The Voyage of the James Caird – Landfall and the Crossing of South Georgia

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The beautiful and awe-inspiring terrain of South Georgia’s interior

Fourteen days after leaving Elephant Island, the crew of the James Caird surveyed the coast of South Georgia, looking for a place to land. They were demented by thirst, frozen with exposure and weak from malnutrition. There were uncharted reefs following the coastline and the boat was in constant danger with the winds and currents pushing them towards the rocky cliffs. With night approaching they hauled off to wait until the dawn, but ran into a westerly swell At 05:00 the wind increased to gale force, driving the heaving waves into a maelstrom of spray. The boat was sluggish and waterlogged, the gale forcing them towards the rocks and cliffs of the southern coast of the island.

By 13:00 their position was perilous, with the crags of the cliffs a short distance away and the gale blowing them onto the lee shore. The wind changed and they were able to lay off clear of the cliffs, waiting for daybreak. They finished the last of the brackish water after straining out the Reindeer hairs with medical gauze.

On 10th May the wind dropped and there was a heavy cross-sea. They spotted a break in the cliffs, which was King Haakon Bay and Shackleton knew they must land there and find water. They tried several times to get through a gap in the reefs, but the wind increased and was constantly shifting. With dusk approaching the James Caird tacked through the reefs and they landed in a small, boulder-strewn bay. They made fast the boat with a line and clambered wearily ashore, where they found a stream of fresh water from the glacial melt. They gorged themselves on the icy water, had a meal and tended to the boat through the night, to prevent it being dashed on the rocks. The following morning they emptied the boat and dragged it up the beach to the tussocky grass, above the high water mark. They found a colony of Albatross chicks that were sadly destined never to roam the Southern Ocean. Making camp in a cave, that night they feasted on Albatross stew.

While the crew rested and recuperated, Shackleton pondered his next move. The populated whaling stations were on the north coast, which would mean a crossing of South Georgia on foot, or a dangerous boat trip round the island. The James Caird was in a poor state after her ocean crossing and the physical condition of McNeish and Vincent was a cause of concern. Crossing on foot was the only viable option. Shackleton ordered the boat to be moved to a deep bay to their east which they christened Peggotty Camp. There was an abundance of Elephant Seals in this location, which would provide food and fuel for the men left behind. Shackleton would set off to make the crossing with Worsley and Crean as soon as the weather allowed. A storm on 18th May delayed their start but it cleared by 02:00 the following morning and they set of at 03:00. They had no mountaineering equipment and no maps. Realising that for the men stranded on Elephant Island and the other three at Peggotty Camp, time was of the essence so Shackleton elected to forgo sleeping bags and a tent, pressing on in light marching order.

After two hours steady climbing up a glacier they were at 2,500, feet with the weather clear and calm. The bright moonlight illuminated the broken terrain of glaciers and snow peaks, but a fog came down later. Several times they had to avoid crevasses in the glacier, which could have swallowed them without a trace. They roped themselves together as they continued up to the higher ground. As the fog lifted they saw below them the north-east coast of the island and Possession Bay, which was heartening as they knew they were on the right path. Shackleton was aiming for Stromness Bay, where he knew there was a fully manned whaling station. They went back up to the ridge and struck south-east, to avoid the two bays shown on the nautical chart before Stromness.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Shackleton, Worsley and Crean’s crossing of South Georgia. Total distance of around 25 miles

As the sun rose and the ice and snow became softer, the three men became uncomfortably hot. They passed an area of crevasses and made a hot meal before pressing on. They climbed a ridge by cutting steps with an adze, but the view from the top showed a precipitous slope down to jumbled rocks and ice. There was no path down. After a hot Bovril they made another ascent and found yet again there was no way down. The party was forced to retrace its steps back to the ridgeline. By mid-afternoon they were at 4,500 feet and had to descend because the temperature would plummet and they had no sleeping bags.

As they stood on the ice ridge the fog was rolling in behind them from the west. Before them was a steep drop that merged into a snow-slope, but they couldn’t see what was at the bottom. They went down slowly at first, then un-roped and slid down on their backsides, descending 900 feet in two or three minutes. It was too cold to hunker down so they pressed on through a gap in the crevasses. They had a hot meal and continued through the night and up a gentle slope, watching out for crevasses. They plodded across a huge glacier that Shackleton knew to be Fortuna Glacier and paused with exhaustion. Shackleton knew that if they slept for any long period, they would never wake up. He let the other two men doze for five minutes, then shook them, telling them they had slept for at least an hour.

Shackleton’s diary provides and interesting perspective on the South Georgia Island crossing: “I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains of South Georgia, it seemed to me that there were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘…I had a curious feeling that there was another person with us.’ This image of a fourth traveller—echoed in the accounts of Worsley and Crean—was taken up by T. S. Eliot in his poem The Waste Land.

