Royal Research Ship ‘Discovery’

26th, 2011
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The launch of the Discovery on 21st March 1901

Preparations and Departure to Antarctica

During the building of the Discovery in Dundee a great deal of discussion within the Ship Committee took place on who should lead the expedition. Eventually Lieutenant Robert Falcon Scott (later to become Captain) was chosen, not only to lead the expedition but to captain the ship as well. It was a shrewd appointment, he was a clever man with command experience and, as it was to prove, a born explorer. Scott of the Antarctic as he would later become known, was appointed in June 1900 and set about gathering a team around him, officers, scientists and Dr. Edward Wilson, a surgeon and an accomplished artist who later became his close friend.

The National Antarctic Expedition was headquartered in Burlington House, Picadilly. London and it was from there that the Expedition was organised. Provision lists for three years, not two as had been suggested earlier, were drawn up and ordered: clothing, both tropical and polar; sledges; tents; furs; and a great amount of other equipment had to be selected and purchased. In order to keep costs down donations in kind were solicited. The coming Expeditioncame to the attention of the public and manufacturers of all sorts of items and foodstuffs clamoured to get their names on the list of benefactors.

On the 20th of May 1901 the Aims of the Expedition were issued and the principal objectives as issued to Scott were as follows:

a)      to determine, as far as possible, the nature, condition, and the extent of that portion of the South Polar lands which is included in the scope of your expedition; and

b)      to make a magnetic survey in the southern regions to the south of the 40th parallel, and to carry out meteorological, oceanographic, geological, biological and physical investigations and researches. Neither of these objectives is to be sacrificed to the other.

Reading these objectives today seems a trivial exercise but back in 1901Discovery was about to sail for uncharted waters with little or no information of what might be found there. Luckily by that year the world was no longer considered to be flat, so the only certainty that existed among those on board regarding their destination was that they were unlikely to sail over the edge and be lost forever.

The beginning of June 1901 found the ship in East India Dock in London where final preparations and loading for the epic journey were completed. At the end of July she sailed from London to spend a short time berthed at Cowes on the Isle of Wight during the highlight yachting meeting of the year, Cowes Week. The importance of the Expedition was underlined when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the Discovery on the 5th of August 1901, a moment recorded by theIllustrated London News by the following photograph:

The day after the King’s visit, 6th August 1901,Discoveryset sail extremely heavily loaded with every last ounce of stores that could be carried. The route Scott planned to follow to Antarctica took the Discovery first to Cape Town in South Africa, onwards to New Zealand before arriving in Antarctica in the Ross Sea at the beginning of the summer of 1902, in order to have a full season there after penetrating the ice pack from the North.

On her voyage South from Cowes she anchored off Funchal, Madeira, for a short spell to send mail and take on some fresh produce. Scott felt a little concerned at the slow progress she was making but in her fully loaded state her engines had stood up very well to those first 33 days at sea in the Atlantic Ocean. Discovery arrived at Cape Town on the 3rd of October 1901, replenished her coal and other necessary supplies before departing for Lyttelton in New Zealand on the 27th of October. She reached that port on the 29th of November 1901 after having endured a succession of gales and very heavy seas that tested her seaworthiness to the utmost. The stresses on her heavily laden hull as she pitched, tossed and rolled in the extreme conditions would have set up a continuous complaint by the ship’s wooden structure in the form of loud creaks and groans as the timbers were forced to fight off the forces of the wind and sea. Living conditions would have stretched human endurance, hammocks slung from the beams would have taken the sleeping occupant through an angle of more than 60 degrees at times as the ship rolled at least 30 degrees on either side of upright. Because of the way she was loaded the rolling cycle would have been quick taking her from 30 degrees on the one side to 30 degrees on the other in less than 20 seconds. Imagine the pendulum of a great clock, ticking away, day after day, night after night; that was how the Discovery behaved except, rather than being regular it would have been punctuated by violent climbing up one wave only to come crashing down its other side.

Spare a thought for the cook in these conditions, because the crew needed food to provide the body with the strength and energy to cope with the rigours of sailing in such wild and turbulent waters. Somehow food was always available at the appointed times and the heroics of the cook remained unmentioned. Those were hard times and they were hard men.

The ‘Roaring Forties’ as that line of latitude is known, constantly lives up to its name and along that line of latitude lies many a valiant sailing ship, miles down on the seabed, struck down by the wrath of the waters above.

Discovery did not come through the voyage to Lyttelton unscathed however, she leaked and she leaked badly. It was all the crew could do in the latter stages of the voyage to keep the incoming water under control. In the years afterward the condition was to become known as ‘The Dundee Leak’ and the shipwrights in Dundee were none too happy about that. Many theories have been put abroad concerning the leak, my own humble opinion is that it was caused by the great burden of stores, coal and scientific material that were near too much for her bones to carry in the sea conditions she had endured. To my mind it is a great tribute to the skill of the shipwrights in Dundee that she reached New Zealand in the first instance where her wounds could be healed before she embarked to her destination – Antarctica.

Next: Antarctica and problems.

©         Captain John J Watson OBE                                 June 2011      Fethiye

Captain John:

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