When the ice had sufficiently broken up, the crew of the sunken Endurance launched the three lifeboats, each of which had been named after an expedition donor. Shackleton commanded the James Caird, Frank Worsley was in charge of the Dudley Docker, while the Stancomb Wills was under the control of Hubert Hudson (nominally) and Tom Crean (de facto).
Their target initially was Deception Island, a distant prospect, but Shackleton soon changed his mind and selected Hope Bay. Always willing to review his plans when necessary, rather than blindly and stubbornly sticking to one idea, he ultimately settled on Elephant Island as their destination. His decision was influenced by the unavoidable facts that provisions were running low, the temperature was below freezing, and the men’s strength was depleted. Elephant Island may not have been the ideal place to land, but it was the nearest. Trying to push the men further could have been fatal. Shackleton made a sensible decision.
When the men landed at Elephant Island, it became apparent that the beach was not a suitable place to camp, and another location on the island was sought. They found a better spot on the western side, and named it Point Wild.
Elephant Island was utterly desolate; a remote place which antarctic whalers rarely had any cause to visit. There was very little chance that anyone would stumble upon the crew. If they wanted to be rescued, they would have to go looking for help. Shackleton devised a plan that one of the lifeboats would be fortified to better endure the rigours of seafaring. He and a select few men would sail this boat to South Georgia (over 900 miles away) to seek assistance, while the rest would stay behind and wait.
The James Caird was deemed the most suitable boat for this journey, but still required some modifications at the hands of Endurance’s carpenter Harry McNish (the same man who had refused to obey orders when they were stranded on the pack ice). Shackleton selected five men to accompany him: Endurance’s captain Frank Worsley, the ever-reliable Tom Crean, the aforementioned McNish, and sailors John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy. Frank Wild would be in charge of the men remaining on Elephant Island.
McNish and Vincent had reputations as trouble-makers, and it has been suspected that Shackleton took them along to keep an eye on them (presumably on the principle that you should “keep your enemies closer”), and also to relieve the others of their presence. He knew that waiting on Elephant Island would be a grim existence, so everything should be done to maintain a sense of cohesion.
The boat was launched and began its difficult journey to South Georgia, an ordeal in which Worsley demonstrated exceptional navigational skill under horrendous circumstances. The six men had to contend with terrible weather, biting winds, extreme cold and dangerous icebergs. Their rations were slim, and their clothes were not waterproof. True to form, Shackleton was stoic throughout, and never let the situation dampen his resolve.
Shackleton’s odyssey will continue in Part VI.
It had long been apparent that the transcontinental trek was not going to happen. With the ship wrecked beyond repair, and the crew stranded on the ice, it seemed that the expedition was in tatters. Shackleton’s mind now turned to rescuing his men. This would not be easy.
It was time to start weighing up the possibilities. One option was to march west to Paulet Island, where Shackleton knew there was a food depot (a 12-year leftover from the relief mission for a Swedish expedition led by Otto Nordenskiöld). Or perhaps they could try to reach Snow Hill Island, or Robertson Island, and from there make their way across Graham Land to a whaling outpost on the other side. The problem was that all of these targets were hundreds of miles away. Arduous man-hauling would be required.
Before they could set off, there was one particularly dreadful task to be carried out. It would be impossible to take the animals on the long journey, so they would have to be put down. Shackleton stoically ordered all of the dogs – and Mrs Chippy, the ship’s cat – to be shot. This was a terrible blow to the animal lovers among the crew, like Chief Petty Officer Tom Crean (one of the bravest and hardiest men in the history of polar exploration), but Shackleton knew there was no choice. It had to be done. In pragmatic terms, the dog meat would provide a welcome boost to the dwindling rations.
Two of the lifeboats were put on sledges, and the hauling began. It should be explained that the ice was not flat like a frozen lake; it was littered with ridges and troughs, and made an already difficult task even more difficult. It was Shackleton’s belief that “Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results”. This echoes Seneca’s writing, in which he said: “I should rebuke men who toil to no purpose”. Once again, Shackleton was behaving like a stoic. He ordered the march be abandoned. They would wait until the ice broke up, then use the lifeboats for their intended purpose. Now came the waiting game.
