AT 5.4 MILLION square miles, the Antarctic Continent is roughly the size of the continental United States and Mexico combined. Almost all of it is perpetually covered in ice that in some areas is more than two miles thick. Since the ice reflects as much as 90 percent of the sun’s solar radiation, this is the coldest place on earth, with an average annual temperature of -22°F. Between 70 and 80 percent of the world’s freshwater is contained in this approximately 6.5-million-cubic-mile reservoir of ice and snow, in which is preserved a climate record that goes back 200,000 years. If the Antarctic ice sheet melted, the sea level of the globe would rise by more than two hundred feet.
Antarctica is also the most inaccessible place on earth. Except for the point where the Antarctic Peninsula reaches toward Cape Horn at the Drake Passage (a gap of six hundred-plus miles), it is surrounded by a moat of more than two thousand miles called the Southern Ocean. In winter, a six-hundred-mile-wide belt of pack ice seals off the continent. In summer, when the ice begins to retreat, the waters surrounding Antarctica become the mariner’s equivalent of a minefield. Indeed, an entire vocabulary has been created to describe the appalling variety of icy hazards a navigator encounters as he or she approaches the continent. A “growler” is a piece of sea ice that is about 180 square feet and rises just a few feet above the sea; a “bergy bit” is about the size of a two-bedroom house, while a “floeberg” is described as a “massive piece of sea ice” with a dimpled or “hummocky” surface. But growlers, bergy bits, and floebergs are nothing compared to the vast, flat-topped icebergs that are spawned from the edges of the continent. “Calved” from the fronts of land-based glaciers, these tabular floes are unlike anything seen in the Arctic and are sometimes more than two hundred feet high and a hundred miles long. Making these dimensions even more remarkable is the fact that seven-eighths of a typical iceberg is underwater.
As if the danger of ice were not bad enough, the weather in this part of the world is horrendous. Much of this has to do with Antarctica’s being the world’s highest continent, with an average elevation of 7,550 feet. Cold, very heavy air constantly flows down and north from the high interior; when these gravity-stoked “katabatic” winds collide with the water at the coast, they erupt into blizzards, creating a never-ending series of cyclonic storms that circulates clockwise around the continent. The ocean area from about 40° south to the Antarctic Circle has the strongest sustained winds found anywhere on earth.
Wilkes was not only to penetrate as far as possible into this hazardous region, he was to explore it. As James Cook had found back in 1774, this amounted to an almost suicidal endeavor in a sailing vessel. Cook had been well aware that a continent to the south might exist, but given the terrible conditions between himself and a possible discovery, he judged it not worth the effort. Then there was the British sealer James Weddell’s claim, backed up by the American Benjamin Morrell, that a navigable ocean existed beyond the icy barrier. Other British sealers had brought back isolated reports of sighting islands in the vicinity of the Antarctic Circle near where the Expedition would soon be headed. The fact of the matter remained, however, that in December 1839, as the U.S. Exploring Expedition prepared for its final push south, no one really knew what was down there at the bottom of the world.
Wilkes was already aware of the French expedition led by Dumont d’Urville. In Sydney he learned that there was yet another expedition headed south. The British had just dispatched James Ross, the discoverer of the magnetic North Pole, on a mission to find the other magnetic pole in the vicinity of 66° south and 146° east—almost directly below Adelaide, Australia, and approximately 250 miles to the north of the latitude of Cook’s Ne Plus Ultra. In addition, Ross was to attempt to punch through the ice in his heavily reinforced vessels and sail as far as possible south. Ross—whose arrogance may have even surpassed Wilkes’s—knew that his rivals had a significant head start; still, he remained confident that he would outdo both of them. The French and Americans didn’t stand a chance.
Certainly the people of Sydney would have agreed with at least half of that claim. As far as they could tell the American expedition was, in the words of one observer, “doomed to be frozen to death.” While Ross’s two ships—converted bomb vessels built to withstand the thunderous recoil of several deck-mounted mortars—had been equipped with an additional layer of eight-inch-thick oak planking, the American vessels were without any significant form of structural reinforcement to withstand the inevitable collisions with the ice. To make matters worse, the Peacock’s already poor condition had deteriorated dramatically over the last six months; many key structural components were rotten and in need of replacement. But these repairs would have taken at least two months. After long consultation, Wilkes and Hudson decided that “the credit of the Expedition and the country” demanded that the Peacock sail south, no matter how bad her condition might be.
But if the Yanks appeared ill prepared, they had a few factors in their favor. One of them was timing. Ross had left England just a few months before; where he was now was anyone’s guess. Although d’Urville’s expedition had gotten the jump on all of them, rumor had it that the French, after one unsuccessful push south two winters ago, were on their way back home. The Americans also possessed the advantage of some recent, very valuable experience amid the Antarctic ice. But perhaps most important was that the Americans didn’t appear especially bothered by the inadequacies of their equipment and preparation. “[The people of Sydney] saw us all cheerful, young, and healthy,” Wilkes wrote, “and gave us the character, that I found our countrymen generally bear, of recklessness of life and limb.”
On the day after Christmas, the U.S. Ex. Ex.—minus the scientists, who would continue their researches in Australia, then secure passage to New Zealand, where they would meet up with the squadron in March—left Sydney Harbor. The wind was light, and the Vincennes once again missed stays. Despite his occasional demonstrations of bravado, Wilkes had earned a reputation among his officers and men as an “ignorant and nervous” seaman—not the best qualities for leading a squadron into the terrors of the Antarctic ice. But if Wilkes’s seamanship remained in question, his leadership style was no longer in doubt. As early as Rio de Janeiro, when he had been pushed to the verge of a nervous collapse, it had become clear that he needed a persona, what has been called a “mask of command,” to hide behind if he was to survive the ordeals that lay ahead. The mask that he chose to assume was that of the martinet, defined by British admiral W. H. Smyth as “A rigid disciplinarian; but one who, in matters of inferior moment, harasses all under him.” This was the form of leadership Wilkes would cling to for the duration of the voyage. “The acquirement of being a ‘martinette,’” Wilkes later wrote, “when once established goes far to carrying with it authority to induce obedience to command.”
But it wasn’t all just an act on Wilkes’s part. He had become more than a little intoxicated by the sudden influx of power he associated with his self-propelled rise to commodore of the U.S. Ex. Ex. Proper obeisance must be paid. In a letter to Jane he bragged about keeping the American consul in Sydney waiting for two hours while he finished up some experiments. “I am now a great man,” he wrote, “and others will wait patiently.”
In amiable contrast to the Expedition’s leader was second-in-command William Hudson. In addition to being an excellent seaman, he had shown no interest in maintaining rigid discipline in this nonmilitary operation. His officers were not required to move to the leeward side of the quarterdeck when he came up from below. His cabin was frequented by his officers, who always seemed to be in excellent spirits. The Peacock might be in terrible structural condition, but as William Reynolds could attest, she was a “happy ship.” With full confidence in their captain’s ability to get them out of the toughest scrape, the Peacock’s officers looked with anticipation to the adventures that awaited them. “Antarctic Stock was high!” Reynolds effused in a letter to his mother.
Morale was not so good aboard the Porpoise. In Sydney her commander, Lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold, had become embroiled in a petty feud with a member of his medical staff, Charles Guillou, and the popular surgeon had been transferred to the Peacock. Ringgold was also at loggerheads with his first lieutenant Robert Johnson, who along with several other officers had done his best to embarrass Ringgold at a social event prior to the squadron’s departure.
For sheer bad feeling, however, nothing could compare to the crew of the Flying Fish. Just a few days before, the schooner had lost five of ten men to desertion. Her commander, Robert Pinkney, was able to scare up a few dubious characters from the Sydney waterfront, but the schooner was still down by several men, and Wilkes claimed he had none to spare from the Vincennes. “I do not suppose that a vessel ever sailed under the U.S. Pendant with such a miserable crew as we have now,” wrote Pinkney’s second-in-command, George Sinclair. “It will be a great wonder to me if we return from the southern cruise.”
Once the squadron was clear of Sydney, Wilkes insisted that all four vessels sail abreast; every now and then they would be ordered to heave to so that Wilkes could communicate by boat with his commanders. In the event that any of them should become separated, he had designated a rendezvous point: Macquarie Island, a wave-washed, penguin-infested pile of rocks 2,100 miles to the south. For the officers and men of the Peacock, who felt that they had the best chance of success, it all seemed like an exasperating waste of time. “Lt. Wilkes evidently did not intend to afford either of his subordinates an opportunity to get ahead of him in sailing to the Southward,” Reynolds wrote. “For this reason most likely, he orders them to keep in company with him.” For six days the four vessels succeeded in staying together. Then on January 1 it began to blow. Soon the Flying Fish was in trouble.
