Shackleton’s Lifeboats Make Landfall On Elephant Island
The Endurance Expedition
On April 9th 1916, the ice floe that Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance, had established Patience Camp upon, had begun to break up beneath their feet, and forced them into a rather hasty evacuation. The men had previously managed to salvage three lifeboats from the Endurance which had been first trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915, before it sank on November 21st, of that year, and these vessels were their only hope of escape.
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 Hudson’s mental condition was deteriorating, after months of confinement on the ice, and he was suffering badly with frostbite, so it was soon Tom Crean who assumed command of the Wills. Being the smallest and most vulnerable of the three crafts, Crean’s task was immense and his efforts in keeping the Wills afloat, sailing through a labyrinth of ice and battling the rough sea, was truly heroic. Conditions on the boats were appalling as the freezing, soaked and hungry men suffered from seasickness and diarrhoea, as they sailed in search of land.
Initially Shackleton had contemplated reaching either Deception Island or Hope Island, but after three days at sea, Worsley ascertained that the strong currents had been causing the boats to drift south east. Taking this and the wretched condition of his men into consideration, Shackleton opted to strike for what he deemed the nearest attainable landfall – Elephant Island.
“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.
On April 16th having spent the previous night separated off the coast of the island, in bitter cold conditions, the three boats eventually landed on a stony strip of beach, after negotiating the dangerous and rocky approach. “I decided that we must face the hazards of this unattractive landing-place. Two days and nights without drink or hot food had played havoc with most of the men, and we could not assume that any safer haven lay within our reach.” *
Because it was the smallest of the vessels, Shackleton decided to land the the Stancomb Wills first, and climbed aboard from the James Caird, to help in the effort. As he did so, the Dudley Docker, which had not been seen since darkness, suddenly sailed in behind them, much to the relief and jubilation of all.
When all of the men had been transferred to the beach, Shackleton noted the strange sight that he witnessed – “Some of the men were reeling about the beach as if they had found an unlimited supply of alcoholic liquor on the desolate shore. They were laughing uproariously, picking up stones and letting handfuls of pebbles trickle between their fingers like misers gloating over hoarded gold. The smiles and laughter, which caused cracked lips to bleed afresh, and the gleeful exclamations at the sight of two live seals on the beach made me think for a moment of that glittering hour of childhood when the door is open at last and the Christmas-tree in all its wonder bursts upon the vision. I remember that Wild, who always rose superior to fortune, bad and good, came ashore as I was looking at the men and stood beside me as easy and unconcerned as if he had stepped out of his car for a stroll in the park.” **
It had been 497 days since the men had stood on land, and they were the first humans ever to set foot on the island.
But soon the exultation faded back to the reality of their situation, and the weary starving men had to wade repeatedly into the frigid waters to haul their precious supplies ashore, and establish a camp, where much needed rest and nutrition could be acquired.
By 3pm that day the camp was in order and tents had been pitched using the boat oars, and for now the men were safe, though Shackleton decided not to impart his suspicion that the beach they now inhabited, would not be a long term location of security. “I decided not to share with the men the knowledge of the uncertainties of our situation until they had enjoyed the full sweetness of rest untroubled by the thought that at any minute they might be called to face peril again. The threat of the sea had been our portion during many, many days, and a respite meant much to weary bodies and jaded minds.” ***
That news could wait until tomorrow.
Quotes * ** *** – Ernest Shackleton – “South” Chapter VIII – Escape From The Ice
Photographs – From South With Endurance – The Photographs of Frank Hurley.