The boy from Akaroa
Blake, Coutts, Dickson—on such household names stands the formidable reputation of New Zealand’s blue water sailors. Eighty years ago, another New Zealand sailor gained international kudos as a skipper of a fateful voyage in the Southern Ocean. When disaster struck, he saved himself and his fellows in one of the most remarkable feats of seamanship the world has seen.
“The wind howled in the rigging and I couldn’t help thinking it was making just the sort of sound you would expect a human being to utter if they were in fear of being murdered.”
The words are those of Frank Worsley, written on board his ship Endurance as she was being buckled and crushed between tons of ice that stirred and creaked “like an enormous train with squeaky axles being shunted . . . & underfoot moans & groans of damned souls in torment.” For nine months the ship had been held in the grip of the pack. Finally, she could endure no more. To the sound of timbers splintering and with the freezing sea pouring through her sides the order was given to abandon ship.
Their last link with civilisation gone, 28 men were now adrift on the Weddell Sea ice pack. With no radio communication, and the rest of the world preoccupied with war, there was no hope of outside rescue. The survival of these would-be Antarctic heroes—now reduced to a hungry, dishevelled band—rested on their own shoulders, but particularly on those of the New Zealander Worsley, captain of the ship that was no more. For although this was Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition—Shackleton, whose very name is synonymous with courage and leadership—it was Worsley who held the key to freeing the party from their frozen nightmare.
In light of the respect and even fear with which present day sailors view the hostile waters of the Southern Ocean, Worsley’s skill in getting 28 men back to civilisation is all the more astonishing. Yet his role in enabling Shackleton to extract triumph from disaster has gone largely unnoticed.
Born at Akaroa on February 22, 1872, Frank Arthur Worsley was the third child of Henry and Georgiana Worsley. Henry had arrived in New Zealand from England in 1851 with his parents and several brothers and sisters, and, after his marriage, took up a run overlooking Akaroa. As well as raising cocksfoot as a seed crop, he owned a bullock team and operated a coach service.
Described by Worsley as “a beautiful little township scattered along the edge of the harbour and almost overhung by heavy bush,” the Akaroa of his childhood was a cosmopolitan community. Besides being an established Maori settlement, there were Scandinavians, Russians, Spaniards and South Americans who had been whalers and elected to settle there, Australians and Americans from the gold diggings, old salts who had served on slave ships, French and German descendants of the original settlers who had colonised the area in 1840, plus several English, Scottish and Irish immigrants and one or two Chinese market gardeners.
The harbour was the hub of the town, as roads were little more than tracks. Whales were still plentiful in the 1870s, and whaling ships frequented the harbour until the end of the century. Stores came from Lyttelton via weekly steamers, and steam launches delivered passengers and mail to the various settlements around the harbour.
Georgiana died when Frank was only two, and much of his childhood was spent in the care of the Curry family on the neighbouring run. (Currys still farm the area, including the original Worsley property.) By his own account in First Voyage in a Square-Rigged Ship, Worsley was born with an adventurous spirit. At the age of six he nearly killed himself by drinking carbolic acid. At eight, he and brother Hal, 12, thought nothing of taking a day off school to explore the rugged bush country or of building a raft from dried flax stalks to paddle the harbour. A. K. Harlock B.A.’S attempts to impart a “thorough English education” evidently made little impression on the boy.
Infinitely more attractive to the youngster than sums and alphabets was talk around campfires after days of bush clearing: tales of fox hunting and bushrangers, of school fights and London theatres and “gals,” of Virgil and Ulysses, sailing ships and tobacco, and, of course, gold. Without doubt, this talk of faraway places and fabulous riches influenced the direction Worsley’s life would take.
In 1883, Henry Worsley remarried and moved the family to Christchurch. Finding the city very restricting, Frank “consistently raised hell to vary the monotony,” resulting in almost daily corporal punishment meted out by headmaster Samuel Bullock. Despite the administration of an estimated 3000 strokes from a metre-long rattan cane to the palms of young Worsley’s hands over four years, respect, perhaps affection, sprang up between master and pupil, and Worsley went on to become dux of Fendalton School in 1887.
