Sir Earnest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed and sank in the Weddell Sea icepack on November 21, 1915. He and his twenty-seven man crew subsequently lived on the icepack that continued to drift in a northerly direction somewhat parallel to the eastern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. When the icepack finally melted beneath them, they took to their three longboats. They rowed continuously for several days in these open boats before finally reaching Elephant Island off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton spent less than two weeks on the island. Midwinter was approaching. There was no time to waste.
On April 24, 1916, Shackleton and five of his crew sailed for South Georgia Island, 650 nautical miles (1,050 kilometers) away. There was a whaling station on this island, which Shackleton and his crew knew about because they had stopped there on their way to Antarctica. It was the closest outpost of civilization. And a razor-thin hope for salvation.
Elephant Island was a remote island, far away from any shipping lanes. No backup ship would be coming to rescue them and they had no radio to inform the world about their plight. The only ship available was the ship they lost. Even if there had been a plan for a rescue ship to come searching for them, they would have been almost impossible to find. All any potential rescuer would have known was that they probably were somewhere within the million square miles of the Weddell Sea.
The craft that was going to undertake this desperate voyage to South Georgia Island was the James Caird, one of the longboats converted into a makeshift small sailboat by the ship’s resourceful carpenter, Harry McNish. He reportedly did carpentry work using only ‘eyeball’ measurements. Shackleton chose five men to join him: Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, served as navigator, with McNish, the Bosun, John Vincent, and two seamen, Thomas Crean and Tim McCarthy. The remaining twenty-one crewmembers remained on the island—with little hope that Shackleton and his small crew would ever survive.
The worst danger the James Caird faced on this voyage was colliding with a large piece of berg ice. Such an event would have likely sunk them. Consequently, Shackleton immediately turned north and tried to get as far away from the icepack as he could, before turning east towards South Georgia Island. Luck was with them. They never hit any significant ice. But then they had to deal with the terror of Drake Passage in a twenty-two foot, double-ended boat. (To be continued in subsequent blog postings.)