- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 31 Mar 1910, p. 207-224
- Michell, Dr. W.A.R., Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- The speaker's experience as Surgeon of the S.S. "Nimrod". Preparation of the ship for two years of work amid Polar ice and stormy ocean. A description of the "Nimrod." The overhauling. The two scientists on board and the conditions under which they were accommodated. Details of the expedition. The hard time the ponies had. Weather and other problems on the way. A short description of the country towards which they were sailing: the far southern continent. Commander Shackleton's intention to make his winter quarters on King Edward Land; why that plan had to be abandoned. Antarctic summer weather. A description of the land. Heavy ice blocking passages. The need for patience in these regions; waiting some days for the ice to go out of McMurdo Sound. Sledging on sea-ice as one of the great dangers in Arctic Exploration. Human and animal encounters. Picking up the northern party. The return journey. Suffering from frost bite. A few words about the transport. Some additional remarks about the two voyages of the "Nimrod" in southern waters. Clothing, weather, and food. The animal life of the south.
- Date of Original
- 31 Mar 1910
- Language of Item
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- Full Text
- WITH SHACKLETON TO THE ANTARCTIC.
Address by DR. W. A. R. MICHELL, of Toronto, March 31, 1910.
Mr. President and Gentlemen,
Before my appointment to the position of Surgeon of S. S. Nimrod I had been Medical Officer on one of the steamers plying between Liverpool and West African Ports: so I thought it would be a welcome change to enjoy the bracing climate of the South Pacific Seas after the enervating heat of the West Coast of Africa-and I was not disappointed. I joined the Expedition about the end of June, 1907, and commenced duties about the middle of July. There was little to do at first except to watch the interesting process of preparing a ship for two years of work amid Polar ice and stormy ocean. The Nimrod was at that time not looking her best. She was an old weatherbeaten, oil-soaked Dundee Sealer, and had just come from Newfoundland, and looked small enough. A little description of the vessel might not be out of place here. She was 226 tons register, about 125 feet long, 27 foot beam, and the sides were very thick, about 18 inches from the inside to the water, very strongly braced and looked rather small for the work she was to do. But a few weeks work made a great difference.
She was given a thorough over-hauling, her masts and rigging were put into good condition, and some of the seal-oil was scrubbed from her decks and cabins. The sleeping quarters were small, as one might expect-my cabin and surgery combined was 6 feet by 3 feet, but she was a good solidly-built sea boat, and we all felt sure she would stand the test. The stores were rapidly put aboard in numbered water-tight cases, and on July 31st, 1907, we left the Port of London and steamed slowly (the usual way we did steam) down the Thames. At the mouth of the river we were signalled by a Cruiser to harbour amid the cheers of thousands of people on Excursion Steamers, while the British Men-of-war, then in port, were decked with flags and good luck signals in our honour.
Near the Heads our towing cable was attacked to the Koonya and as we passed the flagship of the Australian Squadron, the Powerful which was anchored there, had her men lined up and cheered us while her band played "Hearts of Oak." We were nearly scupper awash in harbour. One can imagine how it felt when we reached the deep sea.
As soon as we gained the blue water a breeze commenced and she started to roll. The good spirits which had been so evident began to subside, and an air of depression was evident. But the gentle breeze next day became a moderate gale, and she became decidedly lively. The green sea soon commenced to come aboard, and as her bows were held down by the cable, she refused to rise to the waves, and chaos soon reigned supreme. The decks were all awash; the wardroom and Scientists' quarters became soaking wet; and we all were soaked with salt spray. We could not get a proper wash for days, and soon the company of men who had been seen in evening dress a few nights before, became a dirty, unwashed crowd of cut-throats, who were obliged to dispense with all the refinements of civilization.
