Day 35: 4 February 2019

King George Island (still).  All morning low cloud, fog and strong winds.  Spirits were about as flat as yesterday’s champagne.  This frowning little island - it doesn’t feel as if it is in the Antarctic, nor does it feel as if it is out of it.  It feels as if we are trapped in some kind of purgatorial nowhere-land, a bit like Jacob Marley or the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, neither in one world nor the other.

Normally strong winds disperse the fog, but at lunch the wind speed was 35 knots and at the same time the fog was so dense we could not see the shore or even a vessel that was anchored 40 meters from us.  During  the afternoon the expedition leader, John Shears, and myself had a meeting with Captain Knowledge Bengu in his cabin to look at options.  He too feels frustrated; as with all his officers and crew he wants to be back in the business of finding the Endurance.  We  deliberated over the ice conditions, the distances we have to travel and our deadline for arriving back at Penguin Bukta to catch the last flights from Wolf’s Fang to Cape Town before the landing strip closes down for winter.  Basically, it is essential for us to leave here tomorrow if we are to have any chance of finding the Endurance.

We had hoped to conduct a test dive with AUV 7 during the second half of the afternoon but conditions were too difficult.   AUV 7 is to be the principal search vehicle in the hunt for the Endurance. Just as the test dive was cancelled we received a message by radio from Chile to say that, once more, the flight will not be leaving Punta Arenas.

There was an interesting discussion at dinner this evening about what people do when they are feeling down.  One person said they stuff on chocolates, a couple said they turn to music, another said they hit the bars.  I kept my one to myself, but I know exactly what I would be doing if I was in London right now;  I would be heading towards my nearest second hand bookshop for a damn good browse.

However, the day was not entirely without good news.  The ice pack over the Endurance continues to loosen.  Whereas before it was a like a shield, it is now starting to resemble a jigsaw.

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Roman Comedy was full of stock characters; there was the licentious priest, the conniving slave, the cowardly-braggart soldier, the irate wife who was always getting in the way of her husband’s pursuit of young women;  and then there was the Senex, the old man, befuddled, a bit sad, sometimes infirm,  always out-foxed by all his servants and daughters.  It’s the latter I have been thinking about today; I used to find him funny, now he sends chills through me.  What has brought this on?  Well, today you see, it was my birthday.

When I was a young student I used to watch the great classical scholar Russell Meiggs, stuttering his way up the steps of the Ashmolean Museum on his way to the library; he always reminded me of Dick van Dyke as the old banker in the Mary Poppins movie.  I used to follow him in case he fell and then, once inside, I used to help him by climbing the old oaken ladder to extract the book he wanted from the top shelf.  He wrote the definitive study on timber in the ancient world, and we got on well because he was always profoundly interested in the wood types I was finding on Roman ships in the Mediterranean.  He could never remember my name so he used to call me navita iuvenalis meaning ‘sailor boy’, a private joke and perhaps a reference from a favoured text; I used to smile as if I got it, but I never did.   Anyway, I have always been rather scared of becoming Russell, and now as the years race by I fear that this indeed is where I am heading.  When I started out I was always the youngest on archaeological excavations, I made the tea, cleaned up and did all the ‘Hey you’ jobs; but now, and for a decade, I have been the oldest, something that really irks me.  I know old age must always cede to youth, and so on, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  So now I avoid birthdays as a penguin does a leopard seal.   

So today I connived with Holly Ewart and the Purser to bury it.  And this was going well until a well-meaning, eagle-eyed younger member of the team, Raquel Flynn (expert on the nitrogen and carbon cycles in the South Atlantic, brings her own teabags with her), spotted the omission and posted her best wishes.  Birthdays are always celebrated on board with cake and drinks after dinner, so now I feel guilty because all I have done is deprive everybody of cake and an excuse for a bit of a party which are essential for morale when you are in the icy wastes of the high latitudes.

And so it was with Shackleton’s team.  Birthdays became important as something they could look forward to, something that would break the monotony, raise spirits and cement camaraderie.  Macklin described how Shackleton always marked these occasions with a cake, and once that had been presented he would disappear into the bonded store wherein were kept ‘whiskies, rum and dainties’ and emerge with a bottle of spirits and sometimes a box of chocolates.  As the evening progressed Hussey would, invariably, strike up a tune on his banjo.  Hussey himself wrote:

‘Celebrations played an important part in the social life of the expedition.  Every night, I think, we celebrated some anniversary; all our birthdays, of course, and anything else we could think of.  On one occasion when we could think of nothing else we celebrated the first lighting of London by gas! 

The King’s birthday on the 3 June was always an excuse for a celebration; in 1915 Chippy McNish  described how they paid tribute to the occasion with ‘bread and cheese and butter for lunch and grog in the evening.’  Another was the birthday, or commissioning of the Endurance. By the time they had hauled themselves on to Elephant Island all they had left with which to honour their lost ship was a ‘tot of methylated spirits … with a pinch of ginger’.  One of those who had his birthday under the upturned boats on Elephant Island was Orde Lees; of it he wrote: ‘I celebrated my birthday today.  We had a fine sledging ration hoosh  … for breakfast, for luncheon one biscuit and two sardines each (the last of the sardines) and for supper seal hoosh with four sledging rations added to it, three lumps of sugar and a concert, in which I took part, much to the agony of my comrades.’

One of the more interesting birthday-mentions came from the diary of geologist James Wordie (18 April 1914) in which he gave the ages of many on the team.

Today happened to be Wild’s birthday and, following the general custom, a cake and a bottle of whisky were passed around after dinner.  A comparison of ages took place naturally, in which the average age is 33.  The youngest of the party are Kerr (second engineer) 22, James 23, Hussey nearly 24, Macklin and myself nearly 26, Hurley 29 and Clark 32.  The average age was considerably raised by Cheetham and the carpenter.  Tom Crean, old as he looks, is only 38.

Interestingly he makes no mention of Old (Thomas) McLeod who, at 45, was the most elderly on board, or indeed of Perce Blackborow who was the youngest.  The popular Welshman was only 19 when he stowed away on the ship in Buenos Aires.  Maybe this was because they were both seamen and there was an element of snobbery towards the crew.

Finally, it occurs to me that Shackleton’s birthday is on February 15th – just 11 days away.  When he died he was just 48. By that day will we have found Shackleton’s beloved Endurance, will we have received history’s tap on the shoulder, or, will we be quietly wending our way back to Penguin Bukta to catch our flights home having had no sight of the ship?

Noon position:   62  12.325  S,   058  51.013