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Monday, August 14, 2006

Freaque waves during the Endurance Expedition

My colleague Dave Schwab brought to my attention another fabulous eyewitness account of a true life encountering with a gigantic waves at sea -- the account of Sir Ernest Shackleton during his expedition to the Antarctic in 1915 given in his book “South: The Endurance Expedition” published in 1919:
"A hard northwesterly gale came up on the eleventh day (May 5) and shifted to the southwest in the late afternoon. The sky was overcast and occasional snow squalls added to the discomfort produced by a tremendous cross-sea – the worst, I thought, that we had experienced. At midnight I was at the tiller and suddenly noticed a line of clear sky between the south and southwest. I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted, “For God’s sake, hold on!” Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We baled with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us. She floated again and ceased to lurch drunkenly as though dazed by the attack of the sea. Earnestly we hoped that never again would we encounter such a wave."

This is possibly a most veracious description of a true freaque wave event many decades before the notion of a freaque wave has ever enacted. I must admit that I was unacquainted with Shackleton’s expedition. Briefly he led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on his personally owned three-masted barquentine “Endurance” set sail in 1914. Along with 28 men they sailed across the Atlantic and then through Weddell Sea. As the ice field slowly built around the ship, Endurance was soon encased in thickening ice packs, drifted for months, and eventually the ship was crushed and sank in November, 1915. They rescued three life boats, it was during his journey with 5 men onboard the largest life boat “James Caird” seeking relief that the above account of gigantic wave event was encountered. Endured through all the freaque waves, icebergs, mountainous glaciers, unending brutal cold, and ever-looming starvation as described on the back cover of the Signet paperback book, everyone from Endurance survived. A very happy ending to a very valiant expedition indeed!

The 28 crews of the Endurance in its final voyage consisted two engineers, two surgeons, and one each of geologist, meteorologist, physicist, biologist, artist, photographer, storekeeper, carpenter, and, of course, a cook along with regular seafarers. It is of interest to read the following newspaper ad which was said what Shackleton used in recruiting his crews:

"MEN WANTED: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton."

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