File this story under “just plain awesome.” Thomas Mercer, a UK-based builder of marine chronometers (yes, there is still such a company) has built a one-off timekeeper that accompanied a British Royal Navy and Marines expedition commemorating and retracing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s now-famous 1916 crossing of the Southern Ocean in an open boat. The chronometer was built to withstand the rigors of open ocean travel, while staying accurate enough for use navigating a boat. Far from a random brand simply co-opting an expedition as a stunt, Thomas Mercer happens to be the same company that built the chronometer that was with Shackleton himself on that fateful voyage 100 years ago.
The expedition, known as the “Endurance 2016,” comes exactly a century after Shackleton’s epic adventure. The original Imperial Transantarctic Expedition, which its captain saved from utter failure against impossible odds, is known to most thanks to countless books, documentaries and MBA course case studies, but it never gets old. On a quest to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent, the expedition was stopped short when their ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice off in the Weddell Sea. The crew of 28 men, led by their charismatic captain, lived on the ice for close to a year before abandoning their ship when it imploded under pressure and sank under the ice for good. They then man-hauled all of their equipment in two of their lifeboats until they reached the open water of the Southern Ocean. They sailed across to uninhabited Elephant Island, where they camped out, eating penguin, whatever else they could kill, leftover dwindling rations, and who knows what else, until Shackleton hatched an outrageous plan as a last ditch effort to save his men. And that’s where things get really interesting.
The captain took five of his most trustworthy crew and set sail with makeshift rigging in an open 22-foot boat, the James Caird, aiming for the speck of South Georgia Island 800 nautical miles away to find help at a Norwegian whaling camp there. The feat is still considered one of the most difficult and dangerous sailing feats ever undertaken, thanks to currents and icy water with towering 50-foot waves, made more difficult by pitching seas and cloudy skies that would make taking sun shots for sextant readings nearly impossible for navigator Frank Worsley. The voyage took 14 days and the men took only the most vital supplies, including a Thomas Mercer marine chronometer, which would be essential, in concert with the sextant, for finding their way to South Georgia Island.
Thomas Mercer has been making marine chronometers off and on since the early 1800s – the dawn of the golden age of exploration, when chronometers provided a leap forward for wayfinding on the high seas. Prior to their invention, ships often foundered on shoals and missed their marks by hundreds of miles due to an inability to determine longitude. Marine chronometers of course have to be incredibly accurate to provide the time reference needed for navigation, but they also have to be sturdy enough to withstand the abuse they take onboard a ship, or in the case of Shackleton’s voyage, a small open boat on the Southern Ocean. A key innovation by Frank Mercer in the early 1900s proved key – the trawler suspension, a sort of spring-supported gimbal mechanism designed to absorb the violent pitching onboard a boat at sea, tested by Frank Mercer onboard an Icelandic fishing trawler in 1905.
The Antarctic Endurance Marine Chronometer Thomas Mercer built for the Endurance 2016 expedition incorporates a modernized version of the trawler suspension. The framework of the chronometer is made from marine-grade 316 stainless steel veneered with eucalyptus wood. The movement makes use of a spring detent escapement with a fusée-and-chain drive and has a power reserve of eight days, which is displayed on the dial along with hours, minutes, and seconds.
The boat in which the Royal Navy and Marines expedition members sailed, the Xplore, is a far cry from the James Caird. It is a 67-foot Challenge-class sailboat designed for round-the-world sailing and built to withstand heavy seas with its high strength/low alloy (HSLA) steel hull. Shackleton and his men should have been so lucky. The chronometer was strapped on the open aft deck, exposed to the elements and still providing an authentic navigating experience for the sailors, not to mention a tripping hazard.
Of course it’s no secret that Shackleton and his men miraculously reached South Georgia Island, thanks to Worsley and his sextant and the Thomas Mercer chronometer. The story doesn’t end there though. The men then had to cross a high, crevasse-riddled mountain range to reach the whaling station on the other side of the island. They accomplished this despite not having even the most rudimentary mountaineering equipment or skills. The whalers could scarcely believe their eyes when a gaunt Shackleton walked up to them and asked for assistance retrieving the rest of his men. The tale is one of epic proportions and worthy of commemoration, which the six-week Endurance 2016 expedition is doing. The adventurers have already completed the open ocean crossing, with the chronometer surviving, thankfully, and should return safely to Port Stanley by the end of February.
While the Antarctic Endurance Marine Chronometer was a one-off creation, Thomas Mercer sells other chronometers – so you can order one for your own expeditions, however harrowing they might be.
Images of the Endurance 2016 Expedition are copyright the UK Ministry of Defence.
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