The Voyage of the James Caird.
April 24th – May 10th 1916.
The Endurance Expedition (1914 – 1917).
It is without doubt the greatest open boat journey ever undertaken. Six men dragged their timber lifeboat down the rocky shore of Elephant Island, and cast themselves and boat, into the might and fury of the notorious Weddell Sea. Within moments the turbulent Southern Ocean had tipped the boat, plunging Harry McNish and John Vincent into the frigid waters. A grim reminder of what lay ahead, as the two men clambered back ashore.
And it was a gruesome journey. Shackleton would later recall “The tale of the next sixteen days is one of supreme strife amid heaving waters. The sub-Antarctic Ocean lived up to its evil winter reputation.” ‘Supreme strife’ scarcely conveys the immediate experience of McNish and Vincent, yet alone the remainder of that dreadful passage. It was 800 miles, over the course of sixteen days, in which time, they caught a glimpse of the sun, on only three occasions. That Worsley could guide them to that speck on the map, named South Georgia, in such circumstances, was a feat of navigational brilliance. On the tenth day at sea, the boat was walloped by an enormous wave, which towered above the vessel, before slamming down on them. The physics of the impact somehow contrived, that they emerged from the monstrous hit, afloat, albeit practically submerged. They bailed frantically for their lives, succeeded, and sailed onward. Ever onward.
At 12:30 pm on the 8th of May, Timothy McCarthy spotted the black cliffs of the island, through a break in the clouds. Elation ensued aboard the tiny craft, but history will tell us that another two days would pass, before the men would feel the firmness of solid ground beneath their weary sea legs. Being too dark to attempt landfall that evening, they had little choice but to remain offshore, and try in the daylight of the following morning. At 5 am the hiatus ended, descending into a desperate life or death battle. A violent hurricane struck and persistently the Caird was flung mercilessly towards the sheer cliffs and jagged approaches of South Georgia. The men dug deep and fought, as relentlessly as the elements that encompassed them. Every sinew in their weary bodies, burned and ached. Ten miles away in the same ferocious ocean, a 537 ton ship, named Argos, sank that night with the loss of all hands.
Hour upon desperate hour passed, before finally the fury abated. The storm lurched westwards yonder, the waves of sea regressed, and there upon the ocean, still bobbed the tiny boat.
When landfall was eventually attained, it was on the opposite flank of the island, to where the whaling stations of salvation lay. After a period of recuperation, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set off on a pioneering journey, to cross the island’s uncharted interior, on May 19th 1916. They arrived in Stromness, 36 hours later, to the utter amazement of all who heard their recounting, of the odyssey that preceded their arrival there.
Hot baths, fresh clothes and the finest of foods were bestowed upon the trio, before Worsley joined the crew of Samson, to pick up McCarthy, Vincent and Mcnish, who had remained behind at Peggotty Camp. Meanwhile Shackleton and Crean, were taken to Husvik by the manager, Mr. Sorrle. It was here that the English owned boat, Southern Sky, was in dock for the oncoming winter months. It was not possible to contact the owners of the ship, as South georgia had no means of communication with the outside world. However after brief negotiations, with a personal acceptance of responsibility, should any mishap befall the vessel, Shackleton secured permission to use it, to attempt rescuing the 22 men on Elephant Island.
Arrangements were also made for McCarthy, Vincent and McNish, to return home on the next departing steamer. Shackleton, Crean and Worsley would begin their rescue mission on May 23rd. The night beforehand, all six men were brought to Leith, where they were received as heroes by the whalers there.
The men of the James Caird voyage, entered a large low room, full of captains, mates and sailors of all ages. A thick fog of tobacco smoke hung in the room, reminiscent of the murky brume of the Weddell Sea. The air of anticipation and awe, was tangible. Worsley later recalled seeing four white haired men, who were distinguished and hardened veterans of the sea. One of the men stood, and the room fell silent. He addressed the men, speaking in his native Norse.
Nonetheless, they listened, as captivated as the rest. When the man had finished speaking, Sorrle translated.
“He said he had been at sea for over forty years; that he knew this stormy Southern Ocean intimately, from South Georgia to Cape Horn, from Elephant Island to the South Orkneys, and that never had he heard of such a wonderful feat of daring and seamanship as bringing the twenty two foot open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and then to crown it, tramping across the ice and snow and rocky heights of the interior, and that he felt it an honour, to meet and shake hands with Sir Ernest and his comrades. He finished with a dramatic gesture: These are men!”
Each and every man there present, then shook the hands of all six men, as a gesture of respect and admiration, for the feat they had so gallantly accomplished. Shackleton and Worsley would later write, of the fact, that even the most seasoned of the sailors wept, upon the first hearing of their grueling journey. These were men who knew the might and peril of the Southern Ocean, better than any, and their appreciation of what the men of the Caird, had just endured, is a starting point, in the almost impossible task of conveying the magnitude of their conquest.
Source – Shackleton’s Boat Journey by F.A. Worsley.
It is almost two years since I was first in contact with Jerry O’Sullivan, from Ballinhassig, in Co. Cork. At the time Jerry had left a comment on a post I had written about Tom Crean’s epic solo march, in February 1912.