Voyage & Entrapment


Departing as scheduled from South Georgia on December 5th, 1914, Shackleton and the crew aboard the Endurance were on track to reach Vahsel Bay by late February or early March (Shackleton, 11). Going into this initial- yet pivotal- leg of the expedition, Shackleton was under no misconceptions about the dangers that lay ahead. Shackleton himself described the Weddell Sea as “notoriously inhospitable” and “unfavourable from the navigator’s point of view” owing to the lack of strong winds year-round among other challenges (Shackleton, 13). 

Voyage to Vahsel Bay

Battles with Ice

A significant portion of the expedition’s time sailing to Vahsel Bay was spent- as well as the coal stocks aboard the Endurance– navigating around and through various forms of ice. This experience is well reflected in Shackleton’s book, titled South!, within which he described the various forms of ice he encountered in the Weddell Sea. Shackleton was aware of the presence of pack ice as far north as Southern Thule of the Sandwich Islands, having received warnings from whalers familiar with the area before the launch of the voyage, but hoped that at this time of year the pack would be loose (Shackleton, 16). On December 7th, Shackleton’s hopes would be dashed when the expedition encountered “heavy pack-ice” 15 miles northeast of Saunders Island, beginning a long series of battles against the ice (Shackleton, 15). 

Types of Ice

What became essential knowledge for the sailors aboard Shackleton’s voyage were the differing types of ice and their respective characteristics. One measure of defining ice was by its age, with ‘young ice’ being thinner and less dense than the older ice. Older ice was also recognizable due to the various different hues it could be, which sometimes evidenced its origin, as with bay ice being blue (Shackleton, 31). Early in the voyage, as well as in times of open water sailing, icebergs were the predominant form of ice encountered. While dangerous in their own right, individual bergs were easier to avoid compared to the gargantuan ice floes that would later impede the Endurance’s crew.

Pack-ice might be described as a gigantic and interminable jigsaw-puzzle devised by nature. The parts of the puzzle in loose pack have floated slightly apart and become disarranged; at numerous places they have pressed together again; as the pack gets closer the congested areas grow larger and the parts are jammed harder till finally it becomes “close pack,” when the whole of the jigsaw-puzzle becomes jammed to such an extent that with care and labour it can be traversed in every direction on foot (Shackleton, 21-22).

-Sir Ernest Shackleton, 1914

The Endurance, however, was not without its own tools to combat the ice. One of the utmost important pieces of equipment for the success of the voyage was the steam engine and propeller fitted onto the Endurance. The coal powered steam engine was the ship’s only method of propulsion during times of weaker winds or when the expedition had to backtrack against the predominantly eastern winds of the Weddell Sea, a more frequent occurrence as the expedition continued through the end of December. 

To aid in their navigation of the “tortuous mazes of the pack,” modifications to the ship were made by the crew’s carpenter (Shackleton, 28). One of these modifications included a small platform on the stern of the ship so that a spotter could coordinate with whoever was at the helm  to help protect the propeller from collisions with ice. Proving valuable to protect both rudder and propeller, the “Achilles heel of a ship in pack-ice,” more modifications would be made to the Endurance to aid communication during inclement weather conditions (Shackleton, 18, 28).

"The Endurance listing to one side in the ice" Courtesy National Geographic

Ice-breaking Methods

Owing to the frequency of encounters with impeding ice, the crew of the Endurance developed a method of icebreaking utilizing the strength of the hull and the steam engine. While only effective against young ice or any form of ice up to three feet in thickness, it would prove a useful tactic (Shackleton, 28):

Watching carefully that loose lumps of ice did not damage the propeller, we would reverse the engines and back the ship off 200 to 300 yds. She would then be driven full speed into the V, taking care to hit the centre accurately. The operation would be repeated until a short dock was cut, into which the ship, acting as a large wedge, was driven. At about the fourth attempt, if it was to succeed at all, the floe would yield (Shackleton, 29).

In cases where the Endurance had no such room for a ramming maneuver, Shackleton would order crew members to hack away at the ice using pickaxes and saws to break up and move the ice away from the path of the ship, the hull, and rudder and propeller (Shackleton, 46). The ship even made use of ice-anchors, pulling a wedge of ice out of the ship’s path on December 17th to clear a gap in the narrow corridors through pack ice (Shackleton, 21).  

Staggered Progress, A Close Call

The Endurance crossed the Arctic Circle on December 30, battling various ice flows and poor weather conditions along the way. The next day, however, the crew would experience a close call within the pack. Becoming pinned between two floes traveling east-north-east, the Endurance needed the full power of its steam engines and assistance from an ice anchor to free itself, clearing the ice just moments before the building pressure between the two floes became catastrophic: “Immediately afterwards, at the spot where the Endurance had been held, slabs of ice 50 ft. by 15 ft. and 4 ft. thick were forced ten or twelve feet up on the lee floe at an angle of 45 degrees. The pressure was severe, and we were not sorry to have the ship out of its reach” (Shackleton, 27). While successfully avoiding damage, this incident was a haunting preview of the dangers of entrapment within an unpredictable ice floe. 

