Day 16: 16 January 2019

‘I’ll go over you, or I will go through you – but I will not go around you’.  This was prelude to a fist-fight in an old John Wayne movie.  I thought of these words today as we squared off to punch our way through a giant ice floe that was 7 kilometers long and 5 wide.    

I have been with ice-masters before on supply ships in the Antarctic and always they were skittish about going into the real pack, instead they just pussy-footed about in the loose stuff on the fringes, just enough so that the tourists and scientists could say they have been in the Weddell Sea.  Many of the skippers of the survey ships are reputed to be the same, and the captains of the naval patrol ships (who cannot afford to jeopardise their next promotion by taking risks)  are said to be the worst.  The Skipper, Ice-skipper and Mate on this icebreaker are different,  they have total confidence in this ship and its capabilities to shove and bludgeon its way through anything.  Well, almost anything.

Today we have been throwing ourselves at multi-year ice that is in places 8 meters thick.  There is not much that can withstand 60,000 tons advancing upon you at 7 knots.  It’s like a rogue elephant on steroids. The vessel’s great rounded stem rises up and over the ice, sometimes reaching more than 25 meters into the flow, and then, like a wrestler performing a flying body splash from the top turnbuckle, comes slamming down with all its weight crushing everything below and taking a bite out of the ice that can be up to  40 m deep.  The whole ship judders and there is a loud rasping noise as the broken slabs work their way along the side of the ship.

Needless to say, I have spent much of the day on the bridge or in the viewing gallery above: I don’t want to miss any of it as I know I will never experience anything like this again.   Sometimes I watch Captain Knowledge Bengu, a quietly authoritative man of 39 from Durban, and I just know he is enjoying it.  How can you not when you are riding all this weight, size and power.  At one point today he put down his binoculars, gave me a lop-sided smile and said, ‘This is all good practice for finding the Endurance.’ 

All of which has had me thinking about the Endurance.  She was of course a very different type of ship, and when she rammed the ice her technique was different to ours.  Whereas the Agulhas II drives up and over then crashes down, the Endurance, by contrast, used her sharp metal-sheathed bow to slice into the ice and create a crack that it would then try to force its way into and further wedge apart to open a lead.  Also, the Endurance could only tackle first year ice of no more than three foot thickness.  In fact, when one looks closely at the diaries one finds that the Endurance did not actually do that much ramming, relying more on its bijou dimensions and sensitive steering to inveigle its way through the pack.  Wordie (the expedition’s geologist) explained it best:

‘There is reason to be proud of the way in which the Endurance has got through the pack up until now;  there is no doubt that her success is due to her small size, which allows her to follow twisting leads quite easily; bigger ships might have been held up for weeks in the places we have been.

If we dig about in the diarist we can actually compile quite a good picture of icebreaking technique.  On December 17th, 1914, Hurley wrote:

‘All day we have been using the ship as a battering-ram.  Backing and then full speed ahead at the barring floes …  When the ship comes in contact with the ice, she stops dead, shivering from truck to keelson; then almost immediately a long crack starts from our bows into which we steam, and like a wedge, slowly force the crack sufficiently to enable passage to be made …’ 

Hurley later gave a vivid description of Worsley conning the ship through the ice:

‘Captain Worsley is standing on the bridge, one hand on the engine room telegraph, the other manipulating a semaphore which directs the man at the wheel …  Our vessel is now coming to an obstruction.  Worsley selects a point of attack that promises a line of weakness.  “Full speed ahead” is rung down to the engine room.  The engines throb and the ship quickly gathers speed.  Hold on in readiness for the impact.  There is a mighty collision as though we have run on to a reef.  The ship is brought to a standstill.  Her massive bows rise up on the ice nearly clear of the water.  Then, as if dulled by the violence of the concussion, she slides slowly back, reeling from side to side.  The steel-shod prow has inflicted a deep scar in the floe, but it has not yielded.  We must try again.  We go astern and prepare for another charge.  This time the ship’s bows will be directed full and square into the “V”.  Once more we forge ahead, gaining speed.  The helmsman watches the semaphore keenly.  One wonders whether the ship will split the floe or will the floe split the ship.  Anxiously we watch and wait.  Again the floe receives a 500-ton thrust from our wedge-like bows.  The vessel reels under the encounter – a moment of suspense – and then to our joy a dark streak runs from the bows, marking a jagged curse, far out across the floe.  It is a noble sight.’

Worsley himself gave a description that was more technically interesting: 

‘One never quite knew what would happen.  The weakest floe that barred our way was always attacked.  Great discrimination and experience were needed; judgement was all-important … the floe, sometimes three feet thick, would be approached at full speed of eight knots.  Just before striking the ice, the engines were stopped to save jarring them badly and with the helm amidships the ship’s steel-shod cut-water would be made to crash into the ice, cutting a large V.  Then with engines reverses, she would back astern 100 yards [and ram again].’

Worsley, Wild and Shackleton were in charge of the watches.  Macklin (one of the expedition doctors) was a bit doubtful of Worsley’s motives:

‘Each watch had its characteristics.  Worsley specialized in ramming and I have a sneaking suspicion that he often went out of his way to find a nice piece of floe at which he could drive at full speed and cut in two;  he loved to feel the shock, the riding up, and the sensation as the ice gave and we drove through’.

The team physicist, the bespectacled and ‘really rather learned’ Reginald ‘Jimmy’ James, took a dim view of all this, as he recognized it would not be good for the ship’s seams and fastening.  In his diary he huffed, although ‘It’s quite exciting to watch this breaking one wonders if the ship can stand it.’

Noon position:  65  48.0  S,   060  32.8  W