The Ponies had a hard time of it--they were banged against the bulwarks and their hindquarters were soon raw and bleeding. Watches were formed and two men at a time looked after them, relieved every two hours by two other unfortunates. To cross that exposed deck with a howling gale blowing and huge green seas coming aboard was no joke; and then to sit for two hours in scanty shelter watching Horses suffer besides! But in that quarter of the globe one gale follows the other and from a No. 10 gale, a No. 12 began, which means a hurricane. It was a grand, but awful sight. Few of us could ever hope to see again such violence of wind and waves. At times the Koonya ahead of us would disappear from view, and often (the Captain told me afterwards) he could see the sea going right over us, when the confusion on board our tiny packet can well be imagined. We were given up for lost several times, but the gallant little vessel rode the waves beautifully though at times one would think she was disappearing down a yawning cavern of green water. When one of those monsters came aboard everything was flooded out, and the Cook in his galley was particularly unfortunate. In the midst of the turmoil he stuck to his post, and though his galley was many times swamped and his pots and pans rained about his head, he usually managed to cook hot meals, which were particularly appreciated, especially the hot pea-soup.
To add to our miseries the ship began to make water, having been strained by the towing, so we were obliged to get to the pumps in shifts of about three or four. But as the hand pumps could not cope with the difficulty steam had to be used a little later. Then two of the Ponies had to be shot, one having been turned over in his stall and the other on account of the continual pounding he had received on the bulwarks. These disasters were enough to discourage anyone, but the cheerful bearing of the Commander was an example to all of us-for cheerfulness is the key-note of success in moments like these. But all things must end, and at last we came to more peaceful waters. We were now near the Antarctic Circle, and ice was sighted. It was time for the Koonya to leave us, and after losing considerable time sending some fresh mutton aboard our ship, she steamed northward, and we were alone, but near our work. Steam was now got up and soon she was on her way moving slowly southward. It was beautiful still weather, and after dinner that night as we came on deck-the ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around. There it was, loose floe ice, huge icebergs, many over one hundred feet in height, mostly of the flat-topped or tabular southern variety, but often fantastically weathered like the North Atlantic bergs-and we knew we had at last entered those regions which we had been so long waiting to see.
Here a short description of the country towards which we were sailing might explain a few points brought forward later. Unlike the Northern polar regions, the .far South consists of a huge land mass--a great Continent. It is very mountainous, the lofty peaks being near the sea coast, the interior being a table land 8,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level. According to Arctic explorers the North Pole is situated on frozen sea, but the South Pole, according to our Commander, undoubtedly lies on a plateau 11,000 feet above sea level, and is a true roof of the world. The western portion of this continent is named Victoria Land, and was discovered by Sir James Ross in 1841; the eastern portion of what is believed to be the same continent, is called King Edward Seventh Land. This latter was located by the Discovery about eight years ago.
Between these two land masses and stretching for many hundreds of miles, forming a pure white coast line of ice cliffs varying from 100 to 250 feet in height and extending inland from 200 to 300 miles to meet the mountain ranges of the huge continent lies the remarkable feature of the Antarctic--the great ice barrier. That part of the Antarctic which washes these ice cliffs and extends between Victoria Land to the west and King Edward Land to the east is called the Ross Sea after the pioneer explorer of these waters. Separated from the coast of Victoria Land by a channel termed McMurdo Sound, lies a volcanic Island-Ross Island. On this island are situated two fine peaksMount Erebus, 13,000 feet and Mount Terror, 11,000 feet in height. Erebus is an active volcano, but Terror is quiescent. The Barrier runs south of these peaks and reaches its least height there, 20 to 30 feet. In winter the Ross Sea is frozen far out, but in summer it becomes comparatively free of ice. The heavy floe ice massed together drifts northward in summer forming pack ice which must, as a rule, be negotiated before a ship can enter the Ross Sea. This explains why a wooden ship is used in Polar work, as all this moving sea of ice would crush an iron one and sink her.
It was Commander Shackleton's intention to make his winter quarters on King Edward Land, but it will be seen later why he had to abandon that plan. The next morning everyone felt in good spirits and cheerfulness prevailed on the Nimrod for we were now enjoying brilliant Antarctic summer weather-very like early December in Canada when the air is fresh and clear, and the sun bright. But what a sight greeted our eyes as we came on deck. We were in the midst of a veritable "Ice Venice"-a white fairyland. There were ice-bergs all about us-thousands of them, some of small size, some miles in length, usually over Too feet in height and flat topped, some weathered fantastically into cathedrals and castles-and through this maze the Nimrod threaded her way. Sometimes there was barely room for our yards to pass between the bergs, often we heard and saw masses of the monsters break off and fall into the sea near us, and there now appeared some real Antarctic life--the pretty little snowy petrel, almost invisible when on the pure white snow, the comical penguin which squawked it's curiosity and the dark body of a seal asleep on a floe. The silence was really remarkable--one felt in an enchanted world-a great white fairyland, where man was an intruder. We feared lest a gale should spring up when our condition would be most serious, but after traversing nearly 120 miles of this remarkable sea of ice, we entered open water and steered southeast towards the Barrier. A few days later we sighted that remarkable end of the world-a true barrier as far as ships were concerned. We steamed quite close and had splendid opportunities to see and photograph this huge ice-wall.
