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Scott's Voyage South Starts With Near Disaster

The Terra Nova Nearly Goes Under Two Days Into Expedition: December 1910

Terra Nova left New Zealand for the Ross Sea on November 29, 1910. Just two days later, the expedition nearly came to a bad end in a mighty storm. Too small for its load and packed to the brim, the leaky old whaler was at risk even before the storm brewed. Laboring into the gale, the ship began to take on water. The pumps, clogged after a few hours by a thick, gummy paste of coal dust, dirt, and oil, eventually stopped working altogether. Bucket brigades, composed of officers, men, and scientists alike, struggled hour after hour in the dark. "It was a sight that one could never forget," Lieutenant Edward "Teddy" Evans, Scott's second in command, would recall. "Everybody saturated, some waist-deep on the floor of the engine room, oil and coal dust mixing with the water and making everyone filthy, some men clinging to the iron ladder-way and passing full buckets long after their muscles had ceased to work naturally, their grit and spirit keeping them going."

Skidding Supplies, Flailing Dogs And Falling Ponies: The Terra Nova's Deck Turns Into A Chaotic Scene

On deck things were increasingly desperate. The ship's coal bunkers were too small to accommodate all of the coal required, so the excess--thirty tons of it--was stored in sacks on the main deck, along with lab supplies, sheep carcasses, motor sledges, dogs, and ponies, all packed tightly wherever they might fit. During the storm many of the sacks became loose and skidded back and forth across the planking, hammering away at the ship's rails. Worse, overloading had affected the ship's buoyancy and handling. The only way to avoid catastrophe was to push some of the topside coal into the sea, even though there was no way of getting more.

The animals also suffered. Many of the thirty-three dogs, on short chains to keep them from fighting on the way south, were nearly strangled each time a breaching wave raced across decks. Ponies in cramped stalls in the forecastle slammed from wall to wall with each roll of the ship, legs flailing as they tried but failed to keep their footing, going down hard on their buckled limbs in pools of vomit and excrement. If it were not for their handler, Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, literally forcing them onto their feet after they had fallen, it's unlikely that any would have made it through that long night uninjured.

Storm Breaks And Scott And Crew Move Forward

Finally, on December 3 the winds and the sea began to calm. The toll was heavy. Two of the ponies were dead, two others badly injured; one dog had drowned. The decks were covered with debris, equipment, and broken cases, and everything was thoroughly soaked. But they had survived, and soon Scott was in better spirits. "The scene was incomparable," he wrote a week later as they entered the southern pack, the fluctuating expanse of sea ice that annually surrounds Antarctica. "The northern sky was gloriously rosy and reflected the calm sea between the ice, which varied from burnished copper to salmon pink; bergs and packs to the north had a pale greenish hue with deep purple shadows, and the sky shaded to saffron and pale green. We gazed long at these beautiful effects."

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