The Ships At The Ends of The Earth

Barry Gander
7 min readMar 11, 2022

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The recently discovered wrecks of Erebus (L top and bottom) and Endurance lie 20,000 kms (12,000 miles) apart, and centuries distant from us.

While he was serving with the Canadian Air Force in Yellowknife in the Arctic, our son called us with exciting news: he was going to fly a team of scientists up to King William Island to look through a hole cut in the Arctic ice to see a new discovery: HMS Erebus! Their work pulled back the curtain on a mystery 170 years in the making.

The memory jumped at me because HMS Endurance just been found. Endurance went down — as they say — in a ‘polar opposite’ way, in the Antarctic, more than a century ago.

Scientists peer through the Arctic ice at the remains of the Erebus — interrupted occasionally by a curious seal popping up in the hole.

Both ships are on the sea bottom at the poles because a passion for discovery drew their crews to those locations, and then accident and ill-planning turned their fortunes dark.

Each ship also offers a lesson in the differences that a leader can make.

First in misfortune was Sir John Franklin and his crew, who went missing in 1846 while searching for a Northwest Passage. The Passage promised a fast route to the riches of the orient — if you could get past one daunting obstacle: it led through the northern Islands of Canada, the “Passage”.

Franklin was a puzzling choice for leader. In 1819 he had led an expedition to chart the north coast of Canada, and almost lost his life falling into a river. Eleven of the 20 men in his party died of starvation or exhaustion, but there were also at least one murder and suggestions of cannibalism. The survivors were forced to eat lichen and even attempted to eat their own leather boots. This gained Franklin the nickname of “the man who ate his boots”. He likewise failed as governor of Tasmania, being recalled home to England.

He was reluctant to take on the Northwest Passage expedition, even in a ship like Erebus.

Erebus was the most technologically advanced vessel of its day. It combined sail-power and a coal-fired steam engine that had 12 days worth of fuel and were capable of a speed of around 4 knots (7.4 km/h). It was an ironclad ship, seemingly good for ice-breaking. Other science ‘firsts’ included the use of tin cans to preserve food.

The Franklin Expedition was the best-equipped assault on the Passage ever launched.

It departed from England in 1845 and was last seen by European eyes in August, by two whaling vessels. Then — silence!

It wasn’t until eight years later that a trading company doctor collected some artifacts from the local Inuit hunters. They told him horrific stories of despair, folly and cannibalism. When the doctor made his report to London, he was roundly condemned for spreading vicious rumours — everyone knew that Europeans would never eat each other! That was barbaric!

The next year the news could not be ignored. A hand-written note was found on the coast of King William Island. The note said that twenty-four people, including Franklin, were dead. Even more alarmingly, the Expedition ships, HMS Erebus and Terror, had been deserted after being trapped by sea ice for 19 months. The note added that the remaining crewmen were going to try to escape from the ice.

More than 100 others were alive at the time the note was written. They had seen no daylight for months on end. To keep track of the days and nights they rang a bell every half an hour.

It has been said that the canned food they ate was tainted with lead metal from the canning process, driving them mad, but this has not been confirmed. Their escape plan was to mount a last-ditch attempt to reach safety on foot. Their target was a trading post on the Canadian mainland.

They staggered out in blizzard conditions, bitter sub-zero temperatures and dwindling energy. They dragged a life boat with them, along with curtains from the ship, perhaps to make a tent. None of the men survived long enough to reach the trading post; in fact, they did not even one-fifth of the way. Their bones lie frozen in the tundra.

Bones found at Erebus Bay on King William Island, Nunavut, were excavated in 2013 and have now been matched to a living individual, confirming the body is that of Warrant Officer John Gregory, an engineer on HMS Erebus. He was a novice seaman in his mid-40s on his maiden voyage. He was one of the men who mounted a last-ditch attempt to avoid an icy death by travelling on foot to a Canadian outpost. The bones were found only 45 miles south of the ship, along with those of two crew-mates.

For years, Sir John’s wife Lady Franklin helped to financially support the fitting out of five search ships between 1850 and 1857. When it was accepted that he had died, she lobbied to have him seen as a hero, instead of a failure. It is possible that part of the reason she insisted for so long that he must be alive, was that upon a declaration of his death his Will would automatically make his fortune devolve to his daughter, who did not get along with Lady Franklin.

Franklin’s epitaph says that that White North has his bones and that he is sailing in a happier voyage “toward no earthly goal”.

Fruitless efforts were made by the crew to free the Endurance.

The Endurance legend is very different. She was also designed for polar conditions with a very sturdy construction; arguably the strongest wooden ship ever built. Ernest Shackleton had been knighted by the King of England for his contributions to Antarctic exploration, and he set out in 1914 to break records by crossing the entire continent.

Shackleton entered Antarctic waters and dropped off one crew in a camp near the Ross Sea to make a depot from an accompanying supply ship. With the remaining 28 crew members Endurance entered the Weddell Sea — and almost immediately became trapped in pack ice. Unable to break free, the ship drifted to within approximately 48km of Antarctica in January 1915, before drifting north.

The hull of Endurance, strongest wooden ship in the world, was slowly crushed by the moving ice. Shackleton ordered the ship to be abandoned in case it suddenly went down with all hands. The crew escaped with three lifeboats and limited supplies. Shackleton led his men through the shrinking ice pack for months while they tried to reach land.

Their lifeboat made landfall on the uninhabited and remote Elephant Island on April 14. Ten days later, Shackleton selected five crew members to sail with him in the 7-meter-long lifeboat. He left the remainder of his men in the care of his second-in-command Frank Wild, who upturned the two remaining lifeboats to use as shelter.

The life boat is launched from Elephant Island to begin her 1300-km voyage to South Georgia. They would encounter waves more than 30m high that struck them at 80 km/hour.

The small crew sailed over 1,300 km across the Southern Ocean to a group of whaling stations in South Georgia. This is one of the wildest seas in the world. The trip was marked by amazing suffering over a long period. The men were constantly wet and cold and utterly debilitated. Force-9 winds and ice build-ups on the hull threatened to capsize their little vessel.

Even when they landed on South Georgia their trials were not over — they found themselves on the opposite side of the island from their destination. Shackleton and two of his crew struggled across the island, reaching the rescue station 36 hours later. Shackleton next arranged a rescue ship to collect the remaining 22 crew on Elephant Island. He was lent a tugboat and finally reached Elephant Island on August 30, 1916. A smoke signal was sent from the shore while Shackleton approached the beach in a small boat. Figures emerged from the capsized lifeboats and when he was within earshot Shackleton called out: “Are you alright?”

“All well!” Came the reply.

I wish the story could end there, with a heroic captain leading his men. However…

The neglected Ross Sea Party was stranded until January 1917. Historians have called Shackleton “criminally negligent” in his planning for this group. Three of them (including the commander Aeneas Mackintosh) died horribly for nothing.

So there we have it. In excruciating conditions, two groups had very different fates. Without a leader, the northern group set out in desperation and died among the ice mounds. The southern group, inspired by an encouraging captain, managed to remain alive and in good spirits. That this leader was only human and partly failed one of his groups just shows that the power to prevail is not given to saintly heroes but to all people…to you and even I, if we were ever called.

And those best-built ships lie in freezing waters as testament to the fact that even technological innovation cannot always save us. Sometimes, we are called on to save ourselves.

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Barry Gander

A Canadian from Connecticut: 2 strikes against me! I'm a top writer, looking for the Meaning under the headlines. Follow me on Mastodon @Barry