There has never been a greater feat of
seamanship than Shackleton's open-boat voyage from Elephant Island to
South Georgia after the loss of his ship the Endurance.
His ship the Endurance was
part of an ambitious expedition which in 1914 attempted to cross Antarctica,
The plan was that one ship, the Aurora, should land men on the Pacific
Ocean side of the continent, and these men would set up food depots along
the route to the Pole. Meanwhile at the same time another ship, the Endurance,
would land men on the opposite side of the continent; and these men would
cross Antarctica via the Pole, picking up the food left by the Aurora
on the final stage of their journey.
The Endurance arrived in the Weddell Sea late in 1914. It was a bad year
for ice. While the ship was still 160 kilometres from the coast she became
ensnared, trapped fast without a hope of escape, by the thickening ice-floes.
Shackleton tried frantically to cut and batter his way clear.To start
with she was not in serious danger, but with the approach of spring, the
ice caused them anxiety. The
ice floes first split and then piled up one on top of another. Worst of
all were the pressure ridges, great walls of ice advancing like slow-moving
waves over the surface of the pack. In mid-October the Endurance was trapped
between two converging ridges. She was flung onto her side and squeezed
until she broke up.
The Endurance was gone, and with her, Shackleton's dream of an Antarctic
crossing. As he and his twenty-seven men stood huddled together on an
ice-floe, hundreds of kilometres from land, and with no hope of outside
help, Shackleton had one objective only: survival. He salvaged as much
as he could from the Endurance before she disappeared beneath the ice;
then he tried to head for Paulet Island, some 640 kilometres to the north.
The going wasn't just difficult, it was impossible. In some places the
floes were thick, rafted together to form ridges four to six metres in
height; in other places they were so thin that the sledges fell through
them into the ice-cold water beneath. Sometimes the ice was so hard they
couldn't chip it away even with picks, other times it was so soft that
dogs and men found themselves floundering waist-deep in slush. At the
end of an exhausting week, they had travelled less than 15 kilometres
to the north, and the current had drifted them more than 8 kilometres
to the southeast.He therefore decided to camp on the most solid floe he
could find, wait for the ice to melt, and then take to the ship's boats
which had been salvaged from the Endurance, A few days after Christmas
1915, he established a camp called Patience.
Here, cold, wet, short of food and in conditions as miserable as any on
Earth, he and his ship's company settled down to wait.
By the end of the first week of April, the great icefield in which the
Endurance had been crushed had thinned down and drifted to within sight
of the South Shetland Islands, It had now broken up into a number of individual
floes, on one of which was Camp Patience. A heavy swell made the floes
heave and quiver; it jostled them together, breaking them into ever smaller
fragments. Cracks began to open up without warning in even the most solid
looking surface, so that men who were one moment asleep in their tents
would next moment be tumbled into ice-cold water.
Shackleton gave the order to take to the ship's boats, which had been
salvaged from the Endurance. There now began a three-day voyage of appalling
hazard: a voyage in which Shackleton and his men were many times within
a hairsbreadth of death. The South Shetland Islands, bleak and uninhabited
but offering a temporary haven, lay about 100 kilometres to the north-west.
To reach them the three little overcrowded open boats had to cross seas
that were lashed by constant gale-force winds, swept by great waves more
than fifteen metres from trough to crest, and strewn with great blocks
" One moment we were on the crest of a tremendous Swell - you could
see right away to the horizon, nothing but sea and ice,and sky- then you'd
drop into the hollow and see a great roller coming towards you filled
with blocks of ice . . . "
After three nightmare days, they managed to struggle into a bleak but
sheltered cove on the coast of Elephant Island.The men's most urgent needs
were food and warmth. And they were lucky. Within a couple of hours of
landing, they found and killed an elephant seal. The great creature's
flesh gave them meat for the most nourishing stew they had had for months,
and its blubber fuel for the warmest fire. They were, for the moment,
out of danger.The prospect of death, however, hadn't vanished altogether;
it had only receded. Elephant Island was uninhabited, unbelievably bleak,
and far from the usual track of sealers and whalers.
The nearest land was Cape Horn, that was only 650 kilometres away; but
Shackleton knew that he hadn't a hope of sailing there against the constant
gale-force winds. The nearest land to the east was the Island of South
Georgia, where Shackleton knew there was a whaling station which was manned
all the year round. But South Georgia was 1,100 kilometres away. To get
there he would have to navigate with pinpoint accuracy, not for days but
On May 8th they caught sight, through a rift in the clouds, of the black
cliffs of South Georgia, It is hard to know which to admire most: the
men's endurance, Shackleton's leadership, or Worsley's navigation. Their
troubles, however, were not over. For no sooner had they sighted land
than the wind increased to one of the worst hurricanes any of us had ever
known and they were in danger of being swept to destruction against the
ice-coated cliff of the island. Desperately they fought their way away
from the land, until late that evening wind and sea subsided, and they
drifted, battered and exhausted, onto a little beach, where, as if in
answer to their prayers, a stream of fresh water cascaded from glacier
to sea. After 16 days' sailing through the most dangerous seas on Earth,
it seemed like a miracle.
One last difficulty had to be overcome. The whaling station lay on the
opposite side of the island. Two of Shackleton's crew were by this time
desperately weak; they had been driven close to insanity by their ordeal,
and were in no condition to continue the voyage. In any case, Shackleton
realised it would be highly dangerous to try to sail round South Georgia's
cliff- bound coast. The quickest way to the whaling station was by land:
directly across the island. The island, at the point where they had landed,
was no more than 80 kilometres wide. But these 80 kilometres consisted
of a precipitous range of 2000 metre mountains. The fact that the mountains
were coated from base to summit in ice and had never been crossed, would
have daunted most people. But after a couple of days' rest, Shackleton
and his two fittest companions set out for the whaling station.They had
virtually no equipment; no tent or sleeping bag, only some 15 metres of
rope, and the carpenter's adze to use as an improvised ice-axe. They climbed
non-stop for 24 hours, until at last, almost too wonderful to be true,
they saw beneath them the whaling station at Husvik. After more than twenty
months' imprisonment in the polar ice, with his ship long since reported
as being lost with all hands, Shackleton had made contact with the outside
world. The finale of Shackleton's expedition reads like a fairy tale come
true. Within 48 hours of his arrival in Husvik, a whalecatcher had rescued
his men from the opposite side of the island. Soon Shackleton himself
was aboard a Chilean ice-breaker and on his way to Elephant Island, where
he re-united with all his crew.
In all his journeys, and troubled adventures, Shackleton lost not even
one of his loyal men ...
Shackleton is buried on the island of South Georgia.