Times Past, Pausing to Remember

Part IV

November l915 to March 1916. The men set up camps on the ice, trying to march to open water, but making little progress. They had three lifeboats from the Endurance, small boats 20 to 22 feet long. They were named the James Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills. These would be the only hope they had of reaching a place from which they could be rescued. Shackleton paid as much attention to the men's morale as he did their physical well-being, and he never betrayed anything but great confidence in their ultimate survival. They kept up their games, sang songs, and celebrated holidays with extra rations of food.

April 7, 1916. The men spotted Elephant Island on the horizon, and two days later they went to sea in their three lifeboats.

April 17, 1916. The 28 adventurers all made it safely ashore and set up camp. Shackleton wrote, "As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company...Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm".

The men had reached land, but they were a long way from safety. They would soon be dangerously low on life-sustaining supplies. For the next week, Shackleton planned his dangerous voyage to South Georgia, 800 miles distant. As the question remained concerning their rescue, the whaling station on South Georgia seemed the only answer. The ocean south of Cape Horn in the middle of May was known to be the most storm-swept area of water in the world. The men would have to face these conditions in a small, open boat for an anticipated month's voyage to South Georgia. Although Wild wanted to go, Shackleton refused as he wanted Wild to hold the party together on Elephant Island until the rescue.

The picture at the left is of the James Caird being launched from Elephant Island on April 24, 1915. Shackleton, along with Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent, began a voyage of a lifetime.

April 24, 1916 to May 10, 1916. The small boat with its cargo of six men spent 17 days in stormy seas, trying to reach South Georgia Island 800 miles away. In the 86 years since, sea-faring men and women have marveled at the kind of navigation this voyage required. Captain Worsley had only four opportunities to make observations.

The men in their little boat endured wind, cold, buildup of ice on every surface, frostbite, and finally, a huge wave. Shackleton wrote later, "During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted 'For God's sake, hold on! It's got us.' Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We baled with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us".

The 22 men back on the shore of Elephant Island waived goodbye, good luck to the James Caird and their six shipmates setting off to find help. The lives of the 22 depended upon the success of the six.

These men had no task to occupy them other than attempting to survive until help could reach them, if it ever did. The two remaining lifeboats were overturned and shoved together, set up on walls made of stone that the men found along shore. This served as their shelter.

May 19, 1916. Shackleton and his five companions had made it safely, 800 miles across the hostile Antarctic Ocean, to their destination, South Georgia Island. Unfortunately, the men were 17 miles from the Stromness whaling station. A journey over South Georgia's mountains and glaciers awaited them, an effort no one had ever accomplished. McNeish and Vincent were too weak to attempt the trek so Shackleton left them in the care of MaCarthy. On May 15, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set out on their adventure. Thirty-six hours later, without a rest, they used the very last of their energy to stumble into the Stromness whaling station.

May 23, 1916. Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean departed on the English-owned Southern Sky to rescue the men left back on Elephant Island. They were stopped by ice 100 miles short of the island.

June 10, 1916. The Uruguayan government loaned a survey ship which came within sight of Elephant Island before pack ice turned it back.

July 12, 1916. The men again set out on another ship and once again have to turn back due to storms and ice.

August 25, 1916. A fourth attempt was made in a ship borrowed from Chile, a small steamer named Yelcho.

August 30, 1916. As the steamer approached Elephant Island, the men on the island were approaching lunchtime. It was August 30 when Marston spotted the Yelcho in an opening in the mist. He yelled, "Ship O!" but the men thought he was announcing lunch. A few moments later the men inside the shelter heard him running forward, shouting, "Wild, there's a ship! Hadn't we better light a flare?" As they scrambled for the door, those bringing up the rear tore down the canvas walls. Wild put a hole in their last tin of fuel, soaked clothes in it, walked to the end of the spit and set them afire.

The boat soon approached close enough for Shackleton, who was standing on the bow, to shout to Wild, "Are you all well?". Wild replied, "All safe, all well!" and the Boss replied, "Thank God!" Within an hour they were headed north to the world from which no news had been heard since October, 1914; they had survived on Elephant Island for 105 lonely days.

All 28 men were now safe, 22 months after they had set out from South Georgia Island on a journey that was a technical failure, but a remarkable story of survival.

In his book "Shackleton’s Boat Journey," Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance, wrote:
Six years later when looking at Shackleton’s grave and the cairn which we, his comrades, erected to his memory on a wind-swept hill of South Georgia, I meditated on his great deeds. It seemed to me that among all his achievements and triumphs, great as they were, his one failure was the most glorious. By self-sacrifice and throwing his own life into the balance he saved every one of his men - not a life was lost - although at times it had looked unlikely that one could be saved.

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