Day 36: 5 February 2019

Instructions from Ocean Infinity in London:  ‘If the plane does not arrive today, leave immediately.’

It was just what we had been desperate to hear and straight away everything lifted.  These last few days felt as if we had hit a pocket of dead air and everything had drained from our sails.

During the morning the wind dropped and the sea went down to the extent that we were able to dive AUV 7.  The objective was to test its photographic capability which had given cause for concern, and also to experiment with a more tightly controlled ascent as we are likely to be working in tightly confined openings in the ice.  The tests went extremely well and at 11.15 it was back onboard and in its cradle.

At 1600 the weather improved dramatically and soon after we heard from Chile to inform us that the flight from Punta Arenas with the spares for the ROV was on its way.  At 19.15, however, as we were all eating, our personal radios crackled to life with a message from the bridge informing us that the plane had turned back after completing well over half its journey. 

What does this mean in terms of achieving our objectives?  It means we can still conduct our search for the Endurance, but, if we find it, my dreams of conducting an archaeological survey of the site are as dead as our ROV.

It also means that if ROV 7 gets into trouble we will not have an ROV to go down and fetch it.

At 20.50 we left this rather unlovely little island.  None of us were sorry to see it disappear in our wake as we set off across the Bransfield Straits and back into the icy embrace of the Weddell Sea.

If all goes well we will be back at the ice edge on the 8th February, over site on the 11th , conclude the search on the 14th and be back at Penguin Bukta on the 20th  February to disembark all pax.

The feeling of elation throughout the ship was something almost palpable.  This really is the greatest wreck hunt there has ever been, and once more, after five dead days, the game was afoot.

Everybody was in the mood for a celebration and fortunately we had the perfect reason for one.  Yesterday evening we learned that the Queen had been ‘graciously pleased’ to confer upon the expedition leader, John Shears, the Polar Medal.  This was something well deserved and we were all, of course, happy to bathe in his reflected glory.  John began his career at BAS (British Antarctic Survey) in 1990 as its first Environmental Officer and by the time he left in 2015 he was head of Operations and Logistics.  During that time he was an environmental advisor to the UK government on Antarctic Treaty matters and was an active Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society on a range of educational programs and expeditionary projects.   So, this evening we all gathered in the main lounge where we were allowed two tins of beer or two glasses of wine.  I said a few words of appreciation before proposing the toast and then the Chief Scientist, Sarah Fawcett, presented him with a large mock polar medal (so he could practice for the real conferment at Buckingham Palace) and Harry Luyt, dressed as Shackleton, presented him with a certificate signed by all the team.

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John’s award led to an interesting discussion between the two of us concerning why four of Shackleton’s men had not been awarded the Polar Medal.  In particular the omission of the carpenter, Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish.  It was a curious business.

In its current guise the Polar Medal goes back to 1904 when it was bestowed  upon the members of Scott’s Discovery Expedition and, until the 1960s, it was awarded to just about anybody who had been on a government-endorsed polar expedition; since then, however, the emphasis has been on personal achievement.  During Shackleton’s time the conferment of the medal fell within the gift of the expedition leader, so there can be no doubt that Chippy’s omission was a deliberate snub.  To some extent it is understandable;  as the old Glaswegian was the only one who openly rebelled against Shackleton’s authority when he buckled under Worsley’s instructions and refused to assist any further in dragging the boats across the ice.  His assertion was that once the Endurance had gone down, the ship’s articles, which they had all signed, no longer applied and that, therefore, they were no longer obliged to follow  orders.   Shackleton, of course was furious, and read them all the ship’s articles which included an insert he had made which stipulated that the crew agreed ‘to perform any duty on board, in the boats, or on the shore as directed by the master and owner.’

In his defence it must be said that Chippy was not in good health, he suffered from piles and there may have been other ailments, and his arguments concerning the futility of the exercise and the possibility of straining the boats, were not without merit.  Some writers have pointed out that, at the time, he held a grievance against Shackleton for having had his beloved cat, Mrs Chippy, shot, something which we know was a source of anguish to him (Worsley recorded, McNish  ‘shed a bitter tear’), but ultimately McNish was an eminently practical man and it is to my mind doubtful that his cat figured largely in his act of defiance.  Nonetheless, whatever the arguments, open insubordination on that level was not wise and Shackleton had no choice but to stamp it out in the forceful manner he did.

