November 02, 2012 GMT
The Ernest Shackleton Autumn School

It seems a little incongruous to be taking wine with the President of Ireland. Surely it should be Guinness?
He is a poet and writer after all.

But the wine was good, and the good President got the event off to an excellent Irish start in the small town of Athy.


More here - The Leinster Leader.

The tents are all erected and sledge parked, ready for the blizzard - of visitors.

This is going to be a name-dropping blog post. And why not?
And a long post as well - a helluva lot happened over the weekend. Feel free to leave whenever you wish.

Shackleton was born and raised close to Athy, in southern County Kildare.
(Remember, it's Irish. So 'Athy' rhymes with 'attire' but without the '-re' on the end. Or try 'at-tie'. Hope that helps).

He is closely associated with the island of South Georgia, hundreds of miles south-east of the Falklands, and is buried there.
Recently, the ashes of his right-hand man, Frank Wild, were taken there and placed next to him.

Frank Wild is remembered as the man that Shackleton left behind in charge of 21 other men stranded on Elephant Island, when the latter sailed to South Georgia for help. It was Wild's task to keep the men motivated and disciplined against the knowledge that they may never be rescued if Shackleton's journey failed.

Shackleton was accompanied on the stormy passage to South Georgia by Frank Worsley, captain of The Endurance. His job was to navigate a route across 800 miles of the Southern Ocean to find help on that tiny lone island, having already navigated around the Weddell Sea to find the even tinier Elephant Island and temporary refuge for the ship's company.

Finding South Georgia whilst sailing the lifeboat 'James Caird', without engine, was a far greater achievement than the simple task of steering Neil Armstrong the quarter-million miles to the Moon. In fact, since the advent of satellite navigation, there is now no journey in Christendom or the Universe that is anywhere near as difficult to steer than that boat voyage. (As an aside, the 15-year-old and very basic GPS device that was given to me when I retired still gives excellent directions, including over here in Ireland).

Anyway, many years ago I happened to meet Lady Alexandra Shackleton, (Ernest's granddaughter) at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. I hadn't long returned from Antarctica and at that time she had yet to visit the continent, despite having been to South Georgia and the Falklands a few times. She was interested in how our voyage went and the little adventures we had on the way. Whereupon she fixed me with a purposeful eye and said, "You just can't leave it at that, sailing to the Ross Sea and Ross Island. You simply must go one day and see South Georgia. It's absolutely stunning. In a different way to the other side of the continent. No excuses now!"
She's quite a charismatic person and I've never forgotten that conversation.

Well, a brand new expedition is about to depart. An attempt to faithfully recreate that voyage of the James Caird across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia, plus the 36-hour climb right across the island over the snow and ice-covered central mountains.
Believe me, this expedition will be considerably more faithful to the original event than our recent re-enactment of Carl Clancy's 'crossing of Ireland'. Something like 99% against our 5%, or less.

Many attempts have been undertaken in the past, but none have succeeded in both the boat voyage and the crossing of the island in one journey.

A replica of the James Caird has been built, named "Alexandra Shackleton" and launched by herself, and is ready to go early next year.

There'll be one acknowledgement to modern ways of doing things. A 'proper' boat will accompany the James Caird replica on its journey.
'Cheating' maybe, but the only way to fund such an undertaking these days is to provide news reports, documentary footage and fly-on-the-wall small talk to a viewing public. The escort vessel will in no way interfere with or aid the passage of the 'Alexandra Shackleton'. But it does have an additional fund-raising feature - bunks for sale to the travelling public.
Well, what to do about that?? It'll be going straight to South Georgia.
A website invited expressions of interest. Then disappeared. Later a new website appeared, with details and prices. Don't remember the prices right now but definitely a king's ransom and a half.
Plus the details. The voyage would be from Punta Arenas to Elephant Island (as near as conditions allow) and onwards to South Georgia shadowing the replica James Caird. Then return to Buenos Aires. A huge circle around the Southern Ocean, on a Tall Ships type sailing boat! (With auxilliary engine).
From the blurb: "Yes, you will be seasick, but don't worry it will subside after a day or so."
A day or so!
"If not, there will be qualified medics and a doctor on board."
If not!!
There's more. "You will be taken on as a 'ship's hand' and be expected to assist in the sailing of the ship under the crew's roster. Including climbing rigging to set sails for which training will be given before setting sail to Antarctica."
What a way to get to see South Georgia!
I'll be watching this expedition closely. Not only will the voyage of the 'Alexandra Shackleton' be riveting, I'm sure, but also the tales to be told by the 'travelling public' on board the support vessel, the Tall Ship Pelican.



