Day 19: 19 January 2019

Just as the Victory is at the centre of the Nelson legend, so too is the Endurance at the very heart of the cult of Shackleton.  The Victory and the Endurance are the two best-known British ships in the world, but - and here’s the thing - the Endurance is not British; she was conceived by a Belgian and built in Norway.

The man behind the Endurance was Adrien de Gerlache, a polar explorer of renown who in 1896 purchased the Norwegian whaling ship Patria which had been designed by Johan Christian Jakobsen who later built the Endurance.  De Gerlache renamed her Belgica and converted her into a research vessel for an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula which left Antwerp on 16 August 1897.  In March of the following year the Belgica became icebound in the Bellingshausen Sea on the other side of the Peninsula from where we are situated right now, thus becoming the first ship ever to overwinter in Antarctica.  After seven months in the ice  they managed to break free and in November, 1899, de Gerlache arrived back in Antwerp to a hero’s welcome.

After this de Gerlache participated in a number of scientific expeditions which included trips  to Greenland during which he conceived the idea of building a comfortably appointed, ice-going steam ‘yacht’ that would have ten cabins to carry rich tourists to the Arctic to shoot polar bears.  With this as his business plan he went into partnership with Lars Christensen, a young Sandefjord shipowner, who would oversee the construction of the vessel.  De Gerlache himself prepared the preliminary plans which then went to the naval architect Ole Aanderlund Larsen for refinement and finalization.  Construction, which began early in 1911 at the Framnaes shipyard, Sandefjord, was overseen by the master shipbuilder Johan Christian Jakobsen who not only built the Belgica (ex-Patria) but also the Scotia (ex-Hekla) which carried the Scottish explorer William Spiers Bruce to the Antarctic in 1902-04, and the Antarctic (ex-Cap Nor), Otto Nordenskjold’s famous ship which was lost near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in 1903.

The 144 foot-long (44m) Polaris was launched on 17 December, I913, but by that time de Gerlache had experienced some financial difficulties and the Polaris was put up for sale.  The problem was that nobody wanted her and for over a year she languished on the market.  There was some initial interest from people within the sealing industry, but that soon evaporated once word got around that the vessel could not easily be converted into a working ship, her decks were not suitable for seal-trying operations and her fine lines and heavily timbered interior meant that she could not stow oil in sufficient quantity to be in profit.  At least one enquiry was received from a merchant involved in the slate trade with Wales, but for the same reason that was also not pursued.  Nor was she viable as a yacht as she lacked the level of luxury that was expected in such vessels by wealthy Edwardians.   

Probably the oldest rule of ships and the sea (and one that goes back to before Greek and Roman times) is that ships are incredibly expensive to build, maintain and operate and, if they cannot pay their way, or adapt to the requirements of changing markets, then they must die.  From the moment the Polaris slid from the stocks in 1913, she was without a role and thus was dead in the water. 

Fortunately for Christensen, it was at this point Shackleton came along, and though the Polaris was not exactly what he was looking for, she was adequate.  A knock-down price of £11,600 was agreed, Shackleton changed her name to Endurance (after his family motto Fortitudine vincimus – ‘by endurance we conquer’) and in the spring of 1914 she arrived at the Millwall Docks, London, and began refitting for the Antarctic, 

As a maritime archaeologist I am hungry to know every detail there is to know about any ship I am investigating; how she was built, the political environment of the day, the economy within which she operated, the purpose of the voyage and her cargo and, of course, the people and society on board.  But, when possible, I also always want to stand on the very spot where the vessel was made and just commune with history.  I remember once in Holland being shown the place where a Dutch East Indiaman I was working on was constructed; it was there that everything that had been puzzling me about that ship suddenly fell into place.  Another memorable occasion was when I was working on Lord Nelson’s Agamemnon and the curator of the local museum showed me a scooped out patch of earth beside the Beaulieu River at Buckler’s Hard in Hampshire where the great veteran of Trafalgar had risen on the stocks.  It was at that moment  that so many strands of information, both historical and archaeological, came together and for the very first time I really felt I knew that ship.

And so it was that just before last Christmas my wife and I went to went to Sandefjord in Norway to see where Jakobsen had constructed the Endurance.  We were warmly welcomed by the Director of the Sandefjord Museum where we talked at length about the Endurance and even whether it might be possible to build a replica of her.  Afterwards my colleague, Stig Tore Lund from the Museum, drove us to where the Framnaes yard had been situated and together we stood on the precise spot where the ship had been built.

A road now runs around the edge of the fjord but it bends to accommodate a cleft in the wooded hillside behind where the best timber-built ice-ships in the world had once been fashioned.  The lofts, carpenters’ shops  and saw mills have long since gone and the waterfront is now dominated by a marina for small boats.  As for the spot where the stocks once stood, there is now a small parking area with a boulder at one end which, at first glance, looks a little out-of-place.  Look closer, however, and you will see a plaque on the boulder which features a profile drawing of an elegant barquentine-rigged, steam vessel, above which is written ‘Polar wooden screw yacht Polaris’, and then below, in capitals ‘ENDURANCE’.  There follows a brief history of the ship in Norwegian along with a picture of the location taken in 1913, which shows the Endurance during construction.

Under bruised skies with the fjord in front and the Norwegian wood behind, the three of us, that is to say my wife and I and Stig Tore Lund, just stood there in silence and thought about this little mistake of a ship which was going nowhere and then did.  From this Viking inlet she set sail on a voyage that would take her right off the map, and from there into legend. 

Noon position:  65  49.0  S,  060  35.6  W

Mensun Bound (Director of Exploration)