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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (October 2, 1933)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 7 — Commander F. A. Worsley

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 7
Commander F. A. Worsley

The subject of this month's character sketch of a distinguished New Zealander is a gallant and skilful seaman, who has won fame in Antarctic adventure and war honours in the Royal Navy. Frank Arthur Worsley, D.S.O., Commander R.N.R., is one of those whose career verifies Dr. MacMillan Brown's belief, expressed recently in the Cambridge History of the British Empire, that New Zealand will, as old England has done, breed an enterprising Oceanic race. His life is an exemplar of the irresistible call that “the bright eyes of danger” hold for some strong souls, who like Worsley and his late comrade Shackleton, find in the perils of circumpolar exploration the supreme zest of existence.

Frank Arthur Worsley, D.S.O., Commander R.N.R.

Frank Arthur Worsley, D.S.O., Commander R.N.R.

The beautiful sailing clippers of the New Zealand Shipping Company's fleet were the practical training school in which scores of colonial lads learned their calling in the era when canvas still had a strong hold on the world's ocean commerce, forty to fifty years ago. Many a boy from Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago was soundly drilled in seamanship and navigation under the well-skilled old masters of sail in such ships as the Waitangi, the Piako, the Waimate, Wairoa, Turakina, Waikato, Waipa, and their sisters of the round-the-Horn trade, in the days when the tall spars and painted ports of the big square-riggers were a familiar sight in every New Zealand port. We saw the ships come in deepladen with London and Liverpool general merchandise; they bore the signs of long and stormy voyaging. We saw them tow out and set sail to the deep-sea music of chanties, crammed to the hatches with wool and all manner of New Zealand and South Sea Islands produce.

In one of those handsome iron ships, the Wairoa, learning his life business with schoolboy enthusiasm, active as a circus gymnast up aloft, was an Akaroaborn boy, Frank Worsley. The apprenticeship he served in that ship, and in the Piako, gave him a grounding in sailorly handiness and the lore of the sea-life and a resourcefulness in emergency such as no young seafarer can possibly acquire in these greatly changed times. The loss is great; the school of sail-training, now no more, cannot be replaced by mere machinery, despite all modern inventions.

That was Frank Worsley's college of sea-wisdom and physique-toughening toil. A few years later we find him as a smart young officer in the New Zealand Government steamer service. When I first knew him, in 1899, he was second mate in the Tutanekai, under Captain C. F. Post; later he was chief officer in the Hinemoa. I was shipmates with him, as passenger, on two voyages, one to Samoa, the other a search in the Tasman Sea for the disabled and drifting steamer Perthshire. Captain Post thought a great deal of his alert young second mate, who was a careful and exact navigator. But young dogs will have their day, and it was a wild apprenticeship in the old N.Z.S. Co. Worsley was given to pranks, and the most daring of all was his annexation of his Imperial German Majesty's flag from the Consulate flagstaff on Apia beach, that cruise of 1899. I hope Commander Worsley, R.N.R., will tell the story some day in the book that he should write on his South Sea memories. The centre of that German flag occupies a place of honour on the wall of a New Zealand museum to-day. It is popularly supposed to have been captured valiantly by the New Zealand page 26 Expeditionary Force in the taking of Samoa in 1914.

His First Command.

Another memory is of two years later, the coastwise trial cruise of the Government three-masted schooner Countess of Ranfurly. This handsome little vessel, Worsley's first command, was built for the South Sea Islands trade, linking up New Zealand's tropical dependencies. She was an ideal craft for the work, square-rigged on the foremast, and fitted with auxiliary motor-engine and screw. Worsley's delight in his white schooner knew no bounds, and he showed the Island folk and his passengers what he could do under canvas. Now he had full play for the sail-handling lore of his “brassbounder” days. He cruised all over the New Zealand sector of the South Pacific, as far north as that coral-atoll outpost of ours, Penrhyn Island. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of one of his sailor characters in “The Wrecker” that he could put his schooner through a Scotch reel. I can quite believe that Worsley could lead his pretty Countess just as neat a dance.

In a few years the Government schooner was sold out of the service and Captain Worsley had perforce to look round for a new job. He was a thoroughly well-qualified master mariner and was not likely to be long without a post, and he decided to seek his luck outside the Dominion. Physically, too, he was fit for anything; hardtrained, compact and muscular of build, all steel and india-rubber, as one of his comrades described him. He went to England, and for some years he was in perhaps the most trying sea-service in the world, the North Atlantic, the region of hard weather, fog and icebergs.

Worsley Joins Shackleton.

