Chapter 18: The ship's story
Chapter 18: The ship's story
By Captain JK Davis
By sport of bitter weather
We’re warty, strained, and scarred
From the kentledge on the kelson
To the slings upon the yard.
Dr Mawson’s plans, as laid before the Royal Geographical Society in 1911, provided for an extensive oceanographical campaign in the immense stretch of ocean to the southward of Australia. Very little was known of the seafloor in this area, there being but a few odd soundings only, beyond a moderate distance from the Australian coast. Even the great Challenger expedition had scarcely touched upon it; and so our Expedition had a splendid field for investigation.
The first discovery made in this connection on board the Aurora was the fact that deepwater work is more intricate than books would make it appear. Although textbooks had been carefully studied on the subject, it was found that most of them passed over the practical side of the work in a few words, insufficient to give us much help in carrying out difficult operations with the vessel rolling and tumbling about in the heavy seas of the Southern Ocean.
So it was only after a good deal of hard work and many disappointments that the experience was gained which enabled us, during the later stages of the Expedition, to do useful and successful work.
Before passing on to the operations of the Aurora during the winter of 1912, I shall briefly refer to the equipment provided for oceanographical work.
The Lucas Automatic Sounding Machine was situated on the port side of the forecastle head. It was suitable for depths up to six thousand fathoms, being fitted with a grooved wheel so as to be driven by a rope belt from a steam–winch or other engine. The wire was wound in by means of a small horizontal steam–engine which had been specially designed for the Scotia, of the Scottish Antarctic Expedition (1902) and was kindly lent to us by Dr WS Bruce.
The wire as it is paid out passes over a measuring wheel, the revolutions of which record on a dial the number of fathoms out. A spring brake, which is capable of stopping the reel instantly, is kept out of action by the tension of the wire, but when the sinker strikes the bottom, the loss of tension allows the brake to spring back and stop the reel. The depth can then be read off on the dial.
A hollow iron tube called a driver is attached to a piece of hemp line spliced into the outer end of the sounding wire. This driver bears one or two weights to the bottom and detaches them on striking it; a specimen of the bottom being recovered in the hollow part of the tube which is fitted with valves to prevent water from running through it on the way up. Immediately the driver and weight strike the bottom, the reel automatically stops paying out wire.
To obtain a deep sea sounding on the Aurora, the vessel was stopped, turned so as to bring the wind on the port–bow and kept as nearly stationary as possible; the engines being used to balance any drift of the vessel due to wind or sea.
The difficulties of sounding in the Southern Ocean were much increased by the almost constant, heavy swell. The breaking strain of the wire being only two hundred and forty pounds and the load it had to carry to the bottom weighing nearly fifty–six pounds in air, it could easily be understood that the sudden strain imposed by the violent rolling of the vessel often resulted in the parting of the wire. We soon learnt to handle both vessel and sounding machine in such a way as to entail the least possible strain on the wire.
Of all the operations conducted on board the Aurora, deep sea trawling was the one about which we had most to learn. Dr WS Bruce gave me most valuable advice on the subject before we left England. Later, this was supplemented by a cruise in Australian waters on the Endeavour, of the Commonwealth Fisheries Investigation. Here I was able to observe various trawling operations in progress, subsequently applying the information gained to our own requirements on the Aurora.
A short description of our trawling arrangements may be useful to those who are engaged in this work on board a vessel not specially designed for it.
We were provided with three thousand fathoms of tapered steel wire (varying from one and three–quarters to one and a half inches in circumference and weighing roughly a ton to the thousand fathoms in air); this was kept on a large iron reel (A) mounted on standards and controlled by a friction–brake. This reel was situated on the starboard side of the main deck, the wire being wound on to it by means of a chain–drive from the forward cargo–winch.
For heaving in, our steam–windlass was fitted with a specially constructed drum (B), which absorbed the crushing strain and then allowed the slack wire to be wound on the reel (A), which was driven as nearly as possible at the same speed; the windlass usually heaving at the rate of four hundred and fifty fathoms per hour.
A wooden derrick (D), provided with topping lift and guys, was mounted on the foremast by means of a band and goose–neck. At the outer end of the derrick, the dynamometer and a fourteen–inch block were attached. The maximum strain which could be supported was ten tons. In paying out, the wire was led from the head of the derrick to a snatch–block on the quarter (E), constructed so as to admit of its disengagement from the wire when it was necessary to heave in. This block kept the wire clear of the propeller and allowed us to have the vessel moving slow or fast as required, while the trawl was being paid out. The positions of the various parts of the trawling gear are shown in the plan on the opposite page.
Before trawling in deep water the vessel was stopped and a sounding obtained; then the derrick was hoisted, the wire rove through the various blocks, the trawl shackled on, and the men distributed at their stations. When all was ready, the engines were put at half–speed (three knots), a course was given to the helmsman and the trawl lowered into the water. When it was flowing nicely just astern, the order, ‘Slack away’, was given; the wire being paid out evenly by means of the friction–brakes. In one thousand five hundred fathoms of water, after the two–thousand–fathom mark had passed out, the order was given, ‘Hold on and make fast’. Speed was now reduced to one and a half knots and the wire watched until it gave a decided indication of the trawl dragging over the bottom. The strain was now taken by the windlass–barrel, controlled by a screw–brake, backed if necessary by a number of turns round the forward bitts. A slow drag over the bottom was generally continued for one hour. The engines were then stopped, and the order came, ‘Stand by to heave away’. This was quickly followed by ‘Knock out’, which meant the disengaging of the after–block from the wire and allowed the vessel to swing round head–on to the wire. ‘Vast heaving’ indicated the appearance of the net at the surface, and, when the mouth of the net was well above the bulwarks the derrick was topped up vertically, the lower part of the net dragged inboard and the cod–end untied, the catch being thus allowed to empty itself on deck. The contents of the haul supplied the biologists with the work of sorting and bottling for the next twelve hours or more.