Bullock later claimed that Worsley had never once cried, whimpered, tried to evade punishment or told a lie. On one occasion Worsley fainted during a particularly severe beating, due to the strokes hitting a deep cut in his thumb. The headmaster was most concerned, and after reviving him under a tap asked why Frank hadn’t told him about it. “I wasn’t going to dodge a caning, sir,” Worsley replied. Abandoning the discipline, Bullock took him home for his wife to minister to with cakes and ginger wine.
There could be only one career for Worsley, although his acceptance as a “brass bounder” cadet by the New Zealand Shipping Company was delayed by six months because of his small size. His first voyage on the square-rigged Wairoa took him from Lyttelton to London.
Worsley’s career progressed steadily: service on the New Zealand government steamer Tutanekai plying the Pacific Islands, command of the schooner Countess of Ranfurly in 1901 and the government training ship Amokura in 1905, service on the Allegra Line Transatlantic Traders, a commission with the Royal Naval Reserve in Britain. On December 20, 1907, he married Theodora Blackden of Tunbridge Wells.
Perhaps as inevitable as Worsley’s decision to go to sea was his meeting and falling in with Ernest Shackleton. Worsley clearly thought it was fate that brought the two men together. “One night I dreamed that Burlington Street [London] was full of ice blocks and that I was navigating a ship along it,” he recounts. “Next morning I hurried like mad into my togs, and down Burlington Street I went . . . a sign on a doorpost caught my eye. It bore the words ‘Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition’ . . . and I turned into the building with the conviction that it had some special significance for me.”
Shackleton was there, and he hired Worsley on the spot. Worsley wrote: tt . not a superfluous word [was] spoken . . . but we knew by instinct that we were to be friends from that hour.” In fact, they were together (off and on) until Shackleton’s death.
The expedition being planned at Number 4 New Burlington Street was no less than a 2500-kilometre crossing of the Antarctic continent on foot—”the great polar journey of all time,” as Shackleton described it. From the Weddell Sea, Shackleton and five other men would sledge towards the Pole. Simultaneously, a second ship would sail for McMurdo Sound, on the opposite side of the continent, to lay a series of supply depots for the team to use to complete the journey.
Worsley was 42. At only 170 cm, he was short, but stocky; ebullient, a tough, spirited seaman with courage, ability and strength, and, although a trifle unorthodox, nevertheless used to following orders. While apparently liking the cut of his jib, Shackleton confessed in a letter to a friend that he had some misgivings about the man. “[Worsley] is not the type to hold men well together,” he wrote. “He is of a rather curious tactless nature, so I am glad I will have the whole show under my own eyes.”
The clouds of war, which had been gathering for some months, were ready to break when Endurance finally sailed from London on Saturday August 1, 1914, with Worsley in command. Three days later, as the vessel worked her way along the coast to Plymouth, England declared war on Germany.
Shackleton was in a quandary. Should he go ahead with the dream he had spent four years bringing to fruition? Or should he stay at home and fight? Similar thoughts were in the minds of the crew, many of them Royal and Merchant Navy men.
After lengthy discussions with his backers and his crew, Shackleton cabled the Admiralty, putting the fate of the expedition in the government’s hands. A single word came back in reply: “Proceed.”
Worsley duly set sail for Argentina, a voyage that would take two months. Shackleton and his second-in-command, Frank Wild, remained in England to attend to some last minute sponsorship and family matters, before meeting up with Endurance in Buenos Aires, and sailing on together to South Georgia.
At the Whaling Station at Grytviken, Endurance waited a month for conditions in the Weddell Sea—said by the whalers to be the worst in living memory—to improve. In 1914, Grytviken (colonised, like the rest of South Georgia, by Norwegian whalers) consisted of a few wooden houses and a church surrounded by whale flensing squalor: grease, whale guts and carcasses floating in a blood-red sea, and the nauseatingly pervasive stench of decomposition in the air. The crew christened it “The Scent Bottle.”