In his book “Endurance”—an inspiring story which shows that a sailor can often write as well as he can navigate a ship—Worsley describes his first meeting with Sir Ernest Shackleton, an interview which proved the most momentous in his career. In London, one night in 1914—it was before the Great War—he dreamed that Burlington Street was full of ice blocks and that he was navigating a ship along it. “Sailors are superstitious, and when I woke up next morning I hurried like mad into my togs and down Burlington Street I went. I dare say that it was only a coincidence, but as I walked along, reflecting that my dream had certainly been meaningless, and uncomfortable, and that it had cost me time that I could have used to better purpose, a sign on a doorpost caught my eye. It bore the words ‘Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,’ and no sooner did I see it than I turned into the building, with the conviction that it had some special significance for me. Shackleton was there. He and I spent only a few minutes together, but the moment that I set eyes on him I knew that he was a man with whom I should be proud to work. He quickly divined what I wanted, and presently said to me: ‘You're engaged. Join your ship until I wire for you.’ (I was then second officer in the Canadian trade, and had been in command of small vessels.) ‘I'll let you know all details as soon as possible. Good morning.’ He wrung my hand in his hard grasp, and that was all. Not a superfluous word had been spoken on either side, but we knew by instinct that we were to be friends from that hour, and as a matter of fact we were together until Shackleton died.”

To the Antarctic.

That was the beginning of the great partnership with adventure. For more than seven years Worsley and Shackleton were with each other, in joy and sorrow, living great moments, laughing, suffering, grieving together, enduring with other good comrades almost incredible dangers and privations, and triumphing over the heaviest hammerblows of Fate, until at last, in the little Quest, the leader's gallant heart gave up the strain, and Worsley and his mates laid him to rest amidst the snow of desolate South Georgia Island.

Captain Worsley's appointment in the Shackleton Expedition of 1914–15 was as sailing-master and navigator of the Antarctic exploring ship Endurance. This fine vessel was specially built for ice work, a barquentine-rigged steamer, a well-equipped handy-sized craft, manned by a crew of twenty-eight all told. The plan was to penetrate into the Antarctic as far as possible, and then for a land party under Shackleton to cross the South Pole and join the Aurora, the expedition's other ship, commanded by Captain Stenhouse, on the Ross Island side, due south of New Zealand.

The Endurance sailed, and Worsley was in his element once more, handling her under sail and appreciating to the full the usefulness of her square rig forward.

The Loss of the “Endurance.”

Then came the long months in the ice, and the tragic end in July, 1915, when the poor little Endurance was literally squeezed to death in the Antarctic floes. Shackleton described that crushing calamity in his book “South.” Worsley, in his story, tells how poignantly the going of the ship affected himself and his chief. It was so terribly human, the quivering and groaning of the vessel when two massive floes jamed her in a death-grip, ever increasing the pressure. The sides of the vessel buckled in and out like a concertina. “It gave me the horrible impression that the ship was gasping for breath.”

“It was a heartbreaking sight to see the brave little ship, that had been our home for so long, broken up by the remorseless onward sweep of a thousand miles of pack-ice. To see her crushed, and know that we could do nothing whatever to help her, was as bad as watching a chum go out.”

A Wonderful Boat Voyage.

And there the shipless crew stood, the twentyeight of them, awaiting the leader's commands. It was a supreme test of command and planning, forethought and endurance. The story of the ice journey has been told, so too has that most wonderful sea epic been narrated by Shackleton, the 800 miles voyage through Antarctic seas in a small page 27 boat—one of the two saved from the Endurance— from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

Captain Worsley was the navigator of that boat, named the James Caird, only 22ft. 6in. long, with a beam of six feet, partly decked over by the carpenter. With Shackleton and Worsley were four men, the best of the sailors. It was the hardest voyage the gallant six had ever undertaken, for it was the Antarctic winter, and the ocean the little craft had to cross under sail was one of the worst seas in the world. But they came through safely; in sixteen days they reached South Georgia, and after more truly fearful adventures, the whole party marooned on the ice was taken off by a rescue vessel from South America.

Every soul was saved. It was a marvellous achievement. Every day had its new peril, almost every hour; but consummate skill in that smallboat voyage and courage and cheerful endurance of every kind of danger and discomfort—they were in a welter of screaming winds; they were halffrozen and wet all the time; they had to chop the ice off the boat to keep from sinking; they were short of water. But they won through.

Ramming a German Submarine.

Back in England, Captain Worsley went into the Great War with the zest that he had given to his adventurous feats in icy seas. In 1917 he was appointed to the command of His Majesty's ship PQ61, fitting out as a mystery ship at Belfast. His friend Stenhouse, late of the Aurora, joined as first lieutenant. This armed vessel, fitted with a small ram bow of steel, was disguised to resemble a little coasting steamer, to deceive the German submarines. They had “one glorious day.” A submarine attacked an oil-tanker, and Worsley got it before it could submerge. The crew of the German were about to shell the oiler, when Worsley charged straight at them to ram, opening fire with a 12-pounder at the same time. Worsley describes it in a thrilling passage in his latelypublished book. The submarine, of 1,000 tons, was travelling at eight knots; the Mystery Ship, of only 600 tons, was bearing down on her beam at 24 knots. The British vessel must have looked like the Angel of Death to those Germans. He gave the order “Prepare to ram,” and the crew flattened themselves on the deck. A terrific shock, the unearthly rasp of tearing steel; the submarine sank rapidly, and there was a tremendous explosion. The sole survivor of the submarine's crew was the captain.