The form of trawl used on board the Aurora was known as a Monagasque trawl, of a type employed by the Prince of Monaco. As will be seen from the sketch, it is of simple construction and possesses the advantage of having both sides similar so that it is immaterial which lands on the bottom.
The winter cruise in the subantarctic began on May 18, 1912, after we had refitted in Sydney and taken on board all the oceanographic apparatus, during the previous month. Leaving Port Jackson, we proceeded to Port Kembla, NSW, and took in four hundred and eleven tons of coal.
The following was the personnel of the ship’s officers on this and the two following cruises: Chief Officer, FD Fletcher; Chief Engineer, FJ Gillies; Second Officer, P Gray; Third Officer, CP de la Motte.
During the first dredging cruise, Mr ER Waite, from the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, was in charge of the biological work.
My plan was to go through Bass Strait and then to sail towards the Royal Company Islands as given on the French chart, before heading for Macquarie Island. From thence we should steam across to the Auckland Islands. At both the latter places Mr Waite would be able to secure specimens. It was not expected that the weather would permit of much trawling, but we anticipated some good soundings. As a matter of fact, subantarctic weather in the winter may be predicted with some certainty: strong winds, heavy seas, much fog and general gloom.
We had a fine run through Bass Strait with a light southeast breeze, arriving off King’s Island at noon on May 28. The trawling gear was got ready for the following day, but the sea was too high and the ship continued south towards the position of the Royal Company Islands.
On June 1 we were in latitude 53° south, longitude 152° east, and had been cruising about fruitlessly in heavy weather for days waiting for an opportunity to dredge. After being at sea for a whole fortnight we had only three soundings to our credit, and it was, therefore, resolved to make for Macquarie Island.
On the 7th we reached the island and anchored at Northeast Bay in twelve fathoms, about one mile from land.
After a stiff pull ashore, next day, we landed and found the party all well. They had built a comfortable hut and were enjoying life as far as possible, despite the constant gales and continuous days of fog.
We then climbed up the hill to the wireless station, where everything was in splendid order. Two small huts had been erected, one for the engine and the other for the receiving apparatus. Sandell and Sawyer, the two operators, were to be congratulated on the efficient way the station had been kept going under very considerable difficulty. In addition to the routine work with Hobart and Wellington they had occasionally communicated with stations over two thousand miles distant.
I was able to send the following message to Professor David: ‘Aurora arrived Macquarie Island; all well, June 7; constant gales and high seas have prevented dredging so far. Royal Company Islands not found in the position indicated on the chart.’
We were able to land some stores for the use of the land party under Ainsworth. Meteorological, biological and geological work were all in progress and the scientific records should be of great value. Up to the date of our arrival, no wireless messages had been received from Adélie Land. As Dr Mawson was in ignorance of its exact location, the position of the Western Base under Wild was given to Ainsworth to forward to Adélie Land in case communication should be established.
After Mr Waite had obtained several birds, it was decided to move down to Lusitania Bay to secure some Royal penguins and a sea–elephant. Two days later, the Aurora anchored in the bay, three–quarters of a mile from the beach, in sixteen fathoms; the weather was very misty. Mr Waite and Mr Haines, the taxidermist, were rowed ashore.
The island, above a height of three hundred feet from sea level, was shrouded in mist throughout the day, and, before dark, all signs of the land had disappeared. The mist did not clear until 6 pm on the 15th.
We stayed for a whole fortnight at Macquarie Island, during which time the highest velocity of the wind recorded on shore was thirty–five miles per hour, although, during the winter, gales are almost of daily occurrence. On June 22, the date of departure, a course was set for the Auckland Islands, which lie in the track of homeward–bound vessels from Australia via Cape Horn.
The group was discovered in 1806 by Captain Bristow of the Ocean, owned by Samuel Enderby. It comprises one main island and several smaller ones, separated by narrow channels. There are two spacious harbours; a northern, now called Port Ross, and a southern, Carnley Harbour. The islands are situated about one hundred and eighty miles south of Stewart Island (New Zealand).
After a run of three hundred and forty miles on a northeast course, we entered Carnley Harbour and anchored off Flagstaff Point. A breeze blew strong from the west–northwest. Next day, June 25, we stood up to Figure of Eight Island and found good holding for the anchor in nine and a half fathoms.
The eastern entrance to Carnley Harbour is formed by two bluff points, about two miles apart; its upper extremity terminating in a lagoon. The site of Musgrave’s house (‘Epigwaith’) is on the east side of this lagoon. Here he spent twenty months after the wreck of the Grafton.
We set off in the motor–launch on the 26th to visit Camp Cove, where we found the two huts maintained by the New Zealand Government for the benefit of castaways. In the larger hut there were potatoes, biscuits, tinned meats and matches. The smaller hut was empty but on the outside were carved many names of shipwrecked mariners. The Amakura had visited the depot in November 1911. The various depots established on the island by the New Zealand Government are visited every six months.
While in Carnley Harbour we were able to make several hauls with the small dredge.
After passing up the eastern coast of the main island we entered Port Ross and anchored west of Shoe Island. On June 30 the depot on Erebus Cove was visited, where three white sheds contain the usual necessaries for unfortunate castaways. The New Zealand Government steamer, Hinemoa, while on a scientific expedition to the subantarctic in 1907, rescued the sixteen survivors of the barque Dundonald, two thousand two hundred and three tons, which had been wrecked on Disappointment Island. The captain and ten men had been drowned and the chief officer had died from the effects of exposure and starvation.
