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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
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.
It was midsummer, the equivalent of the end of July in the northern hemisphere, but here the storm brought temperatures that coated deck, yards, and rigging with so much ice that the ship became almost unmanageable. Shortly after midnight Wilkes called out all hands; one man, coming up from below, slipped on the ice-sheeted deck and broke several ribs. Although the vessel was not carrying much more than a few handkerchiefs of canvas—trysails and reefed topsails- she still drove rapidly through the water, sweeping by mammoth icebergs almost as soon as they became visible in the gloom. Fortunately, at that season and in that high latitude, night was only a dipping of the sun below the horizon, a twilight of three or four hours.
“The gale at this moment was awful,” Wilkes wrote. “We found we were passing large masses of drift ice, and ice-islands became more numerous. At a little after one o’clock it was terrific, and the sea was now so heavy that I was obliged to reduce sails still further.”
One seaman was trapped on a yardarm when a sail blew over the yard and blocked his return. By the time his plight was noticed and an officer and several men had gone aloft and hauled him to safety with a line, he was stiff and almost dead from exposure. Other men, exhausted from cold, fatigue, and “excitement,” were sent below.
“We were swiftly dashing on, for I felt it necessary to keep the ship under rapid way through the water, to enable her to steer and work quickly. Suddenly many voices cried out, ‘Ice ahead!’ then, ‘On the weather bow!’ and again, ‘On the lee bow and abeam!’ All hope of escape seemed in a moment to vanish; return we could not, as large ice-islands had just been passed to leeward; so we dashed on, expecting every moment the crash.”
It was a situation straight out of melodrama: the ship rushing toward seemingly certain destruction and so hemmed in by icebergs it could not turn aside to avoid collision. The towering ice walls cut off the wind so that the wild gale was only a distant roar although the sea was still wildly agitated. “Both officers and men were in the highest degree excited,” wrote Wilkes in nice understatement.
“The ship continued on her way, and as we proceeded, a glimmering of hope arose, for we accidentally had hit upon a clear passage between two large ice-islands, which in fine weather we should not dare to have ventured through. The suspense endured while making our way between them was intense, but of short duration; and my spirits rose as I heard the whistling of the gale grow louder and louder before us, as we emerged from the passage. We had escaped an awful death, and were again tempest-tost.”
For some thirty-six hours the storm poured its fury on the ship, and then the Vincennes rode once more on a sparkling sea. It was January 30; the long run in the storm had brought the ship near the coast, and it sailed into a large indentation which Wilkes named Piner’s Bay, for the alert signalman who first sighted it. Here for the first time they saw naked coastline, wavewashed volcanic rocks, and Wilkes was able to bring the ship to within half a mile of them. Mountains three thousand feet high, extending east and west sixty miles or more to the limit of sight, rimmed the bay.
The expedition had sailed over four hundred miles from its first landfall, sighting land frequently, and Lieutenant Wilkes was convinced that what they were seeing was more than a succession of islands. By now the last skeptics aboard agreed with him, and in Piner’s Bay he put his conviction into words in his log entry: “I make this bay in longitude 140° 30′ E., latitude 66° 45′ S., and now that all were convinced of its existence, I gave the land the name of the Antarctic Continent.”