The heroic story of the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s famous Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition has long been an inspiration to many of us. It was a triumph of courage, comradeship, perseverance and endurance. When the 28-man team left England in 1914 aboard the Endurance, their goal was to complete one of the great remaining exploration challenges: A crossing of the Antarctic from Atlantic to Pacific via the South Pole.
Shackleton was born in Co Kildare and was joined on the expedition by three fellow Irishmen: The legendary explorer Tom Crean from Annascaul, Co Kerry, who had performed heroically during Captain Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition; Tim McCarthy, a young seaman from Kinsale, Co Cork; and James McIIroy, an Antrim-born surgeon.
The war in Europe was about to erupt when the Endurance departed Plymouth on August 8, 1914, under the command of Captain Frank Worsley of New Zealand. Shackleton, who was delayed in England taking care of some last minute business affairs, joined the Endurance at Buenos Aires. Then they all headed to a stopover at Stromness whaling station on South Georgia Island.
At that time, even though it was common by then for ships to have a two-way radio, the Endurance sailed without one. Once Endurance left the dock at Stromness on December 5, 1914, the crew was completely cut off from the rest of humanity.
The world heard nothing more of Shackleton and his men until May 20, 1916 when Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley, staggered back into the stationmaster’s house at Stromness.
Where had they been? What had happened? Why did they arrive on foot, not by boat? Therein lies an epic tale of courage and survival against all odds.
They never reached the Antarctic coast. The Endurance got entrapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915 and ultimately sank in November 1915. The men were forced to take what supplies and lifeboats they could and drag themselves north for four months across the fractured ice field toward open water.
Taking to the boats, and after sailing for five perilous days, they all reached the desolate rocky outcrop of Elephant Island in April 1916.
The home of chin strap penguins, and seals, Elephant Island lies at the south-eastern edge the infamous Drake Passage, feared by mariners for its frigid howling winds and mountainous seas.
Even though they delighted to be alive, our unfortunate heroes might as well have been stranded on Mars. Except unlike in Matt Damon blockbuster, nobody knew they were there, far from the whaling grounds and shipping lanes. If they were to be saved, they had only one choice: they must save themselves.
The nearest human presence was more than 1300 kilometers away across the most perilous seas in the world at that whaling station on South Georgia. The only way to get there was for a handful of them to sail in one their tiny open life boats, named the James Caird.
On the morning of April 24, 1916, a crew of six — three Irishmen (Shackleton, Crean, and McCarthy), an Englishmen (John Vincent, seaman) a Scot (Harry McNish, carpenter), and a New Zealander (Worsley) — cast their lots together on the James Caird in an insane gamble toward South Georgia to save themselves and their companions.
Little did they know that, on the other side of the world, their compatriots were not co-operating but fighting. Dublin was ablaze following the rising of the Irish Volunteers against British rule. It was Easter Monday 1916.
The voyage to South Georgia is itself an epic tale or survival, expert navigation, and providential good fortune. After 17 days of sailing in horrendous conditions, the James Caird made landfall on South Georgia. Unfortunately, they had landed on the opposite side of the mountainous Island from Stromness.
They were frozen, starving, and exhausted. Sailing around the island to reach the whaling station was not a viable option, for their rudder was broken and they were likely to be blown back out to sea. Their only choice was a trek by the strongest of the men, Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley, across the unexplored snow-covered interior of South Georgia.
On May 20, after two days slogging over mountains and valleys, they arrived above Stromness in time to hear the glorious trumpeting of morning work horn, the first sound of civilization since they had departed in December 1914.
Shackleton noted in his book, South: “I have no doubt that Providence guided us. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers it seemed to me often that we were four, not three”
While their prayers had been answered, their travails were far from over. It was now winter again in the South Atlantic. The condition of the 22 comrades they had left behind continued to deteriorate.
McIlroy, the surgeon, struggled to maintain their physical and mental health. If Shackleton had succeeded in reaching South Georgia, the men expected a rescue by late May. However, May turned to June, then July, and then August as they kept their watch for a smokestack on the horizon.
It took four attempts before Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley were able get a ship in Chile that could make it through the perilous waters to Elephant Island. On August 30, 1916, cheers rang out as the desperate men spotted their saviours steaming toward them. Approaching the shore, Shackleton yelled out “Are you all well?” “All safe, boss, all well”, came the joyous reply.
Every man that had left England two years earlier had been saved. Through courage, partnership, and co-operation they had prevailed.
Further details of Shackleton’s exploits can be found in his book South, and Roland Huntford’s biography, Shackleton.