On July 2 we went to Observation Point, finding there a flat stone commemorating the visit of the German Scientific Expedition of 1874.
The biologist found various kinds of petrels on Shoe Island, where the turf was riddled in all directions by their burrows.
At Rose Island, close by, there are some fine basaltic columns, eighty feet high, weathered out into deep caverns along their base.
In Sandy Bay, Enderby Island, there was an extensive depot. Among the stores I found a Venesta case marked SY Nimrod, which contained dried vegetables and evidently formed part of the stores which were sold on the return of the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907.
After leaving the Auckland Islands for New Zealand, we were fortunate in having fairly good weather. Five soundings were taken, and, on July 9, the trawl was put over in three hundred and forty–five fathoms. The net unfortunately fouled on a rocky bottom and so we gained nothing but experience in the operation.
The Aurora arrived at Port Lyttleton on July 11 and we received a very kind welcome from the people of Christchurch. Mr JJ Kinsey, well known in connection with various British Antarctic expeditions, gave us valuable assistance during our stay. We were back again in Melbourne on the 17th of the month.
While the first oceanographical cruise of the Aurora did not prove very fruitful in results, chiefly on account of the stormy weather, it provided the necessary training for officers and men in the handling of the deep sea gear, and we were able to realize later how much we had learnt on our first cruise.
The ship, after undergoing a thorough overhaul at the State dockyard at Williamstown, Victoria, undertook a second deep sea cruise.
Leaving Hobart on November 12, 1912, she laid her course to the southward in order to obtain soundings for a complete section of the seafloor, as nearly as possible on the meridian of Hobart. Our time was limited to one month, during which a visit to Macquarie Island for the purpose of landing stores and mail had to be made. Professor T Flynn of Hobart University accompanied the vessel in charge of the biological work.
An interesting discovery was made two hundred miles south of Tasmania. Here it was proved that a rocky ridge rose like a huge mountain from depths of more than two thousand fathoms to within five hundred and forty fathoms of the surface. A great number of soundings were taken in the vicinity of this rise, subsequently named the Mill Rise, until a heavy gale drove us far from its situation.
On November 21 we were not far from Macquarie Island and, at 7 pm, sounded in one thousand four hundred and fifty fathoms. As the weather was remarkably fine for these latitudes we decided to lower the trawl. Before dark it was being towed slowly towards the east with one thousand nine hundred fathoms of wire out.
We spent an anxious night hoping that the weather would remain fine long enough to permit us to get the gear on board again. We had been driving before a light westerly wind, when the trawl caught on the bottom and stopped the vessel.
A very heavy strain was imposed on the wire as the vessel rose in the swell; the dynamometer registering up to seven tons. I decided to wait for daylight before attempting to heave in the trawl. At 3 am we cast the wire off the after–block and started to heave away; it was two hours before the trawl cleared the bottom and the strain was reduced.
At 8 am the trawl was once more on board, the frames being bent and twisted and the net badly torn. On sounding, the depth was found to be only six hundred and thirty–six fathoms, so that we had evidently put over the trawl on to the edge of a steep rise and then drifted across it.
In view of our position – only thirty miles from Macquarie Island – this accident might have been expected. But opportunities of trawling had been so few that risks had to be taken when the weather quieted down for a few hours. Our only consolation on this occasion was that we recovered the gear.
The following evening, at 7.30, the anchor was dropped in Northeast Bay, Macquarie Island, and we were immediately boarded by our land party who were all well. They had become very clever boatmen during their stay, using a small dinghy to make coastal journeys.
On November 24 we left the anchorage at 9 am and spent the day in its vicinity. More than one hundred soundings were taken, which Blake, the geological surveyor, was to plot on the chart of the island which he had almost completed.
Some idea of the steepness of the submarine mountain of which Macquarie Island forms the crest may be gathered from a sounding, taken ten and a half miles east of the island, which gave two thousand seven hundred and forty–five fathoms and no bottom. In other words, if the sea were to dry up, there would be a lofty mountain rising from the plain of the ocean’s bed to a height of nearly eighteen thousand feet.
A great deal of work still required to be done off Macquarie Island, but, as the uneven and rocky nature of the bottom prevented dredging, I decided to sail on the 25th, continuing the voyage towards the Auckland Islands.
Several people had expressed belief in a submarine ridge connecting Macquarie Island with the Auckland group. Three soundings which we obtained on this voyage did not support the suggestion, ranging as they did from one thousand eight hundred and fifty–five to two thousand four hundred and thirty fathoms, eighty–five miles southwest of the Auckland group. We were the more glad to obtain these soundings, as, during the winter cruise, in the same waters, the weather had forced us to abandon the attempt.
On November 28 we took several soundings on the eastern side of the Auckland Islands, but did not prolong our stay as we wished to investigate the ridge south of Tasmania – the Mill Rise. The course was therefore directed westward with a view to outlining the eastern edge of this submarine elevation.
The first sounding to indicate that we were once more approaching the Mill Rise was in one thousand and seventy–six fathoms. Continuing west we secured the next record in one thousand three hundred fathoms, limiting the southern extremity of the ridge which extends northward for nearly one hundred miles. From this sounding the water shoaled quickly as we steered north. Thus, on the same day, we were in eight hundred and thirty–five fathoms at noon, in seven hundred and thirty–five fathoms at 3.40 pm and in seven hundred and ten fathoms at 7.30 pm After the last sounding we lowered the rock–gripper. On the first trial, however, it failed to shut and, on the second, only a little fine sand was recovered. As it was blowing hard most of the time, we were very fortunate in being able to do this piece of work.
