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Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance

Published 3rd December 2014 by The Times Atlas

This week marks the centenary of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance setting sale from South Georgia in an attempt to cross the Antarctic. This is their story, taken from Extreme Survivors, available now in paperback.

With their ship, Endurance, crushed by ice, Ernest Shackleton and five other men sailed 1,300 km (800 miles) across the most savage seas on earth in a tiny lifeboat to get help. Facing hurricane winds and 18 m (60 ft) waves, their voyage is one of the greatest open boat journeys ever accomplished.

The Endurance

There has probably never been a more fittingly named vessel than Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance. When it sailed from South Georgia on 5 December 1914 on the first leg of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the crew were prepared for a tough adventure. They were going to cross the most extreme continent on earth. Little could they suspect just how much they would be forced to endure. Or how much heroism they would perform to return them all home safely.

Shackleton was leading the crew to Vahsel Bay, the southernmost explored point of the Weddell Sea at 77°49’S. There he would land a shore party and prepare to make the transcontinental crossing.

But disaster struck before they could reach their goal. The pack ice was thickening with every mile they sailed south and, by 14 February 1915, the Endurance was seized tight in a frozen vice.

There was nothing the men could do but sit and wait as, for the next eight months, the drifting ice took the ship back northwards. Then on 27 October, the ice stopped toying with the men and crushed the Endurance. The vessel sank from sight on 21 November, leaving the party stranded on the moving ice.

They were not going to cross Antarctica, but the adventure that the continent had thrust upon them was going to be every bit as incredible as what they had planned.

First steps to safety

Shackleton’s priority now was simply how to save the lives of his twenty-seven-man crew.

In theory they could march across the pack ice to the nearest land and then trek to a harbour that ships were known to visit. But the ice was too broken up and dangerous to travel across. The party established ‘Patience Camp’ on a flat ice floe, and waited as the drift carried them further north, towards open water.

Another three months passed. Then, on 8 April 1916, the ice broke up enough to allow them to launch their three lifeboats. For seven perilous days they sailed and rowed through stormy seas and dangerous loose ice, reaching the temporary haven of Elephant Island on 15 April.

They were on solid ground, but their fortunes looked bleak. Elephant Island wasn’t on any shipping routes and it was too far from their planned route to make a rescue likely. Although the island had fresh water and an ample supply of seals and penguins for food and fuel, the savage Antarctic winter was fast approaching. The men only had a narrow shingle beach to call home and this was constantly blasted by gales and blizzards. One tent had already been destroyed and others flattened. Many of the men were mentally and physically exhausted. Somehow, they had to get help.

Shackleton decided to undertake one of the most daring sea voyages in history. They would sail the best of the lifeboats to the whaling stations of South Georgia. The problem was that this island lay some 800 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 miles) across the Southern Ocean, one of the fiercest stretches of water in the world.

The open-boat journey

Shackleton’s boat party would be venturing into a storm-lashed world where constant gales powered heaving waves – the feared Cape Horn Rollers – that frequently topped 18 m (60 ft) from trough to crest.

They took the sturdiest of the three lifeboats, the James Caird (named after one of the expedition’s sponsors) and got the ship’s carpenter to further strengthen it. He raised the sides of the 6.9 m (22½ ft) long boat and added a makeshift deck of wood and canvas. He also fitted a mainmast and a mizzenmast with lugsails and a jib, sealed the craft with oil paints, lamp wick, and seal blood. Finally a ton (1,016 kg) of ballast was added to reduce the risk of capsizing.

Their target was ridiculously small and there was every chance that they would miss the island.

The navigation skills of the Endurance’s captain, Frank Worsley, would be vital if they were to reach South Georgia. Worsley was a New Zealander who had honed his navigation skills as a sailor among the tiny, remote islands of the South Pacific.

On 24 April 1916, Shackleton, Worsley and four other men pushed the James Caird out into the hard grey waters that pummelled Elephant Island. They had food for one month, two 70 litre (18 gallon) casks of water (one of which was damaged during the loading and let in sea water), two Primus stoves, paraffin, oil, candles, sleeping bags and ‘a few spare socks’.