Ahead running north to south was a ridgeline of jagged peaks, like broken teeth. They went through a gap an 06:00 and saw in the dawn Husvik Harbour with Stromness spit just to the north. Without a word they shook hands and descended 2,500 feet down the gentle slope. They had breakfast and at 06:30 heard the sound of a steam whistle. Resuming the march, the gentle slope became steep and precipitous and they had to cut ice steps, as they were following a frozen waterfall. At 13:30 they were following a beach and saw the sheds of the whaling station. Shackleton spoke to one of the whalers who looked at them incredulously.
“We have lost our ship and have come over the island.”
“You have come over the island?”
The man went to the manager’s house and they followed. The manager came to the door.
“My name is Shackleton.”
“I recognise your voice.”
The manager invited them in.
“Tell me, is the war over?” Shackleton asked.
“The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.”
While the manager arranged for a whaler to go round the island and pick up the three men at Peggotty Camp with Worsley, Shackleton made preparations for the rescue of the men on Elephant Island.

Elephant Island

Frank Wild commanding the Elephant Island party was extremely worried about the poor physical and mental state of some of the men. Rickinson had suffered a suspected heart attack and Blackborow was unable to walk due to frostbite. Hudson was mentally depressed and the party had ostracised Orde-Lees who was extremely unpopular because of his pessimism. A sturdy shelter was required from the gales that swept the island and the two boats were upturned on a low wall of stones, weatherproofed with canvas. This allowed around five feet of headroom inside the upturned boats and it was a makeshift, but sturdy shelter and became known as the “Snuggery.”

Wild had estimated that it would take one month for Shackleton to return with a rescue boat. He refused to allow the stockpiling of seal and penguin meat, because he regarded this as defeatist. Orde-Lees disagreed vociferously, but as the weeks dragged on well past Wild’s overoptimistic forecast, the expedition’s Motor Expert was proved right. Wild established a routine with housekeeping duties and instigated a permanent lookout during daylight. Concerts were held on a Saturday and anniversaries celebrated. But as the weeks turned into months, despondency grew within the party. Blackborow’s frostbitten toes became gangrenous and on 15 June had to be amputated by the surgeons Macklin and James McIlroy in the candle-lit hut. Using the last of the chloroform that had survived in the medical supplies, the whole procedure took 55 minutes, and was a complete success with no secondary infection.

Wild’s no-stockpiling policy had failed. The surrounding sea was dense with pack ice that would halt any rescue ship, food supplies were running out and no penguins were coming ashore. Orde-Lees wrote: “We shall have to eat the one who dies first […] there’s many a true word said in jest.” Wild’s thoughts were now turning seriously to the possibility of a boat trip to Deception Island. He planned to set out on 5 October, in the hoping of meeting a whaling ship, when, on 30 August 1916, the ordeal ended suddenly with the appearance of Shackleton and Yelcho.

Shackleton’s first three attempts to rescue the men on Elephant Island failed due to heavy sea ice. He appealed to the Chilean government who offered the use of the Yelcho, a small seagoing tug, commanded by Louis Pardo. Together with the British whaler, Southern Sky, both boats reached Elephant Island on 30th August 1916. The men were taken to Punta Areanas and then on to Valparasio. The fate of the Ross Sea party will be covered in a later piece.

Return and the Legacy

When Shackleton returned to England in May 1917, Europe was in the midst of the First World War. Suffering from a heart condition, made worse by the fatigue of his arduous journeys and excessive alcohol consumption, and too old to be conscripted, he nevertheless volunteered for the army. Repeatedly requesting posting to the front in France. Despite McNeish’s efforts in preparing and sailing on the James Caird voyage, his prior insubordination meant that, on Shackleton’s recommendation, he was one of four men denied the Polar Medal. The others whose contributions fell short of Shackleton’s expected standards were John Vincent, William Stephenson and Ernest Holness. On their return most of the expedition members volunteered for military service. Before the war ended Tim McCarthy of the open boat journey and the veteran Antarctic sailor Alfred Cheetham, had been killed in action. Shackleton went on a propaganda tour to try and bring Argentina and Chile into the war on the Allied side. In 1919 he was on special duties in Murmansk with the Army Rank of Major.

He thereafter organised one final Antarctic expedition, the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition on Quest, which left London on 17 September 1921.  From the Endurance crew, Wild, Worsley, Macklin, McIlroy, Hussey, Alexander Kerr, Thomas McLeod and cook Charles Green, all sailed with Quest.  The Quest continued south, and on 4 January 1922, arrived at South Georgia.

In the early hours of the next morning, Shackleton summoned the expedition’s physician, Alexander Macklin, to his cabin, complaining of back pains and other discomfort. According to Macklin’s own account, Macklin told him he had been overdoing things and should try to “lead a more regular life”, to which Shackleton answered: “You are always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” “Chiefly alcohol, Boss,” replied Macklin. A few moments later, at 02:50 on 5 January 1922, Shackleton suffered a fatal heart attack. At the request of his widow, Shackleton was buried in the cemetery at Grytviken.  On 27 November 2011, the ashes of Frank Wild were interred on the right-hand side of Shackleton’s grave-site in Grytviken. The inscription on the rough-hewn granite block set to mark the spot reads “Frank Wild 1873–1939, Shackleton’s right-hand man.”

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Shackleton’s grave photographed in the 1930s

It is perhaps the tiny James Caird, now preserved at Dulwich College, (Shackleton’s old school) which stands as mute testament to the dreams and hopes of a different age; an age when men could pit their lives against the grim embrace of the ice, the fury of the Southern Ocean and emerge triumphant and exultant at the end. Truly he has “seen God in all his splendours, heard the text that nature renders…reached the naked soul of man.”

Hugh Andrew

© Blown Periphery 2019

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