Six Men Versus The Worst Stretch
Of Ocean In The World:
The Voyage To South Georgia Island

Listen in RealAudio 28.8

They were on dry land, but now what? The outside world probably thought they were dead, and even if they didn't, who'd ever look for them here?

Shackleton: A boat journey in search of relief was necessary and must not be delayed. That conclusion was forced upon me. It was not difficult to decide that South Georgia must be the objective. The hazards of a boat journey across 800 miles of stormy sub-Antarctic Ocean were obvious, but I calculated that at worst the venture would add nothing to the risks of the men left on the island. A consideration that had weight with me was that there was no chance at all of any search being made for us on Elephant Island.

The ship's carpenter built up the James Caird, the best of the three lifeboats, and stretched a canvas across the top, kayaklike, to give some protection from the weather. On April 24th began one of the most remarkable sea voyages ever undertaken: 800 miles of the world's worst ocean in a double-masted 22-foot boat. Shackleton picked five men to go with him, including the irrepressible captain and expert navigator Frank Worsley.

Worsley: From the day after leaving Elephant Island we had been accompanied at intervals by albatross. Never seeming to rest, week after week, he follows the sailing ship; day after day he followed our boat. His poetic motion fascinated us; the ease with which he swept the miles aside filled us with envy. He could, with a southwest gale, have made our whole journey in ten hours.

The launching of the James Caird.
Click for larger image
Conditions aboard the Caird were bleak, to say the least. The man at the tiller at the rear of the ship could sit or stand up straight, but was continually washed over by the cold salt water. There was a little shelter from the weather under the tarp stretched across the lifeboat, but it wasn't waterproof, and being under it was a little like being in one of those prison cells designed specifically to be too low to stand up in and too short to lie down in. Plus, 2,000 pounds of ballast rocks dug into men's knees, elbows, and backs. The men slept in their wet clothes inside reindeer-hide sleeping bags that had begun to rot, shed, and stink.

The first day at sea was uneventful. The six men in the Caird sailed and then rowed until 10 at night, when they got clear of the last ice they'd see on their way to South Georgia.

Worsley: As we cleared the stream, the wind shifted to the southeast, our starboard quarter. Sir Ernest wisely wanted me to make due north to avoid the ice and get less frigid weather. He sent the others below to get some warmth and sleep in the reindeer-skin bags while we kept a sharp lookout for ice. I steered; he sat beside me. We snuggled close together for warmth, for by midnight the sea was rising, and every other wave that hit her came over, wetting us through and through. Cold and clear, with the Southern Cross high overhead, we held her north by the stars, that swept in glittering procession over the Atlantic towards the Pacific. While I steered, his arm thrown over my shoulder, we discussed plans and yarned in low tones. We smoked all night-he rolled cigarettes for us both, a job at which I was unhandy. I often recall with proud affection memories of those hours with a great soul.

Ann Bancroft also had to make the difficult decision to abort an expedition.

Worsley, Shackleton, and the rest must have enjoyed this brief quiet time. In his retelling of the Endurance voyage, Alfred Lansing describes for his readers what Shackleton and his men knew by heart: the dangers of the stretch of the South Atlantic they were about to cross.

Lansing: This, then, was the Drake Passage, the most dreaded bit of ocean on the globe - and rightly so. Here nature has been given a proving ground on which to demonstrate what she can do if left alone. The results are impressive. It begins with the wind. There is an immense area of persistent low pressure in the vicinity of the Antarctic Circle. It acts as a giant sump into which high pressure from farther north continually drains, accompanied by almost ceaseless, gale-force, westerly winds.

The six men in their tiny boat weathered gales and dangerous ice buildup. Worsley had to base his course on only a handful of fleeting glimpses of the hazy sun, so he couldn't even be sure he was heading them toward South Georgia. He could have been shooting them past it to the open Atlantic and a sure death at sea. And there were always the waves.

Worsley: The highest, broadest, and longest swells in the world. Four hundred, a thousand yards, a mile apart in fine weather, silent and stately they pass along. Rising 40 or 50 feet and more from crest to hollow, they rage in apparent disorder during heavy gales. Fast clippers, lofty ships, and small craft are tossed on their foaming snowy brows and stamped and battered by their ponderous feet.

Lansing: Once every 90 seconds or less the Caird's sail would go slack as one of these gigantic waves loomed astern, possibly 50 feet above her, and threatening, surely, to bury her under a hundred million tons of water. But then, by some phenomenon of buoyancy, she was lifted higher and higher up the face of the onrushing swell until she found herself, rather unexpectedly, caught in the turmoil of foam at the summit and hurtling forward. Over and over again, a thousand times each day, this drama was re-enacted.

