The fates of Shackleton and Franklin

This month the wreck of the polar exploration ship Endurance was found perfectly preserved beneath the Antarctic. It follows the 2014 find of the 19th-century ship HMS Erebus beneath the waters of the Arctic. Dick Durham looks at two disastrous voyages of discovery: one fatal, the other a triumph of survival.

Sir Ernest Shackleton
HMS Endurance

Peering at the ghostly taffrail of the Endurance it’s not hard to imagine one of her crew is shortly due on watch to take the wheel. What is hard to imagine is that the 144ft, three-masted schooner barque is sitting bolt upright on the seafloor over 3000 metres below the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. 

The coal and sail-driven polar exploration ship was found by the submersible video cameras of a survey ship manned by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust last month (March 2022).

She lies just four miles from where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27-strong crew abandoned her on their voyage to cross the unexplored region of Antarctica and reach the South Pole. She succumbed to the vice-like grip of pack-ice in 1915, just before she sank. 

Their bid to walk to the South Pole was over, now the real challenge had begun; how to get back.

Camped out on ice-floes which continually broke up, and surrounded by hungry killer whales, Shackleton ordered his men into three lifeboats, salvaged from Endurance. After a struggle through storm and ice, they eventually made it to solid ground on Elephant Island. No rescue party would ever look for them on Elephant Island and with just three months’ worth of food and supplies left, Shackleton decided he had to risk sailing for assistance.

The nearest help lay 500 miles to windward at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. There was a whale station on South Georgia, but that was 800 miles away, however, the prevailing north-westerly winds would provide a beam reach. Both passages required a crossing of the most feared stretch of water in the world, the Southern Ocean.

As anyone who has been in the open sea in a small boat knows, what followed has to be the greatest voyage ever made.

The 23ft double-ended whaleboat, James Caird, was an open lifeboat, but the ship’s carpenter Timothy McCarthy decked her out as best he could using sheets of plywood covered with frozen canvas thawed out over seal blubber fires. He was the first hero of the crew. Next came Frank Worsley, captain of Endurance and an intuitive navigator. He was followed by second officer Tom Crean, winner of the Albert Medal for Scott’s last expedition. Shackleton also hand-picked John Vincent and Harry McNeish to make up two watches of three men. That left 22 men on the ice who waved off the James Caird as she was towed out through the breakers by another of the boats before setting sail and heading northeast.

For 16 days they fought high seas and three gales, chipping off the ice from the gunnels and baling out sea water taken aboard during hair-raising surfs. On day 11 they were hit by a sea which inspired Shackleton to write: ‘During 26 years’ experience I have not encountered a wave so gigantic.’

They were twelve days out when Worsley managed a sun shot on his sextant which put them 100 miles from South Georgia and two days later floating seaweed and cormorants appeared; a sure sign of land. Then the black cliffs of South Georgia appeared. They’d made it. 

Next followed a desperate landing through breakers and a mountaineering expedition to cross the 2,500 ft peaks to the whale station on the leeward side of the island.

Finally, after three failed rescue bids, the relentless Shackleton reached his men in a chartered Chilean steamer, Yelcho, four months after he’d left them. Every man was successfully taken off the ice.

Sir John Franklin
HMS Erebus

The sonar-generated image of HMS Erebus looks like a half-built matchstick model. With its bluff-bowed wooden hull half deconstructed, the wreck of the full-rigged ship which disappeared in 1848 has its deck mostly missing, offering a tantalising glimpse into its interior. The stern is also missing.

It was in the stateroom that an Inuit native described seeing a large man seated with a broad grin on his face. It is speculated that this could have been the corpse of Captain Sir John Franklin, a rictus smile produced by gum and lip recession.

The sonar image is produced by Parks Canada whose scientists found the wreck in 2014 and who, two years later, found the wreck of her sister ship, HMS Terror.

Both ships set out from England in 1845 with 129 men on a mission to find the fabled Northwest Passage; a waterway that would link the Atlantic with the Pacific saving thousands of sea miles for merchant and military shipping.

The last time any of the expeditions were seen by Europeans was in July 1845 when they spoke to the crew of the whaling ship, Enterprise, who reported they were waiting for the ice to break up before entering Lancaster Sound.

They supposedly had enough stores to carry them through into June 1848, but by autumn 1847 nothing had been seen or heard and it was feared something had gone wrong.

In the spring of 1848, the Admiralty sent Sir James Ross in two ships to find the missing explorers. His mission failed.

Further rescue parties were sent out including one funded by Franklin’s wife Lady Jane. 

Eventually, in 1851, some grim evidence was stumbled across of their fate. On Beechey Island near the Wellington Channel, three graves were found, along with some abandoned huts and a pile of empty meat tins; the party had clearly wintered there.

It was not until 1854 that Dr John Rae of Hudson’s Bay Company met a group of Inuit who said they had come across a party of 40 half-starved Europeans who were dragging a boat south over the ice on the west side of King William Island. 

They reported both their ships had become icebound. Many of the men had tried to walk out to safety but had succumbed to cold and even cannibalism. The Inuit later found 30 dead bodies on the Canadian mainland and five more on a nearby island. Rae bought relics from the locals including watches, telescope parts, compasses, firearms, silver spoons and forks plus a silver plate with Franklin’s name engraved on it.

With this revelation, the Admiralty decided all were lost and no more money should be spent on investigating what happened.