The wind was a moderate southwesterly, but Shackleton ordered Worsley to set course due north, to get clear of the menacing ice-fields. As they progressed, the swell rose. By dawn, they were 45 nautical miles (83 km; 52 miles) from Elephant Island, sailing in heavy seas and Force 9 winds.

They worked in two three-man watches, with one man at the helm, another at the sails, and the third on bailing duty. It was hard going from the start: the men’s clothing had been designed for the dry cold of Antarctic sledging, and wasn’t waterproof. Icy seawater rubbed their skin raw. The only way to rest was huddled together in the tiny covered space in the bows.

Worsley’s job was difficult to the point of impossibility. To navigate accurately with his sextant he needed to make sightings of the sun. But this was very rarely visible, and when it was the high pitch and roll of the boat made it very hard to be accurate.

After two days, Worsley put them at 128 nautical miles (237 km; 147 miles) north of Elephant Island. They were clear of the dangers of fl oating ice but were now in the treacherous Drake Passage, a band of ocean where huge rolling waves sweep round the globe, unimpeded by any land. Shackleton now set a course directly for South Georgia.

After five days’ sailing they had travelled 238 nautical miles (441 km; 274 miles), but now the weather turned really bad. Heavy seas threatened to swamp the boat, and only continuous bailing kept it afl oat. It became so cold that spray began to freeze on the boat and the added weight threatened to capsize them. The men had to take turns to crawl onto the pitching deck to chip the ice off the deck and rigging with an axe.

For two whole days the wind was too high for them to raise the sail. But they kept going and by 6 May they were only 115 nautical miles (213 km; 132 miles) from South Georgia. But the two weeks of constant toil in atrocious conditions had worn them down. Two men were particularly weak, while a third had collapsed and was unable to perform any duties.

The next day, Worsley thought they were close to their goal but he advised Shackleton that he could be a few miles out. If they were too far north, they could be pushed right past the island by the fierce southwesterly winds. But they soon spotted seaweed and birds including land-loving cormorants, and just after noon on 8 May they saw land. Worsley was dead on and he had accomplished one of the most incredible feats of navigation in maritime history.

But, despite being so close to their journey’s end, the heavy seas made immediate landing impossible. For twenty-four agonizing hours they were forced to wait off shore in ‘one of the worst hurricanes any of us had ever experienced’. The vicious waves threatened to drive them onto the rocky South Georgia shore or the equally dangerous Annenkov Island, 8 km (5 miles) from the coast.

Finally, on 10 May, Shackleton knew that the weaker members of his crew would not last another day in the boat. They had to land, no matter how dangerous the conditions. They found as sheltered an area as they could, Cave Cove near the entrance to King Haakon Bay and, after several near fatal attempts, landed the James Caird.

They were on the uninhabited southwest coast. The whaling stations were still 150 nautical miles (280 km; 170 miles) round the coast. Shackleton’s plan had been to sail round, hugging the shore. But he knew that the boat wouldn’t make such a voyage; nor would two of the exhausted men. After a few days’ recuperation, he decided to traverse the island on foot and get help at Stromness. But no one had ever crossed the interior of South Georgia before.

Where no man had gone before

Early on 18 May Shackleton, Worsley and seaman Tom Crean left their three colleagues sheltering on a shingle beach under the upturned James Caird and started walking.

Because they had no map they had to improvise a route across mountain ranges and over glaciers. They had no camping equipment so they simply didn’t stop. They walked continuously for thirty-six hours before reaching the whaling station at Stromness.

By now they were at the edge of total exhaustion, their faces savaged by exposure and wind, their fingers and toes numb with frostbite. The Norwegian seamen must have been staggered to see, as Worsley wrote, ‘a terrible trio of scarecrows’, walking into their bunkhouse.

Later that same day, 19 May, the whalers sent a motor-vessel to King Haakon Bay to pick up the three other men from the James Caird. But the Antarctic winter had now set in, and it was more than three months before Shackleton could retrieve the twenty-two men they had left on Elephant Island. Finally, on 3 September 1916, every single man who had sailed on the Endurance reached the safe haven of Punta Arenas in Chile.

Two years later Shackleton headed back to Antarctica on another expedition. On 5 January 1922, he died suddenly of a heart attack in South Georgia.

The James Caird was brought back from South Georgia to England in 1919. It is on permanent display at Shackleton’s old school, Dulwich College.

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