The Voyage of the James Caird – Stranded on the Pack Ice

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Frank Wild surveys the battered remains of the Endurance, crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea

On the Ice

The Trans-Antarctica expedition of 1914 – 1917 is considered to be the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Conceived by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the expedition was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. After Amundsen’s South Pole expedition in 1911, this crossing remained, in Shackleton’s words, the “one great main object of Antarctic journeyings.” Shackleton proposed to sail to the Weddell Sea and to land a shore party near Vahsel Bay, in preparation for a transcontinental march via the South Pole to the Ross Sea. A supporting group, the Ross Sea party, would meanwhile establish camp in McMurdo Sound, and from there lay a series of supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. These depots would be essential for the transcontinental party’s survival, as the group would not be able to carry enough provisions for the entire crossing. The expedition required two ships: Endurance under Shackleton for the Weddell Sea party, and Aurora, under Aeneas Mackintosh, for the Ross Sea party. Endurance became beset in the ice of the Weddell Sea before reaching Vahsel Bay, and drifted northward, held in the pack ice, throughout the Antarctic winter of 1915.

The expedition was effectively over and the battle for survival began on 27th October 1915. Sir Ernest Shackleton ordered the Endurance to be abandoned at position 69°05′S, 51°30′W. The wreckage remained afloat, and over the following weeks the crew salvaged further supplies and materials, including photographs and cameras that had initially been left behind. The Endurance had been locked in the Weddell Sea’s pack ice since 18th January 1915 and had drifted slowly north in a clockwise rotation. Now their last remaining link with the outside world had gone,

Among sledges and expedition equipment, the twenty-eight men on the ice had managed to salvage the three ship’s boats: the James Caird, the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills. However, the stranded expedition was effectively as marooned in 1915 with no hope of rescue, as astronauts stranded in space. The men were:

Sir Ernest Shackleton – Expedition Leader
Frank Wild – Second in Command
Frank A. Worsley – Captain of the Endurance
H. Hudson – Navigating Officer
L. Greenstreet – First Officer
T. Crean – Second Officer
A. Cheetham – Third Officer
L. Rickenson – Chief Engineer
A. Kerr – Second Engineer
J.A. McIlroy – Surgeon
A.H. Macklin – Surgeon
R.S. Clerk – Scientist
L.D.A. Hussey – Scientist
J.M. Wordie – Scientist
R.W.James – Scientist
G. Marston – Artist
T. Orde-Lees – Motor Expert
F. Hurley – Photographer
W. McNeish – Carpenter
T. Green – Cook
A. Blackborrow – Steward
J. Vincent – AB
T. Macarty – AB
A. How – AB
A. Bakewell – AB
T. McLeod – AB
H. Stephenson – Fireman
A. Holness – Fireman

Shackleton’s initial plan was to march west to several possible destinations. On Paulet Island was a food depot, laid down to support the relief of the stranded for Otto Nordenskiöld’s Swedish expedition. There was thought to be a supply depot on Snow Hill Island, Nordenskiöld’s winter quarters. It was hoped that from there, they would be able to march to the whaling outpost at Wilhelmina Bay. Worsley believed the march was too risky and that they should wait until the ice carried them to open water and escape on the boats. Shackleton overruled him.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Route of the Trans-Antarctica expedition

Part of the preparation for the march was to shoot the weaker animals and these included the carpenter’s cat Mrs Chippy and a pup which had been adopted as a pet by Surgeon Macklin. The march began on 30th October 1915, with two of the boats being carried on sledges, but the sea ice was according Hurley “a labyrinth of hummocks and ridges.” The party made barely two miles in three days and on 30th October, Shackleton ordered that the march be abandoned and they would make camp until the ice broke up. They named the camp on the ice “Ocean Camp” and parties continued to salvage supplies from the Endurance. On 21 November 1915 the ship disintegrated and went to the bottom of the Weddell Sea.

By late November the drift of ice was seven miles a day and they passed 68°S by 5th of December. The drifting ice had veered to the east, so reaching Snow Hill Island was impossible, although they might still reach Paulet Island. But it was still over 250 miles away, so Shackleton ordered a second march on 21st December to shorten the distance of the boat journey. The conditions were miserable for the men on the ice. Rising temperatures turned the ice into slush and the men hauling the boats went up to their thighs in wet, melting snow. On 27th December, possibly still bitter regarding the shooting of his cat, carpenter McNeish rebelled and refused to work, citing Ships Articles had lapsed since the Endurance sank and he was no longer under orders. Shackleton dealt swiftly and firmly with this mutiny to bring the carpenter to heel, but the incident was not forgotten. After having made only seven and a half miles in a week, Shackleton realised it would take over 300 days to reach land. The party erected the tents and settled down at what would be known as “Patience Camp,” which would be their home for the next three months.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Patience Camp. Cook Green at work in the “Galley.”

