Ireland’s new marine research vessel will be named the RV Tom Crean, after the renowned seaman and explorer who undertook three major ground breaking expeditions to the Antarctic in the early years of the 20th Century.
The new 52.8 metre research vessel will replace the smaller RV Celtic Voyager, and has been commissioned with funding provided by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It will provide a year round service for fishing surveys, seabed mapping, deep water surveys and increased research in the Atlantic Ocean. Interestingly, Ireland’s research vessels are among the most intensively used in the world.
Dr Paul Connolly, CEO of the Marine Institute said, “The decision to name Ireland’s new research vessel after Tom Crean honours his achievements and gives due recognition to an Irish explorer of international renown. The Institute greatly appreciates the support of the descendants of Tom Crean in this decision. This naming decision also reflects the values of the Marine Institute, the collaborative efforts and achievements of its staff, particularly the service provided by all staff who go to sea.”
Speaking on the announcement, Tom’s grand-daughter, Aileen Crean O’Brien said on behalf of the family: “We welcome the decision by the Irish government and the Marine Institute to name their new marine research vessel after Tom Crean, of whom we as a family are very proud.”
And so they should be, despite the fact that Crean himself was a modest man who never talked about his experiences. But don’t let that fool you – in an age of heroic explorers, Tom Crean was among the most heroic of them all. It’s fitting that his name will be honoured at last, even more so as the vessel bearing his name will increase our knowledge of the world.
Crean’s Epic Adventures at the End of the World
Tom’s path to Antarctic explorer began in 1893 when he left his Kerry home to join the navy at the age of 15. By 1899, he had risen to the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class and was stationed on the other side of the world, in Australian waters.
In 1901, Crean’s division was helping Robert Scott prepare for his forthcoming Antarctic voyage when opportunity knocked. Shortly before Scott’s ship, Discovery, was due to depart, one of its crew was involved in a fight with a superior officer. The man deserted, leaving Scott one man short. Tom Crean took his place.
At the time, little was known about the mysterious Antarctic continent. Throughout the 1800s, a constant stream of explorers had traversed its seas, discovering more about its islands and coastline. A few had even landed on the mainland. But Discovery was the first official British exploration of the region since the voyage of James Ross sixty years earlier. As such, there was great public interest in the expedition.
Arriving in Antarctic waters in January 1902, Discovery explored the coastlinefor a month before anchoring. The plan to leave Antarctica by April 1903 was abandoned because the ship remained trapped in ice for two years. Scott made good use of the time, however, travelling inland on sledges to discover more about this mysterious, frozen wasteland. Crean took part in five of these journeys, one of which set the record for the furthest southern point ever reached.
Twice during his time on the voyage, Crean almost died after falling through thin ice into water with temperatures of -50 C. His efforts earned him a special mention from Scott and a promotion to Petty Officer 1st Class on Discovery’s return to England in 1904.
Crean’s next brush with Antarctica came in 1910, again with Captain Scott. The ultimate aim of this expedition was to reach the South Pole, which had never been done before. Terra Nova sailed from England in June and after stopping in Australia and New Zealand, reached Antarctica in January 1911. A simultaneous strike for the Pole by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen increased the urgency and excitement.
Before attempting to reach the Pole, tons of supplies had to be hauled across hundreds of miles of ice so that a series of supply depots lined the route. On one of these missions, Crean and two other men unwittingly pitched their tent on thin ice. During the night, the ice began to break up. The three awoke to find themselves adrift on an ice floe with killer whales circling. They had been separated from their sledge and equipment. The situation was dire.
Not for the last time, Crean risked his life to save his comrades. He leaped from floe to floe before somehow managing to scale the icy face of the Ross Ice Shelf. Then, he trekked back to camp to raise the alarm. Thanks to his efforts, his two crew mates were rescued.
An Impossible Journey
Scott selected four men to make the final push for the Pole. Crean was not among this group, and although bitterly disappointed, he almost certainly would have perished had he been chosen. The final five set off on the last leg of their arduous journey. Crean and two others, Lashly and Evans, turned back to begin the 750 mile return journey to camp.
Weeks into this return journey, Evans took ill. Unable to walk, he ordered Crean and Lashly to leave him to die. Both men refused and putting Evans on the sledge, they kept going. With 35 miles between them and camp, and with very little food left, they knew it was life or death.
At that point, Crean decided to make a solo run for help, leaving Lashly to look after Evans. In an amazing feat of endurance, he walked non-stop for 18 hours with just three biscuits and some chocolate to sustain him, arriving at camp just ahead of a blizzard. As if that wasn’t enough, he wanted to accompany the rescue team that set out to find Evans and Lashly. Thanks to his efforts, Evans and Lashly were rescued.
In the end, Amundsen’s team were first to reach the Pole and sadly, Scott’s expedition ended in tragedy. While they did make the Pole, all five died on the return journey. Months later, once the winter months had passed, a search party went out to find them. It was Crean who noticed the top of their tent sticking out from beneath the snow, allowing them to bid their friends farewell and recover their journals and letters. On returning to England in 1913, Crean was awarded the Albert Medal for his bravery in saving Evans’ life.
One More Voyage
The rest of the Terra Nova crew had no desire to explore the frozen continent again. Crean, however, had one last voyage in him. Less than a year later, Sir Ernest Shackleton asked him to join the Endurance expedition. Shackleton wanted to walk across Antarctica from coast to coast, via the South Pole. If the mission succeeded, they would make history as the first people to cross the frozen continent. Endurance turned out to be a very apt name because this expedition became one of the greatest survival stories of all time.
