HMS Erebus on its fateful last journey

Book interview: Michael Palin's 'HMS Erebus - The Story of a Ship'

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Modest in size, but big in ambition, HMS Erebus was the most technologically advanced and tragic naval ship of British 19th-century polar exploration. Who better to tell its tale than celebrity adventurer Michael Palin?

When in 2014 the news broke that HMS Erebus had been found at the bottom of the sea in the Canadian Arctic, Michael Palin’s first thoughts were: “I knew that there was a story to be told. Not just of life and death, but life and death and a sort of resurrection.” The result is his ripping yarn of the sea, a biography of a ship that was to play an important, if ultimately tragic, role in the exploration of both the southern and northern Polar Regions in the 19th century. A ship that roamed the most perilous corners of the globe, was lost and then found.

‘Erebus: The Story of a Ship’ does exactly what it says on the label, and while many of the stories related to what is, after all, something of a celebrity ship in exploration circles, will be familiar to those in the know, Palin’s book is nonetheless a gripping read from a writer with a real passion for geographical discovery.

This passion will come as no surprise to fans of Palin’s many television travel and adventure documentaries that have been a fixture for decades. But what might not be quite so well known is that he recently served a stint in the prestigious role of President of the Royal Geographical Society.

Those thinking that Palin’s contribution to the literature of exploration is something of a retirement project from a former comic actor with time on his hands should think again. This is because ‘Erebus: The Story of a Ship’ is from a credentialed expert, as caringly wrought and expertly made as the ship the author describes.

Victorian Britain celebrated scientific discovery proudly, so while Erebus may have been designed and build specifically as a warship, she was refitted following the close of the Napoleonic Wars in the early part of the 19th century to make her one of the best scientifically equipped ships the Navy had ever built. Says Palin: “It was a perfect time to explore the world and it was a great time to do our best work.”

As a repurposed survey ship, Erebus’s first forays of note were into the Antarctic during the highly successful Ross Expedition (led by James Clark Ross) that was to ascertain (if not quite reach) the location of the South Magnetic Pole, while making geological recordings (including the active volcano Erebus, named in honour of the ship), botanical discoveries and coordinated magnetic observations. By the time the Ross expedition was over, Erebus had taken her crew further south than any humans had ever been before, not once, but several times. The whole project was a triumph.

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‘Erebus: The Story of a Ship’

For a century-and-a-half the exact location of the presumed wreck of HMS Erebus had been one of the great riddles of both Arctic exploration and the maritime world. The mystery came to an end in September 2014 when a team of archaeologists and wreck-hunters found the remains of the scientific research and exploration vessel at the seabed in the Canadian Arctic. ‘Erebus: The Story of a Ship’ is Michael Palin’s biography of the ‘bomb’ vessel that was to inspire stories of catastrophe, heroism, cannibalism and discovery. From its origins in a shipyard in South Wales to its final expedition in search of the North-West Passage, Palin vividly recounts the experiences of the crew who first stepped ashore on Antarctica’s Victoria Land, and who froze to death in the Arctic. An accessible and highly readable retelling of a tale of the sea that will be a familiar yarn to exploration aficionados, but a revelation to those who aren’t.

While the Ross expedition was, according to Palin, “an extraordinary piece of work,” Erebus’s next, and last, expedition to the North-West Passage – now known simply as the Franklin Expedition – was a different matter entirely. “They flew a little too close to the sun, and that was the worst disaster in British naval history.” With both Erebus and her companion ship Terror lost in what is now the Canadian Arctic, Britain’s quest to establish a global trading route through the North-West Passage, foundered with the loss of all 129 hands. Palin says that his book is an attempt to find out what really happened to the expedition’s flagship Erebus in particular: “What was she like? What did she achieve? How did she survive so much, only to disappear so mysteriously?”

