Antarctic Exploration: Two Rescue Missions 100 Years Apart

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The 10th anniversary of Solis Marine coincides with 100 years since the death of the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in South Georgia. Founding partner John Simpson recalls his own pilgrimages to the southern ocean and a very different kind of rescue mission.

When I was 13, I attended the Boulevard Nautical School in Hull. I stayed in digs in the city and a couple of the other cadets lodged in a house a few doors down. An old man used to visit there occasionally, who we knew as ‘Professor’ Green and who gave lectures, accompanied by large glass slides shown on an ancient brass, oil lit, magic lantern. We used to pin a white sheet on the wall as a screen and he would talk to us about Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914–1917 and the loss of ENDURANCE, the hike across the ice before sailing to Elephant Island followed by Shackleton’s heroic open boat voyage to South Georgia to arrange the rescue of his men.

He was the cook on the expedition and features heavily in Shackleton’s epic account of the expedition ‘South’. Something must have stuck with me because thereafter I maintained a desire to visit the southern ocean, but never thought it would happen.

Of course, after leaving school I went to sea and after several decades ended up as the master of a multi-role vessel in the Falkland Islands working for the MOD as a STUFT (Ship Taken Up From Trade). The work involved periodic trips to South Georgia to carry out maintenance of the Royal Navy’s moorings and on one occasion to assist with the removal of oil from the abandoned whaling vessels at Grytviken. It was a great opportunity, and I was able to visit the grave of the great explorer and the memorial cross erected by his comrades at King Edward Point.

John Simpson in South Georgia 2002

I was not aware at the time, but after later attending a course on maritime history at Hull University, I also learned that ‘DIAS’, one of the abandoned whaling vessels at Grytviken, was originally built in Beverley, East Yorkshire, in 1906 and named ‘VIOLA’.

After years of sailing as a trawler from Hull before WWI she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and served throughout the Great War following which there were changes of owner and flag and then many years in the whaling and sealing industry in South Georgia. As a Trust had been set up in Hull in order to try and save and return ‘VIOLA’ I naturally became involved and after co-founding a marine consultancy, it was a natural progression to remain in touch with ‘VIOLA’, although that was from a distance of about 8,000 miles. Fate again intervened and I was able to revisit South Georgia to survey ‘VIOLA’ in 2016 and again pay my respects to Sir Ernest Shackleton.

As that 13-year-old boy, listening to the stories from the golden age of Antarctic exploration, I could never have guessed that all those years later, I would be able to visit South Georgia, become so involved with the maritime history of my adopted city and be part of building up a marine consultancy which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2022, coincidentally 100 years after the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Main deck of VIOLA from the bow

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave

Sir Ernest Shackleton

On the morning of January 5 1922, Sir Ernest Shackleton died in his cabin on board the exploration ship Quest while it was anchored off South Georgia.

Watch our short film about the fund-raising effort for VIOLA.

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