The Endurance Expedition (1914 – 1917).
“Tom Crean’s role in the escape from the ice, is unique in that he was the only member of the Endurance Expedition to take part in every aspect of it.”
The term ‘challenge’ is without doubt a gross understatement, if used in the context of the unbelievable survival story, that was the Endurance Expedition. Odyssey probably is too. Yet after much research, I settled on it, as perhaps the most suitable of existing words, to somehow convey the magnitude of what the men of the sunken ship Endurance, undertook in the wake of it’s loss.
Being trapped in the ice of the notorious Weddell Sea, in February 1915, was not a cause for huge concern, despite the unseasonableness of it’s occurrence. The ship being pulverised and eventually sunk, by the immense pressures of the ice floes, however, was!
Endurance, snapping and shattering, in it’s frigid white vice, was abandoned on October 27th 1915. The wreckage remained abob, awhile, until finally slipping below the surface, on November 21st.
The enormity of their predicament had of course registered with the group, long before the precipitation of the ship’s timbers, to the fathomless depths below.
All that separated them from an identical fate, was the very ice they stood upon. Ocean Camp, established within plundering distance of their shattered ship, had been their first settlement on the drifting floes.
Twenty eight men, a pack of dogs, one cat, stock, store and lifeboats, drifting helplessly in the southern ocean, on an immeasurable sheet of ice. They had made attempts to march westwards across the ice, hauling their provisions in two of the lifeboats. It was back breaking work, that yielded little distance. As Frank Hurley had noted, there was scarcely a square yard of flat ice. The conditions underfoot were in fact atrocious. The men sank in soft snow and the icy surface was a series of hummocks and pressure ridges.
The plan had been to strike for Paulet Island, Robertson Island or Snow Hill Island, all of which lay over 300 miles away. After a week of heavy exertion, which had seen the group cover a distance of only seven miles, Shackleton aborted the operation, citing that it would take them over 300 days to complete the trek. An optimistic calculation, given that it was formulated at their initial pace, and hardly factored in the inevitable deterioration of the participants over the course.
Salvation At Stromness.
The Endurance Expedition (1914 – 1917).
“We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had “suffered, starved, and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.” We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
One can completely understand why Sir Ernest Shackleton felt so poetic, when he stood above Stromness whaling station, with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, on May 20th 1916. Whether the words came to him then, or in considered reflection afterwords, they tremor with the sheer magnitude of the moment.
For below the trio lay salvation. They had saved themselves. They would save their three companions, who had voyaged with them in the James Caird – McNish and Vincent, too ill to venture further, remained behind on the opposite side of the island, in the care of Timothy McCarthy. They would save their 22 comrades stranded 800 miles away on Elephant Island. And undoubtedly they had grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.
What they had overcome was simply colossus! How they had done it – unimaginable! How they conspired, endured, and overcame, to not just survive but to triumph, is quite frankly unfathomable.
And this was the moment! It was the moment the escape from the ice was over, and the rescue could begin. How glorious did the blubber drenched, whale stenched, galvanised garrison of Stromness, appear to the three men, that day? Continue Reading →
The Voyage Of The James Caird.
April 24th – May 10th, 1916.
Tomorrow we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the James Caird reaching South Georgia, after a titanic 16 day, 800 mile journey, across the most volatile ocean on earth.
So slim were the chances of survival for the six man crew, as they left Elephant Island on April 24th 1916, that to all intents and purposes, it was their coffin that they dragged down the stony, perished beach, climbed aboard, and cast into the Weddell Sea.
The Weddell is a heaving, wind lashed, torturous monster, and the conditions the men endured, were simply horrific.
That they would emerge from a hurricane, 800 miles and 16 days later, and reach the rugged shores of South Georgia, is almost beyond comprehension.
But they did.
Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, Frank Worsley, Timothy McCarthy, Harry McNish and John Vincent – Remember them!
The Irish War of Independence
1919 – 1921
The ‘Black and Tans’ rolled into Ireland in 1920, their existence and purpose as devised by Winston Churchill was to provide numerical backup to an ever beleaguered R.I.C. force, who had become the bane of republican insurgents. Their initial brief was chillingly straightforward – revenge, retaliation and retribution.