Both the Antarctic and North-West Passage expeditions “took enormous risks to challenge the perception of what was possible at the time.” He says that one of his motivations for writing the book was to get inside the mindset of explorers who were literally sailing into the unknown. “You can’t do that now, because nowhere’s unknown. You always know where you are because you’ve got GPS. But back then you really did just sail off to the end of the Earth,” and once you’d left behind your supply ships, pilots and tugs at the furthest point possible from home, there was no way of communicating with your operational base.”

Palin says that writing this book was very different from his much-admired television travel documentaries in that “usually, ideas come through my agent and we work out what’s to be done, and we get a crew together. But this was the first time I’d done a project without a crew. I liked the idea of just going to the library when I wanted to. Or the Falklands.” Or Tasmania, the Orkneys or the Canadian Arctic.

While Erebus was fitted out with only one small auxiliary engine (borrowed from a steam locomotive) to supplement her sail power, these days nuclear icebreakers routinely crash their way to the North Pole with as much as 75,000bhp under the bonnet. And while Erebus had none of today’s navigational or communications electronics, she was still able to achieve extraordinary feats of seamanship in extreme cold, with sailors in the rigging furling and unfurling sails in minus-10 conditions and below. But for all of the expertise of crew and captain, combined with the supremacy of the British navy, tragedy was to befall Erebus and Terror as they forged their route through the maze of channels in the frozen reaches of North America.

This is where the story becomes well known, although still subject to much conjecture. Beset in the winter ice and unable to make way either forwards or backwards, the crews abandoned ship, looked for escape routes over land and eventually died either of exposure, starvation, scurvy or possibly even lead poisoning associated either with the sub-standard canning process of their tinned food, or excess lead in the ships’ water systems.

Reflecting on the epic failure, Pain says “the Erebus and Terror expedition to the North-West Passage was supposed to be totally self-contained. They had everything on board. They had the latest scientific equipment, the best ships and food to last them for three years. And so they didn’t need much else. They didn’t really feel the need to learn the Inuit language. But, if anyone on board could have spoken Inuit, they could have got off that ship and at least traded food with the locals, or found out where they could escape to when they were stuck in the ice. They were never able to communicate with the people that might have saved them. There was a feeling then of ‘Rule Britannia’. We knew everything and couldn’t contemplate failure. We thought we knew all the answers, but we didn’t.”

‘Erebus: The Story of a Ship’ by Michael Palin is published by Hutchinson, £20


The anatomy of a ship

Erebus was not to be a big ship. At 104 feet, she was less than half the length of a standard man-o’-war, and at 372 tons she was a minnow compared to Nelson’s 2,141-ton Victory. But she was to be tough. And more like a tugboat than a sleek and fancy ketch. Her decks and hull had to be strong enough to withstand the recoil from two big on-board mortars, one 13-inch, the other 10-inch. She therefore had to be reinforced with diagonal iron bracing bolted to the planking in the hold, strengthening the hull whilst reducing her weight. She also had to have a hull capacity wide and deep enough to store heavy mortar shells. In addition, she was to be armed with ten small cannons, in case she should need to engage the enemy on the water.

Erebus was built almost entirely by hand. First the keel, most likely made of sections of elm scarfed together, was secured on blocks. To this was attached the stem, the upright timber in the bow, and at the other end of the ship the sternpost, which supported the rudder. The frame, made of oak from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and shipped on barges down the River Severn, was fitted around these heavy timbers. This task demanded a high level of skill, as the shipwrights had to find exactly the best part of the tree to match the curvature of the boat, whilst taking into account how the wood might expand or contract.

Once the frame was in place, it was allowed time to season. Then 3-inch planking was fitted from the keel upwards, and the deck beams and decking boards were added. Erebus was not built in a hurry: it was 20 months before she was ready to go down the slipway. When the work was completed, the Master of the Cheque sent a bill to the Navy Board for £14,603 – around £1.25 million in today’s currency.

Edited extract from ‘Erebus: The Story of a Ship’ by Michael Palin, reproduced with permission.

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