An inspection of the chart reveals the fact that the main direction of the shallowest water is in a northwest and southeast direction, but the number of soundings obtained was too small to give more than a general outline. Later, we were able to add to these on the voyage southward to relieve the Antarctic Bases.
The weather was so bad and the sea so heavy that we were unable to obtain soundings on December 9, and, as dredging under such conditions was out of the question, I decided to steer for the east coast of Tasmania, where dredging might be possible under the lee of the land. The constant gales were very disheartening, the last having continued for four days with only short intervals of moderate weather.
On December 12 and 13, in calmer water, some thirty miles off the east coast of Tasmania, trawlings were made successfully in one thousand three hundred fathoms and seventy–five fathoms respectively. From the deeper trawling were obtained a large octopus and several interesting fish.
Just before noon on December 14 we arrived in Hobart and immediately began preparations for the voyage to the Antarctic.
On December 24, 1912, preparations for sailing were complete. For ten days everyone connected with the Aurora had been working at high pressure, and Christmas Day, our last day ashore, was to be celebrated as a well–earned holiday.
There was on board a good supply of coal, five hundred and twenty–one tons, and a very heavy mail of letters and packages for the members of the Expedition who had been isolated in the far south for more than twelve months. We were to take thirty–five sheep on board as well as twenty–one dogs, presented by Captain Amundsen upon his return from his South Polar expedition. Captain James Davis, of Hobart, of long whaling experience, was to accompany us to give an expert opinion upon such whales as we might meet. Mr Van Waterschoot van der Gracht, who had had previous experience in the Antarctic, joined as marine artist, and Mr SN Jeffryes as wireless operator. With CC Eitel, Secretary of the Expedition, the whole party on board numbered twenty–eight.
A very pleasant Christmas was spent ashore. The ship’s company of twenty–three men met for dinner, and we did not forget to wish a ‘Merry Christmas’ to our leader and his twenty–six comrades who were holding their celebration amid the icy solitudes of Antarctica. I was glad, on this festive occasion, to be able to congratulate officers and men on their willing and loyal service during the previous twelve months; everyone had done his best to advance the objects of the Expedition.
The attractions of Hobart, at this season, are so numerous, and Tasmanian hospitality so boundless, that it gives me great pleasure to place on record that every man was at his post on the Aurora at 10 am on Boxing Day.
As we drew away from the wharf amid the cheers of those who had come to wish us God–speed, the weather was perfect and the scene on the Derwent bright and cheering. Captain James Davis acted as pilot.
At 11.30 am we had embarked the twenty–one dogs, which were brought off from the Quarantine Station, and were steaming down Storm Bay. Outside there was a heavy swell, and the wind was freshening from the west. The course was laid south 50° west, true.
For the next two days there was a westerly gale with a very high sea, and the dogs and sheep had a bad time, as a good deal of water came aboard. Two of the sheep had to be killed. By the afternoon of the 29th it had moderated, and a sounding was secured.
This storm was followed by another from the west–northwest. The Aurora weathered it splendidly, although one sea came over everything and flooded the cabins, while part of the rail of the forecastle head was carried away on the morning of the 31st. At this time we were in the vicinity of the reputed position of the Royal Company Islands. A sounding was taken with great difficulty, finding two thousand and twenty fathoms and a mud bottom.
January 4, 1918, was a fine day, with a fresh westerly breeze and a high sea. Occasionally there were snow squalls. At night the wireless operator was able to hear HMS Drake at Hobart, and also the station at Macquarie Island; the ship having been fitted to receive wireless signals before sailing.
Next day the sun was bright and there was only a moderate westerly swell. Large bunches of kelp were frequently seen drifting on the surface. ‘Blue Billys’1 flew in great numbers about the ship. Two soundings were obtained in one thousand nine hundred fathoms.
On the 8th a heavy swell came from the southeast. During the morning a sounding realized two thousand two hundred and seventy fathoms and the sample of mud contained a small, black manganese nodule. At 8 pm a floating cask was sighted and taken aboard after much difficulty. It turned out to be a ship’s oil cask, empty, giving no clue from whence it came.
The first ice was observed about 6 pm on the 10th. The water was still deep – more than two thousand fathoms.
By noon on January 11 loose pack came into view, with a strong blink of heavier pack to the south. The course was changed to southwest. At 7 pm the ship was steaming west in clear water, a few bergs being in sight and a marked ice–blink to the south. Several whales appeared which Captain James Davis reported were ‘blue whales’ (finners or rorquals).
After we had been steering westward until almost midnight, the course was altered to southwest in the hope of encountering the shelf–ice barrier (met in 1912) well to the east of the Main Base station. On the 12th we sailed over the position of the ice–tongue in 1912 without seeing a trace of it, coming up with heavy broken floe at 10 am.
For four hours the Aurora pushed through massive floes and ‘bergy bits’, issuing into open water with the blink of ice–covered land to the south. At nine o’clock Adélie Land was plainly visible, and a course was set for the Main Base. In squally weather we reached the Mackellar Islets at midnight, and by 2 am on the 13th dropped anchor in Commonwealth Bay under the ice–cliffs in twenty fathoms.
At 6 am Fletcher, the chief officer, reported that a heavy gust of wind had struck the ship and caused the chain to carry away the lashing of the heavy relieving–tackle. The chain then ran over the windlass, and, before anything could be done, the pointer to which the end of the chain was attached had been torn from the bolts, and our best ground–tackle was lost overboard. It was an exasperating accident.
