Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part V – Lifeboats)

JamesCaird1

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.

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