In old age Bellingshausen liked to tell people that he had spent 13 years, nine months and 14 days of his life at sea. We need to get a picture of 527 of those days. Take, first, the ships themselves. The wooden sailing vessels used by the navies of the period were the most advanced technology and the most formidable, and expensive, weapon systems of their day. They were highly flexible machines, but their gear-train, or the ‘furniture’ by which they harnessed wind and water for their propulsion, had two disadvantages. First, the component parts were extremely heavy and incurred severe friction. Coupled with the need to make rapid changes in rough weather or battle conditions, that meant that crews had to be large, and large crews required large stores of perishable food and water. And second, crews and furniture were subject to a high rate of attrition even in peacetime. Injuries and infectious diseases were common, and vital parts of the ship were often broken or carried away. The crew included a specialist repair team, and ships making long voyages into regions with few onshore repair facilities took their spare anchors, cables, ropes, sails and spars with them. They also needed to resupply with water, timber and fresh food, and to find safe, sheltered anchorages when major repairs were necessary. By Bellingshausen’s day only one of those limiting factors, scurvy, was beginning to be overcome, partly due to the practical research and example of the great eighteenth- century British explorer, James Cook.


Antarctic Expedition Flexible Machine South Sandwich Island Auckland Island Rough Weather 


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© Rip Bulkeley 2014

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