Scudding before the wind in the gale, Pinkney didn’t have the manpower required to shorten sail. The schooner’s foresail began jibing back and forth uncontrollably, finally carrying away the jaws of the gaff. Soon the forestay, upon which the vessel’s entire rig depended, was broken, and the square yard was in pieces. Giant waves were breaking across the deck. Incredibly, the signal to “make sail” was raised on the Vincennes. Sinclair was outraged. Instead of helping them, the flagship “kept her course and deliberately left us to whatever fate the Gods of the winds might have in store for us; a few deep toned curses accompanied her.”
From the safety of the Vincennes’s quarterdeck, Wilkes glanced aft and commented to Reynolds’s good friend Lieutenant James Alden that the officers of the Flying Fish were clearly “afraid.” “[I]t is impossible to describe the disgust with which [Alden] heard such an insinuation,” Reynolds later wrote, “from a man who in all times of difficulty and danger was as humble about the decks as a whipped puppy, and as incapable as he was humble.” As night came on, the Flying Fish disappeared in the darkness. More than a few sailors speculated that the schooner had joined the Sea Gull at the bottom of the Southern Ocean.
Three days later the Vincennes and the Porpoise lost contact with the Peacock. Four days later, Wilkes was approaching the latitude of Macquarie Island. He would later claim that they were too far to leeward to reach the rendezvous point without wasting too much time. And so, while Hudson did as his orders demanded and spent the next three days beating up to the island, Wilkes pushed on to the south. He had succeeded in giving himself a head start of more than six hundred miles over the two vessels, the Peacock and the Flying Fish, that had sailed farther south than he had the winter before. When the officers and men of the Peacock reached Macquarie Island and found no vessels waiting for them, Wilkes’s “miserable double dealing” was obvious to all. After dutifully planting a flag on the island, they set off for the south.
On the evening of January 15, 1840, Reynolds, perhaps the happiest officer aboard the happiest ship in the squadron, saw his first iceberg. It was “glowing with the most vivid & brilliant hues,” he wrote; “blue as azure, green as emerald, and, ho! the contrast, whiteness like unto the raiment of an Angel. . . . The imagination cannot picture, neither our tongues convey, the faintest image of so glorious a spectacle.”
Soon after sighting the iceberg, Reynolds decided it was time to put on the red flannels that Lydia and his mother had made for him. “[T]hey are so nice & warm,” he wrote in his journal, “bless those who made them! Grandmother’s stockings too! I feel the good of a Home, away down here!”
They had entered a realm of perpetual daylight. “[W]hat a rooster would do here,” he wrote, “I cannot imagine.” During his watch from midnight to four A.M., some of the officers were reading Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. At 2:45 A.M., they watched the sun rise. “It is the funniest thing,” he commented, “this never-ending day.” Just as strange was the behavior of their compasses. Their proximity to the magnetic South Pole, where the earth’s magnetic force field flows in a nearly vertical direction, meant that their compass needles had been rendered virtually useless. An object as small as an iron button was enough to move the compass by as much as twenty degrees. One of Reynolds’s fellow officers rightly attributed this phenomenon to “the polar attraction acting in nearly a perpendicular direction upon a horizontal needle.” It was graphic evidence that they were approaching the very foundations of the earth.
On the evening of January 15 at latitude 65°25’ south, Reynolds climbed to the masthead and saw not a single piece of ice ahead of them. “On the morrow,” he wrote, “we would be farther South than the Ship had reached last year. Soon we would pass 70 degrees—eclipse Cook & distance the pretender Weddell. No one hazarded an unfavorable opinion, & we were all in a perfect fever of excitement! I shall never forget that day!”
Around four P.M., fog appeared at the edges of the horizon. Almost simultaneously they saw both the Porpoise and a solid barrier of ice looming out of the haze. For the time being they would have to lay aside their hopes of pushing farther south. “There was the low & continuous field of Ice,” Reynolds wrote, “running East & West, broken by many Bays & Islands, but effectually stopping any further progress. . . . Our dreams were at once destroyed!”
Ringgold informed them that he had been sailing along the edge of the barrier for several days and had found no openings to the south. “We commenced working to windward,” Reynolds wrote, “in hope of finding a passage farther to the West, but our overflowing anticipations were checked, gone, broken entirely & we were humbled at the lesson we had received!”
