The epic first week of one of the greatest boat journeys ever made

1st May 2016

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100 years ago on the 24th April 1916 Earnest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and four others set off to sail 1500 kilometres in the worst seas in the world, in winter, to try and save the remaining twenty two members of his expedition left on Elephant Island. It was the start of one of the most daring boat journeys ever recorded.

Their boat the ‘James Caird' was a tiny open whaleboat, 6.9 metres long. They had raised the sides by 37cm sides during the previous five months marooned on drifting ice floes, but now to prepare the boat for the new voyage they had scavenged from their two smaller boats and meagre supplies. Using masts, oars, packing boxes, sledge runners, old canvas, even artist’s oil paints and seal blood, they reinforced the James Caird, improvising a mizenmast with sail, a canvas deck to provide the men some shelter from the elements and a pump made from a compass housing. They took food and fuel for a month but no protective weatherproof clothing or boots as their oilskin sailing clothes had been worn out long before.

On the first day they sailed and rowed through icebergs and floes northward but on the second day the wind changed direction became a gale and blew them west. Beneath their makeshift deck there wasn’t room to sit up or stretch out and water continuously leaked through the old canvas. They had two watches of three men. One would steer while the other two would bail or pump and manage the sails. The other watch would try to rest, sleep was practically impossible. After two days, damp reindeer fur sleeping bags had become wet and nothing remained dry. 

The third day the gale strengthened with squalls of snow. Frank Worsley, the Endeavour’s captain, managed to get an observation (of the sun) with sextant to calculate their position. They had travelled north west out of the 60s (latitude) and 237 kilometres from Elephant Island but in the next two days northerly gales almost blew them back to the 60s where the storms were more violent and the risk of ice greater. They faced 50 foot waves travelling at 25 mph, waves breaking and water rushing forward at 50 mph. On the sixth day the gales had returned to the southwesterly and Worsley managed to get a second observation to fix their position, 441 kilometres. But by now his log and Nautical Almanac with the pages of tables needed to work out their position was wet through and disintegrating.

In the afternoon of the seventh day the wind increased and blew a gale from the south. The sea increased and the temperature dropped. The seas breaking over the boat froze. They took down the sails and stowed them below deck so they couldn’t freeze. A sea anchor was deployed to hold the boat. The ice increased until they had to excavate the four oars lashed on the deck throwing two overboard because they couldn’t get them below deck and using the remaining two as hand rails to stop them falling overboard. By dawn on May Day, the boat was encased in 37cm of ice like a turtle shell and the sea was starting to freeze. To prevent the top heavy boat from capsizing they had to take turns crawling out into the gale with an axe in one hand to chop ice off while holding on with the other. A slip meant death.

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