Endurance left South Georgia on December 5 to manoeuvre its way south as far as was navigable, thus reducing the mileage men and dogs would have to travel ashore. Within three days they encountered their first pack ice, nearly 1000 kilometres further north than expected.
This was Worsley’s first encounter with pack ice, and he greeted its challenges with boyish enthusiasm. His technique for dealing with the ice became known as the “Worsley thrills,” since, according to ship’s surgeon Alexander Macklin, “Worsley specialised in ramming, and I have a sneaking suspicion that he often went out of his way to find a nice piece of floe at which he could drive full speed and cut in two; he loved to feel the shock, the riding up, and the sensation as the ice gave and we drove through.”
But the ice proved too strong, and by January 18, 1915, the Endurance was stuck fast—frozen, said the storekeeper Orde-Lees, “like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar.” Various futile, exhausting attempts (including sawing and rafting away great chunks of ice) were made to free her, but to no avail. Shackleton cursed his luck, and regretted that he had not followed Worsley’s suggestion of making landfall further north. Better to have walked the extra distance than be a prisoner of the ice.
Now he had no option but to wait. For nine months the ship drifted north with the ice, occasionally reclaiming a few miles when the pack opened. Within its pressured timbers the men learned to coexist with remarkably little friction. They read, played cards and parlour games, celebrated birthdays, played practical jokes on each other and sang along to a banjo or to music played on a hand-wound gramophone. If they tired of human company, they could always find a wagging tail and a warm muzzle in the expedition’s long-suffering huskies.
Irrepressible as ever, “Wuzzles” (as Worsley was nicknamed) shocked the crew by taking a snow bath at minus 29 degrees. “Poor Crean [the second officer],” he wrote, “. . . on catching sight of me naked in the snow nearly fainted—thinking I’d ‘gone wrong in the napper.'”
Astronomy provided a diversion, and one night Worsley proudly took a longitude by Mercury. “For swank,” he noted, “. . . not many people can boast of having done so.”
While the men coped as best they could with the monotony, the ship was continually at the mercy of waves of ice pressure, alternately heaved upwards, tipped sideways, then set down again. Racked and twisted by the “ice mill,” on October 27 her seams opened up to the sea. No amount of pumping could stem the flood, and Shackleton ordered all hands on to the ice.
Even so, it took nearly another month before the ice relaxed sufficiently to let Endurance sink. Worsley, almost reduced to tears, wrote: “To an old seaman like myself, the very idea of giving up a ship is something like having an arm or leg amputated.”
For the next five months the 28 crew camped on a gigantic ice floe that progressively splintered and shrank in the warmth of the Antarctic summer.
The surface turned to mush. Men sank waist deep into it, and when they slept the warmth of their bodies melted the snow, so they would awaken in pools of water.
Initially, they hoped to cross the ice and reach terra firma, but dragging the three lifeboats from Endurance across broken and hummocked ice proved impossible. They daren’t leave the boats, because they knew the ice would eventually break up beneath them. Until that happened, the men were forced to go where their frozen raft drifted.
For entertainment, there were three packs of cards and a handful of books, including a couple of volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Various antidotes to boredom were devised, including concerts, discussions, a mock trial and dog Derbies, upon which bets were made in the currency of the moment: cigarettes and chocolate.
Occasional quarrels surfaced over minor irritations such as snoring, the discomforts of constipation or piles, and fear of scurvy—the dread disease that had killed members of previous polar expeditions. However, by eating large quantities of seal and penguin, including the offal, the men had unwittingly found a rich source of Vitamin C, which ultimately saved them from the debilitating physical effects of scurvy, and made a significant contribution to maintaining their morale.
Adventurers like Shackleton and Worsley passed the time by planning South Pacific sailing ventures and wild “get rich” schemes. Despite the privations, Worsley was able to write in his journal, “at present I am enjoying myself far more than I would in civilisation.”
But, inevitably, frustrations began to show through. In a subsequent entry, Worsley writes: “Delirium induced by gazing too long at this damned infernal pack . . . no animal life, no land, no nothing.” He, like the others, longed to be “up & doing something, however little, to aid our escape from this white interminable prison where the minds energies & abilities of all are atrophying & where we are rusting & wasting our lives away, while the whole world is at War & we know nothing of how it goes.”
