Aurora's drift

Aurora's drift

Aurora's drift refers to the Antarctic expedition ship SY "Aurora", and its drift in the Ross Sea and Southern Ocean pack ice for a period of 282 days from 7 May 1915 to 12 February 1916. "Aurora" had brought the Ross Sea party—a support team for Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition—to McMurdo Sound in Antarctica in January 1915. The party's task was to lay a series of depots on the Ross Ice Shelf to supply Shackleton's party on its projected journey across the continent from the Weddell Sea. After its shore parties had been landed, "Aurora" sought a suitable berth within the Sound where it could overwinter. After some manoeuvring she was firmly anchored to the shore off Cape Evans, and allowed to settle into the sea ice.

On 6 May 1915 a gale parted the ship from its mooring and carried it away, firmly attached to thick ice. The drift northward began, leaving ten shore party members marooned, with much of their equipment and supplies still aboard ship. The crew's initial hopes of a swift return to Cape Evans faded, as the ship drifted out of McMurdo Sound and into the Ross Sea; such hopes vanished altogether when the rudder was destroyed by the ice pressure. The drift continued northwards, through the 1915 southern winter season and throughout the following spring and summer months. It extended for a distance of approximately convert|1600|mi|km|sigfig=2 before the ship was set free when the ice suddenly broke up, in February 1916.

After its release, with the assistance of a jury rudder assembled during the drift, "Aurora" managed to reach New Zealand on 3 April 1916. After a refit she returned to McMurdo Sound to rescue the shore party members, three of whom had died during the ship's absence. Within a year of completing its rescue mission, "Aurora", sold by Shackleton and employed as a coal carrier, was lost in the Pacific Ocean, either during a storm or through enemy action.

In McMurdo Sound

Winter mooring

"Aurora", commanded by Captain Aeneas Mackintosh and carrying the 28 men comprising ship's and shore parties, arrived in McMurdo Sound on 14 January 1915 intending to winter there. [Tyler-Lewis, p. 64] This was a risk; since Captain Scott's ship "Discovery" had been trapped in the ice for two years during the 1901–04 expedition, no ship had attempted to winter in the Sound. The party was inexperienced; Mackintosh and Ernest Joyce of the shore party had been on Shackleton's Nimrod expedition, 1901–09, [Huntford p.413] and Joyce had also been with the Discovery Expedition. Otherwise only James "Scotty" Paton, "Aurora's" boatswain, had sailed in these waters before, most recently with "Terra Nova", 1910–13.Tyler-Lewis, pp. 114–116]

Shackleton had instructed Mackintosh not to anchor the ship anywhere south of the Glacier Tongue, an ice promontory which projected into the Sound six miles (10 km) north of the old "Discovery" quarters at Hut Point. Shackleton believed that staying to the north of this feature would lessen the risk of repeating "Discovery's" experience.Tyler-Lewis, p. 114 Also: Capt. John King Davis would later say that Shackleton's instruction should have been ignored. Hut Point was the only known safe anchorage in the Sound; "Aurora" should have been left there and risked becoming frozen in. Tyler-Lewis, p. 221] As Mackintosh was leaving the ship to lead the first depot-laying party, the task of finding a secure winter berth fell to first officer Joseph Stenhouse, 27 years old, who had no experience of Antarctic waters. The search proved difficult and prolonged. Eventually Stenhouse decided to anchor at Cape Evans, site of Captain Scott's old Terra Nova headquarters, some seven miles (11 km) north of the Glacier Tongue. [This was against the wishes of "Aurora's" only experienced Antarctic sailor, James Paton, who disliked the Cape Evans anchorage and considered that wintering a ship there was a "nightmare". Paton preferred a small bay in the Cape Royds vicinity, that would offer some protection from the weather, but Stenhouse dismissed the suggestion. See Tyler-Lewis, pp. 120–21 and p.126] On 14 March he manoeuvred "Aurora" into position, stern-first into the stony shore where two large anchors had been sunk and cemented into the ground. To these were attached cables and hawsers which, together with a heavy chain, were attached to the ship's stern. Two bower anchors were also dropped. According to Second Officer Thompson there were "enough hawsers and anchors to hold a battleship", [Tyler-Lewis, p. 123] and the ship was seemingly secure as it settled into the shore ice that steadily thickened around it. 18 men were aboard ship; four members of the shore party were living in the Cape Evans hut while, having concluded the season's depot-laying on 25 March, Mackintosh's party of six were at Hut Point, awaiting secure sea ice in the Sound before attempting to cross to Cape Evans.

