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Escape from the Ice

April 9, 1916 - Orde-Lees' Journal

Less swell, but any amount of open water all around us. Sir Ernest spent much time in cogitation and finally determined to make a start in the boats.

We packed up all we could carry. The floe split again during the morning so that there was barely enough of it left for us to stand on.

At 1 p.m. came the order to launch the three boats, and, this successfully accomplished, they were soon laden with the whole of the sledging provisions, consisting of twenty-four cases of 100 - 8 oz. sledging rations, 13 cases of 100 - 6 oz. blocks of Streimer's nut food and eleven cases of Huntley & Palmers' Antarctic biscuits (300 - 1 1/3 ozs. of biscuits per case), two bags of selected seal meat (72 lbs. per bag), 200 - 6 oz. packets "Trumilk", 336 lbs. West India Produce Co.'s cane sugar in 8 - 42 lb. cases, 8 lbs. Virol, 12 lbs. dry peas, 3 1/2 lbs. lentils, 12 lbs. pearl barley, 14 lbs. jam, 7 1/4 lb. tins sardines, 7 1/4 lb. tins smoked salmon, 1 lb. pepper. 20 lbs. cerebos salt, one case 400 - 1 oz. Bovril cubes, 40 gallons paraffin, about 1 cwt. blubber for fuel and seven candles - our total stock of the latter. Besides the ordinary boat's gear and tackle, oars, masts, sails, water barricoes, etc., there were the three hooped tents and the two ordinary pole-tents, 28 sleeping bags, 28 - 10 lb. bags of personal gear, 7 sacks of spare clothing, boots, etc., 2 pair skis, a quantity of photographic gear, records, etc., the whole forming a consignment of some two hundred packages, and taking a good hour to stow into the boats.

The crews of the boats were as follows:

James Caird" - Sir Ernest, Wild, Clark, Hurley, Hussey, James, Wordie, McNeish (carpenter), Green (cook), Vincent, McCarthy (sailors).

"Dudley Docker" - Captain Worsley, Greenstreet, Kerr, Lees, Dr. Macklin, Cheetham, Marston and the two sailors, McLeod and Holness.

"Stancomb Wills" - Lt. Hudson, Crean, Rickinson, Dr. McIlroy and three sailors, How, Bakewell and Stephenson.

The "Dudley Docker" was the first to start and had to lay off for about an hour dodging the shifting ice until the other boats were laden and manned.

At first they had a couple of sledges in tow but as these impeded them very much Sir Ernest gave permission to cut them adrift. Whilst waiting a small floe interposed itself between the boats and the camp floe and a few of the party were temporarily in danger of being cut off but a fortunate opening up of the ice enabled the Dudley Docker to slip in and rescue them.

About 2 p.m. we all shoved off, the "Caird", of course, leading. Owing to the bag of sea leopards, we had recently been able to considerably increase the meat ration and had had a good hoosh for luncheon and every one felt fit and full of hope, but the attempt to break out of the pack in such small boats must fill the most fearless with apprehension.

We pulled hard making about three miles to the north when our further recourse in that direction was arrested by a bolt of loose pack, whereupon we bore to the westward. In endeavouring to find a channel through the ice belt the Dudley Docker got into

difficulties owing to her getting entrapped in a cul de sac, the entrance to which closed behind her before she could be extricated, but by dint of half and hour's shoving and struggling they managed to regain the open lead, but it was a "near thing". By this time the other two boats had pulled off some distance towards a large tabular berg, against the sides of which the heavy swell was breaking with a loud roar. The Dudley Docker had a job

to catch them up.

Immediately after doing so, all three boats passed under the lee of the pack edge when all of a sudden, almost before we realized it the whole pack was in motion as if impelled by some mysterious force against the direction of the wind and as if descending upon us to once more engulf us in its awful grip. It was certainly advancing upon us at a speed of over two miles an hour and we had all our work cut out to outstrip it in our heavily laden boats. As it approached, it was creating a regular bow wave - a most uncanny sight. Although we were passing through more or less open channels all the time we were never really altogether clear

of drift ice and the large lumps of pack or broken bergs, called growlers, and it was necessary to keep a sharp look out to avoid their hitting us or our charging into them.

By 5 p.m. it was getting dusk and secretly after we all pulled up at a small floe, to which the Caird had gone on in advance under sail. Here we unloaded the boats, hauled them up on to the ice and prepared to spend a quiet night, but it was not to be so, as we shall presently see, in spite of the fact that the swell had somewhat subsided.

Night of 9th - 10th April 1916

Whilst hauling up the boats, which took a good hour to do, the cook had got our blubber stove going on blubber that we had brought with us and produced a fine beverage of hot milk (36 ozs. Trumilk powder for 28 persons) which we stood in much need of. As we had had a quarter of a pound of dog-pemmican and two biscuits each, in the boats for tea, it was not considered necessary to supplement this, so we made do with the milk, and having

erected the tents turned in.