Around noon the next day, Reynolds went aloft with fellow passed midshipman Henry Eld from New Haven, Connecticut. By this point, the Peacock had separated again from the Porpoise. Reynolds and Eld were up on the crosstrees with the main topmast between them, more than a hundred feet above the surface of the sea, somewhere in the vicinity of 65° south, 160° east. Reynolds, who was nearsighted, had his spectacles on. He and Eld struggled to describe the beauty of what they saw spread out before them, but, as Reynolds wrote, “we had no words. To look over such a vast expanse of the frozen sea, upon which no human eye nor foot had ever rested, & which, formed from the Ocean, now resisted its waves & presented an impassable boundary to the mysterious regions beyond, filled us with feelings, which we were powerless to utter.” Then they saw something that suddenly restored their powers of speech. As if with one voice they cried out, “There is land!”
Many miles in the distance, beyond the icy barrier, they saw three distinct peaks—one pointed, the other two more rounded. “They rose to an immense height,” Reynolds wrote. “We looked for half an hour at least, & procured a glass to satisfy ourselves that we were not mistaken. We were convinced that our judgment was correct & that we actually beheld the long sought for Terra Firma of the Antarctic continent.”
They had come upon the massive, never-before-explored body of Antarctica. If the Antarctic Peninsula below Cape Horn is the continent’s panhandle, the wide rounded mass below Australia and extending west along the Antarctic Circle toward Africa is the pan. The Peacock was now at the eastern extreme of the pan’s northerly edge. The date was January 16.
Both officers scrambled down the rigging to report the sighting. Eld went below to find Captain Hudson, and Reynolds sought out Lieutenant Thomas Budd, the officer of the deck. Although Reynolds could still see the mountaintops from the deck, they were not as clearly defined as they had been from aloft. When he pointed out the land, Budd expressed his doubts and chose not to send anyone to the masthead to confirm the sighting. Reynolds had no alternative but to wait for the appearance of Hudson on the quarterdeck. But Hudson never came.
Reynolds later learned from Eld that Hudson had acted even more oddly than Budd. When told of the discovery, Hudson said that he had no doubt that Eld and Reynolds had seen land; in fact, he was convinced that the large icebergs near them were sitting on the bottom of the sea. But when Eld urged him to come see the mountaintops for himself, Hudson demonstrated an almost bovine lack of curiosity. He would stay by his stove, thank you; he also saw no reason to send an officer aloft to verify their sighting. Assuring Eld that there would be plenty of opportunities to see land in the days ahead, he ordered that the ship be tacked. The wind was light, and he didn’t want to run into any trouble amid the ice. Strange conduct indeed for the captain of an exploring expedition.
Both Reynolds and Eld were filled with “disappointment and mortification,” especially when they learned that no mention of their sighting had been made in the ship’s log. But there was nothing they could do. “I will never give up my belief that this was no deception,” Reynolds wrote, “& am perfectly willing to abide by the researches of any future navigators, confident that our discovery will be verified!”
The next day, during Reynolds’s watch at 5:30 in the morning, they saw the Vincennes for the first time in two weeks. “I remember she passed behind an Ice berg,” Reynolds wrote, “& there was an immense discrepancy between its height & that of the Ship.” Although Wilkes had been able to sprint ahead at Macquarie Island, Hudson had succeeded in reaching the icy barrier to windward of the Vincennes, which had been sailing west along the ice for close to a week. It was an amazing feat of catch-up on Hudson’s part. Despite all of Wilkes’s machinations, all three vessels—the Porpoise, the Peacock, and the Vincennes—were now within just a few miles of one another.
In contrast to Hudson’s loose and buoyant crew, the nerves of the officers and men of the Vincennes were drum tight. Wilkes would have it no other way. In true martinet fashion, he rarely spoke with his officers; when an officer dared speak to him, he inevitably dismissed the statement with an insult. It was an unfortunate state of affairs for a vessel in search of any and all indications of land. Even if an officer thought he saw land, there was little use in bringing it to the commander’s attention since Wilkes would inevitably reject the observation with a sneer.
Over the last two days, however, there had been little opportunity to see much beyond the Vincennes’s bowsprit. Dense fog made navigating the icy barrier a particularly hazardous endeavor. Instead of their eyes, the lookouts depended on their ears. When they heard “the low and distant rustling of the ice,” they knew it was time to tack. Then there were the times when the usual sounds of a ship at sea—the rhythmic slap of the waves and the comforting creak of the rigging (which always seemed magnified in the fog)—suddenly ceased as the Vincennes glided into the eerily quiet lee of an unseen iceberg. “[T]he transition was so sudden,” Wilkes wrote, “that many were awakened . . . from sound sleep. . . . [It is] an occurrence from which the feeling of great danger is inseparable.” By January 16, the day before the Vincennes spoke the Peacock, the strain had begun to get the better of Wilkes. “[I]t at times acts on me as if a weight was hung all at once on my heart strings,” he wrote in his journal.