However, in 1859 Lady Jane financed another mission that discovered more relics on King William Island. This included unburied skeletons, two of which were headless holding guns that had been fired, and an abandoned boat on a sledge. Then they found a cairn over a metal container in which rust-streaked paper included a note from James Fitzjames, captain of Erebus. It recorded that the two ships were abandoned in April 1848 having been beset in ice since September 1846. The note also recorded Franklin’s death on 11 June 1847.

Dick Durham, editor of Ocean Sailor Magazine, put the following questions to Claire Warrior, Senior Content Curator, of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich:

DD: Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition has thrown up many theories as to what caused their death: Lead poisoning from tinned meat; scurvy; murder and cannibalism at the hands of local Inuit tribes; starvation; exhaustion from hauling sledge-boats. Is the contemporary view that all or some of these were to blame?

CW: Certainly nothing to do with Inuit, who assisted the expedition where they could and were in no way responsible for its demise; any cannibalism was amongst the men of the expedition, whose desperation can only be imagined. In terms of causes, it’s probably several. Scurvy, general ill health after 3 years, the misfortune of being trapped where they were (a particularly barren part of the Canadian Arctic, called ‘the back of beyond’ by Inuit because there were so few animals there), particularly cold weather conditions, hypothermia, TB, exhaustion. Possibly lead poisoning, although some suggest now that this was not as important as once thought, as Victorian Britain had relatively high levels of environmental lead.


DD: They were only a few miles from the Canadian mainland. Is it believed a search party comprising the youngest, and strongest of the men had reached a whaling station/township for help while the older, less fit members of the crew remained on the ships?

CW: No, I’ve never heard that suggestion. They were probably heading from HBC fur trading posts on the mainland. Several did reach the mainland (their remains were found at what has been called Starvation Cove). As far as I’m aware everyone left the ship, although there are Inuit reports of men being on the ship after it seemed to have been abandoned and the finding of the wrecks may tell us whether or not anyone returned. People need to be aware that the distances between areas of human occupation in the Arctic are vast. They were not a few miles from mainland Canada, and the distances get exaggerated by the logistical challenges created by the landscape, weather and their own equipment (or lack of it).


DD: Shackleton’s voyage to the Antarctic in Endurance in 1914 saw the ship get set in ice. He survived one of the most remarkable small boat voyages in history and returned with another ship to rescue all 27 of his men. How and what technological improvements had been made to polar exploration since 1845, assisted Shackleton in this?

CW: Endurance was certainly built as a polar vessel, whereas Erebus and Terror were repurposed bomb vessels. I’m not aware of any other major technological improvements – there must’ve been improvements e.g. in understanding the nutritional demands of polar exploration, and perhaps some improvements e.g. in clothing, but I would say that these were step-changes rather than being revolutionary? Perhaps radio – although I don’t think the equipment that they took was particularly advanced. You can’t really compare the two expeditions. 

Franklin’s was a sea-based expedition to sail through sea lanes in the archipelago to reach the Pacific. The land-based work was targeted and mission-focused with the ships as the base. Shackleton’s expedition was to be land-based using dogs and sledges to travel on purpose across the continent. Equipment improvements included the Nansen-designed sledge, which was more versatile than the older 19th-century sledges. The use of skis also made travelling across snow easier and faster. And, by this stage Shackleton’s acceptance that dog sledges were a faster form of travel than man-hauling.


DD: Perhaps Shackleton’s challenge to reach the South Pole was a clearer goal (and therefore less demanding mentally) than to find a (then) fabled Northwest Passage which lay in yet to be charted waters? Is it the case that there is now a Northwest Passage which is open all year round, or only during summer months in the Northern Hemisphere?

​CW: Shackleton was aiming to cross the Antarctic continent via the South Pole, not just reaching the South Pole, and I’m not sure that’s any less demanding, particularly as it was crossing land, rather than being safely aboard a ship! By the time Franklin set out there was a sense that the NW Passage was very much in reach, in any case (hence an even greater shock when the expedition was lost). There were only 900 miles to chart. The beginning and the end of the NWP had already been charted – it was the bit from the top of Peel Sound down to the shore below King William Island that needed mapping. In fact, the assumption that the expedition was lost is wrong. The expedition knew where they were. The issue was then getting out of the predicament.

Ice in the Arctic archipelago is currently unpredictable, partly because so much is being lost from the western Greenland ice sheet. In terms of sea ice cover, I don’t think there is a reliably ice-free Northwest Passage yet. The area covered by sea-ice in the Arctic is certainly decreasing, and it is projected that Arctic sea-ice will be gone by 2035.


DD: Is there a view that Shackleton’s voyage was an act of imperial symbolism against Franklin’s quest which was to find an important new trade route?​

CW: Both are embedded in empire and in ambition. The 1845 expedition was less about trade routes than it was about the projection of British seapower (the Northwest Passage hadn’t been thought of as a viable trade route for some time). The Arctic was also seen as a proving ground for British sailors. And, of course, there was the desire to explore and to be the first. The NWP expedition was also a challenge to Russia and the USA. By mapping North America you can define how big Canada is and lay claim to the islands (while ignoring any Indigenous populations living in the region). This then restricts the ‘interests’ of other nations into definable boundaries. It is effectively geographical imperialism.

The National Maritime Museum Greenwich

Collections of both expeditions are showcased in the permanent ‘Polar Worlds’ gallery, which contains some of the most famous objects recovered, including the medicine chest, tins of food, cutlery, Franklin’s Guelphic Order, and a boot from Starvation Cove. Other objects, not on display, can be seen by appointment at our Collections and Conservation Store in Kidbrooke (

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