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.
VOYAGE OF JAMES CAIRD
Accordingly, having made ready the James Caird for the voyage, at midday on 24 April, nine days after landing on the island and the very last day before the pack ice closed in again, 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.
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.
They traversed two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges, covering 40 miles in 36 hours and arriving in Stromness in the early hours of 20 May.
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 though 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.
The James Caird was brought back from the Antarctic to England in 1919, aboard the whaler Woodville, and was originally displayed in the gardens of the Middlesex Hospital and then the roof of Selfridges department store. In 1922 she was presented to Dulwich College by John Quiller Rowett, a school friend of Shackleton and sponsor of his last expedition aboard the Quest. Both men were old boys of Dulwich College.
The Caird was subsequently (in 1967) loaned to the national Maritime Museum in Greenwich where she remained until 1986, when she was returned with some ceremony to Dulwich College. In 1989 she was installed in the North Cloister in Dulwich College and in 1994 was loaned to the International Boat Show in earls Court London, where she attracted a great deal of interest.
Apart from occasional outings to maritime exhibitions and displays, the Caird remained on permanent display in the North Cloister at Dulwich College until 2015. In that year the College completed its new science block, known as The Laboratory. The boat brings an incredible resonance to The Laboratory, sitting in its own James Caird Hall. The design of the building and placement of the boat mean that she can now be seen from every angle at ground level and for the first time from above, allowing every visitor to reflect on, and be inspired by, the achievement of Shackleton and his crew.
How to Visit
The James Caird is now on display in the Laboratory at Dulwich College, Dulwich Common, London SE21 7LD. Trains run regularly from London Victoria to West Dulwich station, which is close to the College gates.
Please note – all general public visits must be pre-arranged and booked via this TryBooking link
Public visits to the James Caird are offered at 11.30am on Fridays.
School Tours: these can be booked on Tuesdays and Thursdays in College term time; the tour is from 11.15 to 12.15.