Blown away

Although the Cape Evans anchorage lessened the dangers of the ship becoming trapped by the ice, its unsheltered location was exposed to the full harshness of the winter weather, which grew wilder as the season progressed. By mid-April "Aurora" resembled a "wrecked hulk", listing sharply to starboard and subject to violent shocks and tremors as the ice moved around it.Tyler-Lewis, pp. 125–27] At about 9 p.m. on 6 May, during a particularly fierce storm, the men aboard heard two "explosive reports"Tyler-Lewis p. 127] as the main hawsers parted from the anchors. Boatswain Paton raised the alarm, shouting "She's away wi' it!".Tyler-Lewis, p. 127] The ship was now adrift with the ice, torn from its moorings by the combined forces of the wind and moving ice. Held fast, and dragging its bower anchors, "Aurora" moved rapidly away from the shore and into the Sound. The roar of the wind prevented the four men ashore in the Cape Evans hut from hearing anything, and it was early next morning before they found the ship had gone. [Tyler-Lewis, p. 128 Six more men, including Captain Mackintosh, were ashore at Hut Point, waiting for the sea-ice to stabilize before they crossed to Cape Evans.] Aboard was much of the essential food, clothing and equipment that the shore party needed for its depot-laying work. [Tyler-Lewis, p. 130] With its engines dismantled for winter maintenance, the ship drifted steadily northwards away from Cape Evans, leaving the ten men ashore stranded. [ The engine, had it been operative, could not have done much in this situation, with only convert|98|hp. Bickel, p. 218]


There were three phases to "Aurora's" drift: the Ross Sea phase, which lasted until the return of the sun on 6 August 1915 (92 days); the Southern Ocean phase, which extended to the year's end (147 days); and a final phase, leading to the ship's release from the ice on 12 February 1916 (43 days). After that date "Aurora" was able to make limited manoeuvres under her own power, although still surrounded by loose sea ice. She did not enter open water until 14 March.

Ross Sea phase

During the first few days, Stenhouse's priorities were to restore the ship's engines to use and to make wireless contact with the shore party. At this time he was hoping that "Aurora" would be able to return to Cape Evans as soon as the storm abated. The engines were made operational on 8 May, but a continuous southerly gale took the ship, still encased in ice, out of McMurdo Sound and into the open Ross Sea. On 9 May the only land visible was Cape Bird on Ross Island, some convert|8|mi|km distant and, with mountainous pack-ice all around, it was clear that there would be no quick return to Cape Evans. [South, p. 189: Stenhouse diary 9 May 1915] On 11 May a wireless aerial was rigged, and wireless operator Hooke tried without success to contact the men ashore (whose equipment was rudimentary and unreliable). He optimistically tried to reach the radio stations at McQuarie Island and New Zealand Bluff, respectively convert|1340|mi|km|sigfig=2 and convert|1860|mi|km|sigfig=2 away, again unsuccessfully.Tyler-Lewis, pp. 199–200] On 14 May the bower anchors, which were threatening to capsize the ship, were hauled aboard. South, p. 190] During the following days the pack thickened, and in increasingly turbulent weather the boilers were closed down, since no manoeuvering under power could now be attempted.South, p. 190] On 25 May, as "Aurora" drifted convert|20|mi|km|0 east of the Victoria Land coast, conditions were such that Stenhouse feared that the ship might be crushed. As a precaution, he ordered the crew to prepare sledging gear and supplies for a possible march for the shore. [South, p. 190: Stenhouse diary, 25 May 1915] When that immediate danger had passed, he rested his hopes on a quick release from the ice that would allow the ship to sail to New Zealand for repairs and resupply, returning to Cape Evans in September or October in time for the second depot-laying season. [South, p. 190: Stenhouse diary, 26 May 1915] On 8 June they were at 75°59′S, about convert|100|mi|km|sigfig=2 north of Cape Evans but with no possibility of reaching it, and out of radio contact. [Position fixed by a reading on 8 June: South, p. 190: Stenhouse diary, 8 June 1915] During a relatively uneventful period, Midwinter's Day was celebrated on 22 June, but general conditions aboard were cold and miserable, and there were tensions among the crew members.Tyler-Lewis, p. 200]

