The Endurance Expedition and the voyage of the James Caird

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17), also known as the Endurance Expedition, is considered the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Conceived by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the expedition was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. After the conquest of the South Pole by Roald Amundsen in 1911, this crossing from sea to sea remained, in Shackleton’s words, the “one great main object of Antarctic journeyings”. The expedition failed to accomplish this objective, but became recognised instead as an epic feat of endurance.

In this new expedition he proposed to sail to the Weddell Sea and to land a shore party near Vahsel Bay, in preparation for a transcontinental march through the South Pole to the Ross Sea. The Ross Sea Party was a parallel expedition and an integral part of the expedition. The whole intention of the RSP was for a team of men to travel to the opposite side of the continent, establish camp in McMurdo Sound and lay supply depots between the Ross Sea coast and Mount Hope, at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. These depots were crucial to support Shackleton and his small team as they crossed the Antarctic continent from the direction of the Weddell Sea coast, via the Pole. These depots would be essential for the transcontinental party’s survival, as the party would not be able to carry enough provisions for the entire crossing. The expedition required two ships: Endurance under Shackleton for the Weddell Sea party, and Aurora, under Captain Aeneas Mackintosh, for the Ross Sea party.

Endurance became beset in the ice of the Weddell Sea before reaching Vahsel Bay, and despite efforts to free it, drifted northward, held in the pack ice, throughout the Antarctic winter of 1915. Eventually the ship was crushed and sank, stranding its 28-man complement on the ice. Months were spent in makeshift camps as the ice continued its northwards drift, but on 9 April, as the ice thawed, Shackleton and his men hastily abandoned all non-essential supplies and took to the three lifeboats, which Shackleton christened the James Caird, the Dudley Docker and the Stancomb Wills, after the expedition’s sponsors. After a voyage fraught with peril and in appalling icy conditions they arrived at the desolate Elephant Island six days later, on l5 April. It was the first time they had set foot on land since leaving South Georgia nearly a year and a half previously.

Yet the joy at setting foot on Elephant Island was tempered by the grim fact that there was no chance of rescue. No ships passed that way. No radio at that time was capable of summoning help. They set up camp on the island; the next problem was to effect a rescue – ‘the thing to do was to take a boat to the nearest inhabited point’ …through the highest, broadest and longest swells in the world.

Shackleton chose the James Caird for the task as she was the largest and most seaworthy of the three boats and McNeish, the carpenter, set about converting her for the immense task ahead.

The role of the James Caird in an epic rescue

Nine days after landing on Elephant Island and the very last day before the pack ice closed in again the James Caird was deemed ready for the epic voyage. At midday on 24 April, Shackleton and five others – Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent – set off through the Drake Passage – a name to bring dread even to seasoned mariners – in the almost impossible hope of making landfall on South Georgia, 800 miles away, and summoning help from the whaling stations there.

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This journey involved a crossing of the world’s most inhospitable ocean in the depths of Antarctic winter. The boat was buffeted by mountainous and tempestuous seas. Ice built up on the decking, fifteen inches (750mm) deep, threatening to overturn the James Caird. Hour by hour, frostbitten and numbed with cold, they had to chip away from the vessel. At other times they were forced to bale for dear life. Their only solace was four- hourly hot meals and the glimmer of a tiny primus stove. Their discomfort, hunched below in the James Caird’s cramped hold, must have been absolute. 

But given Shackleton’s leadership, all six men’s sturdy seamanship and the amazing skills of New Zealander Frank Worsley, skipper of the Endurance, – they won through. Worsley succeeded in charting a route for the James Caird by direct reckoning with only four sightings of the sun to observe their position (26 April and 3,4 and 7 May); the rest was dead reckoning (‘guesswork’). After 16 terrible days at sea, the James Caird sighted land at midday on Monday 8 May 1916.

Even now they had completed 800 miles their task was by no means over. The boat arrived off South Georgia in hurricane conditions, and only at 5 pm on Wednesday 10 May did they eventually manage to land, after tacking violently to make their way into a small, inaccessible inlet. Had they failed to make it, or had they overshot the island, Shackleton, his crew and the James Caird would have been either smashed to pieces or swept beyond South Georgia, to be lost in mid-Atlantic.

The Crossing of South Georgia

They battled into King Haakon Bay and managed, despite their extreme weakness, to haul the boat ashore and secure it above the tidemark. They then spent five days building up strength for the next leg of their journey, which involved relaunching the Caird and steering her round a high bluff and then on to a low beach of sand and pebbles where they converted the boat into a ‘very comfortable cabin.’ The James Caird was now unable to sail any further and the only alternative was to cross South Georgia’s mountainous interior. Shackleton chose Worsley and Crean to accompany him and they set off with three days provisions in the form of ‘sledging ration and biscuit’, plus the log of Endurance.

The interior of South Georgia at that time was unmapped and uncrossed, yet the three men succeeded in traversing two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges, covering 30 miles in 36 hours and arriving in Stromness in the early hours of 20 May.

The final stages of the Rescue

It took four more months and four attempts with help from the Norwegians, and from Uruguay and Chile, before Shackleton finally managed to negotiate a way through the pack ice aboard the steam tug Yelcho, lent to him by the Chilean government, to rescue his remaining 22 men.

That boat journey aboard the James Caird was a supreme act of human courage. Not a single man of Shackleton‘s original 28 men was lost. And, although Endurance was lost, the James Caird survives to this day as a living reminder of an act of remarkable courage in the heroic age of exploration.

 On the other side of the continent, the Ross Sea party overcame great hardships to fulfil its mission. Aurora was blown from her moorings during a gale and was unable to return, leaving the shore party marooned without proper supplies or equipment. Nevertheless the depots were laid, but three lives were lost in the process. In the event, the Boss never came and three men of the RSP shore party perished. The remaining seven men had to wait for rescue which duly came on 10th January 1917.

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The crew of Endurance in her final voyage was made up of the 28 men listed below:

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Sir Ernest Shackleton, Leader
Frank Wild, Second-in-Command
Frank Worsley, Captain
Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer
Tom Crean, Second Officer
Alfred Cheetham, Third Officer
Hubert Hudson, Navigator
Louis Rickinson, Engineer
Alexander Kerr, Engineer
Alexander Macklin, Surgeon
James McIlroy, Surgeon
Sir James Wordie, Geologist
Leonard Hussey, Meteorologist
Reginald James, Physicist
Robert Clark, Biologist
Frank Hurley, Photographer
George Marston, Artist
Thomas Orde-Lees, Motor Expert and Storekeeper
Harry ‘Chippy’ McNeish, Carpenter
Charles Green, Cook
Walter How, Able Seaman
William Bakewell, Able Seaman
Timothy McCarthy, Able Seaman
Thomas McLeod, Able Seaman
John Vincent, Boatswain
Ernest Holness, Stoker
William Stephenson, Stoker
Perce Blackborow, Steward

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