Neither McNish nor Shackleton  mentioned the incident in their diaries, but in Shackleton’s mind it did confirm his misgivings regarding the plain-speaking Scot when he wrote in a letter from South Georgia in 1914 that McNish was ‘the only man I am not dead certain of’.  In his book South Shackleton did not refer to the matter directly, as that may have tarnished his image as the great leader, but he did write, almost parenthetically, ‘Everyone working well except the carpenter.  I shall never forget him in this time of strain and stress.’   The incident was entered in the log at the time but, interestingly, Shackleton had it struck during the voyage of the James Caird to South Georgia when, according to Shackleton, Chippy showed both ‘grit and spirit’.  This is when, perhaps, Shackleton should have put the rift behind him, especially as it was Chippy who gave the James Caird the extra freeboard and added-backbone that it needed to survive its final voyage and, ultimately, save all their lives;  but clearly his moment of rebellion had been neither forgotten nor forgiven. 

In 1925,  Chippy, a devout Presbyterian who hated ‘filthy language’ above all else,  left his wife and his much valued wood-working tools and moved to New Zealand , where five years later he died destitute in Wellington.  Few now believe Chippy was entirely deserving of Shackleton’s snub, and in recent decades there have been several campaigns to have the medal awarded posthumously.  In 1958 BAS named a small island after Chippy (McNish Island) in King Haakon Bay, the inlet on the underside of South Georgia where the James Caird first made shelter following its crossing from Elephant Island. Today, on Chippy’s grave in New Zealand, there is a life-size bronze of Mrs Chippy.

The other three who did not receive the medal were John Vincent, William Stephenson and Ernest Holness, all fo’c’sle hands.  One of the ship’s doctors, Alexander Macklin, wrote of them:  ‘They were perhaps not very endearing characters but they never let the expedition down.’

Vincent was the strongest man on board, he had been an amateur boxer and was at times rather threatening to his shipmates unless he was given his way.  He had been signed on as bosun but, after complaints of bullying, he was summoned to Shackleton’s cabin and was demoted to able seaman.  He afterwards lost part of his upper lip when it froze to a metal cup, and on one occasion when he fell into the water from the James Caird he refused a change of dry clothes, because, according to one diarist, ‘it was freely stated that he had a good deal of other people’s property concealed about his person.’  During the crossing to South Georgia in the James Caird, Vincent’s health deteriorated to the point where he became useless.  It is unclear why Shackleton selected him for that final haul, but presumably it had to do with his physical strength and certainly Shackleton had  need of his seafaring skills, but it may also have been that he was seen as a potential trouble-maker and thus it was better that he was not left on Elephant Island where everybody had to pull together if they were to survive. 

Why Stephenson and Holness were refused medals is even more puzzling as neither appear to have done anything that deserved the kind of shaming that went with the refusal of the medal.  As the Endurance’s firemen, that is to say the ones who shovelled coal into the boilers, they were at the very bottom of the ship’s social ladder and so there may have been an element of snobbery in their exclusion.  Little is known of Stephenson, but of  ‘Ernie’ Holness we know more because he was the unfortunate one who, while still in his sleeping bag, famously fell into the sea when the floe opened up beneath his tent and was hauled to safety by Shackleton himself before the ice came together and crushed him to pulp.

During the dunking he lost his tobacco which explains the following unflattering picture of Holness that appears in one of the diaries during the period when they were marooned on Elephant Island:

Holness, one of the sailors, sits up in the cold every night after everyone else has turned in, gazing intently at Wild and McIlroy in the hopes that one of them will give him the unsmokable part of a toilet-paper cigarette.  Occasionally they do reward his vigil, whereupon he hurries off to his bag and consumes the fragrant morsel.  He always sits huddled up … until they have either rewarded him or else turned in without doing so … it is pathetic to think that anyone should have to grovel like this.’

After the war Holness returned to fishing in the North Atlantic.  In 1924, age 31, he lost his life when he was swept overboard from a trawler off the Faroe Islands. 

Noon position:   62  12.305  S,   058  51.063  W