By 9 July the direction of the drift had changed, away from the coast, and the ship was an estimated convert|28|mi|km|0 north-east of Franklin Island. [South, p. 190: Stenhouse diary 9 July 1915] The speed of the drift had increased, and there were new and ominous signs of increasing pressure in the pack. On 21 July heavy pressure caught the ship and destroyed its rudder; [South p.191] Stenhouse made further preparations for sledging to the coast, now convert|100|mi|km|0 away, but once again the situation eased, and Stenhouse withheld the order. [South, p. 191: Stenhouse diary, 22 July 1915] "Aurora" survived a further series of pressure attacks from the ice, and on 6 August was closing on Cape Adare, the northern tip of Victoria Land where the Ross Sea merges into the Southern Ocean. She was now convert|440|mi|km|sigfif=2 north of Cape Evans. That day, the sun made its first appearance over the horizon since the start of the drift. [South, p. 191:Stenhouse diary, 9 August 1915]

outhern Ocean phase

After the ship had cleared Cape Adare, the direction of drift changed to north-westerly, and on 10 August a position was fixed at 70°40′S, with the speed of drift estimated at 20 miles (32 km) per day. [South, p. 191: Stenhouse diary 10 August 1915] Work on the construction of a jury rudder had started; this was completed by 13 August and stored on deck, ready to be rigged as soon as the ship was clear of the ice.Tyler-Lewis, p. 205] On 25 August, Hooke picked up radio signals being exchanged between McQuarie Island and New Zealand, but could not make contact with either. [South, p. 191: Stenhouse diary, 25 August 1915]

By the end of August, although open leads were beginning to appear, there was no sign of a general break-up. Severe weather returned in September, when a hurricane-force wind destroyed the wireless aerial and temporarily stopped Hooke's efforts.Tyler-Lewis, p. 205] Temperatures were noticeably rising—on 9 September the minimum was above zero for the whole 24 hours—but this did not presage early release from the ice; [South, p. 192: Stenhouse diary enty 9 September] on 22 September, after a drift of convert|705|mi|km|sigfig=2, they were still firmly held. Observations and records of the nature of the ice and direction of the drift had been maintained throughout. Stenhouse wrote: "It (the drift) has not been in vain, and...knowledge of the set and drift of the pack will be a valuable addition to the sum of human knowledge". [South, p. 192: Stenhouse diary entry, 22 September 1915]

During the next two months, "Aurora" drifted north-west with little change in its conditions. On 23 November it crossed the Antarctic Circle, and its speed slowed; only convert|40|mi|km| were covered in the next 25 days. Christmas approached with the ice still firm, and "no appreciable change in our surroundings". [South, p. 192: Stenhouse diary 17 December) 1915] "Mild festivities" celebrated Christmas Day; at the year's end their latitude was 65°45′S. [South p.192]

Final phase

In early January there were the signs that the pack might finally be breaking up. Although the ship was still firmly held, a swell was discernible, and a mile away the ice was seen to be moving. This remained the situation through January,Tyler-Lewis, pp. 207–09] with the speed of drift now almost imperceptible At the end of the month the direction changed again, and became north-easterly. With the Antarctic summer waning, Stenhouse privately feared that "Aurora" might be held for another year. He reviewed fuel and stores, and ordered the capture of more seals and penguins. This proved difficult, as the soft state of the ice made travel away from the ship hazardous.Tyler-Lewis, p. 207]

A new problem now manifested itself: the ship was leaking. The timber seams, which had been temporarily caulked by ice, had now opened and were admitting up to three or four feet of water daily.Tyler-Lewis, pp. 207–09] This was easily dealt with by the pumps, but added to discomfort and anxieties. However, on 12 February 1916 the ice around the ship finally began to break away; a pool of water opened up around the ship, she was suddenly floating free. Stenhouse ordered sail to be raised; the drift thus ended, after 282 days and about convert|1600|mi|km|sigfig=2 of distance covered.Tyler-Lewis, pp. 207–09]

