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Antarctic History

SAILORS ON ICE

The ice was breaking up all around them, and the current was rushing their floe and everything on it—the sledges, the tents, the ponies, the men themselves—out to sea and certain doom. Petty Officer Tom Crean gathered the camping gear together and loaded the sledge in preparation for a dash to safety, as though the floe were still attached to the main body of ice and not separated from it by ever-widening leads of black water. “Crean went about his business,” said Lieutenant Birdie Bowers of him later, “like any bluejacket, as though he did this sort of thing every day.”

“As though he did this sort of thing every day.” During the heady days of the “heroic age” of Antarctic discovery, the only way to get to the continent was by wooden sailing ships, the stout Dundee whalers built for the ice. Though equipped with auxiliary steam, the ships could not be sailed without able seamen accustomed to the demanding life of a tall ship sailor. Men who expected to be on deck in their oilskins throughout their own, and often enough every other watch when circumstances and the skipper demanded it. Men who knew not only how to work the rig, but also, after the gales and storms had passed, how to repair and replace it Seafaring had always been a hard life; the men saw violent injury and sudden death on a regular basis, and learned to live without out fear of it, knowing each always allotted “one hand for himself, after one for the ship.’

A sailor must be competent to handle the wheel of a huge ship, to know how read the tell-tale signs of changing wind guide the vessel through the caprice of unseen current. He must be skilled in many trades—rigging and lashing, cobbling, carpentery—and adaptable enough to learn on the spot any others that might be required of him. None of this is new to modern-day sailors, but it might be to landsmen or officers who had come into their rank through education or family connection.

Naval and merchant sailors have always had a professional disdain, each for the others’ service. The Navy seemed always to have on hand far more seamen for the job than were actually required, while the merchant service had far too few. “What is drill for the Navy is a job of work for a merchant sailor, goes the saying, and there is some truth to it. But the Navy offers more consistent training and advancement, and by 1900 far better treatment to its sailors, and better protection of their rights at sea and ashore.

So, when Robert Scott was assembling the crew for his 1901-1904 Discovery, advancing the aims of the crown in the British Antarctic Expedition, he was most interested in recruiting bluejackets. To him they were a known quantity in skill level, devotion to duty, and amenable to the demands of naval discipline that would be needed in the close quarters of the ship during the long dark polar winters of the far south. The career seamen of the Navy would be well adapted to the novel routines that must be imposed in this strange and dangerous new land.

He was not disappointed in his decision. When he issued the call for volunteers among the crew to stay over a second, unanticipated second winter, the bluejackets among them chose to remain. He noticed more harmony among the crew that second winter, attributing that fact to their commonality of training and experience. A few of the seamen among that crowd–Tom Crean, Edgar Evans, Frank Wild, and the stoker Bill Lashly– went on to further distinguished careers in Anartctic exploration with Scott in his second expedition, or Shackleton and Mawson. These were sailors evolving into explorers, a breed apart who carried the outlooks and skills, the language and adaptability of their first trade over into their second.

(c) David Hirzel 2010

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