As the ice floe began to disintegrate in the increasingly detectable ocean swell, there was action and danger in abundance. The three lifeboats—the Dudley Docker, Stancomb Wills and James Caird (all named after the expedition’s backers)—could not be launched until the group was in fairly open water, or the ice floes would crush them. Yet how long could the floe on which they were camped be expected to last? Everything and everyone had to be ready at a moment’s notice, either to launch the boats or to jump for safety should a crack split the floe.
One night the ice did split, tearing a tent in half and pitching one of its occupants into the sea. Shackleton rushed to the spot, plunged his arm into the freezing water and hefted sleeping bag and man back on to the ice, moments before the two halves of the floe swung together with what Worsley called “a thousand-ton blow.”
From the precarious moment they put to sea, at the mercy of whales, current, wind, ice and hunger, Worsley assumed a new stature, transformed from the erratic, impulsive man described by a crew mate as “a rather excitable, hare-brained, half grown up kind of customer, quite incapable of responsible action.” He handled the boat superbly, and could navigate with speed and accuracy under the most trying conditions, taking sextant readings in the midst of a howling gale, and determining direction using a smashed compass.
For seven days of crises and dangers the party jostled through the ice, making for the wild open seas and roping the boats together at night to prevent separation. Despite their desperate rowing, strong winds drove them further and further from a preferred landfall at the South Shetland Islands. It became obvious that pinpointing Elephant Island was their only hope of deliverance.
Worsley captained the Dudley Docker, which rocked violently, debilitating the crew with seasickness. Insufficient fresh ice for drinking caused further miseries of thirst and diarrhoea as the men rowed and baled ceaselessly to the point of exhaustion. Displaying superb seamanship to keep the craft from swamping, Worsley remained at his post, his limbs so cramped he could barely unbend them to lie down. “I asked them to straighten me out and rub my thighs . . . While they did this—straightening me out like opening a jackknife—I fell fast asleep in their hands.”
Sixteen months after the ice had first ensnared Endurance, the company scrambled ashore on Elephant Island. Frostbitten and half delirious with exhaustion, they were nevertheless on land. “Solid, unsinkable, immovable, blessed land.”
Yet “a more inhospitable place could scarce be imagined” wrote Macklin. Worsley’s journal reads: “It is impossible to describe accurately the violence of the atmosphere of Elephant Island, the screech of the wind and the driving storms, the cannon-like reports of glaciers ‘calving’ . . . the sense of being pounded and struck at ceaselessly by forces which one could not grapple with.”
The only possible campsite was a spit of land sandwiched between the roaring sea and ice-covered cliffs. It was extremely exposed to a wind that shredded tents and on one occasion almost blew a man out to sea. A penguin rookery had previously occupied the site and the smell was strong, and “not likely to grow less pronounced when the warmth of our bodies thawed the surface,” as Shackleton wryly noted. Food was far from plentiful, and supplies brought from the Endurance sufficient for only three months on half rations. Some men were not in good shape, and the surgeons had to amputate one man’s frostbitten toes.
Elephant Island was just a desolate outcrop of rock in the Antarctic. Nobody knew of their presence, and self rescue offered the only faint chance of escape.
Shackleton and Worsley had for some time realised they might have to undertake on open boat trip to “civilisation,” one in which a small party would summon help for the rest. With the prevailing winds from the west, the only possible direction to head was east, towards South Georgia. Yet it, too, was only an isolated speck 1300 kilometres of tumultuous and unforgiving ocean away. If they missed it, or became swamped, all would perish, and rescue would never come to Elephant Island.
Who should embark on this new peril? Worsley was an essential choice to navigate; no other member of the crew was remotely comparable in ability. Shackleton (the “Boss”) would lead this most hazardous of forays, and he chose Crean, McNeish (the carpenter), McCarthy and Vincent, leaving Wild in charge of the men left behind.