The ship was not yet safe, sailing in a heavy swell among broken floes and tabular bergs. Control over direction was limited, as the emergency rudder could not yet be used, and progress was frustratingly slow.Tyler-Lewis, p. 20y] On 1 March Stenhouse ordered the engines started, and the ship made five miles (8 km) distance, but at the expense of three tons of coal. This rate of consumption could not continue, and Stenhouse ordered the furnaces banked.Tyler-Lewis, p. 209] On the next day the edge of the ice was sighted from the crow's nest. It took a further 12 days for the ship to work the few miles to the open sea, but on 14 March, at 64°27′S, 157°32′E, "Aurora" finally cleared the pack. Four days later the rudder was lowered, and the ship began to steam cautiously north-east, towards New Zealand, convert|1000|mi|km|sigfig=2 away.Tyler-Lewis, p. 209]


On 23 March Hooke made wireless contact with a coastal station at Awarua, New Zealand. By 30 March, having resisted offers of assistance, "Aurora" was convert|330|mi|km|sigfig=2 from port. As the seas grew heavier and the makeshift rudder became ineffective, Stenhouse finally accepted an offer from the tug "Plucky" [Tyler-Lewis identifies this tug as "Dunedin". Tyler-Lewis, p. 214] to bring "Aurora" into Port Chalmers, where she arrived on 3 April 1916.

Stenhouse was anxious for the ship to be repaired and refitted, and to return to McMurdo Sound as soon as possible to rescue the stranded men of the Ross Sea shore party. This mission was delayed, mainly for cost reasons, and Stenhouse did not participate in the eventual relief operation. When "Aurora" sailed, on 20 December 1916, it was under Capt. John King Davis. [Tyler-Lewis, pp. 220–31] On 10 January 1917 she arrived at Cape Evans, and on 20th, with the seven survivors of shore party (Mackintosh, Victor Hayward and Arnold Spencer-Smith had perished), "Aurora" departed for New Zealand. [Tyler-Lewis, pp. 232–43]

For much of the period of the "Aurora's" drift, Shackleton's ship "Endurance" was likewise drifting, having been beset in the Weddell Sea ice near Vahsel Bay on 19 January 1915, at 76°30′S. "Endurance" drifted northwards until it was crushed and abandoned on 27 October 1915, at 67°5′S 51°30′W. [South, p. 67 Coincidentally, the duration of "Endurance's" drift was 282 days—the same as "Aurora's".]

Less than a year after its return to New Zealand "Aurora", having been sold by Shackleton, sank with all hands in the Pacific Ocean, while carrying a cargo of coal to Chile. She left Newcastle, New South Wales, on 20 June 1917 and was never seen again, officially posted as missing by Lloyds of London on 2 January 1918. Whether her loss was due to weather or to enemy action could not be established. [Bickel. p. 236] Among those lost was Scotty Paton, who had acted as "Aurora's" boatswain throughout the Ross Sea Party expedition and the drift, and on the subsequent relief mission. [Tyler-Lewis, p. 274]

Notes and References


*Bickel, Lennard: "Shackleton's Forgotten Men" Pimlico Original, London 2001 ISBN 0 7126 6807 1
*Huntford, Roland:"Shackleton" Hodder & Stoughton, London 1985 ISBN 0 340 25007 0
*Shackleton, Sir Ernest (ed. Peter King): "South" Century Ltd Edition, London 1991 ISBN 0 7126 3927 6
*Tyler-Lewis, Kelly: "The Lost Men" Bloomsbury Publications, London 2007 ISBN 978 0 7475 7972 4

External links

*cite web|url=|title= SY "Aurora" - Ships of the Polar Explorers|publisher= Coolantactica|accessdate= 2008-05-20
*cite web|url=|title= The Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17 – SY "Aurora" and the Ross Sea Party|publisher= Coolantarctica|accessdate= 2008-05-20

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