On the night of May 5th, when they were finally within striking distance of South Georgia Island, Shackleton was at the helm and his men were below sleeping.

Shackleton: At midnight I was at the tiller and suddenly noticed a line of clear sky between the south and southwest. I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During 26 years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted "For God's sake, hold on! It's got us." Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours.

Worsley: I was crawling out of my bag as the sea struck us. There was a roaring of water around and above us-it was almost as though we had foundered. The boat seemed full of water. We other five men seized any receptacle we could find and pushed, scooped, and baled the water out for dear life. While Shackleton held her up to the wind, we worked like madmen, but for five minutes it was uncertain whether we would succeed or not.

The men in the Caird never faced a wave that big again, but Alfred Lansing says it had a lasting effect. They'd been beaten up by the ice, the cold, and the wet, and now they were bullied and almost buried by the giant wave. Lansing writes, "For thirteen days they had absorbed everything the Drake Passage could throw at them - and now by God they deserved to make it."

On May 8th, at half-past noon, after 14 days at sea, they finally sighted land, just a glimpse through the clouds of the black cliffs of South Georgia. They were only a few miles away, but the waters were treacherous and they couldn't land. The next morning, still asea off the island, a hurricane stronger than any Shackleton had experienced hit them and almost tore off their mast. Finally, after two days of being teased with the promise of refuge, they made it through the reefs and the breakers and landed on South Georgia.

But they were on the wrong side of the island, separated from Stromness Whaling Station by glaciers and mountains no one had ever crossed. As the crow flies, it was 22 miles. They set up camp and recovered their strength, sleeping, scouting the land, and filling their bellies. After eight days, Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Frank Worsley, with screws set into the soles of their boots to give them some purchase on the ice, set off, leaving three crew members behind.

Worsley drew what he called "A Rough Memory Map" of their trek across South Georgia's snow fields, glaciers, mountains, and crevasses. His pencil line zigzags, stops, and retraces, indicates where they literally slid on their behinds down a mountainside, and shows their final descent to the whaling station . . . through a waterfall.

Shackleton: Worsley and I lowered Crean over the waterfall. He disappeared altogether in the falling water and came out gasping at the bottom. I went next, sliding down the rope, and Worsley, who was the lightest and most nimble member of the party, came last. At the bottom of the fall we were able to stand again on dry land. The rope could not be recovered. We had flung down the adze from the top of the fall and also the log-book and the cooker wrapped in one of our blouses. That was all, except our wet clothes, that we brought out of the Antarctic, which we had entered a year and a half before with well-found ship, full equipment, and high hopes. That was all of tangible things; but in memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had "suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders." We had reached the naked soul of man.
Read "The Call of the Wild" by Robert Service.

They were filthy, ragged, and exhausted by their trip, which - in absolute terms - now totaled exactly zero miles from their starting point. But nature, for all its harshness, has as its saving grace the fact that it doesn't know better. It's impersonal in the way it hands out punishment. But Shackleton and his men were now to enter again the world of man, punishing and personal.

Shackleton: . . . we came to the wharf, where the man in charge stuck to his station. I asked him if Mr. Sorlle (the manager) was in the house.

"Yes?" he said as he stared at us.

"We would like to see him," I said.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"We have lost our ship and come over the island," I replied.

Mr. Sorlle came to the door and said, "Well?"

"Don't you know me?" I said. "My name is Shackleton."

Immediately he put out his hand and said, "Come in. Come in."

"Tell me, when was the war over?" I asked.

"The war is not over," he answered. "Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad."

Worsley: In the evening the manager told Sir Ernest that a number of old captains and sailors wished to speak to and shake hands with him and us. We went into a large, low room, full of captains and mates and sailors, and hazy with tobacco smoke. Three or four white-haired veterans of the sea came forward; one spoke in Norse, and the manager translated. He said he had been at sea over forty years; that he knew this stormy Southern Ocean intimately, from South Georgia to Cape Horn, from Elephant Island to the South Orkneys, and that never had he heard of such a wonderful feat of daring seamanship as bringing the 22-foot open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and then to crown it, tramping across the ice and snow and rocky heights of the interior, and that he felt it an honour to meet and shake hands with Sir Ernest and his comrades. He finished with a dramatic gesture. "These are men!"

All photographs by Frank Hurley unless otherwise noted

©2018 American Public Media