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Frank Worsley and Antarctica


Photograph of Frank Worsley, taken by Herman John Schmidt in July 1903. 

Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance

New Zealander Frank Worsley captained the Endurance during Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. But he is best remembered for navigating the expedition party to safety after the Endurance was crushed by ice floes in the Weddell Sea. Worsley also took part in Shackleton's final expedition to the Antarctic in 1922.

Frank Arthur Worsley was born in Akaroa in February 1872. By the time he joined the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914 he had 27 years' experience in a variety of ships and environments – including in the service of the New Zealand Shipping Company, the New Zealand government and the Royal Naval Reserve. He claimed to have been attracted to Shackleton's expedition by an ‘absurd dream’ in which he saw himself navigating a ship along Burlington Street, London, which was ‘full of ice-blocks’. When he went to the street the following day he saw a sign advertising the expedition. He met with Shackleton and, after only a few minutes, was appointed to captain the Endurance.

Worsley faced some difficulties – including a shortage of coal – while sailing the Endurance to Buenos Aires between August and October 1914. But this was nothing compared with what lay ahead. Within days of their departure from South Georgia in December 1914 the expedition struck pack ice in the Weddell Sea. Although Worsley reportedly ‘enjoyed the excitement of ramming the floes’, their progress was unpredictable and after two months the Endurance became trapped in the ice.

Worsley no longer had a ship to sail but he did not ‘put his feet up and rest’. He assisted the scientists on board, worked to divert his shipmates and took sightings when he could. After the ship was crushed in October 1915, he – despite his misgivings – led unsuccessful marches across the ice in the hope of reaching land.

His skills as a navigator came to the fore when the floe the party was camping on suddenly split apart on 8 April 1916. The party was forced to take to the three lifeboats they had carried with them, and Worsley safely navigated them to Elephant Island. Realising that this was uninhabited and rarely visited, Shackleton appointed Worsley to navigate his six-man rescue party some 1300 km to a whaling station in South Georgia.

The success of the journey depended entirely on the accuracy of Worsley's navigation, but taking precise measurements was virtually impossible due to heavy seas and strong winds. In what has been described as ‘an astonishing feat of navigation’, Worsley safely navigated the party to South Georgia with only four sightings over the 16-day journey.

When the party arrived on the west of South Georgia on 10 May 1916, it was not the end of their ordeal. Worsley, Shackleton and Thomas Crean made an arduous 36-hour overland journey to reach a whaling station to the east. Less than a day later, Worsley set out to rescue the other members of the lifeboat part.

In the four months that followed Worsley assisted Shackleton in his four attempts to rescue the remaining men from Elephant Island. He then accompanied Shackleton to New Zealand with the aim of assisting in the rescue of the Ross Sea Party, only to stand aside during negotiations with John King Davis.

On his return to England in April 1917 Worsley returned to the Royal Naval Reserve to serve in the First World War. He spent 10 months at sea commanding ‘Q-ships’ to combat Germany's U-boats. Shackleton then requested Worsley's assistance organising transport and equipment for the North Russia Expeditionary Force sent by the Allies to support anti-Bolshevik forces.

Worsley joined Shackleton again in 1921 as navigator and hydrographer on the Quest. But their next Antarctic adventure never eventuated. Shackleton died in South Georgia on 5 January 1922. It was also Worsley's last expedition to Antarctica, but he wrote and lectured on his Antarctic adventures for many years to come. Worsley died in February 1943 and was honoured with a full naval funeral. His ashes were scattered at sea.

In 1961-62 the New Zealand Geological and Survey Antarctic Expedition named some icefalls in Antarctica after Worsley. Worsley Icefalls are in the upper part of the Nimrod Glacier, south of the Geologists Range. A cape in Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the mainland, was named after Worsley by the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey in 1947. A mountain in South Georgia has also been named after Worsley by the United Kingdom Antarctic Place-Names Committee.

Further information


  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance: The true story of Shackleton's incredible voyage to the Antarctic, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1999
  • John Thomson, Shackleton's captain: A biography of Frank Worsley, Hazard Press, Christchurch, 1998
  • F.A. Worsley, The great Antarctic rescue: Shackleton's boat journey, Times Books, London, 1977



Alexander Turnbull Library
Reference: 1/2-004931-G
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

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Frank Worsley and Antarctica, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated