Excerpted from CHAPTER 8:
After barely four months in the Antarctic, the Aurora resembled a wrecked hulk, the stern thrust aground, listing sharply to starboard, the rigging and tattered sails rimed thickly with frost. The breaking seas had encased the cases and gear in ice. As the crew climbed up the steeply pitched deck, there was an uneasy sense that the Aurora was at the mercy of incomprehensible forces. Spells of violent tremors shook the ship and created heavy swells in the sound. High above Cape Evans, Mount Erebus was erupting, belching forth dense black smoke. A red glare glowed on the underbelly of the clouds, reflected from the crater. “Wintering a ship here is nothing short of a huge dream or nightmare,” wrote Paton, expressing the anxious mood of his shipmates….
The winter darkness was encroaching. In the officers’ cabins flanking the wardroom, the temperature fell below zero. The ink in Ninnis’s pen froze as he hunched over his diary just four feet from the wardroom stove. Stenhouse tried to assign duties in the forecastle to keep the seamen inside as much as possible, but the constant adjustments to the moorings and the rigging of the wireless aerial forced them out into the cold. Stenhouse ordered the moorings tightened daily, taking the slack out until the wires were “taut as any fiddlestring,” in Paton’s words. “All the cables are now singing and twanging,” wrote Ninnis as the wind intensified, “and we wonder if the night will see us drifting out in the pack ice.” The humming sometimes rose to the high-pitched vibrato warning that the wires were at breaking strain. A seaman knew to clear out when it started; a flailing cable could slice a man in two as neatly as a guillotine. One by one, the wires snapped, like so much bailing twine, and by mid-April, most had given way.
After weeks of agonizing work the crew finally completed the wireless masts on May 6. It only remained to mount the aerial. By evening, a southeasterly gale was gathering force. Before retiring, Stenhouse checked the moorings. Paton paced the deck on his usual night watch. Below, the men shifted uneasily in their bunks. There was something unsettling about the hysterical fury of the storm. Ninnis lay awake, ready to bolt as he watched the beams buckle overhead. Just after nine o’clock, Hooke heard the wires “commence their song” from the wardroom and went to fetch Thomson. Wakened by the woozy swing of the ship straining at her moorings, he was already dressing when Hooke tapped at his door. The ice was on the move again. Before they reached the companionway, two explosive reports boomed like artillery blasts. On deck, broken wires whipsailed shrilly through the air as Paton raced toward the bulkhead, hurricane lamp in hand, shouting, “She's away wi’ it!” Then, another succession of shots sounded and the Aurora was adrift, held fast in a massive floe as it pulled clean away from the shore. The bower anchors were still attached and threatened to topple the ship over as they dragged the sea bottom. Stenhouse was on deck, shouting for all hands to clap relieving tackles on the cables to keep the strain from tearing the windlass out of the ship. As Thomson arrived on deck, he saw the lighted windows of the hut on shore receding into the whirling snow and darkness.
Stenhouse ordered steam on the main engines, knowing full well it was impossible. Not only had Larkman blown the boiler down for the winter, but the engines were partially dismantled for repairs and the water intake valve had frozen solid. Larkman and his crew began painstakingly thawing the pipes with lamps. Two days passed before they could raise steam. By then, the Aurora was twenty miles north of Cape Evans, still caught in the grip of the ice. Stenhouse knew there was no chance of battling back into McMurdo Sound. “Fast in the pack and drifting to God knows where,” he wrote on May 9. “What of the poor beggars at Cape Evans and the Southern Party? A dismal prospect for them.”