With the sighting of the Peacock, Wilkes was greatly relieved to have the chance to speak with Hudson, and Reynolds reported that the two captains “had a long yarn.” Neither one of them made any mention of sighting land. Wilkes did tell Hudson that he had changed his mind about the necessity of sailing in tandem. Now that he no longer had an advantage to protect, Wilkes was inclined to let each vessel strike out on her own. “I was satisfied that the separation would be a strong incentive to exertion,” Wilkes wrote, “by exciting rivalry among the officers and crews of the different vessels.” It was a rivalry Hudson and his officers were eager to pursue.
Providing Wilkes with some much-needed distraction from the tensions of the voyage was a new acquisition that he had gained in Australia: a giant Newfoundland dog named Sydney. Newfoundlands, or Newfies, are web-footed, 100- to 150-pound dogs originally bred for swimming, and in the nineteenth century they were such a common shipboard sight that they were known as ship dogs. The Lewis and Clark Expedition included a Newfoundland named Seaman, and when Napoleon Bonaparte fell overboard during his return from Elba, he was saved by a Newfie. In the months ahead, Sydney became a favorite with the crew of the Vincennes.
No one knew it at the time, but the events of January 19—two days after the Vincennes spoke the Peacock—would be revisited and analyzed countless times in the years ahead. That morning, a Sunday, the Vincennes made her way into a deep bay at 154°30’ east, 65°20’ south. Lieutenant James Alden was the watch officer. For most of the morning it had been quite foggy. A few minutes after eight A.M., Alden heard waves breaking on an iceberg up ahead, and he informed Wilkes of the ship’s proximity to the ice. By the time Wilkes came on deck, the fog had lifted to the extent that it was possible to see the ice. Wilkes looked quickly around and said a few barely distinguishable words about managing the ship, then began to go below. At that moment, Alden thought he saw land to the southwest—a barely perceptible rise above the ice. “I said to him,” Alden later remembered, “‘there’s something there,’ pointing to it, ‘that looks like land.’” Wilkes made no reply and “seemed,” Alden recalled, “to treat the report with neglect and went below.”
Wilkes had become convinced that his officers were “endeavoring to do all in their power to make my exertions go for nothing.” Except for First Lieutenant Carr, he trusted no one, and in his journal entry for January 19 he complained that “There is no one on board My own Ship that I can communicate with.” Out of desperation, Wilkes appears to have turned to his noncommissioned officers.
About an hour after his terse conversation with Alden, Wilkes reappeared on deck between nine and ten A.M. By this point Alden had been relieved by Augustus Case as officer of the watch; Case, like Alden, was an officer with whom Wilkes had already had several run-ins. In an extremely unorthodox move, Wilkes left the quarterdeck and wandered over to the port gangway, where the gunner, John Williamson, was standing. “He came to me,” Williamson later reported, “and asked me what I thought of the appearance of land. My answer was, if it was not land, I had never seen land, then the conversation ended.” Although Wilkes had found someone to talk to, he had bypassed his watch officer and in so doing, had bypassed the ship’s official log, which was the watch officer’s responsibility. As a result, there would be no mention of sighting land in the Vincennes’s log for January 19.
In the meantime, just a few miles to the west, the Peacock entered another large bay in the ice. They pushed south for thirty miles until they found themselves enclosed on all sides. “The long swell of the Ocean was shut off altogether,” Reynolds wrote, “the water was smooth and motionless as an Inland Lake and lay like a vast mirror in its frosted frame.” Even though the temperature was only 21°F, he climbed up to his perch at the masthead. “[T]he whiteness of all this was dazzling and intense,” Reynolds wrote; “unbroken, by the glistening sheet of water where the Ship floated, idle, quiet and at rest.”
This time Reynolds was joined by Midshipman William Clark. As soon as he’d placed his spectacles on his nose, Reynolds cried out to Clark, “Do you see that?” Ahead of them was land. “[I]t was of great height,” Reynolds wrote, “of rounded uneven summit & broken sides.” Taking no chances, Reynolds immediately reported his discovery to the watch officer, Lieutenant Alonzo Davis. Davis cheerfully agreed that it was land. Soon Captain Hudson and a large number of officers and men were up in the rigging. “Well it was Land!” Reynolds wrote. As a joke, they began assigning names to the features they saw before them. “[O]ne cape was honored with the cognomen of the discoverer,” Reynolds proudly noted.
