Thomas Mercer Chronometers
File this story under “just plain awesome.” Thomas Mercer, a UK-based builder of marine chronometers (yes, there is still such a company) has built a one-off timekeeper that accompanied a British Royal Navy and Marines expedition commemorating and retracing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s now-famous 1916 crossing of the Southern Ocean in an open boat. The chronometer was built to withstand the rigors of open ocean travel, while staying accurate enough for use navigating a boat. Far from a random brand simply co-opting an expedition as a stunt, Thomas Mercer happens to be the same company that built the chronometer that was with Shackleton himself on that fateful voyage 100 years ago.
The expedition, known as the “Endurance 2016, ” comes exactly a century after Shackleton’s epic adventure. The original Imperial Transantarctic Expedition, which its captain saved from utter failure against impossible odds, is known to most thanks to countless books, documentaries and MBA course case studies, but it never gets old. On a quest to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent, the expedition was stopped short when their ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice off in the Weddell Sea. The crew of 28 men, led by their charismatic captain, lived on the ice for close to a year before abandoning their ship when it imploded under pressure and sank under the ice for good. They then man-hauled all of their equipment in two of their lifeboats until they reached the open water of the Southern Ocean. They sailed across to uninhabited Elephant Island, where they camped out, eating penguin, whatever else they could kill, leftover dwindling rations, and who knows what else, until Shackleton hatched an outrageous plan as a last ditch effort to save his men. And that’s where things get really interesting.
The captain took five of his most trustworthy crew and set sail with makeshift rigging in an open 22-foot boat, the James Caird, aiming for the speck of South Georgia Island 800 nautical miles away to find help at a Norwegian whaling camp there. The feat is still considered one of the most difficult and dangerous sailing feats ever undertaken, thanks to currents and icy water with towering 50-foot waves, made more difficult by pitching seas and cloudy skies that would make taking sun shots for sextant readings nearly impossible for navigator Frank Worsley. The voyage took 14 days and the men took only the most vital supplies, including a Thomas Mercer marine chronometer, which would be essential, in concert with the sextant, for finding their way to South Georgia Island.
Thomas Mercer has been making marine chronometers off and on since the early 1800s – the dawn of the golden age of exploration, when chronometers provided a leap forward for wayfinding on the high seas. Prior to their invention, ships often foundered on shoals and missed their marks by hundreds of miles due to an inability to determine longitude. Marine chronometers of course have to be incredibly accurate to provide the time reference needed for navigation, but they also have to be sturdy enough to withstand the abuse they take onboard a ship, or in the case of Shackleton’s voyage, a small open boat on the Southern Ocean. A key innovation by Frank Mercer in the early 1900s proved key – the trawler suspension, a sort of spring-supported gimbal mechanism designed to absorb the violent pitching onboard a boat at sea, tested by Frank Mercer onboard an Icelandic fishing trawler in 1905.