On This Day, May 23rd 1916 – The Southern Sky Rescue Attempt.

The Southern Sky Rescue Attempt.

The Endurance Expedition – May 23rd 1916.

Shackleton, Crean and Worsley had stumbled into Stromness whaling station on May 20th 1916, to the utter disbelief of all who endeavoured there. The trio were unrecognisable, shattered, destitute men, who had just completed the most epic of journeys, traversing ice, sea and uncharted land.  With McCarthy, Vincent and McNish, they had left their 22 comrades behind on Elephant Island, on April 24th, and sailed over 800 miles across the storm lashed Weddell Sea, in their lifeboat, in search of rescue for them. That 16 day voyage was a hellish passage, that ended on May 10th 1916, in the death throes of a violent hurricane, that had enveloped them for the previous 24 hours. Somehow they had summoned the strength to fight the storm. Somehow, as they were tossed and battered by wind and wave, they had managed to avoid the rocky approaches and cliff faces of South Georgia, that the elements continuously hurled them towards.

As the fury abated, making landfall was of paramount importance. As to where, hardly mattered. These men were physically and mentally shattered, and parched; their fresh water supply having run out days beforehand. So dry were their mouths that they could not eat. There is no wrong side of the island to land upon in such a situation. Even in the relative post hurricane calm, it was an extremely difficult task, to weave their tiny timber boat through the rocky agglomerations that constitute the island.

Before boarding the Southern Sky - From left - Tom Crean, Ernest Shackleton, Captain Thom, Frank Worsley.

Before boarding the Southern Sky – From left – Tom Crean, Ernest Shackleton, Captain Thom, Frank Worsley.

Having finally landed, they found themselves on the opposite side of the island, to their intended destination of Stromness, but more importantly they found a fresh water stream. Over the course of the next few days the men recouped, for the task ahead. They sailed further up the inlet of King Haakon Bay, and set up quarterage, using the upturned James Caird, as as a shelter, at a place they named Peggotty Camp.  

From here Shackleton, Crean and Worsley, set off in the early morning of May 19th, and climbed into the uncharted interior, to pioneer a path to the whaling station. John Vincent and the carpenter Harry McNish, though showing signs of recovery, were simply not fit enough, for further journeying, and remained behind in the care of Kinsale man, Timothy McCarthy. A particularly gruesome detail of the voyage of the James Caird, involves the unfortunate John Vincent, who lost a sizeable section of his upper lip, after it froze to a metal cup, which he was drinking from.

It took Shackleton, Crean and Worsley 36 hours to reach Stromness, having instinctively negotiated icy peaks, crevasse strewn glaciers and perilous drops, becoming the first humans, to ever traverse the island’s interior, as they did. Their recounting of their journey there was received with utter amazement, by the hardened whalers, who despite their vast knowledge and experience of the seas and ice, could scarcely comprehend such a feat. Baths, fresh clothes, hot food and magnitudes of respect were immediately bestowed upon the weary men. A boat –  Samson was immediately readied to pick up McCarthy, Vincent and McNish, and Worsley joined the crew, to pinpoint the mens location.

“Our first night at the whaling-station was blissful. Crean and I shared a beautiful room in Mr. Sorlle’s house, with electric light and two beds, warm and soft. We were so comfortable that we were unable to sleep. Late at night a steward brought us tea, bread and butter and cakes, and we lay in bed, revelling in the luxury of it all. Outside a dense snow-storm, which started two hours after our arrival and lasted until the following day, was swirling and driving about the mountain-slopes. We were thankful indeed that we had made a place of safety, for it would have gone hard with us if we had been out on the mountains that night. Deep snow lay everywhere when we got up the following morning.”

Sir Ernest Shackleton – South

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. The men listened agog, as Sorrel described to them the carnage of the First World War, that had raged in their absence.

“We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad. Our minds accustomed themselves gradually to the tales of nations in arms, of deathless courage and unimagined slaughter, of a world-conflict that had grown beyond all conceptions, of vast red battlefields in grimmest contrast with the frigid whiteness we had left behind us…..

I suppose our experience was unique. No other civilized men could have been as blankly ignorant of world-shaking happenings as we were when we reached Stromness Whaling Station.”

Sir Ernest Shackleton – South.

What immediately caught Shackleton’s attention upon arrival at Husvik, 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.

McCarthy, Vincent and McNish had been picked up, and before the Southern Sky, departed on it’s rescue mission, Shackleton made arrangements for them to return to England on the next departing steamer. As it left Husvik, Stromness Bay, on the morning of May 23rd, the decks of the whaler, Southern Sky, were almost awash, with the sea, such was the cargo of coal it needed to carry, to reach Elephant Island, and then continue on to the Falklands. The Falkland Islands lay 100 miles nearer to Elephant Island, than South Georgia, so it was the obvious choice of destination, after the rescue, given the ship’s reliability on coal.

The manager's Villa at Stromness, where Shackleton and Crean, spent the night of May 21st, 1916.

The manager’s Villa at Stromness, where Shackleton and Crean, spent the night of May 21st, 1916. Image from PBS.


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