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.’

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