An Irishwoman's Diary

 

Every week or so, builder David Hirzel tugs on a rustic gansy and heads for Fisherman’s Wharf and Hyde Pier, at the end of San Francisco’s cable car line. It’s twin to the ancient sweater his hero Tom Crean wears in the few photos of him left.

So far Hirzel hasn’t tattooed ‘Hold Fast’ on his knuckles, as 19th century sailors often did. But otherwise he’s as in touch with the world before the mast and South Pole exploration as any landlubber builder can be.

Ever since he was 10, Hirzel’s devoured everything about polar exploration he could find, starting with Alfred Lansing’s Endurance about Shackleton. Kerryman Tom Crean quickly became Hirzel’s main interest. It took Hirzel 16 years to write his first book Sailor on Ice: Tom Crean with Scott in the Antarctic 1910-1913.

In between attic conversions, this chronicler of Crean’s Antarctica dresses up as a 19th century Jack Tar to guide visitors around the Balclutha and Grace Quan, antique ships bobbing at Hyde Pier, where he runs the Living History Project.

Between the boiled crab joints and tourist tat, he helps recreate 1901 in period costume, the same year that Tom Crean first joined Scott on the Discovery. You get to haul on “the sheets” and in winter, rollicking shanty-singing nights rule.

Hirzel’s links to Crean’s Kerry used to be zilch. But his research took him to Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula, where he drank tea with Tom Crean’s daughter Mary Crean O’Brien, and continued pursuing the strong, silent Kerryman of few words. “Getting him to talk about his trips was like drawing hen’s teeth,” people said. Sourcing Crean is tricky: navy or science logs only.

“My intention was never to write a formal biography of Crean – I’m a builder, not a biographer, and anyway Michael Smith had already given us one,” Hirzel protests. “Instead I just tried to tell the story of his Antarctic adventures through his own eyes – insofar as I can imagine, that is. Not with his voice, which I wouldn’t ever presume. Just knowing what he knows and facing his trials and triumphs as a man.” The result is a ripping read bursting with true-life adventure, but its strongest suit is empathy for the lives of common seamen a century ago.

As a boy, Crean lied about his age to enlist in the navy. He was 15. In 1901, Scott picked him for his first trip south on the Discovery, and he spent much of the next two decades either Pole bound or ice-trapped.

Seamen fell down crevasses and got hauled back, ate seal “hoosh” stew, endured frostbite or snow blindness.

Tom Crean was utterly at home in this remote, harsh world, enough to go back twice – even after being ice-trapped that first trip, surviving two years on seal meat while waiting to be rescued.

Crean enjoyed luck in spades, although luck was always fickle in the race to the Pole. On his second voyage in 1910, his Siberian huskie was swept overboard by a monster wave. The next roll swept it back on board unharmed.

They were on the ice pack a hundred miles from the Pole when Captain Scott sent trusty Crean 800 miles back to base with two fast-failing men – in extreme weather across treacherous glaciers, hundreds of icefalls, melting snow-buried crevasses...

Crean’s bravest feat was a final solo march of 30 miles to base across the Great Ice Barrier to save his companions. They’d walked 1,300 miles, exhausted food, and one was dying of scurvy. But Crean reached help and they survived. Not so Scott, who reached the Pole to find Amundsen’s Norwegian flag flying. Some weeks later Crean found Scott’s body.

Eventually Crean came home to open the South Pole Inn with his wife. In one photo, he’s holding an armful of sheepdog puppies, and affection is written all over his face. He died in 1938, at 61, of a ruptured appendix, relatively young.

Hirzel’s little book on Crean is now an e-book and his next will be about Shackleton’s 1914 voyage. When the Endurance was crushed in pack ice, Crean took an open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island with Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley, reaching a whaling station after hiking 36 hours, and rescuing every man. As they steamed into Chile’s German-colonised Puerto Montt and civilisation, they finally learned of the Great War and its terrible toll. They’d been away too long to hear!

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