The Incredible Sailing Skills of Endurance Captain Frank Worsley
When the wreckage of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance ship was found nearly 10,000 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea in Antarctica in March 2022, it was located just 4 miles from its last known position, as the registered Endurance captain and navigator Frank Worsley in November. 1915.
That’s an amazing degree of accuracy for a position determined with mechanical tools, book-length reference number charts, and pen and paper.
The expedition looking for the ship had searched an underwater area of 150 square miles – a circle 14 miles in diameter. No one knew how accurate Worsley’s calculation of position had been, or how far the ship might have traveled by sinking.
But as a historian of Antarctic exploration, I wasn’t surprised to discover how accurate Worsley was, and I imagine those looking for the wreckage weren’t either.
Navigation was key
The Endurance had left England in August 1914, the Irishman Shackleton hoping to become the first to cross the Antarctic continent from side to side.
But they never even landed in Antarctica. The ship became stuck in sea ice in the Weddell Sea in January 1915, forcing the men off the ship into tents pitched on the nearby frozen ocean. The force of the ice slowly crushed the Endurance, sinking it 10 months later and launching what was to become an incredible – and almost unbelievable – saga of survival and navigation by Shackleton and his crew.
Shackleton’s own leadership has become legendary, as has his commitment to ensuring that no man is lost from the party under his command – although three members of the 10-man Ross Sea expedition party have perished.
Less well known is the importance of the navigational skills of Worsley, 42, a New Zealander who spent decades in the British Merchant Navy and Royal Navy Reserve. Without him, Shackleton’s story of survival would likely have been very different.
Navigation requires determining the location of a vessel by latitude and longitude. Latitude is easy to find from the angle of the Sun above the horizon at noon.
Longitude required comparing local noon—the time when the Sun was at its highest point—with the actual time at another location where longitude was already known. The key was to make sure the time measurement for that other location was accurate.
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Making these astronomical observations and making the resulting calculations was hard enough on earth. On the ocean, with few fixed land points visible, in bad weather it was almost impossible.
Navigation therefore depended largely on “esteem”. It was the process of calculating a ship’s position using a previously determined position and incorporating estimates of the ship’s speed and direction. Worsley called it “the sailor’s calculation of routes and distance.”
Aim for the ground
When the Endurance was crashed, the crew had to get to safety or die on a drifting ice floe somewhere in the Southern Ocean. In April 1916, six months after the sinking of the Endurance, the pack ice on which they had camped began to break up. The 28 men and their remaining equipment and supplies were loaded into three lifeboats – the James Caird, the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills – each named after the expedition’s major donors.
Worsley was in charge of landing them. Early in the voyage, Shackleton “saw Worsley, as navigating officer, swinging on the gunwale of the Dudley Docker with his arm around the mast, ready to break the sun. He got his sighting and we waited impatiently while he worked on the sight.
To do this, he compares his measurement with the time of his stopwatch and writes calculation tables.
A last hope for survival
Once they managed to arrive at a small rocky strip called Elephant Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, they still faced starvation. Shackleton believed the only hope for survival was to seek help elsewhere.
Worsley was ready. Prior to the Endurance crash he had “determined the courses and distances between South Orkney and South Georgia, the Falklands and Cape Horn, respectively, and from Elephant Island to the same places”, se he recalls in his memoirs.
The men used parts of the other lifeboats to reinforce the James Caird for a long sea voyage. Every day Worsley “watched closely for the appearance of the sun or stars, to correct my chronometer, on which our the success of the journey”.
On April 24, 1916, Worsley got “The first sunny day with a horizon clear enough to get a view to gauge my stopwatch.” That same day he, Shackleton and four other men set sail in the 22.5-foot James Caird, carrying Worsley’s chronometer, navigational books and two sextants, used to fix the position of the Sun and stars.
The boat trip
These men, in this small boat, went from one rocky point of the Southern Ocean to another, facing high winds, massive currents and choppy waters that could wildly lead them astray or even sink them. The success of this trip depended on Worsley’s absolute accuracy, based on observations and estimates he made under the worst possible environmental conditions, while sleep-deprived and frozen.
They spent 16 days of “supreme conflict amid rough waters” as the boat sailed through some of the world’s most dangerous sea conditions, experiencing “mountainous” swells, rain, snow, sleet and hail. During this time, Worsley was only able to get four solid cues on the boat’s position. The rest was “a merry joke of guesswork” to figure out where the wind and waves had taken them, and adjust the steering accordingly.
The stakes were high – if South Georgia was missing, the next land was South Africa, 3,000 miles further across a more open ocean.
As Worsley later wrote:
“Sailing is an art, but words are not enough to properly name my efforts. … Once, maybe twice, a week, the sun smiled with a sudden wintry glow, through the storm-torn clouds. So ready for it, and smart, I caught it. The procedure was as follows: I watched from our burrow – precious sextant tucked under my chest to keep the sea from falling on it. Sir Ernest stood under the canvas with a stopwatch, pencil and book. I shouted “Wait” and knelt on the bench – two men standing on either side of me. I brought the sun back to where the horizon should be and as the boat frantically leaped upwards on the crest of a wave, I made a good estimate of altitude and shouted “Stop”. Sir Ernest took the time and I calculated the result. Then the fun began! Our fingers were so cold that he had to interpret his wobbly faces – mine so unreadable that I had to recognize them by feats of memory.
On May 8, they saw floating seaweed and birds, then spotted land. But they had arrived in South Georgia in the middle of a hurricane and had to fight for two days, blown by the wind on an island they had desperately tried to reach for weeks.
Finally, they disembarked. Three of the six men, including Worsley, traveled over uncharted mountains and glaciers to reach a small settlement. Worsley joined a lifeboat to retrieve the other three. Shackleton then organized a ship to pick up the rest of the men from Elephant Island, all of whom had survived their own unimaginable hardships.
But the key to it all, and indeed the recent discovery of the wreckage of the Endurance, was how Worsley had fought through desperate conditions and still repeatedly managed to figure out where they were, where they were going and how Getting There.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.