The voyage of the ‘James Caird’ was an open boat journey from Elephant Island in Antarctica to South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, a distance of approximately 830 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 mi). Undertaken by Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions, their objective was to obtain rescue for the main body of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17, marooned on Elephant Island after the loss of their ship Endurance. History has come to know the voyage of the James Caird as one of the greatest small-boat journeys of all time.
In October 1915 the Endurance had been crushed and sunk by pack ice in the Weddell Sea, leaving Shackleton and 27 men stranded on the frozen surface of the ocean, thousands of miles from civilization. During the following months the party drifted northward until 9th April 1916, when the ice floe on which they were camped broke up. Shackleton and his men made their way in three lifeboats to the remote and inaccessible Elephant Island, where Shackleton quickly decided that the most effective means of obtaining relief for his beleaguered party would be to sail the largest of the lifeboats to South Georgia.
Of the three lifeboats, the James Caird was deemed the most seaworthy. It was named by Shackleton after Sir James Caird, a Dundee jute manufacturer and philanthropist whose sponsorship had helped finance Shackleton’s expedition.
Before the voyage across the South Ocean the lifeboat was strengthened and adapted by the ship’s carpenter, Harry McNish, to withstand the ‘mighty upheaval’ of the Southern Ocean. It carried a six-man crew led by Sir Ernest Shackleton:
Lt. Frank Worsley R.N.R.
Petty Officer Tom Crean R.N.
Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish
When Sir Ernest set off to find rescue he did so with one purpose in mind. With no prospect of rescue, he left 22 men on Elephant Island to await salvation. On 24 April 1916, Shackleton set sail in the James Caird bound toward South Georgia, hoping to find help at the whaling stations of Stromness Bay on the island’s eastern side.
Fifteen days after setting off, in the navigational equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack, they sighted South Georgia’s towering cliffs, negotiated their way to King Haakon Bay, and landed at Cave Cove on the southern coast of the bay. Their landing was a stroke of luck, prior to finding a suitable cove, they negotiated submerged rocks, hurricane force winds, and overhanging sea cliffs. After four days recovering from their ordeal, they sailed the James Caird for the final time to the northern shore of King Haakon Bay where they spotted a sheltered bluff – later named Peggotty Bluff in honour of their David Copperfield inspired shelter.
Anxious about putting to sea again because of a shortage of food, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean made a 33-hour dash across the island via a 3,000 ft mountain range that was bound with treacherous glaciers. Shackleton duly raised the alarm, and after four months, and four separate rescue attempts, he rescued all his men on 30 August 1916.
On 20 December 1916, Shackleton sailed aboard the ‘Aurora’ from New Zealand back to Antarctica to rescue the other half of his expedition: The Ross Sea Party, bringing to a close the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on 10 January 1917.
Shackleton was later informed that a 500 ton steamer named ‘Argos’ ran aground near King Haakon Bay and disappeared during the hurricane of 7th May 1916. Some of the survivors found shelter at Prince Olaf Harbour but, it is believed that they perished while trying to find help. After a search party was sent to the area, a note written in Spanish was discovered in the station store-room. An unidentified decomposing body was also found later in the summer, the authorities at the time believed it may have been a sailor from the ‘Argos’.
After the epic boat journey the James Caird was hoisted onboard the steam-powered whale catcher Samson, which had come round the north of the island to rescue Vincent, McNish and McCarthy. At Peggotty Camp the James Caird was found overturned and being used as a hut; the raised gunwales were burnt to generate warmth for the three debilitated sailors.
The Norwegians who understood the historical importance of the boat insisted on the Caird being sent back to England. On arrival at Leith Harbour in Stromness Bay, the whalers mustered on the beach and, according to Worsley’s account “they would not let us put a hand on her”. Every man claimed the honour of lifting her on to their shoulders, carrying her immense weight of 1000 kilos up the wharf. Captain Thom of the Southern Sky, the ship that in May 1916 first tried to save the party marooned on Elephant Island, sent the James Caird back to Liverpool aboard the S.S. Woodville as deck cargo, arriving on 5 December 1919 along with a cargo of whale oil for the Lever Brothers.
The boat was stored temporarily at Grayson’s Shipyard, Birkenhead, and after an appeal to have her saved from the breakers yard, the boat was brought back to London as the only relic of the Endurance. The James Caird went on static display at the Royal Albert Hall, the rooftop gardens at Selfridges on Oxford Street, and the Middlesex Hospital where Shackleton delivered one of many charitable public talks. After various exhibitions, the boat was eventually gifted to John Quiller Rowett by Shackleton in 1921 and is now preserved at Dulwich College, London.
Image | James Caird, Dulwich College, London | Credit: Seb Coulthard