At seven o’clock the port anchor was dropped in ten fathoms, about eight hundred yards west of the first anchorage, with ninety fathoms of chain. The wind shifted suddenly to the north, and the Aurora swung inshore until her stern was within one hundred yards of the cliffs; but the depth at this distance proved to be seventeen fathoms. After a few northerly puffs, the wind shifted to the southeast and then died away.
At 2.30 pm the launch was hoisted over and the mail was taken ashore, with sundry specimens of Australian fruit as ‘refreshment’ for the shore–party. The boat harbour was reached before any one ashore had seen the Aurora. At the landing–place we were greeted most warmly by nine wild–looking men; some with beards bleached by the weather. They all looked healthy and in very fair condition, after the severe winter, as they danced about in joyous excitement.
We learned that five sledging parties had left the Hut: Bage, Webb and Hurley had returned from the south, Stillwell, Close and Laseron from the east, and the others were still out. In Dr Mawson’s instructions, all parties were to be back at the Hut by January 15, 1913.
The launch made some trips to and from the ship with specimens during the afternoon. I returned on board and had a look at the cable. The weather was fine, but changes were apt to occur without much warning. At midnight it was blowing a gale from the southeast, and the chain was holding well. The launch was hoisted up in the davits and communication with the shore was suspended until 8 am on January 15.
The lull was of two hours’ duration, during which Murphy came aboard and furnished me with some particulars about the sledging parties still away.
Dr Mawson, with Ninnis and Mertz, had gone to the southeast. They were well provisioned and had taken eighteen dogs for transport purposes. Bickerton, Hodgeman and Whetter had been out forty–three days to the west and had food for forty days only. Madigan, McLean and Correll had been away for seventy days in an easterly direction.
Dr Mawson had left a letter for me with instructions to take charge if he failed to return to time, that is not later than January 15, 1913.
On January 16 a party was observed from the ship coming in over the slope. There was much speculation as to its personnel since, at a distance, the three figures could not be recognized. The launch took us ashore and we greeted Madigan, McLean and Correll who had returned from a very successful expedition along the eastern coast over sea ice.
Madigan and Bage came on board during the forenoon of the 17th and we had a long consultation about the position of affairs owing to the non–return of two parties. It was decided to re–erect the wireless mast and stay it well while the ship was waiting, so that, in case of any party being left at the Main Base, the wireless station would be in working order.2
At one o’clock on the morning of January 18, de la Motte, the officer on watch, reported that a party could be seen descending the glacier. This proved to be Bickerton, Hodgeman and Whetter returning from their trip along the west coast. Thus Dr Mawson’s party was the only one which had not yet returned.
All day work on the wireless mast went along very satisfactorily, while Captain James Davis and Chief Officer Fletcher spent their time in the launch dragging for the cable lost on the morning of our arrival. The launch returned at 10.30 pm and Captain Davis reported that the grapnel had been buoyed until operations could be resumed.
On January 19 we tried to recover the chain, and to this end the Aurora was taken over to the position where the grapnels had been buoyed and was anchored. All efforts to secure the chain were unsuccessful. At 7 pm we decided to return to our former position, having a hard job to raise the anchor, which appeared to have dragged under a big rock. Finally it broke away and came up in a mass of kelp, and with the stock ‘adrift’. The latter was secured and we steamed back, ‘letting go’ in eleven fathoms with ninety fathoms of chain.
When Dr Mawson’s party was a week overdue, I considered that the time had arrived to issue a provisional notice to the members of the Expedition at Commonwealth Bay concerning the establishment of a relief party to operate from the Main Base.
A party of four left the Hut on the 20th, keeping a sharp look–out to the southeast for any signs of the missing party. They travelled as far as the air–tractor sledge which had been abandoned ten miles to the south, bringing it back to the Hut.
I decided to remain at Commonwealth Bay until January 30. If the leader’s party had not returned by that day, a search party was to proceed eastward while the Aurora sailed for Wild’s Base. From the reports of the gales which prevailed during the month of March in 1912, and considering the short daylight there was at that time, I felt that it would be risking the lives of all on board to return to the Main Base after relieving Wild’s party. I resolved, therefore, to wait as long as possible. As a result of a consultation with Madigan and Bage, I had a provisional notice drafted, to be posted up in the Hut on January 22.
This notice was to the effect that the non–arrival of the leader’s party rendered it necessary to prepare for the establishment of a relief expedition at Winter Quarters and appointed Bage, Bickerton, Hodgeman, Jeffryes and McLean as members, under the command of Madigan; to remain in Antarctica for another year if necessary.
On the same evening I went ashore to inspect the wireless mast, which was practically complete. The work had been done thoroughly and, provided the mast itself did not buckle, the stays were likely to hold. Hannam, Bickerton and Jeffryes were busy placing the engine and instruments in position.
I then went up the slope for about a mile. The Winter Quarters looked like a heap of stones; boundless ice rose up to the southern skyline; the dark water to the north was broken by an occasional berg or the ice–covered islands. This wonderful region of ice and sea looks beautiful on a fine day. But what a terrible, vast solitude, constantly swept by icy winds and drift, stretches away to the south! A party will go out tomorrow to visit the depot at the top of the slope. This is the seventh day we have been waiting and hoping to welcome the absentees!
On the 23rd the breeze was very strong in the forenoon, but the wind moderated about 4 pm, when the launch was able to leave for the shore. We could see a search party (Hodgeman, Stillwell, and Correll) marching against a strong southeast wind on their way to examine the depot at Aladdin’s Cave and its vicinity.
Though there was a moderate southeaster blowing, communication with the land went on during the day. I went ashore early, but the search party did not return until noon. They had remained at Aladdin’s Cave overnight and marched farther south next morning, approaching a line of dense drift, without seeing anything.
