In August 1914, a small band of adventurers departed London docks to confront a largely uncharted Antarctic fraught with danger. They had replied to an ad seeking “men for a hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success”. It was to prove one of the greatest adventures in maritime survival as a series of miscalculations and bad luck morphed into epic success.
Led by Kildare-born Ernest Shackleton, it included Tom Crean from Annascaul, and Timothy (Tim) McCarthy from Kinsale who both played a key roles in averting catastrophy. As with fellow Corkonian Patrick (Patsy) Keohane from Courtmacsherry, on the earlier Scott expedition, their determination to confront overwhelming odds is quoted in military training the world over as the epitome of leadership and teamwork.
Shackleton was an experienced Antarctic explorer whose earlier expedition had failed to reach the South Pole by a mere 97 miles. Captain Scott reached that elusive destination, the Holy Grail of exploration, 90 South, two years later in December 1911 but discovered to his utter chagrin that Norwegian Amundsen (using sledge dogs while Scott and Shackleton opted for manhauling) had beaten him to the post by one month.
To add to the despondency of the British geographic community Scott and his assault party perished at the final stage of their return journey eight miles short of their last supply depot.
Scott selected his final party (only one from the “ranks”) on the basis of social standing, sending tough, fit men such as Crean and Patsy Keohane (of the first support group) back to base. Later, when Scott failed to return, Keohane found his remains and those of his polar party, excepting the self-sacrificing Captain Oates who, with supplies exhausted, left the tent into a blizzard with one of the most plaintiff goodbyes ever, “I’m just going out and may be away some time...”
Since the dashing Amundsen had won the great race finance for an expedition would not come from official quarters. To attract sponsors Shackleton devised a novel odyssey, a 1,800 mile trip across the frigid continent. This would entail two ships; one to drop the explorers and their supplies off on the Weddell Sea side, another to pick them up on the Ross Sea side. Eventually a Scots financier, James Caird, made a generous contribution. But not enough for Shackleton to build ships specially designed for deep Antarctic conditions.
Shackleton then heard that an earlier Antarctic explorer, the Belgian Baron de Gerlache, who explored the Antarctic peninsula in 1897-99 (he had the young Norwegian Amundsen among his crew), was selling what seemed to be the perfect ship, the Polaris, built in Norway so rich Europeans could go hunting polar bears in the Arctic summer. Made of layers of hardened oak it had a steel-reinforced bow it was designed to navigate ice-strewn waters. It was the toughest ship ever built, with one exception, the Fram, Amundsen’s Pole expedition ship of 1911.
Polaris, renamed Endurance by Shackleton, was traditionally U-shaped and not designed for overwintering in thick pack-ice fields. The Fram had a nutshell hull and retractable rudder. Its semi-circular, bowl-bottom enabled it to slide upwards above the ice when seized in the winter of 1912-13. Amundsen managed to anchor it near the coast of the Weddell Sea thus protected from major pressure ridges in the pack-ice moving under the force of the underlying ocean current.
It must have been an absolute stinker to sail across the violent waters of the Southern Ocean – but comfortably reassuring when the ice squeezed in the stygian darkness of the polar winter.
Another misfortune was that Antarctic weather of 1914 was exceptionally cold. Whalers on South Georgia, where Shackleton stopped en route, warned Shackleton of the exceptional ice and that his boat was only designed for making its way through broken ice to deposit his team and depart post haste.
In order to shorten the overland route he decided to moor injudiciously deep into the treacherous Weddell at Vahsel Bay. But fierce katabatic winds roared down off the frigid polar plateau and froze the late summer ocean; then northerly winds packed the ice up towards the coast entrapping Endurance. Despite desperate efforts by the crew to cut a passageway through the pack-ice to open water a long sunless winter sojourn beckoned.
Worse still, being 80 miles off coastal shelter, currents underlying the entrapped boat carried it around the expansive basin of the Weddell for months, while surges in current and drifting icebergs caused the hull to be slowly crushed. Though not before photographer Frank Hurley took an iconic shot of the spectral, beset ship.
It eventually yielded in November 1915; during its protracted death-throes the crew managed to unload supplies, salvage three life boats and took to living on ice floes.
They attempted a dash over the ice hauling the boats to open water but were thwarted by an icescape contorted by pressure ridges and deep crevasses (an experience McCarthy had already endured when on Scott’s expedition he fell into six crevasses in quick succession). 165 days later with the onset of austral summer and break-up of the sea-ice they braved a desperate 7-day, 200 mile trip in heavy seas to a rocky outcrop called Elephant Island.
Shackleton then cannibalised two lifeboats to restructure the third as an improvised ketch with a makeshift deck and mast, dubbed the James Caird, with the hope of reaching South Georgia and help.
Unlike Scott, Shackleton selected four of the physically and psychologically toughest (the fifth the trouble-making ships-carpenter) to attempt the horrendous route across the Southern Ocean, including McCarthy, Crean and Worsley (New Zealand) a brilliant navigator. Worsley later heaped praise on McCarthy, stating that his skill in keeping the boat afloat ensured their successful arrival and survival.
Thus a catalogue of mishaps was transformed, like the Apollo 13 space mission, into epic success by inspired leadership and teamwork into an epic adventure which far outshone the original endeavour.
Unlike Royal Navy officer Scott, Merchant Navy Shackleton chose his team on the basis of merit – tough guys with cool heads and inured to hardship. He was fortunate that during this period of Antarctic exploration Cork was fertile territory for recruitment into the British Navy.
Though Shackleton’s leadership has been rightly recognised the invaluable contributions of the junior members of his and Scott’s teams are often overlooked. Inspirational leadership and a bonding of team members, the backbone of expeditions, proved decisive. (Prior to the Heroic Age - Gerlasche to Shackleton - other Corkmen, such as Edward Bransfield from Midleton who charted the South Shetland Islands in 1820, explored the polar oceans. These are all catalogued by adventurer Frank Nugent in his absorbing chronicle Seek the Frozen Land, and include Robert Forde of Cobh who sailed on Scott’s Terra Nova.)
Crean has received deserved acclaim with biographies and a statue at the famed South Pole Inn at Annascaul. It took one hundred years before a statue of Patsy Keohane was unveiled by Dr Clare O’Leary, the first Irishwoman to reach the South Pole, in Courtmacsherry. A memorial to Timothy McCarthy and his intrepid brother Mortimer (who also navigated Antarctic waters on Terra Nova) has been erected in Kinsale.
Thus Cork/Kerry provide their sons of the Heroic Age a small measure of the “honour and recognition in case of success” they so eminently earned. Their gallant endeavours, overshadowed by tumultuous world events, have enriched their county and the wider national heritage.