Theyames Caird, least damaged of the three lifeboats, was patched and made as seaworthy as possible, using an assortment of bits from the other two. She was caulked with lampwick, seal’s blood and Marston’s artist’s oil paints. With tent canvas and timber, McNeish partly decked the whaleboat to reduce the risk of being swamped and to offer the men some protection from the icy seas.
Equipped with oars, sextant, compass, two Primus stoves and fuel, six sleeping bags, ballast stones, 36 gallons of fresh water (and a couple of hundred pounds of ice to supplement that), plus whatever stores they could muster, the James Caird put into the stormy Southern Ocean on April 24, 1916.
The responsibility for the lives of 22 men left behind living off seals and penguins (and, when those food sources ran out, limpets and seaweed), and sleeping under a pair of upturned boats, weighed heavily upon Shackleton. No test of navigation and seamanship could have been more stringent. Any inaccuracy would mean death for all.
Iron in the pump affected the compass, and the James Caird was subject to violent pitching and jerking, making it almost impossible to get accurate fixes for navigation. Worsley needed someone to physically hold him steady as he took a rapid sight from the wave crest, while the chronometer was read in the wave trough. The chronometer is normally crucial to accuracy, but because the longitude of the “Cape Wild” camp they had left at Elephant Island was unknown, Worsley had to rely on estimate. In judging the chronometer to be one minute slower than the actual reading to compensate, he simply had to pray his instincts were right.
The weather was generally atrocious and the sun rarely visible. It is impossible to imagine the discomforts of that epic journey. Freezing seawater dribbled through the canvas decking most of the time, and about 15 waves an hour sloshed into the boat. Pumping and bailing were incessant tasks.
When the temperature fell, ice built up on the decks and had to be chipped off with a pocket knife to prevent the boat from foundering under its weight. This meant lying on the iced-over canvas foredeck, a task that was both chilling and dangerous as the boat heaved. Three or four minutes was all anyone could stand.
Constant soaking caused the men’s feet and legs to swell, turn white, and lose all surface feeling. Chafing from wet clothes, which had not been changed for seven months, rubbed the insides of their thighs raw—pain that was exacerbated by the bite of the salt water. Below the canvas deck, they crawled around (and tried to sleep) on the boat’s ballast boulders in cramped, wet conditions.
There was insufficient room to sit upright. Worsley noted, “So bowed were we that we all experienced difficulty taking our food, since our stomachs were compressed, and although we leaned first to one side then to the other as we ate, we got little ease.” Hot “hoosh” was their daily fare: a mixture of beef and vegetable protein, lard oatmeal, sugar and salt, boiled in water to yield a thick soup (see side bar).
After a few days of constant wetness at sea, the reindeer skin boots and sleeping bags began to shed all their hair. Hairs were everywhere, notes Alfred Lansing in his account of the journey: “on the sides of the boat, the seats, the ballast, they clung in wet clumps to hands and faces, the men breathed them as they slept and woke up choking on them, they clogged the pump and clusters of them were turning up more and more frequently in the food.”
Through all this, Worsley remained intent on his task. Ideally, two daily sights were needed to fix their position: morning for longitude, and noon for latitude. But with the boat “jumping like a flea,” the sun barely glowing behind the clouds, and his navigation tables a sodden, almost unreadable mass, Worsley managed a total of only four navigational fixes in 14 days. In the absence of all other navigational information, he employed true seamanship, steering by the wind, sea and stars. But his anxiety was clearly indicated in two diary entries: “I looked after dawn in vain for the sun and felt anxious.” “Intense worry, no land seen, although birds indicate there is land somewhere.”
After 15 days, South Georgia was sighted, but making landfall on the island proved as perilous as the journey. Huge seas and “a gale of the most extraordinary violence” threatened to smash them against the towering cliffs. It took them two further days of dodging the reefs before Worsley grounded them in a cove in King Haakon Bay.
“It was a splendid moment,” was Shackleton’s understated comment.
They were ashore, but on the opposite side of the island from any human aid. With the James Caird unlikely to endure another battering from the sea, Shackleton decided to hike the last 20 miles of their journey across the unexplored glaciers and mountains of South Georgia. Shackleton needed Worsley to navigate once more, while, of the rest, only Crean had sufficient reserves of strength to endure further travel.