Sometimes in the depths of a vertical crevasse one could get a glimpse of a deep blue interior, while near the sea it was often weathered into lovely caves from the roofs of which hung exquisite ice stalactites. It was a fine sight to observe the sea rising and falling in these icy caverns. The Barrier towered high above our masts so that we could not see over its upper surface as we steamed along. After following this white coast for several days we arrived one night (mid-night with the sun shining brightly) at an inlet in the Barrier, where we could see what appeared to be hills, to the south. We called this the Bay of Whales, for everywhere they were spouting and showing their huge triangular fins above the water as they swam about, and many penguins were guarding this part of the Continent. The Bay swarmed with life. We now found that our passage to the east was blocked by miles of heavy pack coming down from the north so we had to turn and attempt to work around this huge ice-field.
So rapid was the drift of this pack that we were within an ace of being crushed between the pack and the Barrier, where we all should have certainly perished. But we escaped that danger and attempted to circumnavigate that belt of pack. This was impossible for, as far as we could see, there was the enemy always in sight. Thus, were we held up about forty miles from King Edward Land, and as that route had to be abandoned a scheme of wintering on the Barrier near the Bay of Whales was entertained-but not for long. On comparing the present outline on the chart of the Barrier with that of the previous Expedition it was found that fifteen miles of the Barrier had broken away in six years, forming southern ice-bergs. It was terrible to think of a Hut constructed on such a treacherous surface as that, so but one course was left to us-to steer westward for McMurdo Sound and establish winter quarters in that vicinity. So we retraced our steps along the Barrier and about three days later a white cloud was observed on the horizon which soon resolved itself into a lofty white cone with a column of steam rising from the summit. This was Erebus and soon it's twin peak, Terror, came into view, both peaks being miraged very much and appearing much loftier than they really were.
Soon we were in the Sound, where we found considerable ice and we then were at a standstill-fast in sea ice. We were able to get on this solid surface and stretch our cramped limbs after our long confinement on board ship. But patience is the one thing needful in these regions and after waiting some days the ice bean to go out of the Sound, and we were able to get fairly near the land, near a rocky Cape known as Cape Royds, where Lieut. Shackleton decided to make his winter quarters. The ship was brought alongside the ice face and anchored securely with ice anchors, a gang-way was put over her side, and stones hoisted from the hold and sent down the chutes where they were sledged away to a more solid fixed ice near the land. A hastily made horse-box was put into action, and our eight remaining ponies were landed,' and their first act was to have a good roll in the snow which must have been like Paradise to them. Next the motor car was swung over the side and hauled to a place of safety. Everyone was now working like a Trojan, for time was getting short. Never did meals taste better to hungry men than on those days, when we toiled in the blazing heat of the Antarctic summer.
The weather was now getting more unsettled, and often work was delayed when a strong southeast blizzard would spring up and force the ship to leave her moorings. The ice was rapidly breaking up, and we very nearly had disasters both to men and supplies from this reason. On one occasion we nearly lost a whole pile of supplies through supposedly fixed ice breaking up rapidly; arid that was one occasion when life was strenuous. But soon it was impossible to land the gear save by means of boats. That was fearful work, for wielding a heavy spruce oar in a whale-boat in the midst of a sea filled with loose pack ice is not pleasant, especially in zero weather with a south-easter blowing. It was a novel experience for me to row bow in a whale-boat and land stores alongside an ice cliff with a heavy swell running. We had often the greatest difficulty in approaching the shore in our small boat, owing to pack ice which nearly capsized us several times as we pushed our way through it-but the work had to be done and we accomplished it in some way. Meanwhile, the but in which the party was to winter had been put together and now came the most difficult task-the boating of coal in bags from ship to shore. We toiled amidst slush and coal-dust and were all tired and dirty and disgusted, but it was now a race with the sun. Old Sol who had shone without ceasing since we entered these regions now commenced to dip below the horizon, and, tired as we were, we had to stop and admire the lovely autumn tints. A lovely pink glow shone over Erebus and Terror, and the glaciers on the western shore caught the glow and resembled rivers of gold. On one occasion we worked for forty hours with coal and nearly slept on our feet-in fact, one man slept with his feet over the engine that night and wondered what was striking his feet as he lay there. It was the pump of the engine, for a breeze had sprung up and we had to leave for open sea.
