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One of his ships was rotten, his cold-weather gear was totally inadequate, and his officers resented him. But Lieutenant Wilkes had his orders—and off into the unknown Antarctic he sailed
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
As the work of preparing the ships proceeded, the people of Sydney were an interested audience. Britain’s James Clark Ross, discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole, was expected soon in Australia on his way to have a go at the Antarctic and the South Magnetic Pole, and advance accounts had told how marvelously equipped his expedition was. The Australians looked for comparable equipment on board the American squadron.
“They inquired whether we had compartments in our ship to prevent us from sinking?” Wilkes wrote in the published Narrative . “How we intended to keep ourselves warm? What kind of antiscorbutic we were to use? and where were our great ice saws? To all of these questions I was obliged to answer, to their great apparent surprise, that we had none, and to agree with them that we were unwise to attempt such service in ordinary cruising vessels; but we had been ordered to go, and that was enough! and go we should. … [although,] as a gentleman told me, most of our visitors considered us doomed to be frozen to death.”
The four ships left Sydney the day after Christmas, 1839. Work was still going on to prepare them for their season in the cold seas. Hatches were fitted with doors made self-closing by weights, so they could not be carelessly left open. Cracks were caulked; seams were covered with tarred canvas over which strips of sheet lead were nailed. Wilkes planned to keep living spaces no higher than 50° F. “in order to prevent the injurious effects which might be produced by passing suddenly from below to the deck. I conceived it far more important to keep the air dry than warm, particularly as a lower temperature would have the effect of inducing the men to take exercise for the purpose of exciting their animal heat.” Only Wilkes would have thought of arm-swinging as a substitute for fuel in the stoves.
The squadron, following its orders, was heading into a segment of the Antarctic almost across from the area of the previous year’s brief operations. It met its first iceberg, an isolated one a mile long and 180 feet high, at 61°, but soon there were many, the characteristic tabular or flat-topped bergs of the Antarctic, huge and looming high above the tiny ships that moved along their enormous flanks.
On January 11 the edge of the ice pack was sighted, the everlasting belt of floating ice that, except on rare occasions, guards the southern continent from near approach. The Flying Fish was not with the other ships now; she had lost contact in the fog at the beginning of the month. Lieutenant Wilkes had realized that ice and weather would cause such separations and had instructed his captains to attempt to rejoin as soon as possible in such cases, but the days passed and the continued absence of the Flying Fish caused growing apprehension.
A first hazy and indeterminate sighting of land was made on January 15, but the next day there was no uncertainty. Lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold, captain of the Porpoise , described “an object, large, dark and rounding, resembling a mountain in the distance. … I watched for an hour to see if the sun in his decline would change the color of the object; it remained the same.” On the Peacock , two officers climbed to the main-topmast with a long-glass, and sent word to Wilkes that they clearly saw mountains stretching to the southwest: “Two peaks, in particular, were very distinct … rising in a conical form.” With the sighting confirmed by the other two ships, Wilkes marked land on his chart and wrote in his log, “From this day we date the discovery that is claimed for the squadron.” The peak first sighted was named Ringgold’s Knoll; others were sighted and named.
Three days later, the next definite landfall was made. Wilkes named it Cape Hudson, the name it still bears, and wrote in his log, “Antarctic land discovered beyond cavil.” If it seems odd that there should be doubt and debate over whether a mountainous coast actually was land, it must be remembered that the observing mariners were usually kept some miles at sea by ice, and that the rock faces of mountains were usually clothed in ice and snow and blended into the glare of white foreground and white sky beyond.
The squadron continued to sail west, sighting land from time to time. The Flying Fish was still missing, and most of the men assumed she had probably met the same fate as the Sea Gull . The other three ships sometimes cruised together but more often separately; it was nearly impossible to maintain contact as each picked its way through changing channels among ice floes and bergs.
On January 23 the Peacock , while engaged in such delicate navigation, was thrown back against the floes, badly damaging her rudder. The shifting ice closed in on her, and while she lay thus imprisoned, a vicious polar gale arose. Lieutenant Hudson tried to secure the ship as much as possible by putting out ice anchors, but before the lines could be made taut a sudden surge tore them out of the men’s hands and the ship crashed into the ice again, further damaging the rudder and almost knocking it off.