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The voyage of the Quest

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Geography on Monday, 23 April 2007

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Shackleton's Quest

The advertisement was one which few boys could resist: “Wanted. A Boy Scout to join the crew of an Antarctic expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.” There were so many replies that Sir Ernest decided to pick two boys. On 17 September 1921, to the cheering of a huge crowd which had gathered along the Thames, Shackleton’s ship, the Quest, sailed from London.

When the voyage began, Shackleton was his usual cheery self. But from the outset, a series of mishaps combined to add to the burden of responsibility he carried. On the first leg of her journey to Rio de Janeiro, the Quest had serious engine trouble and extensive repairs had to be undertaken when she reached port. Then, on the night before sailing from Rio, came the first warning sign that all was not well with the expedition’s leader. While he was dining ashore, he complained of feeling faint. The ship’s doctor was concerned, for he knew that Shackleton had been taxing his strength, but the incident was soon forgotten.

On 18 December, the Quest left Rio for South Georgia, and was soon encountering heavy seas. By Christmas Day, the gale had reached such intensity that there could be no thought of Christmas dinner, for even the crockery was being thrown about. As the gales continued to lash the Quest, there were further mishaps. An investigation of the forward water tank revealed that it was empty. It meant that water would have to be severely rationed for the rest of the voyage to South Georgia. Then a leak was reported in the furnace. Would the furnace hold? Its failure to do so could he disastrous. As the Quest plunged on, Shackleton was beset by one worry after another. He was not the sort of man to betray his darkest thoughts, but at night he was finding it increasingly difficult to sleep.

Meanwhile, one of the Boy Scouts who had volunteered was having a bad time of it. In his diary he records: “Indeed, I was feeling more dead than alive … what with the rolling of the ship and the unsteady nature of my limbs — I was sea-sick and I was much afraid I should fall into the fire or down the bilges . . .” Now the storm became so fierce that the Quest was compelled to heave-to. Oil-bags were dropped from the bows and the heavy liquid, pouring on to the sea, helped to damp down the biggest of the waves.

Shackleton was spending a great deal of his time on the bridge, despite repeated requests from his shipmates that he should go below and rest. The gale eventually abated, and as the furnace appeared to be holding, the Quest got under way again. In January, they sighted their first iceberg of the voyage. It floated majestically; a glistening giant, with the sun drawing blue sparks from its crystalline edges. Two days later, the snow-clad rocky slopes of South Georgia appeared on the horizon, and that night, the Quest‘s crew were able to eat their first meal for days in comfort. Shackleton then promised: “Tomorrow, boys, we’ll celebrate Christmas!” Sadly, it was a promise that he was not able to keep. Early the next morning, the ship’s doctor heard Shackleton say; “I can’t sleep tonight. Can you get me a sleeping draught?” Minutes later, Sir Ernest was dead of a heart attack. He was buried in the little church that lay below the snow-covered mountains of South Georgia. Despite his death, the Quest continued her voyage of exploration. It was what Shackleton, one of the world’s greatest explorers, would have wanted.

Our picture shows how an albatross kept the Quest company, diving and soaring around her.

2 comments on “The voyage of the Quest”

  1. 1. yucatec says:

    One of the things I always enjoyed about Look and Learn was that they often looked at events from a different angle. This is a great example. Wiki might tell you all about Shackleton’s voyages but quotes from the Boy Scouts really bring the whole experience to life.

  2. 2. BarryC says:

    I read Look and Learn in the mid-1970s when it joined up with Speed & Power. Thought the science fiction comic strip was great but was surprised to find that I was reading a lot of the articles, things like history which hadn’t interested me at school. Subscribed as soon as I heard about it so my own kids can enjoy it.

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