South V: Shackleton's boat journey

Double Entendre of the Day:
“we were being literally blown onshore…”
F.A. Worsley, Shackleton’s Boat Journey


Seasickness is the hangover you didn’t earn. Drinking has always had its own punishment built in, a sort of inherent finger-wagging propagator of Catholic guilt, telling you that you know you did something wrong. As Doug Stanhope says in protesting against vice laws, “Every vice is a punishment in itself. You smoke: you get cancer, you die. You don’t need a ticket on top of that. You gamble, you lose your money. You watch too much porno, it diminishes your taste for the kind of girls who might actually fuck you.” And it’s true. But with seasickness you’re thinking, “Who did I stab? What did I do?”, as it twines itself into your body for the duration. A low greasy nausea that creeps through your insides like a parasitic vine and holds on.

I’m on a boat and, it’s going fast and, if I had a nautical-theme pashmina afghan, I would use it to tie myself to the bed. The sea is a heaving ugly mass of wet slate. The wind picked up overnight to a Force 11, and the sky is as grey and remorseless as Soviet architecture. Everything outside seems to have been reduced to the one sickly shade. We’re lucky, in a way. On my last trip a Force 11 storm gave us twelve-metre swells. This time they’re only five to seven metres. But still – when a ship as high as a six-storey building plunges seven metres down and fifteen degrees to the side, it’s the kind of ride where you just have to hang on. Even with the stabilisation system on full, there are times when the curtains stand out perpendicular to the wall, and all night objects scurry back and forth in the desk drawers like anxious mammals.

It’s interesting how seasickness works. Your body has three ways of measuring its own movement. Your inner-ear canals are filled with fluid, like a fleshy spirit-level. Your muscles monitor from which direction gravity is pulling, in order to resist it. And your eyesight is the obvious third. On ships (and aeroplanes and winding roads), the first two sensors are sensing very complex movement. But if you’re in a room without windows (or that old classic, reading a book), your eyes tell you you’re sitting still. And even if you’re out on deck, your eyes can’t keep up with the full complexity of your movement. So there’s a disconnect between the three sets of data, the first two telling you one thing, the third another. Your brain interprets this as a distress signal, most likely that you’ve ingested a poison, and kicks off a purge reaction. And thus, you feed the fishes far below.

The only actual remedy is to lie down, taking the first two sensors out of the equation. It’s effective, but means spending three days in bed while I’m bounced between the wall and the desk. It’s so effective that I keep thinking I’m well enough to get up, making short forays outside, then retreating faster than the French Army. “Cancel and tear to pieces this great bond which keeps me pale” ranted Macbeth, and that’s how I feel about the need to shower, weaving back pasty and damp to bed. So I can’t get up. I can’t actually look at anything. I can’t do anything involving movement. As Green Day said, “When masturbation’s lost its fun, you’re fucking breaking.” The only comic relief comes from the spare sick-bags multi-lingually festooning the hallways. Sickness bag, they say. Sacchetto vomito. Sac vomitoire. Or my favourite, Spuckbeutel.

“Pardon me, could you pass me a sac vomitoire?”

There are slight lulls, then the ship pitches and drops like a carnival ride, leaving what’s left of your stomach five metres distant. But for all the discomfort, we’re warm and safe and fed and in capable hands. I keep thinking of Shackleton’s journey in the other direction. Very briefly: Shackleton’s expedition ship Endurance was trapped in Antarctic ice for ten months. After it finally sank, the crew spent five months floating on ice floes, until they could launch their lifeboats to make it to shore on Elephant Island, still in the Antarctic. Shackleton knew they would never be found there, so he chose five others with whom he would attempt a journey to South Georgia in the largest of the boats. If they could find a whaling station there, the rest of the crew might then be rescued.

The sea that we’ll cross in three days took them sixteen, sailing a 22-foot lifeboat with a bit of canvas over the top. It’s nearly 1500 kilometres, across some of the worst seas in the world. It was 1916; the Endurance’s skipper Frank Worsley was navigating with no more than a wet chart and a sextant. It was late April, far colder than now, and the storms they encountered far more severe. If they missed South Georgia they were lost, without doubt. And yet somehow they made it to the unpopulated west coast, only then to have to climb the never-before-crossed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia’s interior to reach help on the east. Hyperbole aside, it is one of the most extraordinary achievements of human perseverance in our species’ often dubious history.

