Tom Crean – The Complete Endurance Odyssey

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.”

Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer

Tom Crean

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.


Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Map & Timeline

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.

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The Voyaging in the Lifeboats Begins – The Endurance Expedition

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.

Ocean Camp - Their first settlement on the ice.

Ocean Camp – Their first settlement on the ice.

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On This Day – September 3rd 1916

Arrival at Punta Arenas, Chile.

The Endurance Expedition.

The Yelcho had arrived at the right moment. Two days earlier she could not have reached the island, and a few hours later the pack may have been impenetrable again.

Within one hour of locating the 22 men of the Endurance, on Elephant Island, on August 30th 1916, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley, with the help of the captain Luis Pardo and his crew, had succeeded in getting all of them safely aboard the Yecho, and they steamed northwards  for South America.

Rescue from Elephant Island

The Rescue at Elephant Island

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Elephant Island – Photo Gallery

Elephant Island

ExcerptUnder the command of Luis Pardo, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley had sailed on the Yelcho, and to their utter jubilation the pack ice had fragmented before them and had finally afforded them their long sought passage. As they scouted along the coast Worsley spotted the camp, barely discernible beneath its shroud of snow, and anxiously they watched for signs of life. Almost immediately the saw the men emerge like ants, and a quick count of the manic dots on the rocky beach seemed to indicate that all were present.
With no energy to sustain the immediate excitement, the men on Elephant Island wilted and watched the ship, praying for a signal that they had been sighted. For a brief horrible moment the ship turned away from them, and their distress was almost unbearable. Then the elation of the realisation that a lifeboat was being lowered, and the unmistakable silhouette of the man climbing down the ladder. It was Shackleton. “The Boss” had returned for them.
Shackleton and Crean came ashore, with some Chilean sailors, throwing boxes of cigarettes to the men, and Shackleton nervously asked of Wild, “Are you all well?” to which Wild responded, “We are all well, boss.”

From – On This Day August 30th 1916

Elephant Island Gallery

Port Wild 2 - Elephant Island
Port Wild, where Shackleton’s men sheltered in his absence. The Yelcho monument is the small protrusion.

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On This Day – August 30th 1916

Rescue From Elephant Island.

The Endurance Expedition.

August the 30th 1916 would have dawned no different than any of the previous 127 days, for the 22 men stranded on Elephant Island, since their six comrades had departed the outcrop aboard the James Caird  lifeboat, on a mission to raise rescue for them on April 24th 1916. As they had watched the tiny vessel disappear over the horizon into the monstrous Weddell Sea, Frank Wild optimistically opined that they would all be saved within four or five weeks.

But four long months had passed, and despite a daily rostered watch to keep lookout for an approaching ship, the castaways hopes had almost entirely diminished. It was all too probable that the Caird had been enveloped in the fearsome Southern Ocean, and the six brave crew had perished long before they had reached land. No-one would know of the men on Elephant Island, and no-one was coming to rescue them either.
As their hopes had dwindled, so too had their spirit, health, sanity and food supplies. Frank Wild, who had been given the unenviable task of commanding the group in Shackleton’s absence, had forbidden the stockpiling of seals and penguins, at a time when they were in plentiful abundance, as he deemed it a defeatist gesture. Now that the ice was closing in and encasing the island, the creatures had practically disappeared, and the group faced up to the very real threat of starvation. The ever fractious Thomas Order-Lees had noted  “We shall have to eat the one who dies first …. there’s many a true word said in jest”* Continue Reading →

On This Day – July 12th 1916

Shackleton’s Third Rescue Attempt

The Endurance Expedition – Elephant Island


On July 12th 1916, Ernest Shackleton launched his third effort to reach the 22 men, left stranded on Elephant Island. The rescue mission,  began on April 24th, with the voyage of the James Caird,  when six men set of to traverse 800 miles of the notorious Weddell Sea, in a lifeboat. Shackleton, Crean and Worsley had twice previously attempted to reach their comrades stranded on the desolate outcrop, and had twice seen their gallant efforts thwarted by the impenetrable expanse of pack ice, which encased the tiny island.
On May 23rd the three men left Husvik, South Georgia aboard the Southern Sky, a vessel they had been helped acquire by the generosity and understanding of both Mr. Sorlle of Stromness and Husvik’s magistrate, Mr. Bernsten. With a crew of volunteer whalers on board the mission made good early progress, but ultimately the endeavour was halted by sea ice, and despite every effort to probe a progressive pathway, with fuel running out Shackleton had no option but to abort the effort, on May 29th.
The ship was steered toward the Falkland Islands which lay 500 miles away, but 100 miles closer to their position than South Georgia. The Southern Sky arrived at Port Stanley on May 31st 1916, and the world would soon learn the tale of the phenomenal plight of the Endurance Expedition. Whereas the island of South Georgia had no means of contacting the outside world, Port Stanley did have a cable link, which Shackleton used to contact London with a message to His Majesty King George, with the first account of the still unfolding saga.