It was arranged that another party of three men should start next morning (January 25) and, going in a southeasterly direction, make a search for five days, laying a depot at their farthest point. Hodgeman, Hurley and McLean made preparations to set out. I left instructions that a flag should be flown on the wireless mast if Dr Mawson returned.
I now went through the supplies of provisions and coal which were to be landed for the use of the Relief Party. I intended to try and have everything on shore by January 29, taking advantage of any short interval of fair weather to send a boatload to the landing–place.
On the 25th there was a hard southeast gale blowing until the afternoon, when it moderated sufficiently to send off the launch with thirteen bags of coal, Gillies being in charge. The boat harbour was reached in safety, the wind freshening to a gale before 6 pm
Terrific gusts followed in rapid succession and, without warning, the cable parted sixty fathoms from the anchor at 9 pm Having cleared the reefs to leeward, we managed to get in the rest of the chain and then stood along the coast to the northwest. By keeping about three miles from the shore, we seemed to be beyond the reach of the more violent gusts, but a short sea holding the ship broadside to the wind during the squalls, rendered it difficult to maintain a fixed course.
With reefs and bergs around, the increasing darkness about midnight made our position unpleasant. The engines had to be stopped and the ship allowed to drift with the wind, owing to a bearing becoming hot, but in a quarter of an hour they were moving once more.
Early on January 26 the Aurora was about half–way between Winter Quarters and the western point of Commonwealth Bay, when the wind suddenly ceased, and then came away light from the northwest. We could see that a southeast gale was still raging close inshore. Over the sea, towards the north, dark clouds were scudding with great rapidity along the horizon: the scene of a violent disturbance.
We returned towards our late anchorage. On reaching it, the southeast wind had moderated considerably, and we let go our spare anchor and what had been saved of the chain.
To the north, violent gusts appeared to be travelling in various directions, but, to our astonishment, these gusts, after approaching our position at a great rate, appeared to curve upwards; the water close to the ship was disturbed, and nothing else. This curious phenomenon lasted for about an hour and then the wind came with a rush from the southeast, testing the anchor–chain in the more furious squalls.
The gale was in its third day on the 27th, and there was a ‘hurricane sky’ during the morning. The wind would die away, only to blow more fiercely than before. The suddenness with which the changes occurred may be gathered from the following extracts from my journal:
January 27, 6 am. A whole gale blowing from the southeast.
9 am. Light airs from north to east. Launch taking coal ashore.
11 am. Last cargo of coal had just left ship when the wind freshened from the southeast. The launch had just got inside the boat harbour when a terrific gust struck the vessel and our chain parted. We were blown out to sea while heaving in thirty fathoms of chain which remained.
4 pm. We have been steaming backwards and forwards until the wind died away. The launch has just come off and taken another load of stores to the boat harbour.
7 pm. The weather is moderating with rising barometer. Nearly everything required by the Relief Party is now ashore. Two or three trips will take the remainder.
We shall steam about for a few hours, and make the anchorage early tomorrow morning.
Next morning a kedge–anchor (about five hundred–weights) was lowered with the remainder of the chain. For a time this held the ship, but a gust of wind from the southeast caused it to drag. It was, therefore, hauled up and, on coming to the surface, was seen to have lost a fluke.
All equipment, coal and food were now on shore for the use of the Relief Party. I had given them everything that could be spared from the provisions set apart for the use of the ship’s company. Next day I purposed to cruise along the coast to the east, if the weather were clear.
January 29 was fine, so we steamed off at 6.30 am. As no flag was seen on the wireless mast, we knew that Dr Mawson had not returned. A course was kept two or three miles from the ice–cliffs beyond the fringe of rocky islets.
At 4 am on the 30th we were alongside the Mertz Glacier and reached the head of the bay at the confluence of glacier with land–ice. Mount Murchison was only dimly visible, but the weather was clear along the glacier–tongue. Signals were fired and a big kite flown at a height of about five hundred feet to attract attention on shore in case the missing party were near.
1.30 pm. We are now about half a mile from the head of the inlet. From the appearance of the country (heavily crevassed) approach to the sea by a sledging–party would be extremely difficult. There is no floe–ice at the foot of the cliff.
10.30 pm. We are approaching the end of the glacier–tongue around which there is a collection of pack. There is some drift ahead and it is difficult to see far. We have passed the eastern limit of coast to be searched.
10.35 pm. The glacier–tongue is trending to the east and a line of heavy pack extends to the north, with many large bergs. No sign of flag or signal on the end of the barrier.
January 31. We left the glacier–tongue at 8 am and steered back to Winter Quarters.
At noon we could see Madigan Nunatak, a rocky patch, high up on the slope.
4.15 pm. Sighted the large grounded berg, fifteen miles from the Main Base.
9 pm. Off Main Base. There is no flag to be seen on the wireless mast!
Dr Mawson’s party is now sixteen days overdue; there must be something seriously amiss. But from our examination of the line of coast as far as 64° 45’ south, 146° 19’ east, there does not appear to be any probability of finding traces along the shore line at the base of vertical ice–cliffs.
No communication with the shore was possible until the wind, which had again risen, had moderated. We could just stand off and on until a favourable opportunity occurred. Once the returning ten members of the Expedition were embarked it was imperative to hasten towards Wild’s Base.
A week’s gale in Commonwealth Bay! The seven days which followed I do not think any of us will forget. From February 1 to 7 it blew a continuous heavy gale, interrupted only when the wind increased to a full hurricane3 (eighty miles an hour).
