The Pandora, Welsh exploration ship

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The 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of exploration, of pushing back the restrictions of the known world and reaching for new heights, new lands. The explorers of the time ignored the climate and often hostile native populations, braving all for the sake of discovery.

Arctic iceberg

Despite the dangers, people journeyed across Africa, through the Australian bush and, in particular, along the frozen wastes of the Arctic and Antarctica. These ardent and intrepid explorers had one thing in common: they were all eager to push at the boundaries of knowledge.

Exploration or survey ships were often a part of this exercise. The more famous ones such as Discovery, Terra Nova, Erebus and Terror, have gone down in history and folklore. Often they gave their names to some remote island or mountain that had been glimpsed by mankind for the very first time – and were sometimes destroyed in the course of carrying out their duties.

But there were many more ships that are nowadays all but forgotten or ignored. One Welsh-built ship was typical of the age and of the work involved.

The Pandora

The Pandora was a wooden hulled Philomel Class gunboat, launched from Pembroke Dockyard on 7 February 1861. Her career in the Royal Navy was uneventful and in the early 1870s she was sold to Sir Allen Young. He used her for a series of voyages to the Arctic in 1875 and 1876, private expeditions with little or no government backing.

At the end of 1877 the Pandora was sold again, this time to the rich and eccentric New York newspaper magnate Gordon Bennett. An enthusiast for exploration – he was the man who engaged Henry Morton Stanley to go hunting for Dr Livingstone – Bennett felt that the ship's name was not manly or dramatic enough. He promptly re-christened the Pandora, giving her the name Jeanette. For some reason this strange and enigmatic tycoon felt the new name was altogether more appropriate.

Exploring the North Pole

The newly named Jeanette was immediately fitted out for a trip to the North Pole through the Baring Strait, her hull being strengthened to withstand the power of the Arctic ice pack. Under the command of Lt Commander George De Long, she was still privately owned by Bennett but she sailed under the orders and flag of the US Navy.

The ship left San Francisco on 8 July 1879 and by the end of August was moored in St Lawrence Bay in Siberia. Slowly, steadily they headed north. And then disaster struck. Near Wrangel Island the Jeanette became caught in the ice and nothing the sailors could do would free her. For 18 months they simply drifted northwards, caught in the crushing grip of the ice flow, being dragged closer and closer to the pole.

In the days before radio communications nobody knew what had happened to the ship and her crew and it was simply a case of waiting until she turned up again. As the months dragged on several new islands were discovered and named by De Long – Jeanette, Henrietta and Bennett – which were duly claimed for the United States.

Finally, on the night of 12 June 1881, pressure of the ice began to crush the ship's hull. In haste, De Long and his crew unloaded provisions and supplies onto the ice, along with three of the long boats carried by the Jeanette. On the morning of 13 June the ship's wooden hull splintered and she disappeared for ever under the ice.

Ice trek to the Siberian coast

De Long and his men were now faced by the terrifying prospect of a trek over the ice to the Siberian coast, pulling the long boats and their supplies behind them.

It was a hard and brutal journey but, eventually, they reached open water. Jubilant and confident that the worst was over, they promptly ran into a storm, the like of which none of them had ever encountered before. Tragically, one of the boats capsized and eight crewmen were drowned. The other two boats were separated in the gale.

In De Long's boat the tragedy continued unabated. Short on supplies, sick in body and despairing in their hearts, the men died one after the other, De Long amongst them. Only two of the sailors managed to eventually reach safety.

In the other boat, commanded by the chief engineer from the Jeanette, things went a little better. Eleven men survived the elements to make it home.

The story of Gordon Bennett's attempt to reach the North Pole is one of tragedy and pain. But it is also one of great courage, a testament to human endurance. No amount of rationalisation can ever explain just why people would put themselves through such agony. Perhaps it is best to simply remember the words of the climber George Mallory when asked why he wanted to conquer Mount Everest: "Because it's there."

And, of course, there is still a frisson of pride when one considers that a tiny ship, built in a Welsh dockyard, had a huge part to play in the enterprise.

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