Around this time in the voyage Shackleton calculated that the ship had traveled around 700 miles under steam power, about half of which was through tight packs of ice, and the other half ranging from loose pack to open waters (Shackleton, 28). Although pleased with the performance of the Endurance, Shackleton and his crew would meet several setbacks in January. Becoming stuck on the 5th, surrounded by solid ice, the expedition would take advantage of the clear weather and enjoy some exercise on the floe (Shackleton, 32).

"With the Endurance immobilized, its crew passed the time however they could--including ice-floe soccer. The ship can be seen in the background" Courtesy National Geographic

Further effort seemed useless at that time, and I gave the order to bank fires after we had moored the Endurance to a solid floe. The weather was clear, and some enthusiastic football-players had a game on the floe until, about midnight, Worsley dropped through a hole in rotten ice while retrieving the ball. He had to be retrieved himself (Shackleton, 32).

-Sir Ernest Shackleton, 1914

Progress would continue southward, when on the 14th of January the expedition passed by Glacier Bay, a potential landing spot. Still preferring his original destination of Vahsel Bay, Shackleton would decide to continue southward, a decision he would later regret (Shackleton, 38).  


While the Endurance was stocked with tinned meat as rations for the duration of the voyage and for the land crossing afterwards, the crew preferred other sources of food. Recorded in many instances by Shackleton, the expedition crew became very proficient at hunting and harvesting seal meat. After some time, the crew even developed a preference for ‘crab-eater’ seals over the more bulky Weddell seals (Shackleton, 52). These skills would become useful, as during their longest stint stuck within the ice, the crew of the Endurance would stockpile over 5000 lbs of seal meat, suitable for consumption by both dog and man (Shackleton, 57). In addition to seals, the crew also captured and prepared various penguin species, including Adelie and Emperor penguins. While it is not explicitly clear why the penguins were caught, their stomach contents were studied and meat preserved as food rations (Shackleton, 51). Additionally, the crew attempted at least once to catch a blue whale, firing a harpoon into it, but this was not a successful hunting endeavor (Shackleton, 23).

Scientific Studies and Equipment

Included within the crew of the voyage were scientists of varying disciplines, including a meteorologist, geologist, and a biologist. While the larger scientific efforts of the expedition pertained to the magnetism of the poles and were intended to be carried out during the land crossing, this did not stop them from gathering specimens for study during the trip to Vahsel Bay. In addition to the animal life caught during hunts on the ice, specimens were gathered from the sea floor through dredging and sounding efforts. In late February, a dredge brought in “much glacial mud, several pebbles and rock fragments, three sponges, some worms, brachiopods, and foraminiferae” (Shackleton, 54). Included on the ship were several scientific instruments, including Lucas and Kelvin Sounding machines, used to determine the depth beneath the Endurance at many intervals during the voyage (Shackleton, 72). Another notable inclusion in the equipment was a wireless radio receiver, which was tried on multiple occasions to contact a station on the Falkland Islands, but was too weak to reach anyone by January (Shackleton, 43-44). 

Lucas Sounding Device. Courtesy Australian Antarctic Devision
Lucas Sounding Device

Entertainment & Dog Training

Necessary for a voyage of such far distance was entertainment and maintenance of physical health. For entertainment, various musical instruments were brought by members of the crew, including a banjo, giving us this more lighthearted interaction: 

During the afternoon three adelie penguins approached the ship across the floe while Hussey was discoursing sweet music on the banjo. The solemn-looking little birds appeared to appreciate “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” but they fled in horror when Hussey treated them to a little of the music that comes from Scotland (Shackleton, 22).

-Sir Ernest Shackleton, 1914

"Navigating officer Hubert Taylor Hudson with young Emperor penguin chicks, January 12th, 1915. Hudson was known as the expedition's most accomplished penguin catcher" Courtesy National Geographic.

Additionally, during various instances of immobility caused by pack ice, the crew would take to the ice to exercise the dogs and themselves, mostly playing games of football and hockey. Beginning in January, the crew began to train the sledging teams, believing their fitness could be imperative for their survival (Shackleton, 49). This training was met with great success despite the dogs’ feistiness, and when combined with the crew’s competitive nature, rivalries were born. The biggest competition, christened the “Antarctic Derby” happened on June 15th:

It was a notable event. The betting had been heavy, and every man aboard the ship stood to win or lose on the result of the contest. Some money had been staked, but the wagers that thrilled were those involving stores of chocolate and cigarettes. The course had been laid off from Khyber Pass, at the eastern end of the old lead ahead of the ship, to a point clear of the jib-boom, a distance of about 700 yds. Five teams went out in the dim noon twilight, with a zero temperature and an aurora flickering faintly to the southward (Shackleton, 66).

