Three Boats, Three Days

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After lingering on the surface, the ruins of the ship finally sank beneath the ice on November 21, 1915, as the ice took them north, past the possible safety of Paulet Island at the tip of the long arm of the Antarctic Peninsula. They needed the ice to start breaking up so they could use their lifeboats, and that finally happened on April 9. The big ice floe they were camping on got smaller and smaller, and began to break up dangerously. Shackleton gave the order to man the boats - 28 men in three lifeboats: the James Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills.

They'd make for Elephant Island, a chunk of rock less than 100 miles away, across a nasty patch of ocean. I'll tell you ahead of time they're going to make it . . . but given their chances, you shouldn't believe me. Explorer Will Steger recalled the island as he paged through the new photo book.

Steger (looking at Endurance photo book): I met the widow of the doctor on the expedition, I was with her in Antarctica. And I was there when she saw Elephant Island for the first time. It was just very very emotional. Her husband had suffered there so much. She knew Shackleton and the whole crowd; she was very young when she married. It was this scene right there. He's in one of those pictures here. Elephant Island. It's just amazing when you see the beach that these guys lived on. If you've ever smelled penguin guano, it's just horrible, horrible. And imagine these poor guys living there, you know, eating seal meat, and walrus meat. It's a little spit of sand, waves that wash almost right, in their case wash almost right up to their camp. Very desolate. As desolate a place as you could find on the earth.
A view of Elephant Island.
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For most of the men of the Endurance, the seven days it took to sail to Elephant Island would be the most intensely difficult of the entire expedition. The conditions were bitter, the men were wet through, they had little to drink, and eating became very hard if not impossible. And for much of the trip, the three little boats had to thread their way among ice floes that could at any moment catch and crush them, or capsize and engulf them in water.

Worsley: "A cold, wet, rotten night - all hands wet and shiv-ering - with rain at first and snow showers. One oilskin only in the Docker. No sleep."

Ship's captain, Frank Worsley, retelling the story in his book Shackleton's Boat Journey.

Worsley: In spite of all, the men, inspired by Shackleton, were magnificent. Their courage and humour came to the front when most needed. It was well that they had been toughened and tempered to hardness for this ordeal, by the progressively severer conditions which we had undergone since leaving civilization. Now that conditions were worse the men, like true British seamen, ceased complaining and said, "Grin and bear it. Growl and go."

Worsley's account isn't entirely accurate. One of the men wept openly; and at one point, Shackleton writes, "I doubted if all the men would survive that night." Shackleton was simply amazing. He stayed at the stern of his lifeboat for all three days, never sleeping the whole time.

They finally landed on Elephant Island on April 15th, 1916. They had not set foot on solid ground for 497 days. The men had different reactions: some played in the pebbles, many wandered aimlessly, one man took an axe and killed seals. They camped for the night, drank gallons of glacier water, and ate and ate and ate; but even then their ordeal wasn't over. It became obvious that this little spit of beach they landed on wouldn't be safe, so the next day they had to load up all the boats again and move seven miles down the coast.

All photographs by Frank Hurley unless otherwise noted

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