Designed by Ole Aanderud Larsen, Endurance was built at the Framnæs shipyard in Sandefjord, Norway and fully completed on 17 December 1912. She was built under the supervision of master wood shipbuilder Christian Jacobsen, who was renowned for insisting that all men in his employment were not just skilled shipwrights but also be experienced in seafaring aboard whaling or sealing ships. Every detail of her construction had been scrupulously planned to ensure maximum durability: for example, every joint and fitting was cross-braced for maximum strength.
The ship was launched on 17 December 1912 and was initially christened Polaris (eponymous with Polaris, the North Star). She was 144 feet (44 m) long, with a 25 feet (7.6 m) beam and measured 348 tons gross. Though her black hull looked from the outside like that of any other vessel of a comparable size, it was not. She was designed for polar conditions with a very sturdy construction. Her keel members were four pieces of solid oak, one above the other, adding up to a thickness of 85 inches (2,200 mm), while its sides were between 30 inches (760 mm) and 18 inches (460 mm) thick, with twice as many frames as normal and the frames being of double thickness. She was built of planks of oak and Norwegian fir up to 30 inches (760 mm) thick, sheathed in greenheart, a notably strong and heavy wood. The bow, which would meet the ice head-on, had been given special attention. Each timber had been made from a single oak tree chosen for its shape so that its natural shape followed the curve of the ship's design. When put together, these pieces had a thickness of 52 inches (1,300 mm).
Of her three masts, the forward one was square-rigged, while the after two carried fore and aft sails, like a schooner. As well as sails, Endurance had a 350 horsepower (260 kW) coal-fired steam engine capable of speeds up to 10.2 knots (18.9 km/h; 11.7 mph).
By the time of launch on 17 December 1912, Endurance was perhaps the strongest wooden ship ever built, with the possible exception of Fram, the vessel used by Fridtjof Nansen and later by Roald Amundsen. However, there was one major difference between the ships. Fram was bowl-bottomed, which meant that if the ice closed in against her it would be squeezed up and out and not be subject to the pressure of the ice compressing around her. But since Endurance was designed to operate in relatively loose pack ice she was not constructed so as to rise out of pressure to any great extent.
The rowing-boat/lifeboat aboard the Endurance was named the James Caird and was used continually to ferry those on board to the shore or ice.
As Endurance was built for Adrien de Gerlache and Lars Christensen, they intended to use her for polar cruises for tourists to hunt polar bears. Financial problems leading to de Gerlache pulling out of their partnership meant that Christensen was happy to sell the boat to Ernest Shackleton for GB£11,600 less than cost. He is reported to have said he was happy to take the loss in order to further the plans of an explorer of Shackleton's stature . After Shackleton purchased the ship, she was rechristened "Endurance" after the Shackleton family motto "Fortitudine vincimus" (By endurance we conquer).
In the previous 16 years, nearly two dozen wooden vessels had sailed to the icy seas of the far south. All had returned home but the Aurora. Lloyd's of London and the Indemnity Marine Assurance Company had underwritten her hull, machinery and equipment for £15,000. Just before she sailed, The Times had reported that "Hitherto the insurance of vessels taking part in Antarctic exploration has ceased at the last port touched, and the Endurance will be the first vessel to be insured in the ice zone."
The Times had praised Endurance as "built specially for work in Polar seas," adding that "in an ice-coated sea there can be no turbulent waves which are the causes of so many disasters in warmer zones."
Shackleton sailed with Endurance from Plymouth, England on 6 August 1914 and set course for Buenos Aires, Argentina. This was Endurance's first major voyage following its completion and amounted to a shakedown voyage. The trip across the Atlantic took more than two months. Built for the ice, her hull was considered by many of her crew too rounded for the open ocean.
On October 26, 1914 Endurance sailed from Buenos Aires to what would be her last port of call, the whaling station at Grytviken on the island of South Georgia, arriving on November 5. She left Grytviken on 5 December 1914 heading for the southern regions of the Weddell Sea.
Two days after leaving from South Georgia, Endurance encountered polar pack ice and progress slowed down. For weeks Endurance worked its way through the pack, averaging less than 30 miles (48 km) per day. By 15 January 1915 Endurance was within 200 miles (320 km) of her destination, Vahsel Bay. However, by the following day, heavy pack ice was sighted in the morning and in the afternoon a gale developed. Under these conditions it was soon evident progress could not be made, and Endurance took shelter under the lee of a large grounded berg. During the next two days, Endurance moved back and forth under the sheltering protection of the berg.