At 3 A.AI. on May 16, under a clear, full moon, the trio set out. Through mists, icefields, crevasses, in worn boots with carpenter’s screws for crampons, fighting the cumulative effects of fatigue and exposure yet again, they climbed, trudged and slipped, frequently retracing their steps as they mistook their way or encountered impassable obstacles.
With old rope of questionable strength tying them together, they traversed slopes sinking up to their knees in snow with each step. As night approached, a sea fog rolled in, making navigation impossible and threatening to freeze the men to death. They had to get to lower altitude quickly, but how? Shackleton decided the only option was to slide, using their coil of rope as a toboggan. Thus, unable to see where they were going, the three men held on to each other and pushed off the mountain ridge. Worsley: “We seemed to shoot into space. For a moment my hair fairly stood on end. Then quite suddenly . . . I was grinning! I was actually enjoying it . . . I yelled with excitement . . .” Two years of privations apparently could not quench the indomitable spirit of adventure.
On May 20, 1916, they heard the factory steam whistle at Stromness Bay. “Never did music sound so sweet to our ears,” remarked Shackleton. The three companions shook each other by the hand. Worsley, exuberant as ever, yelled, “Yoicks! Tally-ho!”
Thus did the “terrible-looking trio of scarecrows” stumble back to civilisation. “Without sleep, and halting only for meals, we had crossed South Georgia in 36 hours,” wrote Worsley. That evening, Worsley put to sea again on the whaler Samson to rescue the three men left further around the coast.
Bringing back the James Caird for posterity, the Norwegian seamen of Stromness Bay paid Worsley and Shackleton the highest compliment, saying never had they heard of a greater feat of seamanship as bringing that 22-foot open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and then to crown it by tramping across ice and snow and the rocky heights of the interior. It was an honour to meet them all and shake their hands, they said: “These are men.”
Shackleton was desperate to reach the crew he had left behind at Elephant Island. Three attempts were made, from ports in South America, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, but all were forced to turn back after encountering dense pack ice. The war situation meant there were few ships available, and Shackleton had little support from the Admiralty, who now deemed polar exploration to be unpatriotic. Churchill was ill-disposed to offer assistance, having said in response to a proposed relief expedition for the Ross Sea Party that not until “all the sick and wounded [of the war] have been tended … would I concern myself with those penguins.”
On August 25 Shackleton, Worsley and Crean, aboard the steamer Yelcho, left Punta Arenas on their fourth rescue attempt. Five days later they reached Elephant Island, where the men they had left 131 days before still waited with fading hope.
Miraculously, not a single life had been lost, and the members of the 1914 Transantarctic Expedition returned to a heroes’ welcome in Punta Arenas, to the end of their privations and to a world destroying itself with poison gas and submarines.
On his return to Britain, Worsley took command of a P.Q. 61 “mystery” ship to combat German submarines—either by ramming, to which he undoubtedly brought the “Worsley thrill” technique, or by depth charge, then very new. His success brought him the Distinguished Service Order, financial reward from the Admiralty and the nickname “Depth Charge Bill.”
Unfortunately, he rather overestimated the monetary worth of the bounty due to him, and celebrated his “sub tally” lavishly, in London. When reimbursement amounted to the meagre sum of sixty-eight pounds, leaving him considerably out of pocket, he concluded ruefully that “bagging submarines was an expensive amusement!”
Later in the war, on loan to the War Office, Worsley was appointed to coordinate supplies, transport and equipment for British troops at Archangel in Northern Russia. While there, Worsley received the DSO and Bar for raids with General Grogan and a “few exciting adventures up the Dvina River.”
After the war, Worsley invested in a schooner to trade in the Baltic, but when opportunities there collapsed, he carried cargo between Britain and Iceland. Worsley seems to have been a hopeless businessman, displaying equal measures of unbridled optimism and complete disorganisation. The tiny motorless Annie was ill-equipped to survive the ferocious winter storms of the area. One trip Worsley hoped to accomplish in 32 hours took 32 days, and starvation was avoided only by eating some of the cargo. Fearing his crew would mutiny, Worsley slept with a revolver under his pillow.