What Reynolds didn’t learn until later was that by the time Hudson had returned to the Peacock’s deck, he had begun to doubt his own eyes. “Our land has turned out to be an iceberg,” he told Davis, the watch officer. When Davis informed him that he had already recorded the sighting in the ship’s log, Hudson told him “that we ought to be very certain” before mention of land was put down in writing, and he ordered Davis to remove the offending passage. Hudson was a competent seaman, but his exceedingly literal cast of mind was ill suited to the challenges of exploration. It was the second time in three days that he had refused to acknowledge a discovery by William Reynolds.
Four days later, at five P.M. on Thursday, January 23, it appeared as if all would soon be forgiven. After continuing west, the Peacock had sailed into a bay that was even larger than all the others. The weather was mild and clear; the sea was smooth; and two boats were dispatched to perform magnetism experiments on a nearby chunk of ice as others attempted to find soundings. At 350 fathoms, the sounding lead hit bottom; pebbles and blue mud were found attached to the lead. “Great was the joy & Excitement throughout the ship,” Reynolds wrote, “for this was a certain indication of the proximity of Land.” As the men in the boats returned to the ship, unaware of the great find, the crew climbed into the rigging and shouted out three cheers. “[N]ow we were sanguine that ere long we should discover ‘terra firma,’” Reynolds enthused, “& the prize [of discovery] would be our own.”
The already happy crew of the Peacock became delirious with excitement. Holding up the mud-smeared lead line, sailors ran about the deck to the music of a fiddle as others burst into song. Taking advantage of the quiet seas, men played shuffleboard below while others rolled tenpins on the gun deck. Hudson gave the order to “splice the main brace,” and soon every man had received an extra allowance of grog. “[W]e were a merry ship,” Reynolds wrote. “Little did any one think of the change that a few short hours would bring about!”
One of the boat crews had captured a huge penguin on the ice. “[H]e was cruelly put to death,” Reynolds wrote, “so that his skin might be preserved for the Satisfaction of those who are content to see the curious things of the world, second hand.” Early the next morning Hudson appeared on deck “in the greatest glee.” When the penguin’s gut had been cut open, they had found thirty-five pebbles inside. Although he had been slow to show much enthusiasm concerning Reynolds’s earlier reports of land, Hudson took these pebbles as incontrovertible proof that they were on the verge of a historic discovery. “Poor man!” Reynolds wrote. “He was nearly beside himself with joy.”
Reynolds turned in at four that morning, “dreading no evil & confident that we would succeed in finding Land ere we were many days older. True! Even in a few hours, we came nigh to finding it, but at the bottom of the Ocean!!”
When he came on deck at eight A.M., Reynolds discovered that Hudson, in his newfound gusto for exploration, had sailed the ship into an exceedingly perilous position. They were surrounded by ice, but Hudson intended to push on even farther to the very edge of the barrier. There were indications of high land just beyond the barrier, and Hudson wanted to prove that “the indications” were indeed land. It may or may not have been in an effort to make up for his earlier conservatism, but the Peacock’s commander was once again demonstrating a disturbing lack of judgment—this time by needlessly risking his ship and men.
By 8:40 A.M. they had gone as far as was possible in a sailing vessel. “We were entirely surrounded by loose Ice,” Reynolds wrote, “some pieces were larger than the Ship & they were packed so closely together that we had no room to proceed or maneuver in.” It was time to extricate themselves from the ice—if that was still possible. Every now and then a space would open up, but just as Hudson gave the order to tack, a chunk of ice would move in, preventing their escape. Finally, Hudson was able to bring the Peacock into the wind, but the resistance offered by the many pieces of ice knocking against the hull slowed the ship until she began to slip backward. Behind them was what Reynolds described as a “huge lump of ice,” and the Peacock rammed into it, stern first. The collision wrenched the rudder so severely that the head split and tore away the ropes that linked it to the wheel. Soon the entire crew was on deck to watch as the ship once again slammed into the ice, this time completely shattering the rudder, which now dangled from the sternpost like a broken wing.
If they had any hope of escape—let alone sailing more than two thousand miles back to Sydney—they needed a rudder. But to unship and repair the steering device required an open patch of water. To the south, they saw what they needed: a clear area in the lee of a big island of ice. Using the sails to steer the ship, Hudson attempted to maneuver them through the growlers and bergy bits, which inevitably thumped against the hull and banged into the topsides, tearing away a section of the ship’s keel as well as the lashing around the port anchor. Once they’d reached open water, a boat was lowered with an ice anchor. If they could secure the Peacock to the ice, they might be able to unship the rudder and begin to repair it.
