an attempt to reach the Great Ice Barrier. If I am successful in this, I will turn westwards and map out, as far as possible, the coastline in the direction of Coats Land, but taking steps to escape before the ship gets frozen in.

There are, however, certain factors which may compel me to use my discretion in altering the programme, as follows:

  1. In addition to the defects of the ship already notified to you by Sir Ernest Shackleton, compelling alterations at Lisbon, St. Vincent and Rio de Janeiro, during this last stage of the voyage two other grave defects were discovered: a crack and a leak in the boiler furnace, and a leak in the forward water tank which almost emptied it. On arrival here the boiler was examined by Mr. Kerr, the chief engineer of the Quest, and by engineers from the whaling station. After careful consideration they have decided that it is possible to go forward, and Mr. Kerr states that it is quite reasonable to enter the ice under the conditions.
    Whilst ashore, I took the opportunity of looking up the record in the Norwegian Record of Ships, and found that the boiler was built in 1890, and is consequently 31 years old, a fact of which I feel quite sure Sir Ernest was ignorant…. From the time the expedition started various defects of the engines have appeared, and any further developments in this respect may entail change of plan.
  2. The capability of the Quest to deal with pack ice. It has been shown during the voyage that she is of lower engine power than was originally expected, and much will depend upon what speed and driving power she can maintain in the ice.
  3. The lateness of the season limits the amount of time in which it is possible to operate in the ice pack.
  4. Progress will depend upon conditions which cannot altogether be foreseen, viz. weather conditions, and the depth and density of the pack ice when we encounter it, varying greatly as it does from year to year…. I expect to leave the ice towards the end of March, and will probably return to this island (South Georgia) or the Falkland Islands for coal and water….

This briefly indicates my plan and the outlook at the time we left South Georgia. In working to the eastward I intended to make for the charted position of “Pagoda Rock,” and verify or wash out its existence; also, if possible, I wished to visit Bouvet Island.

It will be seen that throughout this projected route we should have the winds to the best advantage, for while working east we should be in the westerly belt, which extends approximately from lat. 35° S. to lat. 60° S., whilst above these latitudes, on our return, we should enter the belt of prevailing easterly winds.

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