They retrieved the last of their supplies from the Endurance, and watched it finally sink, a surely disheartening sight. To make matters worse, the ice was subtly but continuously drifting, and only served to drag them farther away from Snow Hill Island. Many supplies and personal effects had to be abandoned for being too large, heavy or unwieldy. It is notable that one of the items Shackleton insisted be salvaged was a banjo. A lesser leader would have discarded this instrument, failing to see the morale-boosting opportunities it provided. Shackleton, as ever, knew that keeping spirits up was supremely important.
Unable to set the boats on the water because of the ice, and unable to cross the ice by foot because of the boats, the choices were extremely limited. After some calculations, another march was attempted, this time in the direction of Paulet Island, which was still in reach. Unhappily, conditions had not improved since the last effort, and tensions were starting to flare. One of the men lost his cool and refused to obey orders, but was firmly rebuked. Shackleton had to maintain discipline in exceptionally tough circumstances, and it is to his eternal credit that he kept order was well as he did.
Progress was glacial. After a week of hauling the men had covered just over a mile a day. Once again Shackleton had to call off the march, set up camp, and wait. Six months would pass before the ice had broken up sufficiently to launch the lifeboats. What followed was one of the most dangerous stretches of the entire expedition.
Part V is coming soon.
We rejoin Shackleton and crew with their voyage well underway.
The Endurance had reached the Weddell Sea, a tricky area riddled with icebergs and impenetrable stretches of pack ice. With the ship getting nearer to the antarctic continent, Shackleton was looking for an area to land, but could not locate an ideal spot. Progress slowed to a halt, and eventually the ship was surrounded by ice. Soon it was stuck fast.
Realising that they were encased in all directions, Shackleton ordered the fires to be banked in order to preserve fuel. He had the men set to work trying to free the ship from the ice. Despite their toil, they did not make any significant progress. The chances of breaking free looked slim. There was no option but to sit and wait until the spring.
The men were now faced with the unenviable prospect of spending the antarctic winter afloat – but immobile – in the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation. There was no way to communicate with the rest of the world, and therefore no possibility of rescue. The crew was well and truly alone, entirely at the mercy of nature.
A lesser commander would have struggled under such a heavy burden, but Shackleton was made of strong stuff. Like a Stoic, he knew that he had no influence on outside conditions, so it would be pointless to fret about things that were beyond his control. His duty now was to make the best of the situation; to concern himself only with those things he could change.
The men set about turning the Endurance and its immediate surroundings into a winter base. They constructed igloo kennels to free the dogs from being kept on board all the time, and to allow them to be exercised. Occasionally dog races were held to raise spirits. Everyone did their best to maintain a positive mood.
Although the ship could not move in the ice, the ice itself was drifting, and carrying the ship with it. For a brief time it seemed that they might reach the continent after all, but it was not to be. The longer they were surrounded, the more pressure was being exerted on the ship. If the ice did not start to break up, it would eventually crush the Endurance. For anyone else this would be a terrifying possibility, but not for Shackleton. He kept his head throughout the ordeal.
Things went from bad to worse. The pressure caused the ship to shudder and list. The hull began to buckle and break. Water started seeping in. With the ship now leaning at a concerning angle, and the men trying their best to mend the leak, the decision was made to lower the lifeboats onto the ice, along with supplies. The situation looked grim. Shackleton finally had to give the dreaded order: abandon ship.
The crew set up camp on the ice, climbing on board the broken ship for the occasional piece of equipment and supplies. It is hard to imagine camping on ice; to be essentially afloat in a frozen expanse must surely be a surreal experience.
Shackleton and crew were stranded, with three lifeboats as their only sea-worthy vessels. Amazingly, things would get even worse, as we shall see in Part IV.