Reynolds climbed into the rigging to assist in furling the sails. The wind began to freshen, and the ice anchor, by now dug into an ice island, started to slip. Reynolds watched from the masthead as the men on the island struggled to keep the anchor in its bed of ice and snow, but in the end there was nothing they could do to stop it from breaking free. Faster and faster, the ship began to slide backward. Up on top of the mast, Reynolds turned and saw a terrifying sight. Behind them was an iceberg of immense dimensions—many miles long and higher than the masts of the Peacock. “It rose from the Water, bluff as the sides of a house,” Reynolds wrote, “the upper edge projecting like the eaves and when we were under it, it towered above the mast head.”
As he held on for dear life, the Peacock’s port stern quarter, the weakest part of the ship’s frame, slammed into the side of the iceberg. “[T]he Shock & crash & splintering of riven Spars & upper works were any thing but agreeable. For an instant I thought that the Whole Stern must be stove, & that a few minutes would send us to the bottom.” But instead of being smashed to bits, the twelve-year-old vessel bounced, ricocheting off the face of the iceberg. “To strike a second time would be to ensure destruction,” Reynolds wrote. “Sail was made at once & the Ship’s head paid slowly off from the danger.”
Even as the sails were being shaken from their gaskets, he was distracted by the sound of yet another crash. “Scarcely had we got from under [the iceberg], when down came the overhanging ledge of snow.” Tons of snow and ice rained down into the water just behind the ship’s quarterdeck, which was soon awash with the resultant upsurge of foam. “Mercy!” Reynolds wrote. “A moment longer and it had crushed us. I cannot tell you how I looked upon that Island as we were leaving it, by inches; there were the marks of the Ship’s form and paint, and there at its foot were the tumbled heaps of snow that had so nearly overwhelmed us.”
Only now did Reynolds have the opportunity to observe the damage inflicted on the Peacock: “the Spanker boom & Stern boat went to splinters, the Boat’s davits, Taffrel, & all the Starboard Side of the upper works were Started as far forward as the gangway—these receiving the heaviest Shock, saved the Ship. I shall never forget the look of the old craft . . . , Ice, piled around her, so that we could see nothing Else [on] the Deck—the dark figures of the men & boats were the only relief to the dreary Whiteness.”
Even if the disaster was largely his doing, Hudson was now in his element. It had become a fight for survival upon which everything depended on his skill as a seaman. Throughout the ordeal, Hudson remained calm and dignified, and his example inspired his officers and men. “There were no Shrieks,” Reynolds wrote, “no Exhibitions of bewilderment, & I verily believe that had the old ship settled in the Water, she would have gone down with three as hearty cheers as ever came from an hundred throats.”
For the next four hours, Hudson worked his men unmercifully, swinging the yards back and forth in a desperate attempt to steer the Peacock through the ice to safety. But all their efforts seemed in vain. “We thumped, thumped . . . ,” Reynolds wrote, “making but little progress, & drifting to leeward . . . while the distance between us & the clear Sea was increasing Every moment, from the quantity of Ice brought down by the wind.” It was as if the wooden ship were being chewed to pieces by the ice. All of the anchors were stripped of their lashings and hung at the bows by the stoppers; the ship’s cutwater was splintered. At one point three of their chronometers were hurled from their beds of sawdust.
Around three P.M. the wind died to almost nothing. They made fast to a bergy bit and attempted to hoist in the broken rudder. It came up in two pieces, and the carpenters went to work. Soon the wind began to increase; once again, the ice anchor did not hold. Hudson determined to make sail and try to force the ship through the ice. But without the rudder, the Peacock was, in Reynolds’s words, as “helpless as an Infant.”
Some of the men attempted to pole the ship through the floes, extending spars over the bow and pushing with all their collective strength against the ice chunks in their path. Others were dispatched in boats to plant anchors in the ice that might be used to guide the ship. But since the ice was all around them, there was little room to use their oars. At one point a boat-crew found itself trapped between two bergy bits that had begun to swing together. The sea “boiled like a caldron” between the two walls of ice, which pressed against the boat’s gunwales until water began to spout through the seams. Just when it seemed that the boat was about to be crushed by the ice, the bergs moved apart, and the men pushed their way to safety. Others attempted to walk across the ever-shifting ice, laying down planks and lugging the sea anchors from berg to berg.