On 18 January the gale began to moderate and Endurance set the topsail with the engine at slow. The pack had blown away. Progress was made slowly until hours later Endurance encountered the pack once more. It was decided to move forward and work through the pack, and at 5:00 pm Endurance entered it. However, it was noticed that this ice was different from what had been encountered before. The ship was soon amongst thick but soft brash ice. The ship became beset. The gale now increased in intensity and kept blowing for another six days from a northerly direction towards land. By 24 January, the wind had completely compressed the ice in the whole Weddell Sea against the land. Endurance was icebound. All that could be done was to wait for a southerly gale that would start pushing, decompressing and opening the ice in the other direction. Instead, the days passed and the pack remained unchanged.
Endurance drifted for months beset in the ice in the Weddell Sea. The changing conditions of the Antarctic spring brought such pressure that broke the hull of Endurance over the period from 27 October 1915, causing flooding of interior spaces. On the morning of 21 November 1915, Endurance's bow began to sink under the ice and thus she had to be abandoned.
The crew remained on the ice for several more weeks, and when the ice pack broke up they used Endurance's three lifeboats to reach Elephant Island. Twenty-two men waited while Shackleton and five others took one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, and sailed to South Georgia to obtain rescue for the rest of the crew. Shackleton arrived at the whaling station on South Georgia Island two weeks later, but because the whaling ships were not equipped to penetrate Antarctic sea ice it took Shackleton three months before he successfully approached Elephant Island in August 1916 and rescued the rest of his crew on his third attempted rescue mission.
The crew of Endurance in her final voyage was made up of the 28 men listed below:
Nationalities. All the crew were born and resident in England before the expedition, except for the following:Shackleton. Irish
Worsley. New Zealander.
Greenstreet. New Zealander.
Bakewell. American, may have claimed to be Canadian when he applied to join the Imperial expedition in Buenos Aires.
Edgar Smith. Irish.
Blackborrow was originally refused a post aboard the vessel due to his young age and inexperience and decided to stow away, helped to sneak aboard by William Bakewell, a friend of his, and Walter How. When he was found Shackleton decided to make him a steward rather than leave him ashore at South Georgia. Blackborrow eventually proved his worth, earning the Bronze Polar Medal, and the honour of becoming the first human being ever to set foot on Elephant Island. His name is also the matter of some debate—it is sometimes spelled Percy, or Blackboro, or in other ways.
It is often said that Shackleton placed an advertisement in a newspaper reading:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.
No trace of the supposed advertisement has come to light.
Alfred Lansing wrote a book titled Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage about the ordeal that Shackleton and his men endured aboard the ship. It became a bestseller when first published in 1959.
Two Antarctic patrol ships of the British Royal Navy have been named Endurance in honour of Shackleton's ship. The first HMS Endurance, launched in May 1956 and awarded pennant number A171 sometime later, acted as an ice patrol and hydrographic survey ship until 1986. The second HMS Endurance was bought from Norway in 1992 where she was named MV Polar Circle. It is currently (2012) not in commission.
On February 8, 2017, an episode of the preeminent Australian fact-based comedy podcast Do Go On was released wherein the details of Endurance's final voyage were discussed at great length. The discussion was helmed by David J. Warneke with Jess "Bop" Perkins and Matt Stewart also in attendance.
In 1998 wreckage found at Stinker Point on the south western side of Elephant Island was incorrectly identified as flotsam from the ship. However, it belonged to the 1877 wreck of the Connecticut sealing ship Charles Shearer. In 2001 wreck hunter David Mearns unsuccessfully planned an expedition to find the wreck of the Endurance. By 2003 two rival groups were making plans for an expedition to find the wreck, however no expedition was actually mounted. In 2010 Mearns announced a new plan to search for the wreck. The plan is sponsored by the National Geographic Society but is subject to finding sponsorship for the balance of the US$10 million estimated cost. A 2013 study by Dr Adrian Glover of the Natural History Museum, London suggests the Antarctic Circumpolar Current could preserve the wreck on the seabed by keeping wood-boring "ship worms" away.