For that exploit Worsley received the decoration of D.S.O., and Stenhouse was awarded the D.S.C. and the command of a Q ship. Shackleton was as pleased as Worsley at the news. He wired: “Well done, Skipper, tally ho!”

Counting Their Chickens—

Worsley and Stenhouse, on leave, understood that the bagging of an enemy submarine brought an Admiralty reward of £1000. They hied them up to London to spend some of that fortune in advance. “We had a really royal time and returned minus a hundred pounds apiece,” Worsley narrated. “Some little time later we received the Admiralty award. My share was £68, and Stenhouse's £48. We therefore found bagging submarines an expensive amusement.”

For some time thereafter Worsley specialised in dropping depth charges to combat submarines, for which he earned the nickname in the navy of “Depth Charge Bill.” Later he commanded the Q ship Pangloss, operating in the Mediterranean. Then, by way of a change, he went up to North Russia with Shackleton—it was like old times in the snow and ice—and at Archangel and on the Dvina River he enjoyed a variety of exciting adventures. An amazing kind of raid on the Pinega River brought him a bar to the D.S.O.

Schooner-Man Again.

The Endurance.

The Endurance.

The war was over, and Stenhouse and he embarked in commercial shipping, with any amount of excitement but no profit. As if the ice and snow still called him, Worsley must go up in command of a small schooner to Iceland. He had trouble with his crew, and had to keep his revolver handy.

After all manner of troubles, cheerfully surmounted, Worsley brought his crazy little schooner into Kirkwall. He wired to Shackleton, who was then about to fit out a new Antarctic expedition:

“Tally-ho! Just arrived. Sails blown away. Ship frapped, and mast held up with cable.”

Shackleton replied immediately: “Well done, Skipper! Join me as soon as possible.”

The “Quest,” and the Leader's End.

So presently Worsley—now with the rank of Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve—was off to the icy South again with his staunch friend Shackleton. The little topsail-schooner rigged lowpowered steamer, the Quest, obtained for this new expedition to the Antarctica, was not nearly so suitable a vessel as the lost Endurance. One trouble page break page 29 after another befell the ship. The weather was fearful. Shackleton and Worsley often discussed the South Sea Islands, by way of a sea-change from the ice, and they talked of a visit some day to a marvellous pearlshell lagoon of which Worsley knew. But that was never to be. “The Boss,” cheerful and plucky as ever, said “Good night” to his “Good old Skipper,” as he was fond of calling him, and to Wild, as usual one night, and died suddenly at three o'clock in the morning. He was buried on South Georgia; a black cairn and cross mark his grave in this icy waste.

Worsley brought the little ship back to England. In his book he has little about his own work in the Quest but much about his beloved chief, that “proud and dauntless spirit,” whose name is among the immortals.

It was not long before our New Zealander was again battling with snow and ice and gales, this time in the Far North. There is another epic of seamanship in his masterly handling of the small brigantine The Island under sail among the ice in high latitudes. One of his shipmates said of him that he seemed not a bit put out when the ship's auxiliary power was disabled and she was left wholly dependent on her canvas. If ever there was a man who could be described as a “Sailor of the Sail” it is Frank Worsley. And now, after a lifetime of hard-weather seagoing, when most men of his age are expectant of easy retirement, certainly when a man of his national services and achievements should be enjoying a comfortable pension, he is still ready for a job of adventure. For Worsley is one of those whose hearts are eternally young.

The departure from Elephant Island on the epic 800 miles voyage in a small boat to South Georgia.

The departure from Elephant Island on the epic 800 miles voyage in a small boat to South Georgia.

New Railway Carriages

In a reference to the new carriages which have replaced the older type of passenger carriage on the New Plymouth-Wellington Express, the Eltham Argus in a recent issue states:—

“Passengers from Eltham to Wellington by the express train speak in high praise of the comfort of the new railway carriages. They are brightly upholstered, the backs of the seats are fixed at a convenient angle, and there are comfortable foot-rests. The carriages have quite a ‘home away from home’ atmosphere, and make travelling a pleasure. In them one can smoke, read, or enjoy a friendly chat with fellow passengers. To those who have no taste for these amenities the alternative is offered of a comfortable sleep. Talking of railways, how few of the public recognise how punctually our New Zealand Railways run to their time-table? Considering that the greater part of the traffic is carried over a single line the accuracy of their running is really wonderful. There must be good brains at the head of the traffic department, and faithful, intelligent service on the part of the whole staff in general.”

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