By six P.M., Hudson and his men had succeeded in working the Peacock to within a hundred yards of a large open section of water. Unfortunately, the ship was now wedged into a seemingly impervious barricade of ice. “[W]e had the cruel mortification of seeing the place of comparative Safety so close at hand,” Reynolds wrote, “& yet be in as much & more peril, than we experienced through the day.”
So far, the wind had remained relatively light. If it should begin to blow, however, they all knew the ship would go down in a matter of minutes as the jagged chunks of ice ripped through the ship’s frail sides. That evening, black clouds began to gather in the west. “[T]hey were rolled & curled together in windy looking wreathes,” Reynolds wrote, “& they had all the appearance of a coming storm.” He climbed aloft to have a better look.
For several minutes, he stared at the clouds. “I watched until I saw the clouds move,” he wrote. “I saw their shadow coming over the water, & now I thought in sad earnest, ‘our time has come at last’ !” Convinced that they were all about to die, he could not help but anticipate how it would happen. “[H]ere were one hundred of us, in the full vigour of health & strength,” he wrote. “[I]n a few moments not one would be left to tell the tale of our destruction. All must go, without the hope of even a struggle for life—there could be no resistance: when the crush came, we should be swept away like the spars & timbers of the Ship.”
Hudson gave the order to furl the sails. After that, the men had nothing to do but wait for the coming storm. As the black “funeral Cloud” approached, the breeze began to build. “[M]y feelings were almost overpowering in their force,” Reynolds admitted. Suddenly, the cloud’s appearance began to change as the wisps dissolved into a harmless mist. Instead of a squall, they found themselves in the middle of a snowstorm. Soon they were back at work, trying to move the ship through the ice.
By one A.M. Hudson realized that they all needed some rest. They had been working nonstop for more than seventeen hours. While one watch remained on deck, the rest went below for some sleep. Reynolds, who was due back on deck in just three hours, fell into his cot. Almost immediately he was in the grip of a terrifying nightmare. “[A]ll the feelings I had mastered during the day,” he wrote, “haunted me in dreams. I died a hundred deaths. I was buried under the Ice; & the whole terrible catastrophe of a wreck from the first moment of the Ice striking the deck to the last drowning gasp, occurred with a vividness that I shall never forget!” With every jar of the ship against the ice, he awoke, convinced that he had just breathed his last. “[T]hose 3 hours in my cot,” he remembered, “were worse than all the others on deck, with real danger to look upon!”
It was little wonder Reynolds had had such a troubled sleep. While he tossed and turned in his cot, Hudson had decided that he had no choice but to drive the ship through the ice. Setting all available sail and with the wind behind, he repeatedly rammed the Peacock’s bow into the obstacles ahead. Soon the foremost piece of the keel, known as the gripe, had been battered to pieces, but Hudson continued on. By the time Reynolds came on deck, the ship had punched her way into a clear channel and was making good progress to the north.
By ten that morning, the carpenters had completed their repair of the rudder. Even though his watch had ended and he was completely exhausted, Reynolds insisted on remaining on deck to witness the re-shipping of the rudder. Using a tackle hooked at a point above the rudderpost and secured to the tiller hole, the rudder was lifted high enough so that its upper pintle (a large metal hook) could be lowered into the gudgeon, a metal loop secured to the sternpost. Once this upper pintle was in place, the rudder was held tightly against the sternpost by the rudder chains as it was carefully lowered until the other pintles had been engaged. In the case of the Peacock’s jury-rigged rudder, there were just two of the usual five pintles remaining.
By 11:30 A.M., the Peacock was on her way again, following a narrow sliver of water that might close in at any moment. By midnight, they had sailed more than thirty miles and were in the open ocean at last. It was Sunday, and after religious service, Hudson called a meeting of the commissioned officers in his cabin. Given the condition of the ship and especially the rudder, it was generally agreed that they had no alternative but to return to Sydney for repairs.
“And so ended our attempt South!” Reynolds wrote. “So vanished our bright hopes, and all that was left for us, was to wish the others better fortunes! True we had seen the Land afar off, & had touched the bottom with our lead, but this was a Lame tale to tell. . . . True we had done all we could, and had nearly become martyrs to our zeal; but disasters never tell much, when productive of defeat, & we were mortified to the very hearts core.”
And yet, they had one thing to be thankful for. They were all still alive. If the Vincennes had run into similar trouble, Reynolds was sure that Wilkes would have been powerless to save the ship and her crew. “The hero of Pago Pago,” he wrote, “was not the man for such terrible occasions as that.”