Elephant Island is an ice-covered mountainous island off the coast of Antarctica in the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands, in the Southern Ocean. Its name was given by early explorers sighting elephant seals on its shores. The island is situated 152 miles north-north-east of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, 779 miles south-south-west of South Georgia and 581 miles south of the Falkland Islands. The island is oriented approximately east-west, with a maximum elevation of 2,799 feet at Pardo Ridge. The island supports no significant flora or native fauna although migratory Gentoo penguins and seals may be found, and Chinstrap penguins nest in season. A lack of safe anchorage has prevented any permanent human settlement, despite the island being well placed to support scientific, fishing and whaling activities.
If Shackleton’s party was to return to civilisation, there was no other option but to set out and summon help. One of the ships boats would have to make the voyage and while Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands was the closest, it could not be reached because the course would involve sailing against the strong prevailing winds. Relocation to Deception Island was discounted because of the poor physical condition of many of the party. The scouring winds blowing across the island soon destroyed the tents, so the men bivouacked under the upturned boats.
It was decided to use the largest of the boats, the James Caird to make the passage to South Georgia. Carpenter McNeish had raised the height of the boat with wooden box sides and old canvas by fifteen inches and constructed whalebacks fore and aft. The metal lifeboat tanks were removed to allow room for a crew forward. A pump was made out of the Flinders bar casing of the ship’s compass. They loaded the boat with two and a half tons of weight, the amount she would carry for the journey and she had a two foot two inches freeboard (height above the water). The seams were caulked with cotton lamp wick and the artist’s oil paints. A mast from one of the other boats was bolted inside the James Caird’s keel to prevent her from breaking her back in the heavy seas. Her rig was a jib, standing lug and a small mizzen. Additionally she would have to be ballasted for stability with fifteen hundredweight of shingle sewn in canvas bags. After the James Caird was put into the water, the following stores were loaded on board from the Stancomb Wills:
30 Boxes of matches
6 ½ gallons of paraffin
1 tin methylated spirit
10 boxes flamers
1 box blue lights
2 primus stoves with spares
1 Nansen aluminium cooker
6 sleeping bags
A few spare socks
A few candles and some blubber oil in an oil bag
3 cases sledging rations
2 cases of nut food
2 cases biscuits
1 case lump sugar
30 packets milk powder
1 tin Bovril cubes
1 tin salt
36 gallons of water
250 lbs ice
Shackleton decided that the crew would consist of himself, Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent. With winter approaching, on 24th April 1916 the James Caird was launched, although she nearly capsized pitching McNeish and McCarthy into the sea. They clambered back on board with no chance of drying their soaked clothing and watched by those remaining behind on Elephant Island, the boat headed into the ice floes lying five miles to the north. Shackleton had given Frank Wild full control of the remaining party and free command on what to do should he not return with help. It was a sombre gathering on the shore as they watched the tiny boat disappear into the distance.
The boat navigated the channels through the ice floes with Shackleton standing by the main mast and calling the directions through the floes and hummocks of ice. By 17:30 the James Caird was clear of the ice and continued north until the wind shifted to the south-west. The Southern Atlantic and the 770 miles to South Georgia lay ahead. The crew settled into their uncomfortable routine of three men on watch with one on the tiller for two-hourly stints. The watches were for four hours. Those off watch would crawl forward under the decking to the sleeping quarters, try to find a comfortable space on the stores and ballast and wriggle into the frozen sleeping bags. The bags were made from Reindeer hide and being constantly wet, they shed fibrous strands of Reindeer hair, which would clog up the pump, permeate their food and get in their eyes. Eventually they became mouldy and started to ferment, filling the cramped space below decks with the stench of rotting hide. Shackleton ordered the worst to be thrown overboard and they shared the remaining bags.
Mealtimes were a logistical nightmare. Water got into the boat through the stitched canvas joints and this made lighting and keeping the Primus stove alight a major but vital undertaking. Three men were needed for cooking, one to hold the lamp and two to prevent the stove and Hoosh pot from tipping over. Breakfast was Hoosh made from Bovril, sledging rations, biscuits and lumps of sugar. Lunch was cold Bovril and sledging ration and a pannikin of hot milk. Supper was hot milk. Their hands became burned and infected in the sodden mitts and all were suffering from salt water sores. The seas were huge and the boat’s sails flapped in the troughs between the crests, until it crested the swell into the full force of the gale. Ice formed on the masts and decking and much of the time on watch was spent chipping it away with ice axes. Inside water sloshed around and bailing out the boat was a constant undertaking, kneeling in the freezing water under the leaking deck.
A south-westerly gale on their fourth day forced the James Caird to heave-to with the sea anchor. They had been making around sixty miles a day, which was astonishing given the boat’s meagre sail area. At 11:00 the following day the boat’s sea anchor was carried away in a violent plunge into a trough, so all they had was the jib sail to keep the bow into the seas. The next day the wind dropped, the sea moderated and they were able to get underway again. They were joined by an Albatross, the solitary seabird that wandered the oceans and they felt their spirits lift with the joy of sharing the lonely sea with another living creature.
On the eleventh day, May 5th a hard north-westerly gale came upon them, then shifted to the south-west in the late afternoon. As darkness fell, Shackleton was on the tiller and noticed clear sky between the south and south-west. But what he thought was clear sky was in fact the white crest of an enormous wave bearing down on them. It was the largest wave he had ever seen and Shackleton cried out: “For God’s sake, hold on! It’s got us.”
The boat was lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. The James Caird was hammered and deluged with a solid wall of water. The makeshift decking was smashed and the boat floundered, half-full of freezing water. They bailed like men possessed to keep the boat afloat, with every receptacle they could find. They fought for ten minutes until they felt the James Caird lighten and become more buoyant. The conditions on board had been bad before, but now they were terrible. It took until 03:00 to light the stove and make some hot milk and some of the crew were suffering from exposure. McNeish was badly affected, although he had showed great grit and spirit up to then. Vincent, one of the strongest men on the crew had seen a collapse in strength and morale. They all were suffering from nervous complaints, exhaustion, exposure and malnutrition and were suffering privation most of us could never imagine.
On May 6th Worsley calculated their position as less than 100 miles from the north-west point of South Georgia. They were all suffering from thirst as Shackleton had been forced to reduce the daily water ration. On loading one of the casks had been stove in and seawater had mixed with the contents. All the ice had gone and their tongues were swollen with dehydration. They headed further east so as not to miss landfall on South Georgia. On the 8th May they passed some floating kelp, a sign that land was getting closer. This was confirmed by two Shags (seabirds, not a former Deputy Prime Minister) sitting on another piece of kelp. Shags seldom venture far away from land. Fourteen days after leaving Elephant Island, McCarthy spotted the black, southern cliffs of South Georgia. They had sailed across the Southern Ocean with Worsley’s uncanny sense of dead-reckoning. They were going to exchange one danger for perhaps the most foul and most perilous episode of their journey.
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