In 1916, Frank Worsley navigated a lifeboat for 16 days through rough Antarctic waters with the almost impossible task of reaching help over 1000km away, then turned around, this time with a rescue team, to return to his fellow sailors who were still stranded.
Akaroa-born Worsley was the Captain of the Endurance during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The ship was crushed by a mass of ice floating in the sea in October 1915, leaving the men stranded and forced to camp on the ice until April 1916.
Worsley first led the 28-strong expedition on a 6-day passage to Elephant Island, but as winter approached they realised the remote spot didn’t give them much hope of being spotted. Instead, Worsley and six other men, including Shackleton, took to the Antarctic seas in a lifeboat, the James Caird, leaving the remaining crew behind, in the hope of sailing to whaling stations on South Georgia Island some 1300 kilometres away.
Worsley was the navigator and worked for 14 days on the open sea to lead the 7-metre-long lifeboat in the right direction. His route calculations were pivotal to the men’s survival as the possibility of reaching South Georgia Island was slim. He first had to estimate the longitude of their location on Elephant Island. If this first calculation was wrong it would be impossible to correct himself and land on South Georgia Island.
Once on the way, Worsley had to continue to make accurate calculations and precise measurements despite strong winds, rough seas and minimal equipment. He’d also have relied on seeing the sun to check the lifeboat’s position, yet his workbook states the sun was only visible a handful of times.
That workbook, which is housed at Canterbury Museum, has formed the basis of a new research paper by international researchers, including New Zealander Robin Stuart, aiming to shed light on Worsley’s use of celestial navigation.
“Worsley had to take the sights and manually perform the reduction calculations sitting on ballast rocks in a small boat heaving on ocean swells, “Stuart said. “Yet for that critical 14 day period we did not find a single error. That he was able to do this in the cold, damp and cramped conditions using rapidly disintegrating navigation books is remarkable indeed.”
“Without Worsley’s superlative skills as a navigator Shackleton’s expedition might be remembered as a tragedy rather than the epic tale of Antarctic survival we know it as today.”
Another research paper by Stuart and Lars Bergman used Worsley’s work to track the expedition from the ice to Elephant Island and estimates the possible site where the Endurance was crushed. The work was motivated by the lead-up to an international science expedition on the SA Agulhas II. The voyage set off on New Year’s Day for the Weddell Sea to record data on a trillion-tonne iceberg that calved away from the Larsen C ice shelf in July 2017. On its way back, the team on the SA Agulhas II hope to travel to the location of the Endurance wreck and attempt to find the sunken ship with autonomous robotic submarines.
Weather and schedule permitting, the members of the SA Agulhas II may learn more about the expedition that, without Worsley’s skill, may have ended up as another cautionary tale of the Antarctic.
Featured image: Launching the James Caird from Elephant Island. Photograph by Frank Hurley. Supplied/Canterbury Museum 19XX.2.268.