And when a force compiled of men, most of whom had just returned from the atrocious theatres of death and destruction of World War 1, was allowed to dispense its own justice, unchecked and unquestioned, against an almost invisible enemy who had adopted guerrilla tactics , there was an unperturbed certainty that the civilian population would be recipient to the swift and brutal avengement.
Even today, almost a century later, there is scarcely a village or community across the land, that cannot recount some local tale of the barbarity and savagery, of the days when the ‘Tans’ rolled into town, or came knocking on the doors of rural homesteads. In a largely unmotorised Ireland, the wheels of nightmares were set in motion, upon hearing the approach of engines, winding menacingly through the ditch flanked, grass middled lanes, of the countryside.
A Failed Rescue Aboard The Southern Sky.
The Endurance Expedition.
“The sea was freezing around us and the ice gradually grew thicker, reducing our speed to about five knots.”
Ernest Shackleton, South.
Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley had arrived at the whaling station in Stromness, South Georgia on the 20th May 1916, via a perilous, 36 hour crossing of the islands unchartered interior. The Norwegian’s who manned the station simply could not do enough for them, despite being justifiably wary and suspicious upon first glimpsing the three decrepit characters, who had crawled down from the icy peaks they had never dared to venture upon.
They listened with utter astonishment as the men relayed the fantastic saga of their almost impossible journey there. They had endured a purgatorial 800 mile journey across the violent and wholly unforgiving Weddell Sea, in a lifeboat, that under any aspect of consideration was mere fodder to a monstrous ocean , which reigned with terrible and truculent fury over the graves of the vessels it duly sundered. But not the James Caird would it sunder, nor the six shattered souls it had sloshed about in its fervent fury for weeks, in an almost futile battle of survival, that ultimately and unbelievably the men of the Caird would overcome and win.
The whalers at the station were nothing short of flabbergasted by the heroic and courageous achievements of the men from the Endurance, and their epic tale had entered the realms of nautical folklore, long before the final conclusive chapters had yet played out.
After hot baths, clean clothes and slap up meals had been generously provided, and gratefully accepted, Worsley set sail with some of the whalers aboard Samson, to rescue McCarthy, Vincent and McNish who were stranded on the other side of the island. Shackleton and Crean, despite their exhaustion, struggled to sleep in the unfamiliar ambience of the warmth and comfort their beds afforded them, that night.
The Rescue of McCarthy, Vincent & McNish.
The Endurance Expedition – South Georgia.
Having only arrived in Stromness earlier that afternoon, after the perilous crossing of South Georgia’s jagged, ice covered interior, Frank Worsley agreed to accompany the relief mission to pick up the three men stranded on the other side of the island. Harry McNish and John Vincent were in a desperate condition after the voyage of the James Caird. Shackleton had left them in the care of Cork man Timothy McCarthy, whilst he, Tom Crean and the New Zealander, Frank Worsley left Peggotty Camp to cross South Georgia’s uncharted interior, to reach Stromness whaling station.
Peggotty Camp had been named so by the men, after the family in the Charles Dickens novel, David Copperfield, who had made their home from a beached boat. Like their comrades back on Elephant Island, Shackleton and his men, having landed at what is today known as Peggotty Bluff, decided to use their upturned lifeboat as an improvised shelter.
Once the three men had reached Stromness, and identified themselves to the manager, Mr. Sorlle, their immediate attention turned to the rescue of McCarthy, Vincent and McNish. Sorlle, who at first, did not recognise any of the men, despite the fact that they had stopped over in Stromness, before departing for Antarctica in December 1914, immediately began readying a whaling vessel, for the task.
Meanwhile the men washed.
“Soon we were clean again. Then we put on delightful new clothes supplied from the station stores and got rid of our superfluous hair. Within an hour or two we had ceased to be savages and had become civilized men again. Then came a splendid meal, while Mr. Sorlle told us of the arrangements he had made and we discussed plans for the rescue of the main party on Elephant Island.”
Sir Ernest Shackleton – Quoted from “South”.
Worsley, being the expert navigator, as proven irrefutably, on the James Caird voyage, was the obvious choice to accompany the rescuers, and pinpoint the exact location of Peggotty Camp to the whalers.
