Ernest Shackleton

‘The Quest,’ wrote Alexander Macklin, ‘is a little “she-devil”, lively as they are made.  She has many uncomplimentary things said of her, and deserves all of them.’

The Quest

Ever since Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition set out from Plymouth in September 1921, the voyage into southern waters had been anything but smooth.  Between Britain and the Azores, the little ship had been tossed around in storms so violent that even the most experienced mariners felt sick.  Desperately seeking refuge, scores of migrating birds clung to the mast and topsail. 

Macklin had been to the Antarctic with Shackleton before, and he knew what big seas were like.  This one was horrific.  ‘It has been impossible to stand without holding firmly to some support,’ he wrote.  ‘Meals are a screaming comedy.’

Shackleton and John Quiller-Rowett, expedition sponsor

In the Azores, they put in for repairs and a welcome rest.  But south of the Equator, the wind reached hurricane force.  Colossal waves forced Frank Worsley, the ship’s captain, to take measures that astonished James Marr, a young Scout on the expedition:  ‘In order to give us greater easement, the wheel was lashed down and oil-bags were put over the bows, where they trailed ahead, and, leaking steadily, created an almost miraculous effect on the turbulent seas.  It was most curious to watch a towering, foamy crest come hurtling towards us, growing as it came, as though intent on our instant overwhelming;  but when within about fifteen yards of the bow it would suddenly lose its viciousness, flatten out, and slink as though ashamed of its previous bullying uproar, smoothly beneath our bows.’  

The Quest arriving in London

From the bows of the Quest, some sixty gallons of oil were poured onto the troubled waters of the South Atlantic.  Eventually the storm eased, and saturated bunk beds were wrung out by their exhausted occupants.  The Quest limped into Rio de Janeiro, having developed so many faults on her outward voyage that she needed a major overhaul.  The expedition’s naturalist and photographer, Hubert Wilkins, was bitterly disappointed that the rough weather had prevented them from calling in to Cape Town, where they were due to collect essential parts for an Avro seaplane.  In this little craft, Wilkins had hoped to make the first flight in Antarctica.

Crew of the Quest

Perhaps as a distraction, Shackleton suggested that Wilkins hitch a ride on a whaling ship to South Georgia, and spend some weeks camping and studying the wildlife.  Then he could rejoin the Quest when she called into Grytviken, ready for the final stretch to the Antarctic.  But as the Quest left Rio and ploughed her way south, many crew members were increasingly worried about the health of the Boss.   ‘Now we must speed all we can,’ wrote Shackleton.  With uncharacteristic pessimism, he added:  ‘But the prospect is not too bright.’ 

Loaded down with three weeks’ worth of natural history specimens, Hubert Wilkins was surprised to see the ship’s flag flying at half-mast when he walked onto the dockside at Grytviken in early January.  The unthinkable had happened.  When the Quest sailed for Antarctica, she did so without Shackleton.  ‘Without him,’ wrote Wilkins, ‘we were as flint without steel;  dull, hard things without the fire.’

Sir Hubert Wilkins

Shortly after reaching pack ice, the Quest became icebound.  The crew had little choice but to settle down and prepare for a winter in the Antarctic.  Only a few years ago, Britain’s newspapers had carried Frank Hurley’s images of the stricken Endurance;  this time it was Wilkins who photographed the captive Quest.  And like last time, the frozen sea was far from static.  With great apprehension, the men stood and watched a giant iceberg, 60 metres high and several kilometres long, bearing down on the trapped ship with steady and unstoppable force. 

As the berg approached, the ice around the Quest buckled into pressure ridges;  she started to lean over and her timbers began to groan.  A number of the crew - Wild, Worsley, Macklin, McIlroy, Kerr, Green, McLeod - remembered the Endurance crumpling and sinking beneath the ice of the Weddell Sea, and they must have felt as if the nightmare was being re-born.  Emergency supplies were gathered and they prepared to abandon ship.  Wilkins wrote:  ‘We had all we could do to keep our footing on the sloping side of the ship and clung to the bulwarks and rigging as we watched the big berg approach.’ 

But then, inexplicably, they were saved:  at the last moment, the monster berg altered course and swung slowly away, leaving a channel of open water in its wake.  Suddenly free of ice, the Quest righted herself and all haste was made to steam away.  At a lecture hosted by RSGS in November 1922, Frank Wild described the berg’s tremendous ‘roaring’ which could be heard even from a distance of five or six miles.  

Understandably, Wild was reluctant to chance another close encounter with the pack ice, and the Quest returned to South Georgia in April.  Emily Shackleton had requested that her husband’s body be laid to rest in the little graveyard at Grytviken, so Shackleton’s men had an opportunity to pay their last respects and erect a cairn in his honour. 

The voyage had not ended, however.  The Quest sailed on to the little-known Islands of Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible Island and Gough Island, where Wilkins continued his fieldwork.  He discovered a new bird species, Wilkins’s finch (Nesospiza wilkinsi), and recorded a small species of sophora tree that was known to exist in both New Zealand and South America. 

Although the crew were disheartened by the loss of Shackleton, Wilkins’s presence must have brought some welcome amusement.  Despite the bitter winds of the Roaring Forties that were screaming off the Antarctic mainland, he never seemed to feel the cold, and kayaked around the bleak shores with bare arms and legs as if he was in the South Pacific.  Later, as the Quest battled against another hurricane, Wilkins was swept overboard by a giant wave.  His friends leaned out desperately to look for him, but then, by some miracle, the next wave dumped Wilkins back on deck, ‘pretty wet but not at all discouraged.’

Poster advertising Frank Wild’s lecture ‘The Story of the Quest’ 

The Quest returned to Britain in September 1922.  For all her troubles, she had a surprisingly long life.  She was used for the British Arctic Air Route Expedition in 1930, and served as a minesweeper in World War II.  On a seal-hunting expedition in 1962, she was holed by ice and sank off the coast of Labrador, with no loss of life.  Her exact whereabouts were unknown until it was announced on 12th June this year that she had been discovered lying at a depth of 1,280 feet (390 metres) in the Labrador Sea.

Out of interest

Not all of the Quest’s fittings lie beneath the ocean:  Shackleton’s cabin was taken out during a re-fit in 1924.  Now painstakingly restored, it is in the Shackleton Museum in Athy, Ireland.

Sir Hubert Wilkins went on to make the first Trans-Arctic crossing by air and the first powered flight in the Antarctic, both in 1928;  he received the RSGS Livingstone Medal in 1931.  Frank Wild was awarded the RSGS Silver Medal in 1909.   Shackleton’s connection with RSGS as our former Secretary is well known;  he received the Livingstone Medal in 1909.  


Quotes and reference:

Frank Wild, Shackleton’s Last Voyage (1923)

Simon Nasht, No More Beyond: The Life of Hubert Wilkins (2005)

James Marr, Into the Frozen South (1923)

Roland Huntford, Shackleton (1985)

Newspaper reports in RSGS archives




Sir Ernest Shackleton aged 47, from H R Mill’s The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton

The Quest ice-fast, from James Marr’s Into the Frozen South

Shackleton and John Quiller-Rowett, expedition sponsor, from James Marr’s Into the Frozen South

Quest arriving in London, 1921, from James Marr’s Into the Frozen South

The crew of the Quest, from James Marr’s Into the Frozen South

Sir Hubert Wilkins (public domain)

Poster advertising Frank Wild’s lecture ‘The Story of the Quest’ in November 1922 (RSGS Collections)