cover image Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time

Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time

Michael Palin. Greystone, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-77164-441-9

Palin’s enthusiasm for seafaring tales and Victorian-era polar exploration enliven this history of the Erebus, a warship that disappeared in the most severe sailing conditions of the mid-19th century. Commissioned in 1826, the Erebus had a stout build ideal for braving polar ice, and she and her sister ship, Terror, were designated for this duty by the British admiralty in 1839. Palin’s detailed, affectionate descriptions of the ships’ construction, outfitting, and crewing reveal an almost boyish enthusiasm. His astute use of ship’s journals and crewmen’s letters gives vividness to the tale, and his amiable travel-show narrator’s persona comes through in amusing asides and descriptions of great seamanship. He recounts the somewhat hastily organized polar expedition of 1845, led by the aging explorer Sir John Franklin, with appropriate foreboding of the looming disaster that caused both ships to go missing for over a century (it is believed they were trapped in the ice, and everyone on them died of disease or abandoned ship). He also offers a thoughtful, compelling description of the climate-change–affected Arctic landscape today. The grim coda recounts abortive rescue attempts, fleeting clues to the explorers’ fates, and the modern reverence for their doomed efforts and for the recently rediscovered wreckage. Though this is an oft-told story, Palin’s version makes for cracking good reading. (Sept.)