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Ship to shore … Ernest Shackleton and his polar vessels

Liam Kenny

Kildare’s landlocked location means the closest that most Lilywhites come to encounter the high-seas is when building sandcastles at Brittas Bay or wallowing across the Irish Sea on the ferry for Cheltenham. However inland as it might be, Kildare has produced seafarers of renown, not least the great Ernest Shackleton ( born at Kilkea near Castledermot) whose Antarctic achievements were made possible by the ships and boats which he navigated to such spectacular effect on his expeditions through the treacherous Antarctic waters. 
More insight into Shackleton’s seafaring achievements in the polar seas is to be found in an impressive book titled ‘Ordeal By Ice – Ships of the Antarctic’, authored by Rorke Bryan and published by the Collins Press in Cork.
The author’s primary interest is in the design and detail of the myriad of ships used on Antarctic expeditions, and his research is forensic. He devotes much attention to Ernest Shackleton and the vessels which served him for better or for worse in the turbulent southern oceans.
In 1908, Shackleton departed New Zealand on the Nimrod, bound for the Antarctic. The ship was grossly overloaded, with the deck only a metre above sea-level. When he reached the icebound shore of the Antarctic he set out on a trek in an attempt to win what was the last great prize in the world of exploration – to be the first to set foot at the South Pole. However he was forced to turn back less than a couple of day’s march from the pole in January 1909 due to lack of food. Had he been able to afford a larger ship to take more supplies he might well have been the first to reach the Pole. No matter how good an explorer was on land, it was the quality and capacity of the vessels supporting the expedition which determined its success or failure.
The prize of being first to the Pole fell to the capable Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen (he got there in December, 1911) who remarked that Shackleton’s achievement was “the most brilliant incident in the history of Antarctic exploration”.
Amundsen himself used a vessel named the Fram on his voyage to the Antarctic. Rorke Bryan’s text and pictures demonstrate how Fram was purpose built for riding the ice floes, being shaped more like a barrel to give the hull huge strength against the ice, and causing the boat to lift as the sea froze rather than be pinched and crushed.
Ernest Shackleton re-enters the polar story as he sets out in 1914 on the Endurance on an expedition to land on the Antarctic and be the first to cross the frozen continent. Visitors to the the Heritage Centre in Athy will see the beautiful scale model of Endurance which forms the centrepiece of the Shackleton display there. This expedition showed Shackleton at his finest as a leader. The Endurance was crushed in the ice and sank, leaving 28 men stranded, their fate and whereabouts unknown to the rest of the world. Shackleton managed to keep morale up among his men in the most hostile of environments where temperatures often plummeted to minus forty degrees .
 He made inspired decisions, eventually leading a crew of five on an almost impossible 800 miles voyage across the roughest oceans in a small ship’s boat -- the James Caird.
Rorke Bryan writes that the successful completion of this voyage was “close to miraculous” and if health warnings could be attached to books, this column would advise against reading the account of the voyage on cold, windy nights! Constantly bailing water and chipping ice from the boat to keep her afloat , Shackleton and crew landed on South Georgia after fourteen days at sea. He then had to cross the island to reach help at a Norwegian whaling station.
Space precludes a full account of  the Endurance expedition and the subsequent rescue of the crew from Elephant Island but Shackleton’s achievement remains one of the great survival stories of the twentieth century.
‘Ordeal By Ice’ analyses Antarctic ships from those used by the earliest explorers right up to the modern day vessels built for scientific exploration and for tourism. Fittingly, the final double page photograph of the book is a striking picture of the modern Antarctic Survey ship, it’s name ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton’ standing out in white letters against the massive red hull, itself framed by the frozen contours of the Antarctic mountains.
‘Ordeal by Ice’ is being launched at the Ernest Shackleton autumn school in Athy which runs over the bank holiday weekend. Based in the Heritage Centre in the Town Hall, features an enticing programme of talks, re-enactments, theatre, film screenings and a bus trip to the Griese valley and Shackleton country.
For full details of the Shackleton weekend programme ring Athy Heritage centre at 059 8633075. To locate a copy of ‘Ordeal by Ice’ contact the Collins Press at 021 434 7717 or check your local bookshop. Series no: 252.


In his 'Looking Back' article of 25 October 2011 Liam Kenny reviews Rorke Bryan's 'Ordeal by ice - Ships of the Antartic,' and Ernest Shackleton's Kildare connections. Our thanks to Liam

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