The Endurance left South Georgia with over 60 dogs aboard the ship, chosen for their “endurance and strength,” these dogs would be vital for the land crossing to be possible (Shackleton, 15). Almost every dog would receive a name from the crew, many becoming great companions with their human counterparts. While the cold would not affect them nearly as much as the human members of the crew, worms and disease would take a heavy toll on their numbers. While no dog would survive the expedition, Shackleton documented their names:


All the dogs except eight had been named. I do not know who had been responsible for some of the names, which seemed to represent a variety of tastes. They were as follows: Rugby, Upton, Bristol, Millhill, Songster, Sandy, Mack, Mercury, Wolf, Amundsen, Hercules, Hackenschmidt, Samson, Sammy, Skipper, Caruso, Sub, Ulysses, Spotty, Bosun, Slobbers, Sadie, Sue, Sally, Jasper, Tim, Sweep, Martin, Splitlip, Luke, Saint, Satan, Chips, Stumps, Snapper, Painful, Bob, Snowball, Jerry, Judge, Sooty, Rufus, Sidelights, Simeon, Swanker, Chirgwin, Steamer, Peter, Fluffy, Steward, Slippery, Elliott, Roy, Noel, Shakespeare, Jamie, Bummer, Smuts, Lupoid, Spider, and Sailor. Some of the names, it will be noticed, had a descriptive flavour (Shackleton, 25).

Entrapment and Pressure

Progress to Vahsel Bay was halted on the 18th of January when the Endurance stopped due to inefficient forward progress through closely packed ice flows. Overnight the water immediately surrounding the ship froze, and by the 20th the “ice was packed heavily and firmly all round the Endurance in every direction as far as the eye could reach from the masthead” (Shackleton, 41). By the 24th, Shackleton knew that conditions would have to change before the ship could be freed, and on the 27th he ordered the fires within the boilers to be put out, as the consumption of coal was too high (Shackleton, 43). The ship would remain stuck, and on the 14th of February a last attempt was made to free the ship through manpower. The crew disembarked the ship and with hand tools worked all day to clear ice from the ship’s path. Despite clearing around 200 yards of ice, the ship was still 400 yards from the nearest crack in the floe, Shackleton describes the attempt to free the ship:

The abandonment of the attack was a great disappointment to all hands. The men had worked long hours without thought of rest, and they deserved success. But the task was beyond our powers. I had not abandoned hope of getting clear, but was counting now on the possibility of having to spend a winter in the inhospitable arms of the pack (Shackleton, 46) 

The Endurance would remain trapped in the floe for many months to come, reaching its most southern latitude on the 22nd of February (77th parallel of latitude in long. 35 ° W) due to the southern drift of the ice. As the temperatures began to drop, the crew insulated the interior of the ship and built ‘dogloos’ out on the ice for their canine companions. Over the course of March through September, the crew continued hunting, exercising, and continuing the gathering of scientific specimens. Despite the increased danger caused by decreased temps (around -30° Fahr.) and a blizzard, the crew remained largely in good spirits (Shackleton, 62). 

This would only last until late July, however, when the ice flow began to show signs of immense pressure. On July 22nd, Shackleton recognized the impending fate of the floe, writing: “The ship was shaken by heavy bumps, and we were on the alert to see that no dogs had fallen into cracks. The morning light showed that our island had been reduced considerably during the night. Our long months of rest and safety seemed to be at an end, and a period of stress had begun” (Shackleton, 69). On August 1, the floe would break apart, with the dogs and supplies all being brought shipboard beforehand. Rather than freeing the Endurance, however, the fracturing of ice evidenced the immense pressure that was soon to grip the ship. Now listing 10° starboard because of the ice forced beneath the hull, the Endurance would not survive to see December (Shackleton, 70). On the 24th of October, the pressure against the ship increased, breaking the structural integrity of the hull in several places. On the 27th, the order was given to abandon ship.

“The Endurance, crushed by pack ice and sinking”

Works Cited

Alexander, Caroline. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. New York, United States: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Australian Antarctic Division. The Lucas Sounding Machine. From AAE Scientific Report Series A Vol 2 Part III. Photograph. Accessed March 12, 2024.

Barczewski, Stephanie. “The Race to the South Pole.” Age of Exploration. 2018.

The Daily Telegraph. Map-Plan of the Shackleton Expedition. March 26, 1916. Photograph. Accessed March 12, 2024.

Hurley, Frank. Extraordinary 1915 Photos from Ernest Shackleton’s Disastrous Antarctic Expedition. Photograph. December 6, 2020. Accessed March 12, 2024.

Ice Floes in the Antarctic. Photograph. Oceanwide Expeditions. Accessed March 12, 2024.

Lansing, Alfred. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. New York, United States: Carroll & Graf, 1998

Shackleton, Ernest. South: The Last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance. Crabtree: Narrative Press, the, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central.