The ship pulled out of Stromness at 10 pm, and Worsley promptly turned in for the night, for some well earned and much needed rest.
Meanwhile Shackleton and Crean would spend the night as guests of Mr. Sorlle, who’s hospitality they were eternally grateful for.
“Our first night at the whaling-station was blissful. Crean and I shared a beautiful room in Mr. Sorlle’s house, with electric light and two beds, warm and soft. We were so comfortable that we were unable to sleep. Late at night a steward brought us tea, bread and butter and cakes, and we lay in bed, revelling in the luxury of it all. Outside a dense snow-storm, which started two hours after our arrival and lasted until the following day, was swirling and driving about the mountain-slopes. We were thankful indeed that we had made a place of safety, for it would have gone hard with us if we had been out on the mountains that night. Deep snow lay everywhere when we got up the following morning.”
Sir Ernest Shackleton – Quoted from “South”.
The ship arrived in King Haakon Bay the following day, and Worsley reached the men at Peggotty Camp by boat shortly afterwards. McCarthy, Vincent and McNish emerged from beneath their makeshift camp and were elated, on realising that their three companions had safely traversed the island, and that rescue was at hand.
Then the men quizzed Worsley as to why none of their comrades had returned with the relief effort, to fetch them. A bemused Worsley asked them what they meant, and they replied that they had been certain at least one of the three men would have travelled with the whalers. Completely mystified, Worsley demanded “What’s the matter with you?” and suddenly they recognised that the clean shaven and groomed man that stood before them was indeed Frank Worsley, and not one of the whalers as they had assumed. One can only imagine the seismic alteration in Worsley’s appearance, when men he had spent almost a year and half in close confinement with, did not recognise him after a two day absence.
Arrival At Stromness
The Endurance Expedition
“Pain and ache, boat journeys, marches, hunger and fatigue seemed to belong to the limbo of forgotten things, and there remained only the perfect contentment that comes of work accomplished.”
In the early afternoon of May 20th 1916, three eerie creatures emerged from the rugged interior of South Georgia, and stumbled towards the buildings of Stromness whaling station. Their beards were long and unruly, their hair thick and matted, their skin blackened from smoke, scarred by cold and frostbite, unwashed for months, and the shreds of clothing that they had worn for over a year without change, hung in tatters from their weary, emaciated bodies. Their desperate countenance was also thoroughly augmented by the fact that all three, were saturated, freezing, utterly exhausted and starving.
Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean had just completed the final leg of their unbelievable journey of escape, from the ice floes of the Weddell Sea, that had pulverised and sank their ship, Endurance in October 1915. Whilst the first leg of that journey was one of confinement on the drifting ice pack, once the floes began to melt and fracture beneath them, the crew took to sea in their three lifeboats, and the story became an epic saga of immense hardship, courage and pure determination.
Into The Unknown – Crossing South Georgia
The Endurance Expedition
The almost impossible had been achieved and for Shackleton, Crean, Worsley, McCarthy, Vincent and McNish the 16 day crossing of the Weddell Sea, in the James Caird, concluded as it had eventuated – in another desperate struggle! But try as they might, the shattered men simply could not summon the strength to drag the lifeboat from the icy water.
Food and rest would be required, before that task could be completed, and the Caird was lashed to a boulder, and a watch would be maintained to safeguard the vessel from being drove onto the rocks, by the incoming sea. Tom Crean was sent to seek out shelter, and in the darkness duly located a small cave, which would serve such purpose, and sleeping bags and cooking gear were moved there, and finally a hot meal was prepared.
After eating Shackleton ordered the men to get some sleep, and typical of his spirit he opted to man the first watch, and no doubt pondered and plotted their next move, as he kept vigil over the boat. The following morning, May 11th, the men prepared to get the James Caird ashore, by first consuming another hot meal, and with the sea receding somewhat, they then set about the task. It was a strenuous and difficult undertaking, and it highlighted to the men just how weak and undernourished they were after their gruelling voyage, but eventually they succeeded in dragging the boat onto the beach, and then clear of the high water marks. It was a great relief to the party to finally have the Caird out of the perilous waters, as it would be needed to sail again. Continue Reading →
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. Continue Reading →