Bowermaster’s Antarctica — Crossing the Scotia Sea

When we left Elephant Island midday yesterday we formally left Antarctica behind. I’ve been to Antarctica many times since 1989 and every time I leave it in my trail, whether by C-130 cargo plane, small sailing boat or expedition ship it is with no small regret. It is a spectacular corner of the world that gets in your blood like no other I’ve experienced. Remote and foreboding it can also be intimate and fragile. The only good thing about leaving is that I am already looking forward to my next return.

We have endured a remarkable stretch of good weather these past six weeks, and the luck continues. Strong winds were expected during the night, which never arrived. As a result, the Scotia Sea – lying just east of the Drake Passage, sharing a similar reputation for wind and storm – is rolling but not rough.

We are now following directly in the traces of Shackleton’s sail for freedom in the twenty-three-and-a-half foot long “James Caird” and I stand on the aft deck for a long time this morning trying to imagine being out here in such a small craft. The eight hundred miles took the six men in the wooden lifeboat cum sailboat sixteen days; we’ll do it in about two. They had no idea what they’d find when they arrived, though they knew there was an active whaling station at Stromness and that the prevailing winds would (hopefully) be at their back. We know pretty much where we are headed and what we’ll find.

They had sailed due north from Elephant Island in hopes of quickly finding warmer temperatures, which did not work so well, though the winds out of the southwest did push them at a sixty to seventy mile a day pace. But the cold continued. “The sprays froze upon the boat and gave bows, sides, and decking a heavy coat of mail,” Shackleton wrote about what he described as “the boat journey.” “This accumulation of ice reduced the buoyancy of the boat, and to that extent was an added peril … we could not allow the load of ice to grow beyond a certain point and in turns we crawled about the decking forward, chipping and picking at it with the available tools … the weight of the ice that had formed in her and upon her was having its effect and she was becoming more like a log than a boat.”

Fifteen days after leaving Elephant Island, they sighted South Georgia. Reduced to straining the last of their fresh water through gauze to clear it of hair from their caribou sleeping bags, they spent one last night just offshore, unable to land due to giant seas. When they finally did land, in a cove that ultimately did not give them access to the rest of the island, they crawled into a cave and slept … though Shackleton stayed awake as long as he could that first night to watch over the “James Caird,” still their lifeline, as it bobbed in the surf just off the rocks.

Just as Elephant Island lives large in history due Shackleton link, South Georgia – for all its magical allure of big animals and grand landscape – is part and parcel of “the Boss’s” myth. I’m sure while we are here these next five or six days we’ll catch sight of his ghost on several occasions.

Bowermaster’s Antarctica — Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands

Six a.m. and the sea is clouded by a morning mist, making the always mysterious-looking Elephant Island appear evermore … mysterious. Its sharp rocky peaks climb out of the Southern Ocean in inverted Vs; the tide is high, washing out the few shallow beaches that ring it. Just off Point Wild – named for Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton’s right hand man – penguins feed near the surface of the gray sea and a solitary Weddell seal curls up in the rocks. Just around the point we watch a leopard seal rip a penguin to bits for breakfast, flopping it around on the surface like a rag doll.

I wonder how Elephant Island would have fared historically if this weren’t the very beach where Shackleton and the twenty two men from his crushed “Endurance” had pulled and sailed to back in 1916. It is impossible to land on the beach this morning, due to the high tide, but I have been here before. Even when the seas are calm and the tide low it is a narrow, rocky, inhospitable place. That they managed to sail their trio of tiny lifeboats here, to the far eastern end of the South Shetland Islands at all is a miracle. That they survived for many months on this thin sliver of rock is testament to … well … I’m not sure what exactly. Fortitude? Patience? Belief in myriad higher powers?

Minus the Shackleton quotient, I doubt many around the world would have ever heard of this rocky lump. But today it holds a historical context far larger than its minute circumference. Bobbing in the rough seas just offshore, I can make out the monument built by the Chileans who sailed to the rescue aboard the “Yelcho” to rescue Shackleton’s men.

As we rock in the morning mist I try to imagine the scene as Shackleton and his crew prepared the small, twenty-three foot, six-inch lifeboat “James Caird” for its last-gasp, 800 mile sail to South Georgia. I envision them chasing down seals as they slid up onto the rocks, both for the sustenance they would give and the warmth their just-slit bellies held for the men’s long-frozen hands. I can imagine the men gathering in small groups to discuss among themselves the wisdom in the choices made by “the Boss” of who would go … and who would stay behind.

Today the pack ice is far from Elephant Island, but in April 1916 it was threatening to return any day, trapping the entire crew for another winter. They’d already been “lost” for fifteen months and were nearing the end of … everything … food, health, sanity. Which meant as they pounded nails straight, gathered provisions (matches, paraffin, extra socks) and filled the bow of the small boat with rocks for ballast there was an urgency that we cannot imagine from this vantage point. They all knew the risks of trying to sail a gerry-rigged lifeboat across the stormiest seas in the world with the scantest of navigational tools and a tiny, homemade sail. In the quiet of this morning I can almost hear their last conversations as they readied to push the “James Caird” off into the rising seas.

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