In the meantime, after the Autumn School has finished, I'll be employing my old GPS to steer Mike and me from Athy to Tom Crean's South Pole Inn through the Irish lanes. That'll be quite enough for now.

A few photos from the presentations:

Talk entitled Early Days, Rivalry and Leadership.

Kari Herbert's dad was the renowned polar researcher and explorer Sir Wally Herbert.
She grew up in the frozen far north-west of Greenland with her parents, so has a bit of personal experience of the subject.

Kathleen Scott with son Peter on the left, Emily Shackleton with son Edward on the right

Moving on, a presentation on Antarctic legacies.

About to depart on the 60-mile winter journey. Temperatures down to -56 deg C.

(L - R)Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard on their return, 5 weeks later.

Amazingly, Bowers in the centre looks just like many a biker sat in a cafe after a long-ish ride in the cold. Probably why Scott took him with the party to the South Pole.

Michael Smith talks about the Irishmen in Scott's expeditions.
My arrows show the South Pole (blue), and the destination of the icebreaker in which Mike and I shared a cabin 12 years ago (black, in McMurdo Sound).

Tom Crean, whose pub we'll be visiting (again) in a few days.
It's been rumoured that a notable museum visitor (when this photo was on display) observed, "It would look much nicer if he was scrubbed up."

Tom with his wife Ellen and two of his 3 daughters.

And the last known photo, Tom outside his pub.

A nice anecdote:
Patrick Keohane gained a place on Scott's Terra Nova expedition. His sister sent him a card for St Patrick's day, but he had already left his ship HMS Impulse at Devonport and transferred to Terra Nova.
To cater for this possibility his sister had written "Or elsewhere" at the end of the address. And indeed, the postcard was sent on to Antarctica.
By the time of its arrival Patrick Keohane had departed (in 1913) back to Ireland.

So the card was placed on the mantlepiece in Scott's hut at Cape Evans.
There it rested until an Australian expedition came calling in 1963, and arranged its safe passage to a suitable museum.
Patrick Keohane was one of the party that found Scott's tent, on 12th November 1912 (one hundred years ago on Monday week), with the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers

The Shackleton Autumn School is held in the Athy Heritage Centre right in the middle of the main square. It attracts an esoteric bunch of enthusiasts and scholars from all over the world. From the US, to Scandinavia, to Japan.
I think the main reason for the choice of the Heritage Centre as the venue is the handy location of a premises, immediately across the road, that serves as Mission Control (all expeditions need one of those), a conference room, refreshment room and grocery.

Mike reaches the supply depot first.

Inside, I make a new polar discovery. Tea is available in O'Brien's Bar!

Frank O'Brien, the 90-year-old owner of O'Brien's grocery and bar, holds an audience in the Conference Room while he recites
The Navigators.
A poem dedicated to Shackleton and the Irish members of his crews, written by a resident of Narraghmore parish.

Aileen, who is off on a voyage to the Antarctic Peninsular in February next year,
persuades Mike to sign a copy of his book,
The S.S. Terra Nova.

Escaping the blizzard and Mission Control we ski past the expedition tent, and the stores still lashed to the sledge


and record our arrival at the nearby River Barrow with a photo opportunity.

Some photos from the museum inside the Heritage Centre.

A model of Shackleton's ship, The Endurance.

A selection of Ponting's photos from Scott's Terra Nova expedition.
(A bit like my front room)

Outside once again, there's entertainment in the cloisters of a fine old Athy building.

Now, after a most excellent weekend, Mike and I are ready to set sail for The South Pole.
Shackleton's (1913?) newspaper advert, calling for expedition crew, stated "Safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success."
We hope for the latter.
In the meantime, the website linked above offers US$100 to the first person to find the original copy of this advert. That task is even more difficult, I think, than finding South Georgia in an open sailing boat.

Posted by Ken Thomas at November 02, 2012 08:32 PM GMT

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