We endeavoured to maintain a position under the cliffs where the sea had not room to become heavy. This entailed a constant struggle, as, with a full head of steam during the squalls, the vessel drove steadily seaward to where the rising waves broke on board and rendered steering more perplexing. Then, when it had moderated to a mere ‘howl’, we would crawl back, only to be driven out again by the next squall. The blinding spray which was swept out in front of the squalls froze solidly on board and lent additional difficulty to the operation of ‘wearing ship’.
It was on this occasion that we realized what a fine old vessel the Aurora was, and, as we slowly moved back to shelter, could appreciate how efficiently our engine–room staff under Gillies were carrying out their duties. The ordinary steaming speed was six knots, yet for the whole of this week, without a hitch, the ship was being driven at an equivalent of ten knots. The fact of having this reserve power undoubtedly saved us from disaster.
A typical entry from my diary reads:
February 6. Just as the sun was showing over the ice–slopes this morning (4 am) the wind became very violent with the most terrific squalls I have ever experienced. Vessel absolutely unmanageable, driving out to sea. I was expecting the masts to go overboard every minute. This was the worst, I think, lasting about two hours. At 6 am, still blowing very hard but squalls less violent, gradually made shelter during the morning…
On February 8 the weather improved after 1 am. The gusts were less violent and the lulls were of longer duration. At 9 am there was only a gentle breeze. We steamed in towards the boat harbour and signalled for the launch to come off with the ten members of the shore–party. The latter had been instructed to remain at the Hut until the vessel was ready to sail. Here, while the gale had been in full career, they had helped to secure enough seal and penguin–meat to keep the Relief Party and their dogs for another year.
The goodbyes were brief while the launch discharged the men and their belongings. Instructions were handed over to Madigan directing him to follow the course believed to have been taken by Dr Mawson and to make an exhaustive search, commencing as soon as the Aurora left Commonwealth Bay. Madigan gave me a letter containing a report of the work done by the party which had left on the 25th.
It appears that they had been confined in Aladdin’s Cave for twenty–four hours by dense drift and then, in moderate drift, made four miles to the southeast. Here they camped and were not able to move for thirty–six hours in a high wind with thick snow.
On the 28th the drift decreased in amount and, though it was only possible to see a few hundred yards and crevasses were frequent, they kept a course of east 30° south for six miles. A snow–mound was built and on top of it were placed provisions and a note giving the bearing and distance from Aladdin’s Cave.
In the afternoon the wind subsided and it became clear. Eight miles on the same course brought them to their farthest camp, twenty–three miles from the Hut. A mound of eleven feet was erected here, provisions and a note being left and some black bunting wound among the snow–blocks. The depot was on a ridge and, with glasses, several miles could be swept to the southeast.
The party consisted of McLean, Hodgeman and Hurley.
De la Motte and Hannam took the Relief Party ashore in the launch and, as soon as they had returned – at 11.30 am – we steamed out of the bay. The weather had calmed and there were light airs and a smooth sea.
The members of the Relief Party were as follows: CT Madigan (leader), R Bage, FH Bickerton, AJ Hodgeman, Dr AL McLean and SN Jeffryes (wireless operator). The remaining ten members of the Main Base Party returned to Australia: JH Close, PE Correll, WH Hannam, JG Hunter, JF Hurley, CF Laseron, HD Murphy, FL Stillwell, EN Webb and Dr LA Whetter.
Throughout the afternoon we steered northwest and at 8.30 pm were approaching heavy pack. Just then Hannam received a wireless message from the Main Base informing us that Dr Mawson had reached the Hut alone, his two comrades having perished, and instructing me to return at once and pick up all hands. We turned round and steered back immediately.
At 8 am on February 9 the ship entered Commonwealth Bay steaming against a strong southerly breeze with some snow. We were right up near the anchorage about noon and the Pilot Jack could be seen flying from the wireless mast. Instructions were signalled for, but our efforts were unobserved. We then steamed to and fro across the bay. At 6 pm it was blowing a hard gale and showed signs of becoming worse.
At 6 pm the wind was growing in strength and the barometer was falling. Not having received any reply to my signal for instructions, I felt it was necessary to decide whether I was justified in remaining any longer.
After considering the position in all its bearings I decided to sail westward without further delay and for the following reasons:
- Dr Mawson and his companions were in safety, comfortably housed and fully equipped for another winter.
- Any further delay was seriously endangering our chance of being able to relieve Wild’s party that year. The navigation of the fifteen hundred miles to the Shackleton Ice Shelf was becoming, daily, more dangerous on account of the shortness of daylight and the conditions of the ice.
- The only vessel which had wintered in the vicinity of the Western Base (the Gauss) had been frozen in as early in the season as February 22, spending more than twelve months in the ice. The Aurora was not provisioned for a winter in the ice.
- It had been ascertained from the records at the Main Base that gales were often protracted at the close of the short summer season. We had just experienced one such gale, lasting seven days.
- As a seaman, I had realized the difficulties encountered in approaching and getting away from the Western Base in 1912. It was then three weeks later in the year.
I felt convinced that in leaving the Main Base, without further delay, I was acting as Dr Mawson would have wished, if I had been able to acquaint him with the position of the Western Party.
At 6.30 pm we steamed out of the bay, the wind moderating as the ship got well out to sea. At midnight there was a moderate breeze from the south, with some snow.
On February 10 heavy pack was met, about fifty miles north of Commonwealth Bay. After coasting along its margin for a while, we pushed among the floes and, after three hours, reached a patch of fairly open water about 1 pm.
