On This Day – May 29th 1916 – Southern Sky Rescue Attempt Is Abandoned

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 following morning their host, Mr. Sorlle, took the men to the tiny community at Husvik to meet the magistrate Mr. Bernsten, to try and arrange rescue for the 22 men on Elephant Island. What immediately caught Shackleton’s attention upon arrival was a large whaler, the Southern Sky which was moored in the harbour. The ship, which was owned by an English company was not in use as it had been docked for the Winter months, but there was no way of getting in touch with the owners as South Georgia had no means of contacting the outside world.
Shackleton immediately offered to accept responsibility for any misfortune that may befall the vessel, if he were to borrow it, and Bernsten was quite agreeable to this arrangement and unhesitatingly began preparations for The Boss to sail the ship to Elephant Island. There was no problem amassing a crew either, as the whalers volunteered en masse to be part of the rescue mission, and under the captaincy of an old acquaintance, Captain Thom, the ship was ready to sail that Tuesday.

Elephant island partyThe previous day McCarthy, Vincent and McNish had returned safely, having being plucked from the beach on the opposite side of the island, and would remain behind to recover, whilst Worsley and Crean would join Shackleton on the quest to rescue their 22 comrades. At 9 AM on Tuesday 23rd of May 1916 the Southern Sky set sail, with every endeavour and integrity, and initially made good progress with little incident. On the third night out however, the formation of sea ice was abundantly evident, emanating from the steadily decreasing temperatures, and when agglomerations of pack ice were sighted, the chances of success diminished rapidly.
The Southern Sky was a steel built vessel and was neither designed or equipped to tackle even moderate accumulations of pack ice. But once encountered, Shackleton was forced to skirt the ice field’s bounds, weaving north westwardly, probing for a suitable break that would afford passage. On the 29th May the ship was directly north of Elephant Island, but no course through the impenetrable ice could be found.  As frustrations mounted another restriction of the Southern Sky now came into play, in the form of the amount of fuel it could carry – enough for 10 days sailing. The ship had now been at sea for 6 days, and had left South Georgia 600 miles behind them, and with no way through the pack, Shackleton had no other choice but to reluctantly opt to head for the Falkland Islands which lay an attainable 500 mile away.
After encountering extremely bad weather along the way the ship would arrive at Port Stanley on May 31st and the search for a more suitable rescue vessel would begin. With a cable to the Empire available, Shackleton was then in a position to contact London with a message to King George, and the outside world got it’s first snippet of the amazing drama that was still unfolding on the Endurance Expedition.

Alas for the crew of the expedition, they were merely scant insignificant numbers when compared to the cannon fodder, the generals of said Empire were prepared to sacrifice routinely, in an effort to maintain superiority on a European battleground, where neither life or Antarctic conquest mattered anymore. There was no conquest and there would be no help, from the stretched British Fleet embroiled in the First World War. Shackleton would have to find his own means of rescue.

“Shackleton, Crean and Worsley had got as close as 70 miles to the beach where their companions were stranded on Elephant Island. In a ship that simply could not tackle the pack ice, it must have seemed a million miles away, but when measured against the vastness of the Southern Ocean they were almost within touching distance of the men, which must have made the decision to abort the rescue mission all the more frustrating.”  

SourceSouth by Ernest Shackleton

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