In 1921, heeding the call of the frozen south and his old leader once more, he accepted command of the 111-foot Quest on another Shackleton expedition to circumnavigate the Antarctic. Apparently equally eager to taste adventure once more, other old friends joined them—Macklin, Mcllroy, Wild, Hussey, Kerr and Green.
They reached the familiar peaks of South Georgia on January 4, 1922, recognising landmarks “like a pair of excitable kids.” But Worsley and the other loyal “argonauts” were destined never to actually set foot on the Antarctic continent, for Shackleton died the next day of a heart attack. The men who had gone to the frozen ends of the earth, and together “reached the naked soul of man,” would follow him no more.
Somewhat dispiritedly, the expedition proceeded under the command of Wild, and completed the intended zoological and geological surveys, as well as magnetic compass variations, soundings and topography, before returning to Britain, leaving Shackleton’s circumnavigation of Antarctica unfulfilled, and leaving Shackleton buried in Grytviken.
But the extraordinary spirit of adventure in Frank Worsley was not yet spent, for in 1925, at age 53, he captained the Lady of Avenel for the British Arctic Expedition, which aimed to map the various islands north of Spitsbergen, conduct research in geology and marine biology, take soundings and correct magnetic variations in the Arctic Circle. A cosmopolitan crew of seamen and scientists was assembled for the task, including fellow New Zealander Gordon Burt, engineer, with whom Worsley hoisted the New Zealand flag as far north as it had ever flown.
Skilful, exacting seamanship was no less required on this voyage, around uncharted coasts and ice hazards, including towering bergs which “calved” unpredictably, missing the ship by inches. Maturity and experience enabled Worsley to blend his crew of seamen and “amateurs” into a cohesive working party, to establish an easy relationship with them, yet maintain a disciplined ship, in a way he had seemed unable to do on Endurance.
Time had not, however, dimmed his puckish sense of humour. He could still tell a good sailor’s yarn, sing a risky song or two or display mock outrage when the landlubbers in the crew made errors in their use of seamanship terms, while his sense of the ridiculous enjoyed “chasing jelly fish with a hundred ton brigantine, as exciting a sport as one could wish for.”
When the ship became disabled by a broken propeller, another generation of crew mates appreciated his uncanny skill at the helm as he threaded them through a maze of pack ice under sail, barely containing his “secret joy” at the demise of the steam power he held in such contempt. Algarsson, the expedition leader, remarked: “The Skipper . . . is really out of place this century; he would be in his element in a frigate duel of the old days, or sailing some high pooped galleon with Morgan or Dampier.”
Ten years after the expedition, accompanied by his wife, Worsley was treasure hunting in the Cocos Islands, making use of the newly patented metal detector. There are no reports that he found the pirates’ gold he dreamed of, or fulfilled his other fantasy of gathering pearls from tropical lagoons, but he continued to indulge his love of sail through the ensuing years by delivering private yachts all over the world to their owners.
Aged 67 at the outbreak of World War H, he saw active service as an army major in Norway before rejoining the navy, commanding a wreck removal ship, then being appointed an instructor at Greenwich Royal Naval College.
Full naval honours were conferred on him after his death on February 16, 1943, his ashes being scattered to the winds and seas he knew so well. He was survived by his wife, who had endured so many years of his absences, but there were no children to inherit his passion for the sea or his skill as a seaman.
Tangible reminders of the man are his three books, the white ensign from the P.Q. 61 (held in Akaroa Museum), Worsley’s Spur overlooking Akaroa, Mount Worsley in South Georgia and Worsley Harbour north of Spitsbergen.
The boy from Akaroa had roamed the world, challenged the wildest places on earth and seen more action and daring than most of us can dream of. Perhaps when New Zealand yachtsmen sail the Southern Ocean Worsley’s spirit sails beside. Although he might not have approved of their technology, he would have applauded their seamanship and quest for adventure.