Supplies were running low and Shackleton sent Hurley and Macklin back to Ocean Camp, to recover food that had been deemed too heavy to haul on the sledges. In February a larger team was sent back to recover the third and largest boat, the James Caird. Food was to be an enduring problem. Seal meat became their staple diet as Shackleton wanted to conserve the packed rations. In January 1916 two teams of dogs were shot as they were consuming too much of the seal meat. The dogs supplemented their diet and the last of the dogs were shot in April. The meals were cooked on a blubber stove that produced vast quantities of oily, black smoke. It had been made by Hurley from a five gallon ash bucket from the Endurance. A cup of methylated spirits volatised the blubber in a pan above and produced a fierce heat. The food was cooked in a three gallon pot resting on two iron bars. The blubbery stew was named Hoosh, regardless of what went in it. Drink was hot milk made from milk powder and Green the cook worked constantly, black faced and grinning to provide hot food. None of the party suffered from scurvy.

The movement of the ice had become erratic and now even though they were at the latitude of Paulet Island, they were sixty miles to its east. Shackleton recorded in his diary: “It might have been six hundred for all the chance we had of reaching it across the broken sea-ice.” Land was continually in sight weather permitting as they slowly drifted by, but they were too fat north to make Snow Hill or Paulet Island. Their only chance lay in reaching Clarence Island or Elephant Island, which was around 100 miles north of their position. From there Shackleton hoped to move on to the South Shetland Islands, which might be visited by whalers and might contain supplies, whereas Clarence Island or Elephant Island were uninhabited and unvisited. To reach any of these destinations would require a perilously long voyage in open boats.

On Sunday 9th April at 23:00, the heaving seas beneath the ice split the floe right through the middle of “patience Camp.” The crack opened underneath a tent and rendered it in half. Holness still in his sleeping bag was dumped in the sea and Shackleton dragged him out of the water before the floe closed up again. It was clear that the ice was now unpredictable and it had become a source of danger rather than a refuge. Shackleton ordered that one third of the food should be abandoned and they took to the boats to sail through the ice floes to any of several points such as Hope Bay and then continue on foot.

In the Boats

The boats had been named after the expedition’s three chief financial sponsors: James Caird, Dudley Docker and Stancomb Wills. The James Caird had the largest displacement and was 22 feet 6 inches long and a beam of 6 feet. Her crew was Shackleton as captain, Wild, Vincent, Macarty, Hurley, Clark, McNeish, James, Wordie, Hussey and Green. The Dudley Docker, the fastest boat was 22 feet long with a 6 foot beam. Captain Worsley, Greenstreet, Cheetham, Macklin, McLeod, Marston, Kerr, Orde-Lees and Holness. The Stancomb Wills was 20 feet 8 inches long with a beam of five feet six inches. Captain Hudson, Crean, Howe, Bakewell, McIlroy, Blackborrow and Stephenson. One sledge was lashed to the stern of the James Caird while the Dudley Docker towed the second.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The boats navigating the Weddell Sea ice.

The seas were running a high swell and the ice floes were constantly moving, hemming the boats in. They continued west and used the lee of an ice floe for shelter in the darkness. That night the men shivered and ice formed on their wet clothing and beards. When Worsley checked their position the following morning, the boats had actually moved thirty miles astern and they were further from Elephant Island as when they had started, due to the currents. Underway again, the breaking seas deposited ice on the boats and their crews and they had to constantly chip the ice away to prevent the boats becoming top heavy. Conditions in the boats, in temperatures sometimes as low as −20 °F, with little food and regular soakings in icy seawater, were wearing the men down, physically and mentally. Shackleton therefore decided that Elephant Island, the nearest of the possible refuges, was now the most practical option. Shackleton ordered that the sledges should be abandoned.

By 14th April the boats were laying off the coast of Elephant Island, unable to land because the shore was solid cliffs and glaciers. They had become separated the night before. Looking for a suitable landing site, the James Caird rounded the eastern point of the island and spotted a narrow, shingle beach. All were reunited at this landing site, but the high water mark indicated that this beach would only be temporary heaven. The next day Wild and a crew set off in the Stancomb Wills to explore the coast for a safer site. They returned with news of a long spit of land, seven miles to the west. With minimum delay the men returned to the boats and transferred to this new location, which they later christened Cape Wild. They were back on terra firma after over a year at sea or on the ice. But they were effectively still stranded on a desolate and uninhabited island with no hope of rescue.

Note: Some accounts give the Carpenter’s name as McNish. I have gone by his name’s spelling in both South and Shackleton’s Boat Journey.

Shackleton, Sir Ernest (1919). South, The last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance. London: Adlar Coles Nautical. 61-328.
Worsley F.A. (1940). Shackleton’s Boat Journey. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 3-143.

© Blown Periphery 2019

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