The James Caird Reaches South Georgia
The Endurance Expedition
“We fought the seas and the winds and at the same time had a daily struggle to keep ourselves alive. At times we were in dire peril.”
Sir Ernest Shackleton – South
On May 10th 1916 Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McCarthy, Vincent and McNish reached South Georgia aboard the James Caird lifeboat, which they had sailed from Elephant Island. The 800 mile journey across the planets most violent stretch of water had taken them 16 torrid days to complete. One can only wonder, as to whether the weary, frozen, starved and parched men realised the sheer enormity of their achievement, as they dragged themselves and their boat from the icy waters that day.
Traversing the Weddell Sea is never anything less than a mammoth task. Doing so in a 23 foot long lifeboat during the Antarctic Winter, is almost beyond comprehension. But that is exactly what those six men did.
Historian Thomas R Henry wrote in his book The White Continent – “The Weddell Sea is, according to the testimony of all who have sailed through its berg-filled waters, the most treacherous and dismal region on earth.”Few, if any, would disagree with him. Winds are predominant in the area and frequently blow at an almost constant and unrelenting gale force, with little interlude. It has been established that the wind will manifest and appear as one of two meteorological situations, which are either a broad east to west flow of cold but stable air, or an intense cyclone. The crew of the James Caird would experience both.
And where the winds are high and violent, then so too are the seas. The Circumpolar Current whips around the globe, at latitudes unhindered by any landmass, and huge volumes of water pour through Drakes Passage, east of Antarctica, spawning massive waves known as Cape Horn Rollers. These wind driven monsters, which can frequently reach heights of 60 metres, churn into the Weddell Sea, conjuring a convulsive and unforgiving ocean, upon which no mere lifeboat should ever there sail.
But sail there did the James Caird, tossed, battered and flung about its ferocious surface, with six brave crewmen, hellbent on survival and the rescue of the 22 men they had left behind on Elephant Island, fighting every minute to survive the perils the seething sea continuously vomited upon them.
For these six men, Hell had been measured, and dealt to them within the confines of their boat. Not only was it the greatest feat of open boat sailing and navigation, it’s consequence is unrivaled in its complexities of human endurance, suffering and survival.
That battle for survival had of course begun long before the James Caird, departed Elephant Island. The Endurance had been trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea, since February 1915 and abandoned completely in October of that year as the pressure of the ice pulverized, and eventually sank the vessel. From that point onwards the men eked out an existence, living on the drifting ice floes, for months, before they too began to break up beneath their feet. Abandonment was again their only option, and the ship’s three lifeboats were their only means of escape. They set sail, on April 9th, and whilst Elephant Island was not their initial destination, a combination of strong currents, the ever deteriorating condition of the men, and the probable chance of its attainability, soon saw them set course there.
The grueling journey took seven days and conditions aboard the boats were grim. It was a constant battle to keep the vessels afloat in the ice strewn, turbulent waters but eventually the bedraggled group reached their target and made landfall on a narrow pebble beach. Evidence of high tides at that location meant they would have to seek a safer site to establish a permanent camp, and Crean, Worsley, Marston, McCarthy and Vincent were dispatched in the Stancomb Wills, to do just that. They returned having identified a suitable stretch of shoreline, seven miles west, and subsequently all 28 men were back aboard the three boats for the journey to Cape Wild.
This was the backdrop to the story of the voyage of the James Caird, and one can only imagine the pitiful and debilitated condition of the six man crew that set sail for South Georgia on April 24th 1916. Once underway, the voyage almost immediately presented challenges. The strong westerly winds forced them into drifting pack ice, and an early change of course was necessary, as they tried to weave an elusive path through an ocean heaving with ice. Once they had successfully negotiated the pack ice, they were in open sea’s and promptly became aware of the menacing heavy swells.
Nothing was easy aboard the boat, which was under constant siege from wind and waves. The sea continuously crashed over them, and the men were almost always wet and freezing. Cooking on a primus stove became a task for three men, as both stove and pot needed to be held steady, and when it came to sleeping, the men had to do so beneath a leaky canvas decking, and on top of the bags of jagged rocks, which had been placed in the boat to act as ballast. To add to the discomfort everything below deck was soaked, and the rocks needed to be moved on many occasions, to allow access to the pump, which was repeatedly blocked by the moulting hairs of their saturated sleeping bags. Despite the enormous difficulties Shackleton ensured that meals were regular, for the weary crew – the demands of their quest insisted that their vitality was maintained.
