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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
Ice anchors were at last put out at great peril amid the heaving, tossing ice which towered above the ship. At one point a boat carrying an anchor to be set into a floe was passing between two masses of ice when they began to move ponderously together; the boat’s crew watched in horrified fascination as the sides of their craft actually bent inward from the pressure. But before anything cracked, the ice moved apart again and the boat went on through the narrow passage.
The shattered rudder was brought aboard, and the carpenter got out of a sick bed to take charge of repairs, although it appeared unlikely a rudder would ever be needed again. For the gale heightened, the grinding of the ice increased, and the ice anchors and spars put out as fenders were torn loose. While the Peacock wallowed in this unhappy condition, another strong surge caught her and set her aback into a towering floe with a force that made all aboard fear she would be stove in and sink. At Sydney, Lieutenant Hudson had reported the rottenness of the stanchions that supported railings, boat davits, and other structures. Now, as the ship struck with a shudder, all these weak parts crumbled away. Sections of the upper-deck bulwarks collapsed, carrying away railings, a boom, and davits, and dropping the stern boat onto the ice, where it was crushed ta bits.
But the shock was the beginning of their salvation. The rebound pushed the Peacock into a small area of open water just as a mass of ice large enough to have sunk her dropped into the spot where she had been. The open space provided a bit of room for maneuvering—not much, and especially not for a rudderless ship—but Hudson seized the small opportunity, hoisted sail, and for hours the Peacock half threaded, half buffeted her way through the floes while pieces of her upper structure continued ta be torn off. After some twenty hours of being beaten about by wind and ice she reached open water. The carpenter had repaired the rudder enough to make some of the officers believe it was strong enough for further exploration, but Hudson felt their luck had already been pushed beyond its limit and turned north toward Sydney.
The Vincennes and the Porpoise continued on, in weather sometimes bright and sunny, sometimes howling with sleet, snow, and bitter cold. The Porpoise , on January 30, was astonished to sight two strange vessels in this, one of the loneliest parts of the earth. Her captain, Lieutenant Ringgold, assumed they must be the ships of Captain James Clark Ross. He altered course toward them “to cheer the discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole,” whereupon the vessels ran up the French colors and put on more sail without “exchanging the usual and customary compliments incidental to naval life.” Ringgold, convinced he had been deliberately insulted, struck his own colors and drew away.
The ships were, in fact, those of Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville, a French gentleman of many capabilities and achievements, including the discovery of the Venus de MiIo. He had made notable explorations in several parts of the world, and with his two ships was now leading France’s first venture into the Antarctic. Captain d’Urville had sighted land on January 19, the same day Wilkes had seen and named Cape Hudson, and had found a rocky islet where a landing party went ashore to hoist the tricolor and claim the entire coast for France. D’Urville named the land Adélie Coast, the name it still bears, in honor of his wife.
Wilkes completely supported Lieutenant Ringgold when he learned of the incident. “[It] cannot but excite surprise,” said he, “that such a cold repulse should have come from a French commander, when the officers of that nation are usually so distinguished for their politeness and attention.” But, like most stories, this one has two versions, and d’Urville’s was completely different: he had sighted a ship, identified as an American man-of-war, approaching rapidly through the fog, and fearing that it would pass by without making contact, the French vessels at once made more sail to keep up. Whereupon, to their astonishment, the American struck its colors and changed course to avoid them. The affair was plainly a misunderstanding that would not have occurred if the two officers had not been too stiff-necked to signal or give a hail.
While this small international incident was taking place, the Vincennes was having her troubles. On January 28, lulled by fine weather and an ocean so smooth that, as Wilkes put it, “a yawl could have passed over in safety,” he had taken his ship many miles into an archipelago of monster icebergs, each one a mile to three miles long. Then the wind freshened, the weather turned bad, and when he tried to return to the safety of the open sea, he lost his bearings. By 9 P.M. the blown spray was turning to ice, and he was completely confused.