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Book Review: Erebus – The story of a ship (2019)



In a title of six words, Erebus: The story of a ship, Michael Palin tells us precisely what his book is all about. Through a comprehensive analysis of the Ship’s Logs and crew reports, personal letters, private and naval journals, books, papers and newspaper articles he documents the life of the ship and its crews. He traces their histories from the launch of the ship at Pembroke dock in 1826, via unremarkable Mediterranean patrols, lengthy voyages to Australia to bone chilling Antarctic and Arctic expeditions. They culminate in the last crew abandoning the ship, trapped in Arctic pack ice, in 1848.

However, Erebus: The story of a ship is more than a mere chronology of dates, actions and events. Michael Palin tells us a complex story. It’s an evolving story of the interpersonal relationships of those men serving on the ship; relationships that blossom and those that deteriorate. It includes accounts of influential men and women who shaped the voyages and crew selection. It also notes the impact of sponsors and suppliers who may have contributed to the final tragedy. It’s a story illustrated by Victorian photographs, other colour photographs and paintings, sonar images, maps and sketches. They all serve to provide a picture of the life and death of those on board HMS Erebus.

In 1846, during the heroic but ill-fated Franklin Expedition, HMS Erebus, her companion ship HMS Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, and a total of 129 men, “vanished off the face of the earth whilst trying to find a way through the Northwest Passage” (ppxii – xiii). This was the prized northern route to China and India via Arctic waters. HMS Erebus wasn’t seen again until one hundred and sixty-nine years later under thirty-six feet of Arctic water. Divers found the wreck remarkably intact as their description and photographs reveal.

Palin describes how the search for Erebus and her crew extended over decades – often suggesting missed opportunities as well as shocking findings. His summary account of the last desperate months and weeks of their survival, as the expedition disintegrated, is poignant in the extreme.

It’s tempting to describe the book as a slow burn that builds into an inferno – but words like ‘burn’ and ‘inferno’ are at odds with Palin’s descriptive account of the mind numbing cold of Arctic winters and a ship entombed in pack ice for years. Certainly, the pace of the early chapters appear relatively slow when compared to the final crescendo – but they provide an invaluable background to an understanding of the unfolding drama.

You don’t have to be a historian or a marine archaeologist, a sailor or traveller to marvel at the story of HMS Erebus and her crews. You don’t have to be a sentimentalist to read: ‘The one comfort from the whole unmitigated disaster was the news that bodies had been discovered far enough south to prove that Crozier had led his doomed men to the last link in the chain of marine connections that made up to Northwest Passage’ (p. 261).

Erebus: The story of a ship (2019)

  • By Michael Palin
  • London: Arrow Books        
  • ISBN 9781 784 758578     
  • 334 pp

Michael Palin has written and starred in numerous TV programmes; perhaps Monty Python is one of the most famous. He has made several acclaimed travel documentaries to the North and South Pole as well as the Sahara desert and the Himalayas. His books include Hemingway’s Chair (1998) and The Truth (2013). Between 2009 and 2012 he was President of the Royal Geographical Society. Michael Palin was knighted in 2019 and lives in London.

Find out more about Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author, at

Dr Fred Lockwood is Emeritus Professor of Learning and Teaching, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He is also a PADI Master Scuba Diver and dived in the waters of Central America and Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Follow Fred at

Marine Life & Conservation

The BiG Scuba Podcast… with Andy Forster of Dive Project Cornwall



Gemma and Ian chat to Andy Forster.  Andy is the Project Director at Dive Project Cornwall.  He tells us about his own passion for diving as well as how Dive Project Cornwall is going to educate and inspire many youngsters over the coming year.

Have a listen here:

Find out more at

Find more podcast episodes and information at the new  website and on most social platforms @thebigscuba 

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Miscellaneous Blogs

Book Review: The Boys in the Cave



Review of The Boys in the Cave: Deep inside the impossible rescue in Thailand (2018)

On the 23rd  June 2018 twelve members of the Thai Wild Boars youth football team, and their coach, strolled into the Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand. Hours later they were trapped, over a mile inside the cave, by monsoon driven, rising flood water. Initial attempts to find the lost group were thwarted by the torrent of water rushing through the cave system. After ten days without contact, food and warm clothing, it was feared the group were dead from hypothermia or drowning.

Two experienced British cave rescue divers, Rick Stanton and John Vollanthen volunteered to swim against the current, through over a mile of pitch black, flooded tunnels, negotiate sumps and slither through crevices in an attempt to discover if they were alive or dead. They found them alive on a raised sand bank, over one and half miles into the cave system; thus started ‘one of the largest cave search and rescue operations in history.’ (p.93). However, their rescue was perilous. Josh Morris, the intermediary between the rescuers and the Thai political and military decision makers, announced: ‘You have two terrible choices… In one, everyone is going to die. And in the other, some people are going to die.’ (p188).

Twenty-five days later the boys and their coach emerged, cocooned on special stretchers. They were bound, sedated, in wet suits and breathing via positive pressure face masks. If, at any time, during the tortuous journey, in pitch blackness, the face masks had been dislodged the boy would drown.

We may recall that all thirteen of those trapped were rescued alive, but a Thai Navy SEAL drowned. However, this does not detract from the story of the rescue told and illustrated by Matt Gutman. He manages to capture the race against time drama as the strength of the boys, and oxygen levels in the cave fall to dangerous levels. Gutman describes the tension as water levels continue to rise and more monsoon rains approach. He also describes the toll on the rescue divers as cuts and scratches, grazes and blisters become infected and sheer exhaustion starts to overtake them. The story is enhanced by maps of the cave system and the forty-nine colour photographs; they convey the enormity of the rescue.

A noteworthy feature of The Boys in the Cave is that Matt Gutman does not shy away from describing the bizarre and chaotic attempts at rescue by well meaning people who didn’t know what they were doing. He records the politically driven, bureaucratic public announcements that were at odds with reality. He also acknowledges the rivalries, antagonism and emotional involvement of those present. It was a testing time for all – especially when failure was the most likely outcome.

You do not have to be a diver, let alone a cave diver, to appreciate the challenges that the volunteer rescue divers undertook. Exhausting eight to ten hour swims, in pitch darkness, through a tangled web of lines and tubes, ropes and electrical cable that are waiting to snag you. It was a booby-trapped labyrinth in which you could becoming jammed in a choke point, lose the line and get lost, running out of air or be caught up in a flash flood. It was a heroic endeavour and one I’m sure you will enjoy reading.

The Boys in the Cave: Deep inside the impossible rescue in Thailand (2018)

  • Author: Matt Guttman
  • Publisher: New York: Harper Collins
  • 307pp
  • ISBN 978 006 29099 23

Matt Gutman was part of the international news team that reported on the rescue. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey, USA on 5th December 1977 and graduated from Williams College in 2000. As a reporter he has worked for the Jerusalem Post, USA Today and ABC News Radio. He is currently the Chief National Correspondent for ABC News in America. The Boys in the Cave is his first book.

Find out more about the reviewer, Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author at

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