Last ship on which Ernest Shackleton sailed found off Canada


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Ernest Shackleton

In the Labrador Sea, off Canada, buried under a 390-meter column of water, lies the last ship of one of history’s most iconic sailors, Ernest Shackleton. Breaking the news of the find is the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which was on the trail of the Quest, and has hit its target thanks to special sonar for searching underwater wrecks.

The Quest

The 34-meter-long Quest sank after colliding with an ice sheet in 1962, surviving nearly 40 years after one of its legendary commanders, namely Ernest Shackleton, died on board. The explorer found death aboard from heart problems in 1922; the Quest was only the last ship on which he sailed, at the end of a life that rightfully placed him among the heroes of the Oceans.

Who was Ernest Shackleton

“Give me Scott to lead a scientific expedition, Amundsen for a swift and effective raid, but if you are in adversity and see no way out get down on your knees and pray to God to send you Shackleton.” These words were spoken by Raymond Priestley, a British geologist, geographer and explorer who was also president of the Royal Geographical Society. Exaggerated? Not at all. Ernest Shackleton is, to this day, the epitome of the man capable of accomplishing the impossible.

Born in 1874 in Kilkea House, Ireland, Ernest Shackleton at age 16 enlisted on a British merchant marine ship, fleeing the medical studies to which his father had directed him. Ten years of voyages between the Pacific and Indian Oceans ripened in him the conviction that the merchant marine was not adequate to fulfill his ambitions. The desire to attain fame and wealth then prompted him to pursue a career as an explorer, and to begin with he joined the Antarctic expedition organized by the Royal Geographical Society and led by Robert Falcon Scott, another sacred monster of pole exploration.

The goal of the expedition is to reach the South Pole first. Scott and Shackleton arrive about 480 miles from the South Pole before having to surrender. A rift is created between the two, according to some caused by Ernest’s growing popularity among expedition members, and underlying Scott’s decision to send his colleague back to England citing health reasons. Four years pass before Shackleton is able to return to the South Pole, this time leading his own expedition. Aboard the three-masted Nimrod and with financial help from the Australian and and New Zealand governments, he reached Ross Island in the spring of 1907, where he set up base camp (still visible today). Officially, the expedition is there to analyze the mineralogy of Antarctica, but the real reason is still the same: to get to the South Pole first. Shackleton feels strong and prepared, thanks largely to the experience gained on the previous expedition. But preparations once again prove insufficient. The members of the expedition were sailors and not experienced skiers. The decision to use Manchurian ponies is counterproductive, so much so that they must be progressively culled. Despite all this, the expedition members manage to get only 180 kilometers from the South Pole. Here, Shackleton demonstrates a great critical spirit and a remarkable ability to assess the situation: even though the finish line is now just a step away, he realizes that by advancing further, return would be impossible. He therefore decides to return to base camp. To those who asked him why he made that decision, he always replied, “Better a live donkey than a dead lion.”

For three years, however, Shackleton held the record for approaching the South Pole, which was snatched from him when first Roald Amundsen and then Scott reached it. One prestigious achievement remains: the crossing of the Antarctic continent. it is August 1, 1914, on the eve of the outbreak of World War I, when the three-masted Endurance departs with twenty-eight men on board. Launched in Norway by Framnaes Schipyard, it is a 44-meter-long sailing ship, also equipped with a single propeller engine developing about 350 horsepower, giving it an average speed of 10 knots, designed specifically for Arctic exploration.


enduranceiceBut ice pack conditions are prohibitive and particularly extensive: on January 19, the Endurance gets stuck in the pack. “Our position on the morning of the 19th was lat. 76°34’S, long. 31°30’O. The weather was good, but it was impossible to advance. During the night ice had surrounded the ship, and from the deck it was not possible to see clear sea,” Shackleton wrote in his log. The men spent the long austral winter aboard the ship, but on October 27 the Endurance was abandoned and a month later was completely destroyed by ice pressure. Shackleton moves the crew onto the ice shelf to an emergency camp called “Ocean Camp” where they remain until Dec. 29, when they move, hauling in tow three lifeboats, to a slab of ice shelf they call “Patience (patience, in English) Camp.” Never was the name more apt.

endurance-entering-iceWALKING THROUGH THE ICE
The crew is forced to wait months before they can move again. In April 1916 the men, noticing the ice beginning to break up, boarded the lifeboats. Shackleton already has in mind where to direct the group. The best destination would be Desolation Island, about 160 miles to the west. The other possible destinations are two closer islands, Elephant and Clarence. Once they set sail, crew members find themselves constantly wet and unable to light fires for warmth or to melt ice (essential for quenching their thirst). Shackleton realizes he has no choice but to reach the mainland as soon as possible: after seven days at sea, all three lifeboats arrive at Elephant Island, whose surface is almost completely covered with snow and ice and relentlessly battered by strong winds. While in itself Shackleton’s ability to keep the crew alive up to this point has been remarkable, it is just now that the expedition enters myth.

Indeed, Shackleton realizes that it is essential to depart quickly, destination South Georgia, the base of a whaling fleet.A decision that at first glance seems insane: it involves tackling more than 800 miles in one of the world’s most dangerous oceans aboard the James Caird, one of the seven-meter-long lifeboats rescued from the destruction of the Endurance. To prepare the boat, the freeboard is raised, the keel is reinforced, and a makeshift deck is built of wood and fabric soaked in oil and seal blood to make it waterproof. To set the course, the crew has only a stopwatch and a sextant at their disposal. Given the low hope of success, Shackleton decided to load up on provisions for only four weeks: if he did not reach the destination within that time frame, it would probably mean they were sunk and, worse, lost in the Australian seas.

Shackleton_nimrod_66 men

It is April 24, 1916, when Shackleton and his five chosen crewmen leave Elephant Island. Facing giant waves and wind gusts estimated at around 100 km/h, after fifteen days of sailing they arrive within sight of South Georgia. A storm forced them to struggle nine hours to get ashore but, finally, they disembarked on May 10. However, the whaling stations are located on the opposite side of the island. Circumnavigating it is out of the question because of the prevailing winds and the rocky coastline full of pitfalls. However, the hinterland is no joke either: the area has never been explored and consists of frozen mountains. Shackleton, along with two crew members, turned their shoes into crampons by driving nails into the soles and without any other equipment traveled the more than thirty kilometers between their landing site and the Stromness base in just 36 hours. Here he is greeted by the incredulous dancers, who may think they have ghosts before them… Organizing relief for the twenty-two remaining crewmen on Elephant Island is not at all easy: the United Kingdom is engaged in World War I, and Shackleton realizes that no help will come from the homeland. He therefore seeks support in South America. On August 30, four months after leaving Elephant Island, the Irish explorer managed to reach all twenty-two castaways aboard a Chilean military ship.

What rightfully brings Shackleton to the Olympus of explorers is not only the incredible sailing crossing on the James Caird, but the fact that, despite incredible travails, he does not lose any members of the expedition. Not satisfied with his experiences, Shackleton set sail for Antarctica once again in 1921 aboard the ship Quest. By now he is a legend and on the day of his departure from London he is greeted by a cheering crowd. But in the port of Grytvyken, South Georgia (call it fate), he has a heart attack and dies. While his body was on its way to England, his wife makes arrangements for him to be buried in the very cemetery in Grytvyken. His real home.




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