The Royal Research Ship ‘Discovery’

24th, 2012
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Trapped in the Ice

When the Discovery was frozen in at the head of McMurdo Sound in Antarctica on the 8th of February 1902 it had been pre-planned that that should happen. The expectation was that the ship would remain frozen in until the end of the Antarctic winter and sometime during the month of September the ice conditions would return to a state where the Discovery could, once again, float free and resume her voyage of exploration.

The scientists and crew settled down to a regular routine all the time fighting against the elements as the winter took hold. Observations and experiments, recording what had been done to date, eating, sleeping and generally working together as a team. It is difficult to visualise the hardships they faced day after day. The Antarctic winter is long with more than 100 days without the sight of sunshine. Imagine a night that lasts more than 100 days! It takes a particular type of person to survive in such conditions, but survive they did. To recall all that happened during this time is not the purpose of this story but there are many, many books that provide a detailed account of the Discovery’s time stuck in the ice, among these are the works of; Scott, 1905; Armitage, 1905,and Bernacchi, 1938.

During the latter part of the winter when the ice starts to thaw, a great movement of the surface takes place. This movement causes massive pressures to be exerted upon the hull of a ship, especially one that is stuck hard. The noise within the hull would have been deafening at times as Discovery fought to remain intact, when many a lesser wooden ship had been crushed and lost forever. Indeed records show that many were and it is another feather in the cap of those who designed and built her that she lived to allow her crew to tell the tale.


The winter of 1902 was particularly severe and when the time came for Discovery to break free from the ice she remained stuck fast. Despite determined efforts by everyone on board she did not move and the prospect of spending another winter trapped became increasingly real. A relief ship, named Morning, loaded with supplies had left London on the 9th of July 1902and arrived at McMurdo Sound, via Lyttelton, on the 24th of January 1903 and made contact with Discovery. What a glad sight she must have been to Scott and his crew and how their hopes of breaking free must have surged. However, following failed frantic attempts to release Discovery the relief supplies were transferred from the Morning and that ship left McMurdo Sound on the 2nd of March 1903, leaving Discovery to her fate.One can but imagine the thoughts of Discovery’s men as they watched Morning disappear from view; devastated and depressed may well have been the reaction. No matter. Scott and his crew tried valiantly for the next ten days to free her of her ice shackles, but to no avail. They gave up on the 13th of March 1903 and prepared to spend a second winter in the clutches of Antarctica.

The following two photographs give an insight into the ships predicament:

The second winter passed as the first with sledge journeys inland for surveying and scientific research until the second relief expedition by the Morning, this time accompanied by the Terra Nova entered the Sound on the 5th of January 1904. Discovery by this time was still frozen in solid some 20 miles from open water. Over the next five weeks strenuous efforts, using every possible means available, including explosives, were made to break up the ice, which was up to seven feet thick. A decision was taken that the relief ships would depart not later than the 25th of February 1904, It looked as if Discovery would have to be abandoned and left to the her fate, so supplies and equipment were transferred from her to the relief ships ready for their departure. On the 8th of February Discovery was still six miles from open water and the relief ships; then came a monumental change. The ice began to break up allowing the relief ships to move in closer to Discovery and it was at 10:30 pm on the 14th of Februay that the Terra Nova finally broke through the last of the ice pack and freed Discovery, when a short time before all had been considered lost. On the 17th of February 1904 Discovery raised steam and set her sails and, with her companion ships, set sail, calling at Lyttelton again for repairs and stores to take her back home where she arrived at Portsmouth on the 10th of September 1904.

Next.Discovery continues her adventures but in another role.

©         Captain John J Watson OBE                     June 2011      Fethiye

Captain John:

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