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First-hand tales of the Shackelton expedition

The Kathleen Annie in Kirkwall Bay on September 26, 1924. (Pic: Tom Kent, courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.)

By Patricia Long

When Frank Worsley visited Orkney in 1921, he heard that an old sea captain who was very ill would like to see him, so he arranged to visit Stromness.

In his book, Endurance, he wrote: “It had never occurred to me to ask the captain’s name. But the moment that I walked into the room where he lay, I cried, ‘Why you are Captain Jock Sutherland, my old Skipper in the ship Piako!’ and he replied, ‘Why, if it isn’t little Worsley! To think that it was one of my lads that went South with Shackleton!’ He was tremendously excited and made me spend hours telling him our adventures.”

Less than five years earlier, Frank Worsley had arrived in the other Stromness, the whaling station on South Georgia. He had been captain of Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, and had just navigated the small ship’s boat 800 miles across the Southern Ocean. He had learned his trade with the New Zealand Shipping Company, and their clipper Piako was captained from 1885 to 1891 by Robert (Jock) Sutherland.

The son of John Sutherland and Betty Leask from Stromness, Robert went to sea as a ship’s carpenter but so impressed his first skipper that he persuaded Robert to qualify as a Master in the foreign trade. His very successful career was cut short by an accident in 1891, to the benefit of Stromness, where he served on the Town Council for many years. A quote in Sea Haven, by Keith Allardyce and Bryce Wilson, led me to this description of him in Sailing Ships of the London River by Frank G Bowen.

A colossal man, nearly six feet six inches high, he was as gentle as a lamb for all his great strength . . . He believed that an officer of a sailing ship should be able to turn out a spare spar as well as the average ship’s carpenter, and that he ought to be a thoroughly practical sail maker as well. So, while his officers got on with the running of the ship, he paid every attention to the training of the apprentices and any boys that he might have on board…One point on which he was always very strict was that no work was to be made merely for the sake of keeping the men’s noses to the grindstone, and under Captain Sutherland the Piako was a thoroughly happy ship.”

Captain Sutherland was not the only Orcadian lucky enough to hear a first-hand account of the Shackleton expedition only four years after it ended; 300 people attended an illustrated lecture in Kirkwall. Everyone else could read about it in The Orcadian, as Frank Worsley gave them an extensive interview.

Frank Worsley with his ship ‘Annie‘ – not the Kathleen Annie – which he had just sailed from Iceland, April 1921(Pic: Tom Kent, courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive)

Worsley had arrived in Kirkwall with a load of salt fish from Iceland. His efforts in commercial freight after WWI had gone very badly and he arrived in Orkney almost penniless. He gratefully recalled “the amazing treatment which was given me in Kirkwall… When the tradespeople realised my difficulties those who could possibly manage to do so refused to present a bill at all. Those who could not afford to do this, with great self-sacrifice, cut their bills by half. I was forced to repair my rigging before proceeding, and riggers employed on this, whose rate was one-and-ten pence an hour, volunteered to do the work for a shilling, and they worked with a will. The harbourmaster, Captain Cooper proved himself a true friend. He went to the trouble of having my breakfast cooked of a morning and sent on board to me.”

This story only came to light when reading about Frank Worsley’s more famous visit to Orkney, when his schooner, the Kathleen Annie, ran aground. The story of the wreck was remembered for a long time because of the cargo – wood alcohol. The Kathleen Annie was sailing from Bremen to Newfoundland but the cargo’s ultimate destination was the United States, during prohibition.

The ship had come into Kirkwall for repairs in September 1924 but bad weather drove her onto the Muckle Green Holm off Eday. The crew were unhurt and the Kathleen Annie was towed into Kirkwall and beached at Crowness. Work began on transferring 17,000 cases of alcohol to another ship but fumes must have been leaking from the damaged cargo. When the engineer of the drifter Busy Bee opened the furnace door, there was a loud explosion and the ship caught fire.

According to the Orkney Herald: “All this time the Busy Bee was lashed to the Kathleen Annie, and the nature of the cargoes contained in both vessels gave rise to considerable fear . . . 9000 gallons of spirits in the hold of the Busy Bee, and double that amount in the schooner, left ample room for speculation as to what might happen any moment.”

Thankfully, the thirty men on board were rescued unhurt so everyone settled down to watch the show, which went on for hours.

Research on the story of the Kathleen Annie was begun for the Orkney International Science Festival and a longer version of this article can be found in the online magazine http://frontiersmagazine.org/

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