One or two of us whose turn it was to do night watchman from 11 p.m. to midnight lay down in the bottom of one of the boats. The night was fairly mild so that they did not get particularly cold before all hands were awakened, just before 11 p.m. by the now familiar cry of "crack". We jumped up just in time to see, as much at it was possible to do so in the dark, the floe separate into two halves and to hear the cry and commotion of a man in the water. The latter was the sailor Holness and his position was one of extreme danger, for apart from the usual restrictions of clothing, boots, etc., and the fact that his sleeping bag had fallen in on top of

him, he was in imminent danger of being crushed between the two halves of the floe, for as a general rule when a floe splits and there is a swell running the two portions of the floe surge to and fro, the crack opening and closing rhythmically with the swell, the edges thereof coming together with a crash and grinding against each other. Providentially, on this occasion, the two fragments merely parted company, separated about six feet from each other and thereafter did not approach with a yard of one another. This was well enough for the rescue of the drowning man but greatly impeded subsequent events.

It appeared that the crack had occurred immediately underneath the sailors' tent - the large 8 man pole tent - right through the spot where Holness was sleeping. How he extricated himself

from his sleeping bag is a marvel as he got clear of it before he actually fell into the water for his bag did not go entirely in but remained hanging over the ice edge.

Vincent, another of the sailors, also had a narrow shave, he did not fall in but his bag did. Strange to say the tent sustained no damage whatever.

This was not all by any means, for the crack had cut off Sir Ernest's tent and the "J. Caird" from the rest of our little floating camp and it was a question whether we could contrive to "bridge" the boat over the now widening crack, the first care, the rescue of Holness, having been successfully accomplished. Curiously enough it was Sir Ernest himself who rescued Holness. No doubt he was spending one of his usual wakeful nights and so was up and out in

an instant. First he saved Holness's sleeping bag and then the man himself, whose chief lament was that he had thus lost all the "baccy" out of his bag. We have since learned from the victim of this accident that he attributes his escape to the precaution he had taken to sleep with only the lowest one of the three buttons on the flap of the bag fastened, owing to the scare that previous crackings of the floe had given him. Lt. Hudson very generously

divested himself of some of his own clothing and also a spare suit of combinations in order to provide Holness with a dry change, for, as the temperature was only 18 degrees, he would soon have been frozen in his wet things.

The rescue of the boat was eventually, but less easily accomplished. It took at least a dozen of us to slide it along. Choosing a moment when the two pieces of the floe were about

to approach with four or five feet of each other we rapidly launched the boat across the gap whilst others on the opposite side seized her bow and hung on like grim death as the crack again widened in response to the swell and on the next closing of the crack they luckily managed to haul her over clear.

For a moment or two it was just touch and go, for the crack opened so wide that the boat was supported only by its very extremities and there was great danger of the ice edges breaking

away under her weight.

Now came the question of getting all hands back on to the portion on which were the boats and the rest of the camp, and this was achieved by leaving the stern of the boat projecting wall over the edge of the floe and by one or two of us jumping from the opposite piece and catching on to it by our hands each time the crack closed a bit. In this way we all got safely across except Sir Ernest who insisted upon remaining until last. (As he is less agile than some of us this was unwise! Excuse my saying so.)

Anyhow, at each undulation of the swell , the half of the floe on which Sir Ernest was, was getting further and further away and for a time it was impossible for him to get across, and it looked as if we should have to launch a boat to get round to him, though this would also have been fraught with considerable danger owing to the large number of pieces of floating ice all around us, which were bumping about quite enough to stave in one of our boats.

Things looked ugly enough for a time but slowly the two parts of the floe again began to approach. We threw Sir Ernest a rope and by pulling on it tried to lessen the distance between us but I doubt whether our efforts contributed much towards what the elements

were already effecting. At an opportune moment Sir Ernest made the jump whilst willing

and thankful hands saved him from falling backwards again into the


Several of the other sailors had narrow escapes, the boots of one falling into the water. He was just in time to save them. When Holness first fell in he was able to support himself by

holding on to both sides of the crack with his hands, but as the crack widened he was compelled to let go of one side, but managed to hang on long enough to the other side. As he states that he is a very indifferent swimmer it was fortunate for him that the ice edge did not carry away.

As soon as thing had settled down a bit, we lighted a blubber fire in the old blubber stove and made a serving of hot milk (6 - 6oz. packets of Trumilk) and whilst the milk was being prepared a 6 oz. cake of Streimer's Polar Nut Food was served out to each man, this being the first time we had drawn upon this article of our sledging rations since leaving the ship. It was just the very thing we wanted at that moment and was immensely appreciated. It

was a memorable sight - we twenty-eight men all sitting round a blazing fire on that tiny ice floe through the dark night. It was nearly 3 a.m. by the time the milk was served and although it was very cold most of us preferred to remain up. One or two crawled back into the boat and managed to put in another three hours sound sleep until 6 a.m. when we were all astir again standing by to launch the boats.

During the night a good deal of loose ice had come up and our floe was now cut off from the open water by about a hundred yards of more or less loose ice.

Immediately adjacent to us were several pieces of heavy floes all jostling about in the swell in such a way that it would have been sheer suicide to have put the boats into the water amongst them; so there was nothing to do but wait. We filled in the interval, and our interiors, with a frugal breakfast of Bovril sledging ration hoosh (1/4 lb. per man).

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