Shackleton Gives The Order To Sail The Lifeboats
The Endurance Expedition – Voyage to Elephant Island Begins
“Many of the important events of our Expedition occurred on Sundays, and this particular day was to see our forced departure from the floe on which we had lived for nearly six months, and the start of our journeyings in the boats.” Ernest Shackleton – “South” Chapter VIII – Escape From The Ice
On Saturday April the 8th 1916, the ice floe upon which Shackleton and his crew had established Patience Camp, suddenly split in two, and spurred the men into readiness for evacuation. “At 6.30 p.m. a particularly heavy shock went through our floe. The watchman and other members of the party made an immediate inspection and found a crack right under the James Caird and between the other two boats and the main camp. Within five minutes the boats were over the crack and close to the tents. The trouble was not caused by a blow from another floe. We could see that the piece of ice we occupied had slewed and now presented its long axis towards the oncoming swell.“*
The following morning April 9th, Shackleton had hoped that the south-south-westerly and south-easterly breezes would drift the precarious floe nearer to Clarence Island, making its attainment easier, but the ice was soon breaking up with alarming frequency beneath them, and they were soon forced to set sail.
“I had decided to take the James Caird myself, with Wild and eleven men. This was the largest of our boats, and in addition to her human complement she carried the major portion of the stores. Worsley had charge of the Dudley Docker with nine men, and Hudson and Crean were the senior men on the Stancomb Wills.” **
As to where they should go was the subject of much deliberation, but with temperatures below -30 C , and the starving men being regularly soaked by the frigid sea, as they navigated through the treacherous ice filled waters, the immediate concerns were those of keeping the boats afloat and trying to keep all three within sight of each other. On April 12th, which was three days after they had been forced to sail, Shackleton noted that the question of their destination was still demanding consideration, after Worsley had detected that they had been drifting south-east. They had occasionally found a floe large enough to accommodate the cooking of some food, and in an effort to maintain the morale of the weary crew, Shackleton was scant in his provision of information, on their progress.
Eventually it became apparent that their best option, given the brutal conditions, was to head for Elephant Island. On April 16th the three lifeboats, having been separated off the coastline the previous night, landed on a narrow beach, to much jubilation and relief, though it soon became clear, due to high tide markings that the beach could not be used as a long term camp. Wild then took the Stancomb Wills and located a suitable site, and after they relocated there, they named it Point Wild.
Tom Crean & The Stancomb Wills
The three lifeboats had earlier been named after the chief financial backers of the expedition. Shackleton took command of the largest of the lifeboats, the James Caird, the Dudley Docker was commanded by Worsley , and Hubert Hudson took command of the Stancomb Wills. However it was soon Tom Crean who assumed command of the Wills, as Hudson’s physical and mental condition had deteriorated, after months on the ice. Tom Crean heroically kept the Wills afloat, sailing through a labyrinth of ice and battling the rough sea, whilst all the time the boat was taking on water, and constantly needed to be bailed out. Conditions on the boats were appalling as the soaked and hungry men suffered from seasickness and diarrhoea, and of course the freezing temperatures. At night the men would huddle together to generate heat, and would awake covered in permafrost.
On many occasions the Wills was almost lost, as it was battered by enormous waves, on one occasion being as good as sunk by a giant wave which filled it almost completely with water, before amazingly the next big wave to slam into them, tilted the boat enough to almost empty it.