Towards the close we encountered a fearful blizzard. A wind of hurricane violence (force 12) sprang up and the temperature became very low. Thick, blinding snow began 'to fall and was driven along by the force of the gale. How the wind did howl in our rigging! The temperature fell to 18 degrees, each sea as it came aboard froze solid on our bulwarks, decks and lower rigging, and she was soon a floating iceberg. She was put head to wind at "Full ahead," and yet she drifted 6o miles to leeward! We had two men at the wheel muffled to the eyes and another stationed at the rudder well with a pick to free the rudder of ice. which kept forming in any moment of calm, and prevented her responding to her helm. Sometimes an iceberg loomed up through the blinding gale and it was a grand sight, but terrible, for we would wonder if we could weather it. The sea became covered in the masses of snow blown seaward from the land by the gale; then the violence of the gale abated so that on February as we left our companions on the bleak shores of Cape Royds and steered for sunny New Zealand. It seemed almost as though they were a crowd of marooned sailors as we watched that dark group of figures fast receding from our sight and we knew we should not see them again for many months. We reached New Zealand early in March, where we wintered, and sailed again for the south on December 1, 1908. The voyage south was comparatively uneventful this time, and we experienced no such weather as on the last occasion. We were under sail alone--for most of the time. and thus reached the Antarctic Circle with nearly full bunkers, This time we passed through no ice Venice but steamed slowly through pack ice for two days.
Being held up in the pack we were sometimes able to observe the penguins and seals closely. The seal usually found in the pack was the crab-eater, a large beast with powerful teeth, and a very beautiful coat which varies from brown to a silvery white. Whales were also fairly plentiful and are of the "Killer" variety mentioned before. They are very powerful brutes and many a seal we saw was scarred where it had been wounded by the terrors of these waters. After about two days of slow forcing through the pack, we entered open water once more. An attempt was once more made to work to the east, but the enemy held us up again, but not before we had penetrated deeply into an area marked on the chart as "compact hummocky pack." As it was not possible to make much headway to the east, we turned her head towards Cape Royds.
We were blocked at the entrance of McMurdo Sound and had many fine walks on skis over the firm sea-ice, always on the lookout for the floes breaking up and going to sea. This is one of the great dangers of sea-ice-it breaks away and is away from the main body of ice before one dreams of danger. After a few days of waiting, and as the ice appeared firm, it was decided to send a party with the mails to Cape Royds. They escaped by a miracle, for the next day miles of sea-ice broke away and they had to haul their sledge over opening lanes as they ran from floe to floe. Reaching land, they had a terrible journey over the greatly crevassed glaciers of the slopes of Mount Erebus and arrived in a fearfully exhausted condition at the hut, abandoning the mails in order to travel lighter.
Sledging on sea-ice is highly dangerous work and constitutes one of the great dangers in Arctic Exploration. About January 4th, 1909, we reached Cape Royds, the ice having fairly well left that part of the Sound, and five savages rushed out to meet us, running over rotten sea-ice. We found that our party had not yet reached them, so we pushed off again to look for the lost ones. How those fellows did talk! We were an event coming in from the outside world while they had had nothing but their own company for months. They told us of the ascent of Erebus, the most southerly volcano in the world, and of the start of the three sledging parties, south, westward and north. We had not proceeded very far when we were caught in an ice pressure and nearly lost our rudder. A regular Inferno was raging astern of us, and huge floes as big as our ship were being lifted bodily from the water, showing us the awful power of the ice pack. We were in the midst of it and caught in its pitiless embrace. We were carried away towards the coast of Victoria Land. Often we could feel the ship crushed in this ice pressure as though by a giant hand, and feel her stout sides giving in with that, awful strain. Our greatest alarm was for the rudder and propellor which constitute what Hansen styles the "Achilles' heel of Polar ships." We were held up thus in this dangerous situation for many days and could do nothing but admire the beautiful white peaks and glaciers of Victoria Land. Patience is not a virtue but a necessity in these cases, but it was trying to be held up in this way when we knew we were consuming valuable coal and that our shipmates were likely in great danger. In about ten days, however, the pack slackened and we steamed through floes which gave the appearance of an ice Venice, but not on such a grand scale as the one on the previous voyage.
