Shipwrecks

Endurance (1912-1915)

The vessel that would become one of the most iconic ships in history began life in a Norwegian whaling industry shipyard near the town of Sanderfjord, 75 miles (121 km) south of Oslo on the edge of a fjord leading into the North Sea early in 1911.  Designed by a local businessman, Ole Aanderud Larsen, who later founded a company which sold specialised paints and coatings to the shipping industry. This would be his defining moment.

Construction was supervised by the yard’s master wooden shipbuilder, Christian Jacobsen, who insisted that everyone who worked on her were not only skilled shipwrights but also experienced seafarers from whaling and sealing ships.  Larsen and Jacobsen also took steps to ensure their new ship was the most robust they had ever built.  Every joint and fitting was cross-braced for maximum strength and her keel was made of four pieces of solid oak, one above the other.

Key Facts:

barquentine icon

Three-masted barquentine with steam engine

Built:  Sandefjord, Norway
Size:  137 feet long, 26 feet wide
Launched: 17th December 1912 as Polaris
Fate: Crushed by ice in the Antarctic

Video from BBC News, March 2022. Video footage © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust

From the outside she looked like any normal ship of comparable size, but inside there was less room, because her sides were between 18 inches and 30 inches thick, with twice as many frames as usual and each frame being twice as thick as normal.  The original idea was to create a luxury steam yacht which was totally ‘ice-capable’ and would take small hunting and tourist parties to the Arctic.  The planks they used were either 30-inch-thick oak or Norwegian fir, sheathed in greenheart, a heavy South American evergreen tree that is especially durable in marine conditions and is so hard that it cannot be worked with normal woodworking tools. The greenheart was an added protection to stop ice from crushing the wood.

Piece de resistance was the bow, which was specially designed to meet the polar ice head on (an icebreaker of sorts): each timber used was made from a single oak tree chosen for its natural shape – it had to follow the curve of the ship’s design.  Taken together, the bow pieces had a combined thickness of 52 inches.

Of her three masts, the foremast was square-rigged, with the main and mizzen both fore-and-aft rigged, which made her a barquentine. However, as well as sails, she had a 350-horsepower coal-fired steam engine capable of generating speeds of just over 10 knots (11 mph) on a good sea day.

From the outside she looked like any normal ship of comparable size, but inside there was less room, because her sides were between 18 inches and 30 inches thick, with twice as many frames as usual and each frame being twice as thick as normal.  The original idea was to create a luxury steam yacht which was totally ‘ice-capable’ and would take small hunting and tourist parties to the Arctic.  The planks they used were either 30-inch-thick oak or Norwegian fir, sheathed in greenheart, a heavy South American evergreen tree that is especially durable in marine conditions and is so hard that it cannot be carpentered with normal woodworking tools. The greenheart was an added protection to stop ice from crushing the wood.

Pièce de resistance was the bow, which was specially designed to meet the polar ice head on (an icebreaker of sorts): each timber used was made from a single oak tree chosen for its natural shape – it had to follow the curve of the ship’s design.  Taken together, the bow pieces had a combined thickness of 52 inches.

Of her three masts, the foremast was square-rigged, with the main and mizzen both fore-and-aft rigged, which made her a barquentine. However, as well as sails, she had a 350-horsepower coal-fired steam engine capable of generating speeds of just over 10 knots (11 mph) on a good sea day.

Her ‘luxury’ was inside.  Fitted throughout with electric lights, she had a gross capacity of 350 tons and was able to comfortably carry 28 people: with 10 passenger cabins, a spacious dining saloon, a galley (with accommodation for two cooks), a smoking room and a small bathroom. She even had a darkroom to allow those on board to develop their own photographs.  

When she was christened and launched in Sanderfjord on 17th December 1912 she was not called the Endurance.  Her makers called her Polaris, after the North Star, and believed her to be the strongest wooden ship ever built.  

Their only challenger was another Norwegian vessel, MS Fran, a three-masted schooner, launched in 1892, which had been used by the renowned Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen for various Arctic and Antarctic expeditions between 1893 and 1912.  There was a difference between the two ‘ice ships’ – an important one.  Fran was ‘bowl-bottomed’, which meant that if the ice closed in against her, the ship would be squeezed up and out and not be subject to huge pressure from compressing ice. Polaris was not intended to be ever frozen into heavy pack ice, and therefore was specifically not designed to rise out of a crush.

Polaris had not been built on a whim. She had been ordered by a pair of rich adventurers – Belgian-born, Adrien de Gerlache and Lars Christensen, a Norwegian shipowner, whaling magnate and philanthropist. Both had a keen interest in the Antarctic.  When Gerlache ran into financial difficulty, with money still due to the shipbuilders, Lars was left having to sell the Polaris to make the final payment.   Her unique design was not a selling point: she had no cargo hold, which made her useless to the sealing and whaling industries, and she was too big, slow and uncomfortable to cut it as a private luxury steam yacht.