So I want to share a little of it with you. Worsley wrote a book about the voyage, and aside from being a genius navigator, he’s a very fine prose merchant as well. Here is a conflated section describing the most perilous part of their voyage, in danger of being lost within sight of their destination.


At daybreak on May 9 we were wallowing in a terribly heavy cross sea, with a mountainous westerly swell setting us in on the coast before the furious westerly gale then raging. We felt none too easy in our minds, for we knew the current was aiding the wind and sea in forcing us towards destruction.

All day we were stormed at in turns by rain, hail, sleet, and snow, and half the time our view was obscured by thick, driving, misty squalls that whipped the sea into lines of yeasty foam.

By noon the gale had risen to hurricane force, hauled to southwest, and was driving us, harder than ever, straight for that ironbound coast. We thought but did not say those words, so fateful to the seaman, “ a lee shore.”        Each time we were lifted high on a towering swell we anxiously searched the horizon to leeward for the break of an unknown reef or the dreaded coast. “Sea room, sea room, or a change of wind,” was our mental prayer.

Dead reckoning was of slight use to give us our position in this hurricane, for the currents and tides on this coast, though fast and dangerous, are still unrecorded. All we knew was we were setting onshore.

We remained hove to till 2 P.M., when through a sudden rift in the storm-driven clouds we saw two high, jagged crags and a line of precipitous cliffs and glacier fronts on our lee quarter. We were being literally blown onshore – in the most dangerous and unknown part of the coast – the stretch between King Haakon Sound and Annenkov Island. As we drove inshore it seemed that only three or four of the giant deep sea swells separated us from the cliffs of destruction – the coast of death.

If we could have appreciated it, a magnificent, awe-inspiring scene lay before us.

The sky all torn, flying scud – the sea to wind’ard like surf on a shallow coast – one great roaring line of breaking seas behind another, till lost in spume, spindrift, and the fierce squalls that were feeding the seas. Mist from their flying tops cut off by the wind filled the great hollows between the swells. The ocean was everywhere covered by a gauzy tracery of foam with lines of froth, save where boiling white masses of breaking seas had left their mark on an acre of the surface.

On each sea the boat swept upward till she heeled before the droning fury of the hurricane, then fell staggering into the hollow, almost becalmed. Each sea, as it swept us closer in, galloped madly, with increasing fury, for the opposing cliffs, glaciers, and rocky points. It seemed but a few moments till it was thundering on that coast beneath icy uplands great snow-clad peaks, and cloud-piercing crags.It was the most awe-inspiring and dangerous position any of us had ever been in. It looked as though we were doomed – past the skill of man to save.

With infinite difficulty and danger of being washed overboard we got the reefed jib off the main, set it for’ard, set reefed lug and mizzen, and with these large handkerchiefs endeavoured to claw offshore, praying to heaven that the mast would stand it.

She gathered way, then crash! she struck an onrushing sea that swept her fore and aft even to the mastheads. While all baled and pumped for dear life, she seemed to stop, then again charged a galloping wall of water, slam! like striking a stone wall with such force that the bow planks opened and lines of water spurted from every seam, as she halted, trembling, and then leaped forward again. The strains, shocks, and blows were tremendous, threatening every minute to start her planking, while the bow seams opened and closed on every sea. Good boat! but how she stood it was a miracle of God’s mercy.

We were lifted up and hurled down. With her bows and our bodies we shipped, swept, flailed, and stamped on the seas. Van Tromp and Blake weren’t in it with us. We leaped on the swells, danced on them, flew over them, and dived into them. We wagged like a dog’s tail, shook like a flag in a gale, and switchbacked over hills and dales. We were sore all over.

Darkness settled on six men driving a boat slamming at the seas and steadily baling death overboard. The pale snow-capped peaks gleamed spectrally aloft, resting on black shades of cliffs and rocks, fringed by a roaring line of foaming breakers – white horses of the hurricane, whose pounding hooves we felt, in imagination, smashing our frail craft.



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1 Response to South V: Shackleton's boat journey

  1. I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

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