One hour later a large ice formation was sighted, which tallied with that met on January 3 of the previous year (1912) and which, on this occasion, was no longer in its original position. We came to the conclusion that the whole must have drifted about fifty miles to the northwest during the intervening year. The face of this huge berg, along which the Aurora coasted, was about forty miles in length.
Hannam heard fragments of a message from Dr Mawson during the evening. The words, ‘crevasse’, ‘Ninnis’, ‘Mertz’, ‘broken’ and ‘cable’ were picked up.
Good progress was made on the 11th against a high westerly sea. The sun set in a clear sky and the barometer was slowly rising. Our position was evidently north of the pack and, if unimpeded by ice, there was a chance of the ship arriving at her destination in time.
Poor headway was made for nearly three days against an adverse wind and sea. Then, late on the 14th, a breeze sprang up from the east–southeast and, under all sail, the Aurora made seven knots.
Next morning we were driving along before an easterly gale in thick snow, and at noon the day’s run was one hundred and eighty miles.
The journal describes the following week:
February 16. The weather cleared up this morning and the sun came out, enabling us to fix our position.
We are doing about eight knots under topsails and foresail. The sky looked threatening this evening but improved considerably before midnight.
February 17. There were frequent snow squalls today, making it difficult to see. Only a few scattered pieces of ice were about.
February 18. Bright, clear weather today enabled us to get good observations. There are a great many ‘blue whales’ round the ship, and the many bergs in sight are suggestive of heavy pack to the south. A great many petrels and Cape pigeons have been seen.
February 19. The ship was brought up this morning at 8.45 by a line of heavy pack extending across the course. The weather was misty, but cleared up before noon. We have been obliged to steer a northerly course along the edge of the pack.
The margin of this pack is some sixty miles farther north than that which we followed in 1912.
At midnight we were steering north–northwest; many bergs in sight and a line of pack to port.
February 20. At daylight we were able to steer southwest, being at noon about twenty miles north of Termination Ice–Tongue. Pushing through the looser edge of pack for a couple of hours we saw the loom of the ice–tongue to the southward. The pack becoming closer, we turned back to the north in order to try and push through farther west, where the sky looked more promising.
At dark we were in a patch of clear water, with ice all around. It began to snow and, as the wind remained a light easterly, the ship was allowed to drift until daylight.
February 21. The morning was very foggy up till 11 am. We steered west until noon and then entered the pack; there was a promising sky towards the south. Fair progress was made through the ice, which became looser as we advanced to the south. At 8 pm we passed through leads by moonlight, having a favourable run throughout the night.
February 22. At 4 am the wind freshened from the southeast with some snow; the floes were getting heavier and the advent of a blizzard was not hailed with joy. About noon the ship approached open water and the snow ceased.
We were now on the confines of the sea of bergs where navigation had proved so dangerous in 1912.
At 8 pm the driving snow and growing darkness made it impossible to see any distance ahead. The next seven hours were the most anxious I have ever spent at sea. Although the wind blew hard from the southeast, we passed through the sea of bergs without mishap, guided and protected by a Higher Power.
February 23. At 4 am the loom of an ice–tongue was sighted and we were soon standing in to follow this feature until we reached the Shackleton Shelf.
At 8 am we found that we were some miles south of our reckoning.
At 11 am we sighted a depot–flag on the slope. Soon after the ship was up to the fast floe at the head of the bay, the ice being nearly a mile farther north than on the previous year. In fact, the ice conditions as a whole had changed considerably.
At noon we reached the Base and found the party all well.
Wild and his comrades were as glad to see the Aurora as we were to see them. They had commenced to lay in a stock of seal–meat fearing that they might have to pass another winter on the glacier.
All the afternoon everyone was busy getting baggage on board and watering ship. The weather was good and I had intended to sail on the same evening by moonlight, following the glacier–tongue northward in clear water for sixty miles.
As we turned northward, ‘all well’ on board, I felt truly thankful that Wild’s party had been relieved and anxiety on their account was now at an end. The party included F Wild (leader), G Dovers, CT Harrisson, CA Hoadley, Dr SE Jones, AL Kennedy, MH Moyes and AD Watson.
Early on the 24th there was a fresh easterly breeze, while the ship steamed among fields of bergs, for the most part of glacier ice. It is marvellous how a vessel can pass through such an accumulation in the dark and come off with only a few bumps!
Pack consisting of heavy broken floe ice was entered at four o’clock on the same day, and at 8 am on the 25th we were clear of it, steering once more among bergs, many of which were earth–stained. The day was remarkably fine with light winds and a smooth sea.
After we had passed through three hundred miles of berg–strewn ocean, large masses of ice, water–worn in most instances, were still numerous, and on February 27, though our position was north of the 60th parallel, they were just beginning to diminish in numbers. At noon on that day a sounding was made in two thousand two hundred and thirty fathoms.
Any hope we may have had of steaming to the east with the object of attempting to relieve the seven men at Adélie Land had to be definitely abandoned on account of the small supply of coal which remained.
There was now a clear run of two thousand miles through the zone of westerly gales and high seas, and on March 14 we reached Port Esperance. Mr Eitel, Secretary of the Expedition, landed here and caught the steamer Dover to Hobart. We heard of the disaster to Captain Scott and it was learned that wireless messages had been received from Dr Mawson, which had been forwarded on to Australia through the Macquarie Island party.
- Prion Banksii.
- It should be borne in mind that during the summer months (November, December, January and part of February) wireless communication with the outside world is impossible owing to continuous daylight reducing the effective range. In summer the range was only a few hundred miles, and the effective working distance for all times of the day probably not above one hundred miles.
- The maximum wind velocity recorded at this time by the anemometer on shore was approximately eighty miles an hour.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.