Tom Crean’s enters the Antarctic Circle
Scott’s Discovery Expedition
January 3rd 1902
On January 3rd 1902, Tom Crean sailed into Antarctic waters for the very first time, aboard the Discovery, which was commanded by Robert Falcon Scott. The British National Antarctic Expedition, as it was officially known had a somewhat unexpected crew member, in Crean, who only joined the Discovery after its last port of call at Lyttelton, New Zealand.
Tom Crean was assigned to the Ringarooma, which was also in the area, and its crew were helping Scott with final preparations, before departure for Antarctica.
One of the Discovery crew, a man named Harry Baker, was involved in a dispute, and struck an officer. Baker fled, rather than face his punishment and now Scott’s crew was a man short.
Realising his only hope of replenishing his crew lay with Captain Rich of the Ringarooma, Scott approached him with the request for one of his men. When the call went out for a volunteer, it was Tom Crean who took up the challenge.
So, completely by chance, and due to the indiscretion of one Harry Baker, the 24 year old Irishman was soon on his way to Antarctica. As he crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time that January 3rd, few could have foreseen that this was the opening chapter in a story of heroic bravery, compassion and endurance, forged on ice, sea and land, over the course of three Antarctic Expeditions. The story of the Irish Giant, Tom Crean.
The Discovery Expedition left Lyttelton, New Zealand on December 21st, 1901. Tragedy immediately befell the voyage as the young seaman, Charles Bonner, fell to his death. He along with several other crewmen, had climbed the ship’s rigging to wave their farewell’s to the crowds that had gathered to bid farewell to the Discovery. Two men-of-war had steamed out ahead of the expedition ship, and five steamers, crowded with onlookers and bands also accompanied the southward bound vessel.
Bonner had climbed higher than the rest – above the crow’s nest, to the very top of the main mast, where he sat himself. In what can only be described as a moment of madness, he raised himself to a fully standing position to wave to the crowds, and almost immediately fell, crashing to the deck below, dying instantly.
He was buried with full naval honours, two days later, when Discovery reached Port Chalmers.
It was a tragic start to the expedition, and to Tom Crean’s Antarctic career. Their last sighting of land and civilisation came on that Christmas Eve, as they headed into the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean. Christmas Day came and went with little celebration, as a sombre mood was felt by all.
Luckily for the men and their overladen ship, the weather was good, and remained so as they crossed the Antarctic Circle on January 3rd, 1902. The adventure had begun in earnest, and the pack ice – the first of their many, many challenges, awaited them.
Source Michael Smith Tom Crean – An Illustrated Life. The Collins Press, 2011