The ship left South Georgia Island, the closest inhabited place, in December 1914. The South Georgia whalers warned Shackleton about that season’s sea ice, saying it was the worst they had ever seen. Sure enough, within days Endurance was moving through pack ice. Eventually the ship became completely trapped in the ice and the crew lived aboard her throughout the entire Antarctic winter of 1915.
In August, the ice began to break up, but ironically, this put Endurance in greater danger than before. The pressure of the ice moving beneath the ship damaged the hull. In October, the crew abandoned ship. The men salvaged what they could and erected camps on the ice floes.
A week later, the men began a slow march across the ice, hauling their supplies on lifeboats. Progress was so slow as to render their efforts pointless: they covered a mile on the first day. After two more days, Shackleton abandoned this attempt. The men decided to wait for the ice to break up, at which point they could reach land in their lifeboats. They watched from their camp as Endurance sank beneath the ice a few weeks later.
Striking for Land
After another failed attempt at crossing the ice, the men were forced to wait it out. By the following April, food supplies were running low – they had even shot and eaten the last of their dogs. But finally the ice was separating. The problem was where to go. It was -30 C and the crew were starving and constantly soaked by sea water. The uninhabited Elephant Island was the closest reachable land, so they set off.
Crean sailed on one of three lifeboats but when his commander took ill, he assumed command. Conditions on the boat were appalling. The men were constantly freezing, wet and sick. Their little boats were tossed around by enormous waves and they had to bail out water continuously. In the mornings they would wake covered by frost. Through it all, Crean kept them afloat and after seven terrible days all three boats landed on Elephant Island.
Their joy was short lived. Elephant Island is one of the most remote places on earth. The men knew there was no chance of rescue by a passing ship, they would have to save themselves. Now begins the most incredible part of the story.
A Perilous Sailing
South Georgia Island lay 800 miles away. Shackleton knew the entire crew wouldn’t make it, so he decided to attempt the journey with a small crew. After raising the sides of the boat, and covering it with canvas, Shackleton, Crean and four others left their 22 crew mates and embarked on an incredible journey across the roughest sea in the world. Shackleton initially asked Crean to remain behind and care for the men, some of whom were mentally deteriorating, but Crean wanted to go.
On Easter Monday 1916, when Ireland’s rebels were making a bold strike for freedom, another Irishman thousands of miles away made his own bold strike. On departing Elephant island, the six men spent two weeks in the worst conditions imaginable. Icebergs, high winds, lack of sleep, thirst and the constant clearing of ice and water from the boat exhausted them.
Even a larger ship would have struggled on the same journey. When they finally reached South Georgia and tried to land the boat, a hurricane struck. As Crean and the others battled to ride out the storm, a much larger Argentinian ship went down with the loss of all her crew a mere ten miles away.
Amazingly Tom Crean managed to keep his spirits up and was often heard singing The Wearin’ O The Green in his monotone voice. His cool and calm demeanour during this hellish journey was remembered by his crew mates. By the time the men landed, they were utterly exhausted, but their ordeal was not over. The storm had brought them to the wrong side of the island, and with their boat damaged during landing, they couldn’t row any further. The only path left was to cross the island on foot.
The interior of South Georgia was uncharted but these men had come too far to give up. After resting for a few days, Shackleton, Crean and another man called Worsley, left the others and set off in threadbare clothing and worn out boots with just three days of rations. They roped themselves together and set off through the mountains, marching almost continuously for 37 hours and becoming the first people to cross South Georgia on foot.
By the end of the first day they had climbed 3,000 feet, but night was on the way and they knew if they didn’t descend quickly they were done for. What followed was probably one of the craziest attempts at survival ever made. With no other option, the men made a makeshift sled from their ropes and launched themselves off the precipice, literally jumping into the unknown.
They careened down the mountain, travelling 3,000 feet in three minutes. Worlsey later said: “we seemed to shoot into space. For a moment my hair stood on end. Then quite suddenly I felt a glow and knew that I was grinning. I was actually enjoying it. It was most exhilarating. We were shooting down the side of an almost precipitous mountain at nearly a mile a minute. I yelled with excitement and found that Shackleton and Crean were yelling too. It seemed ridiculously safe. To hell with the rocks!”
Sanctuary At Last
More trials awaited them on the remainder of the journey, which was largely guesswork as they couldn’t be certain of the terrain ahead of them. At one stage, they were making their way across a frozen lake when Tom Crean went through the ice, landing waist high in freezing water. At another point in the journey, Shackleton told his exhausted mates to take a short nap, but he stayed awake as he feared if they all slept they would never wake.
As they neared the whaling station at Stromness, they saw two children. The sight of the men frightened the children so much that they ran away. The station manager – who had met them eighteen months previously, before they left for Antarctica – didn’t recognise them, so changed were they.
The following morning, the three crew members were rescued from the other side of the island. However, it took time to find a ship and crew capable of making the perilous crossing to Elephant Island. Finally, in August, they made it back to find all 22 men still alive.
Today, the story of Endurance is recognised as one of the most remarkable feats of the age of polar exploration. Crean returned to Kerry when he retired from the Navy in 1920 and ran a pub called the South Pole Inn in his native Annascaul. He died in 1938, aged 61.
For more on the epic adventures of this legendary explorer, see here.