In January 1914, Christensen agreed to sell Polaris to the Irish-born British polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton for £14,000, which was little more than what was owed to the shipyard, so that they would release the ship.  The sum was a fraction of what the ship had cost to design and build, and represented a considerable loss for the Norwegian; but he wanted rid of the vessel at any cost – he even paid Shackleton’s deposit on the £14,000 himself, because the explorer had no money with him at the time.  

Once the cash was found and Shackleton had the Polaris in his hands, his first move was to change its name to Endurance, after the family motto Fortitudine Vincimus (Through endurance, we conquer).  Next he had the ship taken from Norway to London, where she arrived, at the Millwall Dock, in the spring of 1914.  While the new owner made his plans, gathered his finances and recruited a crew for his great Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Endurance was refitted.  The ‘tween deck was converted into a cargo hold and crew quarters were moved to the forecastle. Other changes were made below decks, to allow for laboratories and the like, but the darkroom was kept.  Her colour scheme was changed from white and gilt to all black, but the large five-pointed (Polaris) star on her stern remained.

On her decks were fitted three new ship’s lifeboats: two were second-hand whaling industry rowing cutters, but the third was a 22-foot long purpose-built double-ended, open whaleboat designed by the Endurance’s new captain, Frank Worsley.  The rowing boats would be named Dudley Docker, Stancomb Wills and James Caird respectively, after the expedition’s main sponsors.

Endurance set sail from Millwall Dock on the start of her maiden (and only) voyage, with Plymouth as her first stop, on 1st August 1914, the day that Germany declared war on Russia.  She arrived at the Grytviken Whaling Station in South Georgia four months later, on 5th December 1914.

Endurance never made it to the Falklands, but her owner did. 

On 31st May 1916, 37 days after having escaped from the ravages of Antarctica, with the rest of his crew still missing, Sir Ernest Shackleton arrived in Port Stanley from South Georgia.  At first he refused to tell customs officers who he was and they took him to be a German spy.  Only after swearing them to secrecy was he allowed ashore. 

The reason for Shackleton’s subterfuge was directly connected to the Endurance – he had an exclusive deal with Britain’s (then) biggest national newspaper, The Daily Chronicle about what happened to her.  One of his first acts in Stanley was to cable the paper’s news editor, Ernest Perris, and update him on the story so far.  The next day, the circulation of the newspaper increased even further as its front page broke the “World Exclusive” news about Shackleton, his ship and the missing crew.  

The story even pushed the huge naval Battle of Jutland into second place.  It had taken place on the same day as Shackleton’s cable and involved 100,000 British and German sailors.  Although indecisive, the battle, between 151 Royal Navy warships and 99 German vessels, enabled Britain to continue to control crucial shipping lanes and retain a blockade that would contribute to Germany’s eventual defeat in 1918.  The German navy lost more than 2,500 men in the action and the Royal Navy over 6,000.

Despite being such a massive story, Jutland continued to bow to the Chronicle’s sensational front page coverage of Shackleton’s exploits for the next two days.  The explorer, and Endurance, was a welcome distraction from the horrors of the war. Whilst in Stanley, Shackleton was also in touch with King George V, who was also anxious to know the fate of the rest of the Endurance’s crew.  During his stay in Stanley, Sir Ernest was put up in Government House, while Endurance’s captain, Frank Worlsey, was lent the cabin belonging to the captain of HMS Glasgow, the Royal Navy Light Cruiser which happened to be in Stanley at the time. 

Although Shackleton was keeping a low profile whilst in Stanley some residents did get to hear and meet him when the then Governor, Sir William Douglas Young, chaired a ‘town hall meeting’ on 3rd June.  Later said to be one of the largest gatherings the islands had ‘ever seen’. Shackleton gave the assembled throng a brief resume of what had happened and why.  The Falkland Islands Magazine and Church Paper gave its version of events in its July 1916 issue: “Sir Ernest, who still bore traces of the privations and anxieties of many months duration, gave an account of his adventures which thrilled all who were fortunate enough to hear it. With him on the platform were two of his comrades who had accompanied him on the whaler from South Georgia arriving here on the 31st of May, Capt. Worsley and and [sic.] P.O. Crean,- the latter decorated by the King for a heroic feat of endurance on a former Antarctic expedition, that of dragging a sick companion over 200 miles of snow and ice.”

By all accounts, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s speech was ‘cheered to the rafters’ and Captain Frank Worsley, who was also there, had this to say about the welcome they received: The residents of the Falkland Islands were most sympathetic to us in our plight…But not even the wonderful kindness that was shown to us could lessen the strain under which we laboured.”

It was to be another 88 days before the rest of the crew of the wrecked Endurance were rescued from Elephant Island on 30th August 1916.  Not one of the Shackleton expedition’s 27 members had died.  It would be just under another 106 YEARS before the Endurance was found by the FMHT-funded Endurance22 expedition almost 10,000 feet below the Antarctic ice.

Visit our dedicated Endurance22 website for further details about the expedition.

In March 2022, the wreck of Endurance was discovered in an expedition organised and funded by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust. She hadn’t been seen for 100 years since being crushed by ice and sinking in the Weddell Sea.

Find out more by exploring our official Endurance22 website.

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