In 1909 Ernest
Shackleton led a British expedition to within 97 miles of the South Pole, a
feat for which he was knighted. It was the heyday of the polar explorer. Robert
Peary of the U.S. had just become the first to reach the North Pole and in
1911, before Shackleton could return, Roald Amundsen of Norway reached the
South Pole. So Sir Ernest decided to cross the continent of Antarctica via the
South Pole, a distance of 1,700 miles. In December of 1914 he set out with 27
men on the 144-foot steam-powered barkentine Endurance. The ship was trapped in
pack ice within sight of its Antarctic beachhead and, locked in this mass for
nine months, drifted 1,000 miles. The ship finally broke up, the men escaping
to ice floes on which they camped for five months. When the floes began to
disintegrate, Shackleton ordered the party into three lifeboats, and for seven
days the men fought cold, hunger and engulfing seas before reaching Elephant
Island, a bleak and uninhabited landfall. There was but one hope of rescue—a
sea journey of heroic proportions. A classic account of that trip by the
captain of the Endurance, a man of intrepid ways himself, has recently been
reissued and is excerpted here.
We were 28 men
facing winter on a bleak, barren beach of Elephant Island. There was, at
intervals, the possibility of a fatal shortage of food, when seals or penguins
failed to land from pack ice or the sea or abandoned the rookery where such a
dangerous neighbour as man had suddenly settled. But food insufficient for 28
men might still nourish 22, if six went for help.
There was nothing
to suggest to the outside world that Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men were
near the South Shetland group; rather, they would look for us in the southern
part of the Weddell Sea. There was no hope of rescue. Plainly, the thing to do
was to take a boat to the nearest inhabited point, risking the lives of a few
for the preservation of the party.
Endurance was crushed and sunk I, as captain, had worked out the courses and
distances from the South Orkneys to South Georgia, the Falklands and Cape Horn
and from Elephant Island to the same places.
gales in the area that we proposed to cross are almost unceasing in the winter
and cause strong east-running currents. This meant that we had practically no
hope of reaching Cape Horn—the nearest point—and very little of making the
Falklands, but would have fair gales and favouring currents to South
It would have
been impossible to keep the 28 men alive for that distance. The three boats
could not have kept together, and the smaller two probably would have
foundered. We therefore concentrated our meager resources on the largest boat,
the James Caird, so named by Shackleton after the principal supporter of his
expedition. She was double-ended and clinker-built in July 1914. Her planking
was Baltic pine, keel and timbers American elm, stem and stern-post English
oak. She was springy and buoyant.
While drifting on
the pack ice after the loss of the Endurance, the carpenter had built her 15
inches higher, constructed a whale-back at each end and fitted a pump made from
the Flinders bar casing of the ship's compass. We launched the boat into a pool
and loaded her with two and a third tons' weight, which left her with 2'2"
freeboard, i.e., height above water.
If timber had
been available, the carpenter, a splendid shipwright, could have made a cutter
in which we could safely have carried the whole party. At Elephant Island he
covered the space between the whale-backs with very limited materials,
consisting of sledge runners, lids of boxes and old canvas. Frozen like a board
and caked with ice, the canvas was sewn, in painful circumstances, by two
cheery optimists—L. Greenstreet, chief officer of the Endurance, and A.
Bakewell, a Canadian AB. The only way they could do it was by holding the
frozen canvas in the blubber fire till it thawed, often burning their fingers,
while the oily smoke got in their eyes and noses, half-blinding and choking
them. Strange nautical oaths, quips and jests flew to and fro. When finished,
it was a good job and saved our lives more than once. A space was left at the
after-end to steer from and give access to the "cabin."
bolted one of the other boat's masts inside the keel of the Caird to prevent
her breaking her back in extra heavy seas. The mast and sail of the third
lifeboat were cut down to make the mizenmast and sail for the Caird. Her sails
then were: jib, standing lug and a small mizen.
The boat's gear
consisted of four oars, six crutches, a long rope for painter and for dragging
the sea-anchor, a Navy boat's compass, an oil bag, red lights, flaming matches,
two water-breakers, a bailer, two axes, a marlinespike and a repair bag. We
also took a Primus stove with paraffin and methylated spirits, seal oil and a