After some terrific forcing, and some bumps against the more solid floes, which made her stout frame shiver, we reached Cape Royds, and learned of our companions' safe arrival, after their awful journey. We now commenced to take things aboard and sledged boxes of specimens, geological and biological gear of all kinds, personal effects-in fact, all we could possibly manage, for we wished to avoid as much Antarctic boating as possible. Towards the end of January we sailed across the Sound to locate the western party, who were exploring on the western coast of Victoria Land. About noon that day, the Captain noticed a heliograph message and we knew that men were not far off. We ran in alongside a small glacier tongue, and three bronzed and bearded men in real Polar garb came down to meet the ship. Having been in each other's company for nearly two months their tongues were loosened and they did talk! They had just been delivered from a horrible predicament. They had camped on sea-ice one night and in the morning saw to their horror that they were on a moving floe. The leader of the party immediately shortened the rations, and they were determined to fight against fate to the end. To add to their troubles Killer whales began to crowd about and look over the edge of the floe with their wicked eyes at the unfortunates, as well as coming partly over it to try to break it up. This is the way they capture their prey-unfortunate seals and penguins near the edge are often caught in this manner. The floe on which they were camped came back with the tide, the corner on which they were placed fortunately caught on the firm land ice a few minutes, and they rushed across to see their floe go seawards a few moments later. The fate of three men afloat on a floe is too horrible to think about.
Our next task was to pick up the northern party. They had proceeded much farther north than the ones so recently rescued. They had made a dash for the Magnetic Pole--a point lying in Lat. 72 degrees and on the plateau behind the lofty ranges guarding the coast of Victoria Land. We thus had a search along nearly two hundred miles of coast, keeping a sharp look out for any tent, flag, or heliographic message. It was no easy task, as the season was getting more advanced and colder, the coast is very rugged and contains many bays and rocky capes which confine much pack ice, thus making a close survey of the coast very difficult. But it was a lovely sight, that coasting voyage along those miles of lofty, white mountain ranges and crevassed glaciers. We passed a small barrier about 90 feet in height, which sheltered us somewhat from the bitter wind, which we could see was raging above. We proceeded north to Cape Washington where we turned and just escaped disaster at this point by the sheerest chance. I can well remember that anxious moment as the Nimrod struggled in heavy pack and contrary wind to beat off Cape Washington, and we all breathed more freely when we reached open water once more.
On our return we entered a small inlet in the Barrier, and to our joy picked up our party. One of them nearly lost his life in a crevasse at the very moment of deliverance. But soon we had them on board and heard of the terrible march. They had lived like Hannibal of old on the country through which they were marching. They had killed seals and penguins along the coast and had thus been able to plant the British Flag on the South Magnetic Pole, a point 8,000 feet above sea level. They had travelled 1,100 miles and had had many escapes from death in a very crevassed glacier country. They were a strange looking crowd after so long an absence from civilization and their lean, brown faces and unkempt appearance showed they had been up against nature in her wildest moods. Now we had one more party to pick tip-the southern party.
They were many days overdue and we were getting anxious: We entered a little natural harbour in a glacier tongue near where they were expected and waited patiently. It was a curious dock we were in, amid white walls which crumbled away considerably and fell into the sea near us. The days were now getting colder and the sun dipped every night, and again the autumn tints shone over the pure white, cold-looking landscape. We saw that a little more boating work would be necessary as the ice had left the Sound entirely now. At the end of February we cast off and proceeded south to see if we could find any trace of the party. To our joy we saw two figures on the shore waiting for us, one of whom was the Commander himself. There was a great outburst of cheering from the whole ship as the anxiety which had been hovering around for the last few weeks disappeared in that moment. So much were we afraid of the fate of that party that we had organized a relief party to look for them that morning, and had made all preparations for them to winter.
