One of the greatest boat journeys ever made started 100 years ago today. Over the next sixteen days 6 men already weakened by five months surviving on drifting ice flows, sailed a tiny boat 1500 kilometres through the storms and hurricanes of an Antarctic winter to try and reach the small island of South Georgia.
The leader of the expedition was Ernest Shackleton and his aim was to cross Antarctica from side to side but since their expedition ship ‘Endurance’ had become trapped in pack ice in February of the year before, they had been forced to drift with the ice. This is a time before the use of wireless and air searches, before radar and GPS, no one knew of their fate. Besides, the First World War had started just before they left Britain in 1914 and Europe had other things to think about. ‘Endurance’ had been built strongly and survived crushing for eight months. Eventually a nutcracker of pressure floes locked her tight and then crushed her. She finally sank in November. The twenty eight crew and expedition members salvaged what they could and transferred to camp on the ice for next five months as it drifted north and melted. When it was almost gone they crammed into Endurances three small open top lifeboats and managed to survive for seven days to reach Elephant Island, a tiny remote tip of mountain and glacier sticking out of the sea. No one ever went there.
Winter was taking hold, it had almost killed them during the boat voyage the week before. Shackleton felt that their only hope of rescue was for a boat to try and reach South Georgia where there was a whaling station that might be able send a rescue ship for the others. They had no time, little equipment and almost no hope of success but they decided to try. They spent a week reinforcing the most seaworthy boat, the ‘James Caird', using wood and parts scavenged from the two others. To go with him across the worst seas in the world, in winter, he chose Frank Worsley, ‘Endurance’s captain and a superb navigator, Tom Crean, tall, tough and an experienced expeditioner, ‘Chippy’ McNeish, their skilled and resourceful shipwright, John Vincent, seaman, strongman and troublemaker and Timothy McCarthy, seaman and irrepressible optimist.