In freezing temperatures the unrelenting spray from the ocean began to build up as ice upon the boat, and while it brought some relief when below decks, as the water could no longer leak down on top of them, if too much ice accumulated it would reduce buoyancy to the point where the boat was in danger of being swamped. They would take turns lying out across the decking in perilous conditions chipping away at the ice, while their comrades held onto their legs. All of the men suffered frostbite and they also had to cope with salt water blistering on their skin from the constant soakings.
On the seventh day of the voyage the elements finally afforded them a break. The previous night they had observed a slackening in the wind force and the sea conditions moderated. The following morning they were basking in sunshine, and were quick to take advantage of the respite, to dry their clothes and sleeping bags. Worsley too got the opportunity to take some readings to determine their position. The winds and rough seas duly returned and the next three days were spent battling their way through the ocean, until on the tenth night it was almost the end for them.
Shackleton who was on the tiller spotted what he thought was a clearing in the murky skies, between south and south-west. As he watched, the blackness grew and when it was almost upon them Shackleton realised it was in fact a gigantic wave. He screamed at the men below deck to brace for impact, and when the wave hit hurling them forward, they were according to Shackleton “in a seething chaos of tortured water”. Miraculously they emerged from the enormous hit but the boat was almost full of water, and they bailed frantically for their lives. “During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic,” Shackleton later said of the incident. They had survived but everything on the boat was now sodden again.
As the journey wore on the water supply became a serious issue, as one of the casks which had been damaged before departure, had been tainted by seawater. Thirst had now become their greatest adversity and their tongues swelled up in their dry mouths, which also rendered them almost unable to eat. At 12.30 pm on the 8th of May, salvation appeared through a break in the cloud cover, when Timothy McCarthy spotted the black cliffs of South Georgia. By the time they reached the island, all the while scanning the area for a suitable landing place, darkness was falling quickly upon them, and it would have been suicidal to attempt landfall. Despite their thirst they had little choice but to elect to spend the night offshore and attempt landing in the morning.
South Georgia. King Haakon Bay, where the James Caird landed, is the large indentation at the western (upper) end of the southerly side.
That would not happen because at 5am a violent hurricane struck, and enveloped them. They were in sight of their goal, yet were in more dire peril than at any other stage of their long and fraught journey. The duration of that day, and into nightfall was spent in desperate battle against the might of the hurricane as it persistently drove them ever closer to the islands rocky approaches and cliff faces. The wind roared around them and so too the monstrous waves that crashed against the cliffs. Unbeknownst to them, just ten miles away a 537 ton ship, name Argos sank that night with the loss of all crew. It seemed a certainty that this too would be their fate, as each violent gust of wind and heave of ocean, flung them ever closer.
The men were almost shattered into submission and were practically resigned to their fate, when the wind suddenly took mercy and changed direction, allowing them to sail to safety. Again they spent the night offshore, consumed by thirst and utterly exhausted by the immense effort in staving off the storm. The following morning, May 10th 1916, and all aboard the James Caird knew they had to get ashore. They made for the large inlet of King Haakon Bay, but found entry there blocked by a reef of sharp jagged rock. The winds again rose menacingly around them, as if to emphasise the urgency, and when they sighted a gap in the reef which would allow them passage, it conspired against them. The gusts now changed direction and blew straight out of the bay, thwarting their efforts of approach.
But these six men were nothing if not persistent, and try, and try and try again they did, and on their fifth approach they slipped through the teeth of the reef and into the mouth of the bay. With dusk approaching they spotted a tiny cove, which too was guarded by a reef, but with every determination they slipped through it and the swell carried the boat to the beach. They clambered ashore and those that could stand struggled to secure the boat. The voyage of the James Caird had ended, and almost as if the Gods bestowed reward upon them for their biblical efforts, they heard the gurgle of running water, which came from a nearby stream.
“A moment later we were down on our knees drinking the pure, ice-cold water in long draughts that put new life into us. It was a splendid moment.”