After the excitement of meeting had passed we learned of their great march of over 1,700 miles where they had faced the most awful dangers one could even think of, starvation, crevassed surfaces, high altitudes and bitter cold. A look at their emaciated forms and sunken cheeks showed what they had endured. But they had penetrated far into that great white land, and had planted the British Flag in 88 degrees 23 Min. south Longtitude, b2 degrees east, on a lofty plateau 11,000 feet high. One of their party had been taken ill with dysentery and was left behind with a companion while the other two pushed on to the ship. A relief party was quickly organized while the ship pushed north to Cape Royds to see to the landing of the remaining stores. Once more we were in for Antarctic boating, and again we had to bend to the oars in zero weather with a strong south-easter blowing.
Our men suffered much from frost bite that night and my own hands still dread the cold after that boating. We nearly lost one boat and a dozen men, for a strong blizzard sprang up and they could make no headway. The men were nearly exhausted with cold and exposure and escaped only by a timely rope dangling from the cliff. We watched their gallant struggle in the sea from our decks but were unable to help them, and were glad when we saw them rescued from their perilous plight. Then we proceeded south, picked up the entire southern party who had returned by this time, and left those barren shores. The sea was now freezing and the navigation season was over in those waters. As we passed the old Hut the explorers sang the familiar strain of "Auld Lang Syne." We coasted along Victoria Land, past Cape Adare with the but of the '98 Expedition still standing, and saw evidences of new land trending to the Northwest. Heavy pack here beset us, and we hurried Northward, reaching New Zealand without mishap, and never were men so glad to see the fresh green landscape of that beautiful country.
A few words here about our transport--we had an Arrol-Johnson Motor car with a powerful engine, which was of considerable service laying depots on frozen sea ice, but it was not used on the Barrier because of the changing surface and crevasses. We started out with 10 Ponies, lost two on the ship and four died from eating lava crystals which they took for salt, the four white ones surviving. They did splendid service on the southern journey. The last one, "Socks" by name, disappeared into a crevasse and nearly pulled one of the men with him. They had been brought from Manchuria to New Zealand and broken in a little there. The dogs were secured at Stewart Island, and did splendid service, going long journeys on the Barrier.
This is a brief account of the two voyages of the Nimrod in southern waters, but a few additional remarks may perhaps not be out of place here. We wore no furs except for the covering of hands and feet, using heavy woollen suits and a wind-proof garment over all. The powerful penetrating wind is more to be dreaded than low temperature, and we found these suits excellent. I can testify to their quality from personal experience in the boat work. We had no trace of scurvy either on ship or ashore--in fact, except for a few accidents there was no great call on the Medicine chest. We found that cuts did not heal well. They would not suppurate, but were slow in closing. When the southern party were on the, Plateau and food supply was scanty their temperatures went to 94 degrees, at times rising to 97 degrees or 98 degrees when hot food was taken. They suffered from dysentery when they ate the meat from one of the ponies which was very exhausted before it was sacrificed. Care must be taken after a long sledging trip on which concentrated food alone is used, not to fall when tempted with good things, lest the contracted stomach expand too suddenly and cause fearful cramps. Frost bites, of course, were very common and are similar to what we suffer here. a lively time, ensues when they chase the old bird to make him disgorge. He does not know which chick he is feeding, and how the weak ones, who cannot persist, survive is a mystery. The young take to the water early in the autumn and the rookery is deserted about that time, the last to leave being the old birds who stay behind to moult. The remaining bird life consists of the Carrion Gull and the Giant Petrel, which latter is remarkable for a great capacity for gorging. It will, if obliged to fly, disgorge its food, for it is so filled that it cannot rise from the ice.
Thus it is seen that there is no land life whatever on this great continent, but sea life is plentiful, both small and great. This is what makes southern work so difficult, as when one leaves the coast there is no prospect of living on the country. The north, roughly speaking, means sledging over sea-ice with all its terrible dangers. The south means mountaineering and glacier work, with their hidden pitfalls, so it is difficult to say which presents the more danger--or shall I say, fascination. For when one sees the great silent solitudes of the Polar regions he can understand the fascination which the Great White Land exerts over men and impels them to seek to penetrate into those parts where man has never been, and nature in her wildest grandeur reigns supreme.