I am writing this at 45 degrees south, smack in the heart of the so-called ‘Roaring Forties’, feared by sailors since the Dutch first pushed this far south in the 17th century and found themselves on a dangerous, thrilling, highly effective conveyor belt of westerly gales that pushed them very quickly towards Australasia and the East Indies.
Once you pass 40 degrees south, you enter a world of powerful west to east currents. There are many reasons: they are a product of the earth’s rotation, of the air being displaced from the Equator towards the South Pole and the near absence of any land to break the succession storms as they spin around the planet.
Below the Roaring Forties lies the Southern Ocean. That stretch of water is the world’s only circumpolar ocean, so there’s nothing to stop the stately procession of gigantic rollers as they circle the planet.
I am sailing across this ocean on a big South African icebreaker, and I am glad of the thousands of tons of steel and vast propulsion units. Day and night, the rounded bows smash into waves sending white water the length of the ship, blown by 40 knots of wind.
Over a century ago, Shackleton traversed these seas on his way to Antarctica in 1914 in the ship Endurance, and in 1916 on the way back in a tiny sailing dingy, the James Caird, after Endurance was trapped in sea ice, crushed and sank.
Of the trip down, Shackleton tells us, the Endurance “behaved well in rough seas.” Her decks were piled high with coal, there were around 70 dogs chained up all over the place, and a ton of whale meat hung in the rigging showering the decks with droplets of blood.
Endurance had left South Georgia on 5 December in sleet and snow and arrived shortly after at a band of sea ice which was much further north than Shackleton had hoped. Eventually, the ice of the Weddell Sea crushed and sank the Endurance.
In April and May 1916, the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, Shackleton and 5 men sailed the James Caird through to South Georgia from Elephant Island.
Shackleton’s leadership during this time is legendary, but his huge reputation can obscure the role played by his men. Frank Worsley was his indispensable right-hand man, tough and a master navigator. In his book, Worsley describes the ocean, and I make no apology for quoting these powerful words at length:
“In the afternoon the swell settled and lengthened out the typical deep-sea swell of these latitudes. Offspring of the westerly gales, the great unceasing westerly swell of the Southern Ocean rolls almost unchecked around this end of the world in the Roaring Forties and the Stormy Fifties.
The highest, broadest, and longest swells in the world, they race on their encircling course until they reach their birthplace again, and so, reinforcing themselves, sweep forward in fierce and haughty majesty. Four hundred, a thousand yards, a mile apart in fine weather, silent and stately they pass along.
Rising forty or fifty feet and more from crest to hollow, they rage in apparent disorder during heavy gales. Fast clippers, lofty ships and small craft are tossed on their foaming, snowy brows, and stamped and battered by their ponderous feet, while the biggest liners are playthings for these real Leviathans of the Deep, with a front of a thousand miles.”
As they set out, the sheer size of the challenge they faced was driven home:
“Stormy, snowy weather. Rolling, pitching and tumbling, we laboured before the roaring grey-green seas that towered over us, topped with hissing white combers that, alas, always caught us.
Bruised and soaked with never a long enough interval for our bodies to warm our streaming clothes, in zero weather we now fully gauged the misery and discomfort of our adventure… After this, for the rest of the passage, the only dry articles in the boat were matches and sugar in hermetically sealed tins.”
Worsley called this the “ordeal by water” while Shackleton later said it was a “tale of supreme strife, amid heaving water.”
Over a century later, I am wedged into a corner of a mighty ship, travelling across those same heaving waters, as books fly off my shelves, and I feel the strain and stress of the ship crashing into waves, and I wonder how on earth they did it.