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.
The Escape From the Ice.
“There were twenty-eight men on our floating cake of ice, which was steadily dwindling under the influence of wind, weather, charging floes, and heavy swell. I confess that I felt the burden of responsibility sit heavily on my shoulders; but, on the other hand, I was stimulated and cheered by the attitude of the men. Loneliness is the penalty of leadership, but the man who has to make the decisions is assisted greatly if he feels that there is no uncertainty in the minds of those who follow him, and that his orders will be carried out confidently and in expectation of success.”
― from “South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition”
The expedition ship Endurance, was snared by the ice of the Weddell Sea, in February 1915, in latitude 77º south. Over the course of more than 1,000 miles, the ship and it’s helpless crew, would drift, at the mercy of the ice sheet that held them captive. At latitude 69º south the Endurance finally yielded to the immense pressures of the crushing floes, and sank.
The twenty eight men of the expedition, had no other choice but to remain on the ice, and try to eke out an existence. Foresight on their part had ensured they had afforded themselves a future chance of survival; as they had salvaged three lifeboats from the ship, before it was pulverised.
In order to sail however, they needed leads of water, when all about them was heavy pack ice. But even in Antarctic climes, ice melts, and once it begins it can be an alarmingly rapid process.
It would take months though, before the men of the Endurance would witness this. Their first settlement on the floes was dubbed Ocean Camp. From here the first escape from the ice was planned. All of the groups supplies were loaded into two boats, which the men attempted to drag across the ice. It was backbreaking work, that ultimately proved futile, and almost caused a mutiny.
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 Endurance Expedition.
The Voyage Of The James Caird.
Even 100 years on from the epic boat journey, that was the voyage of the James Caird, it remains difficult to fully comprehend or appreciate, the enormity of the achievement of the six man crew.
Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, Timothy McCarty, Harry McNish and John Vincent spent 17 gruelling days in the modified lifeboat, traversing one of the most violent stretches of ocean on the planet. That they would somehow conspire to complete the feat, is without doubt one of, if not the single most greatest feat of open boat navigation, ever undertaken, and it was an act of sheer fortitude, brilliance, courage, endurance and pure seamanship that seldom gets the recognition or acclaim that it surely merits.
Below we remember the men of the Caird, in their own words. Lest we forget.
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 →
The Voyage Of The James Caird Begins.
The Endurance Expedition.
April 24th 1916.
“The 20-ft. boat had never looked big; she appeared to have shrunk in some mysterious way when I viewed her in the light of our new undertaking.”
Ernest Shackleton on viewing the James Caird prior to the voyage.
The 28 men of the Endurance were stranded on Elephant Island, having reached the desolate outcrop on April 16th, after an utterly gruelling seven day voyage. They had sailed there in three lifeboats, salvaged from the expedition ship, before it was crushed and sunk, by the ice floes that had held it captive for months.
While it was a welcome relief for the crew to be back on land, after surviving on the drifting floes, since abandoning the ship on October 27th 1915, their survival chances were still very slim.
Elephant Island is a 29 mile long, fog shrouded, ice covered mountain, that supports virtually no vegetation, and was not remotely near any shipping lanes, which meant there was no hope of rescue from passing vessels. On examining their supplies, Shackleton estimated that they had approximately five weeks food, which could possibly be stretched to three months, at half rations. There was always the contingency of supplementing the stock with seals and sea elephants, but they appeared to have deserted the beach as soon as the men arrived.