On April 24, 1916, Kildare-born world famous explorer, Ernest Shackleton put to sea in a 23.5ft open lifeboat on the original mission impossible. His objective, in a freezing South Atlantic Ocean that sometimes saw 320kph winds, was the rescue of 22 of his men stranded on Elephant Island off the Antarctic continent. He and they had been marooned since their specially-constructed ship Endurance had become trapped in pack ice and crushed.
The year previous, Endurance, captained by Shackleton, had sailed from England in an attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent from Ross Sea to the Weddell Sea via the pole. That expedition had become spectacularly unstuck.
Once the Endurance became lodged, the party took three of the ship’s lifeboats and forced their way to Elephant Island through pack ice and dangerous ice floes that could splinter their boats like an axe a twig. They were bound to perish on the island however and so Shackleton chose five of his men to mount a rescue mission with him.
His goal was clear and it was their only chance of survival: to cross 1,300km, or 800 miles, of the most forbidding seas in the world where giant waves could crush a ship, let alone a small open boat, in seconds.
They would have to do this on reduced rations, very little water, and with scant opportunity to sleep. They had to somehow navigate, using the sight of a watery sun and an astrolabe, to the whaling station on South Georgia and organise a rescue for their marooned comrades.
Accompanying Shackleton on the James Caird were fellow Irishman Tom Crean from Kerry and one of the greatest navigators in the history of exploration, Frank Worsley. Also aboard were accomplished sailor Tim McCarthy from Kinsale, a carpenter and two others.
An extract from Worsley’s diary indicates what faced them: “Great fragments and hummocks of very old floes rose and fell on the heaving sea, drawing defensively apart, then closing with a thud that would have smashed our boat like a gas mantle between thumb and finger.”
The men endured extreme discomfort due to the lack of space. They were already exhausted, blistered, filthy but they managed to keep the boat afloat — sometimes having to hack off blocks of ice from the bow.
The boat creaked and rolled in the waves and shipped huge quantities of water. Somehow, after 17 days they made landfall on the inhospitable southern shore of South Georgia.
In a further extraordinary adventure, Shackleton. Worsley and Crean then crossed the mountainous interior of the island including the 9,000ft Mount Paget. They were met by the astonished Norwegian whaling party who immediately rescued the group left behind on South Georgia.
It proved impossible to reach the original 22 men straight away due to the impenetrable pack ice. After three failed attempts, months later, Shackleton, in a Chilean ship sailed back to Elephant Island and rescued all 22 starving men who had survived as castaways.
Not one man was lost. None of the journeys could have been made without the indestructible James Caird.
The story of the rescue has been told in several other books from the perspective of Shackleton, Crean or Worsley. This book records the story of the boat itself and was published for its 100th anniversary.
After the rescue, the Norwegian whalers afforded the utmost respect to the James Caird and even refused to allow Shackleton’s men access to the boat. The Anglo-Irish Shackleton, who left Ireland for London aged 10, didn’t return to Britain until 1917 whereupon he was dispatched back to South America to counter German influence in the war.
He was later posted to the Russian front to organise logistics in polar-like conditions. Shackleton made his final expedition in 1921, an attempt to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent. He died of a heart attack en route. He was 48. He was buried in the South Georgia graveyard among Norwegian whalers.
The James Caird was returned to Birkenhead in England in 1919. The boat was exhibited at Middlesex College and used as a fundraiser by students, at one point being raised to the roof of Selfridge’s department store in London as a publicity stunt. It was then variously exhibited, neglected, forgotten and restored to its ultimate resting place back in Dulwich College - Shackleton’s old school.
It even survived a V-1 rocket in WWII that destroyed many buildings in the college. For the great trip, it had been hauled over pack ice then disembowelled and rebuilt for the voyage to South Georgia.
Among the tributes, the following was recorded by fellow adventurer Raymond Priestley. “For scientific leadership, give me Scott, for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
In the 1990s Trevor Potts built a replica of the James Caird to sail to South Georgia. The boat’s legacy lives on through the James Caird Society. It is an extraordinary story. They shouldn’t have survived. They did.