The voyage of the James Caird. Mountainous
seas in the southern ocean made this one of the most incredible small boat
journeys of all time.
Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance and
navigator on the James Caird. Seen here on board the Endurance
Tom Crean, with a litter of sledge dog puppies
on the Endurance
The James Caird set off on the
24th of April, the very last day before the pack closed in again on a day
of relative calm. The crew was Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McNeish,
McCarthy and Vincent, the anticipated journey time was a month. It was to
become one of the most astonishing small boat journeys of all time
The James Caird made progress at the rate of
around 60-70 miles per day though the sea conditions were rough. The
sea constantly came in and made everything including the sleeping bags wet,
it was difficult to find any warmth at all. There were four sleeping bags
made of reindeer hide which shed their hairs in the constant dampness, making
them less effective and clogging the pump used to empty the sea water that
spilled over into the boat.
The boat was relatively unladed and so boulders and other
ballast had been placed aboard in order to trim her, these had to be constantly
moved around. The weather worsened and they encountered fierce storms, As
the temperature dropped, ice formed on the outside of the boat from frozen
sea spray, up to 15 inches deep on the deck. This made the boat much heavier
and affected the trim - more moving around of the boulders - the men also
tried as far as they could to chip away the accumulated ice with any tools
that they could improvise, though the situation worsened. They began to
throw items overboard in order to save weight, the spare oars went as did
two sleeping bags that by now were soaked through and hard and heavy with
At other times they had to bale out
water for dear life, the only solace during this journey were hot meals
every four hours by the light of a primus stove.
They had been drifting for some time under light sail
held back by the sea anchor due to the sea state (a sea anchor is a sort
of large canvas bag that acted to slow the boat and prevent it from being
tossed around quite so violently during stormy seas). The sea anchor however
was lost as the boat fell into a large trough between waves and the men
then had to beat the canvas sails free of ice and set them again properly
in order to keep on course.
Frostbite was beginning to affect exposed fingers and
hands in the cold and constant wet. Navigation was also a problem due
to the continually overcast weather. On the seventh day at sea however a
break in the cloud came and Worsley was able to take a reading from
the sun, six days since the last observation, he calculated that they had
traveled around 380 miles and were almost half-way to South Georgia. The
short period of sunshine meant that the men were able to spread their clothing
and other gear over the boat deck and the mast to dry out. The ice became
less dense and they occasionally were accompanied by wildlife, porpoises
and tiny storm petrels.
On may 5th, the
eleventh day out at sea, the sea became much rougher, Shackleton
was at the tiller:
"I called to
the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later
I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds
but the white crest of an enormous wave.
years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered
a wave so gigantic.
It was a mighty
upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped
seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted
'For God's sake, hold on! It's got us.' Then came a moment of
suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the
foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted
and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a
seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived
through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and
shuddering under the blow. We baled with the energy of men fighting
for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle
that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty
we felt the boat renew her life beneath us"
On May 7th Worsley again was able to
take a navigational reading and reckoned that they were not more than a
hundred miles from the northwest corner of South Georgia, another two days
with the wind with them and they should have the island within sight. On
the morning of the 8th of May, they began seeing kelp floating in the sea,
then some sea birds, just after noon they caught a glimpse of South Georgia,
only fourteen days after leaving Elephant Island and about half as long
as they thought the journey would take.
Landing was to be a less than straightforward
affair, reefs (shallow rocks just below the sea surface) stretched all along
the region of the coast where they were and great waves broke over them.
The rocky coast in many places descended steeply into the sea. Despite being
so close and running out of fresh water to drink, they had no choice but
to wait for the next morning to break before attempting to land on the shore.
The morning brought a shift
in the wind and a terrible storm arose, the James Caird was tossed
around in the sea and when light broke, they were out of sight of land
once again. They made their way back to South Georgia just after noon,
but again, it was a coast of huge breakers and sheer cliffs that greeted
them. The day wore on and there seemed no hope, later though in the evening,
the wind shifted direction and began to die down. By the morning of the
10th of May, there was very little wind and they were able to look for a
landing place. Reefs and breaking waves dogged their every attempt. They
found a likely bay to land, but were blown out to sea again by a change
in the wind. In approaching darkness they eventually were able to enter
a small cove fronted by a reef, they had to take in the oars to pass through,
but at long last, carried by the swell, the James Caird was able
to land on a South Georgia beach at King Haakon Bay.
They had got through thanks
to Shackleton's leadership and the incredible navigational skills of New
Zealander Frank Worsley. Worsley had only been able to take sightings of
the sun four times, on April 26th and May 3rd, 4th and 7th, all the rest
had been dead reckoning.
Had they failed to land, the
boat would have been swept onwards to be lost in the mid Atlantic, and no
rescue party would have set out for the men on Elephant Island.
Arrival at South Georgia
Historical photographs on this page by permission
of National Library of Australia