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FROZEN HELL IN A COCKLESHELL
F.A. Worsley
March 17, 1975
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.
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March 17, 1975

Frozen Hell In A Cockleshell

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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.

Before the 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.

The westerly 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 Georgia.

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."

The carpenter 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 medicine chest.

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