The next day Shackleton received the following reply –

“Rejoice to hear of your safe arrival in the Falkland Islands and trust your comrades on Elephant Island may soon be rescued.


Meanwhile the island’s governor Douglas Young was striving to aid the men in their efforts, but could only succeed in determining that no vessel suitable to the required rescue was available. The British Admiralty soon informed Shackleton that any relief they could muster would not arrive before October of that year. This would simply be too late!
Shackleton was acutely aware that the decrepit circumstances of existence on Elephant Island, that he and the crew of the Caird had left behind on April 24th, had by now probably deteriorated to a point where men, who had endured so much utter deprivation and torture, were failing in the face of courage, to the laws of nature.

The Uruguayan government via the British British Minister in Montevideo, kindly offered the services of a fully equipped vessel, Instituto de Pesca No. 1, which they sent to the Falklands for immediate use. It’s departure from Port Stanley on June 10th was only just preceded by it’s arrival there, such was Shackleton’s haste to liberate his men.
Bobbed and bounced, float and flung, forward, onward through the Southern Ocean and on day three Elephant Island was sighted approximately 20 miles ahead, but the momentum of the rescue was immediately halted yet again by the damned persistent pack ice.
It’s crescent formation satillitically grinned down upon the 22 stranded desolate souls, that clung like parasites to Elephants Island’s manifestation of terra firma, among a relentless environ of ice, convulsive sea and hopelessness. And as Shackleton, Crean and Worsley approached, within miles, yet Antarctic inches, of rescuing their comrades, they were once again repulsed by the rapid and unpredictable formation of sea ice, that had relentlessly challenged, haunted, defeated and forged them.
But failure was now imminent, despite many cautious determined attempts to violate the pack ice, all of which proved hopelessly futile. To the relief of the retreating rescuers, despite their certain sighting of the ominous peaks of the islands icy mountains, a shroud of dense fog which clung to the shoreline, would have masked their presence from their bedraggled comrades, who had somehow strived to persist in awaiting their rescue.

With engines knocking and the fuel bunkers almost empty, Instituto de Pesca No. 1, limped back to Port Stanley, defeated but with the presence of HMS Glasgow at the port the men received a hero’s welcome. It has to be pointed out that at this juncture Shackleton was inundated with the demand of a modern day celebrity. The story of the Endurance and it’s men was going viral, as quickly as the media of the day could proffer, but nothing could detract or dissuade him from rescuing the men he had sworn to save.

Having returned to Port Stanley in defeat, hope flickered with the arrival of the British Mail boat Orita ,upon which Shackleton, Crean and Worsley would cross to Punta Arenas in the Magellan Straits. They were greeted on arrival there to more than a heroes welcome, entirely befitting of such men, but they merely sought help and not accolades, and shunning the obstacle of imminent fame, demanded priority for their crew mates.
It is at this point that one Mr. Allan McDonald, deserves respect and recognition, for as outlined by Shackleton – (he) ” was especially prominent in his untiring efforts to assist in the rescue of our twenty-two companions on Elephant Island. He worked day and night, and it was mainly due to him that within three days they had raised a sum of £1500 amongst themselves, chartered the schooner Emma and equipped her for our use. ”

And so it was on July 12th 1916, that Emma, with Tom Crean, Frank Worsley and Ernest Shackleton on board, set sail, in yet another – their third attempt to reach the men on Elephant Island – men who had no idea that their comrades had successfully conquered the notorious Weddell Sea and traversed South Georgia’s rugged uncharted interior, in an effort to rescue them. For those 22 men, they waited with almost hopeless optimism of a highly improbable rescue, that they must have naggingly thought had surely floundered somewhere long before the intended target of South Georgia.

Ice would again doom the relief effort and with a heavy heart Shackleton had to retreat again. As Emma splutterd defeatedly away from Elaphant Island’s shores, the castaways were oblivious to the fact that the attempts to rescue them before the onslaught of the Antarctic winter, had by now numbered three.

On This Day – May 21st 1916 – Tom Crean

On This Day – May 10th 1916 – Tom Crean

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.

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