South Georgia - so close yet impossible to reach

8th May 2016

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The second week began in an ice storm that threatened to encase the tiny James Caird in top heavy ice, then capsize it. Earnest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and the four crew take turns to crawl onto the icy deck and hack away the ice but, without protective clothing, four or five minutes exposed to the storm is the limit before frostbite and exhaustion force them back under the makeshift deck. 

By the morning of their ninth day the storm had been raging for almost two full days, then a large wave hit the Caird and she swung side on to the waves. Ice had cut through the rope to their sea anchor and now they had lost both. With the boat out of control, their only option left was to set sail. At noon the winds were starting to ease. 

By the end of the storm their reindeer fur sleeping bags had become a sloppy, slimy, stinking mess and so useless and heavy that Shackleton decided to throw two overboard. That night the compass glass got broken but a repair with tape from the medical kit worked. When midnight came the wind was increasing once again and a new gale had started. 

Early on the tenth day they were running before the storm when Shackleton saw a faint light line in the south and thought the cloud was breaking. Moments later he realised and called out “For God’s sake, hold on! It’s got us!” The clearing sky had been the breaking crest of a huge wave. Mayhem! After the noise and water subsided, the crew found themselves and the James Caird still afloat, but only just. For more than an hour they bailed and pumped for their lives until eventually it was done and little water remained in the boat. Meanwhile the storm had moderated and the weather begun to improve. In the afternoon Worsley managed to get a fix of the sun. They had travelled 822 kilometres from Elephant Island and had passed the half way point. They were also starting to dry out.

The weather stayed fine and the wind moderate through the eleventh day. Worsley got another fix of the sun and calculated they had travelled 918 kilometres. Their condition was dreadful though, being exhausted and filthy, with swollen legs and sores from chaffing and frostbite  but their spirits had improved.

The twelfth day was overcast and squally. Everything was wet again but Worsley calculated that day was their best twenty-four hour run yet with 178 kilometres covered. The following day, their thirteenth, was clear but the wind had risen to a gale and the waves increased until they were unable to sail and had to heave-to. 

On day fourteen the gale moderated. Though they could see the sun, the horizon was obscured and Worsley was unable to get a good fix and couldn’t be sure of their position to within 19 kilometres. South Georgia is 165 kilometres long but only 35 kilometres wide. Without a better position they could miss it and the winds wouldn’t give them a second chance. Shackleton decided to change course and err toward the west coast, a bigger target but also the uninhabited side of the island. In the evening they saw some kelp.

Thirst now added to their discomfort. A couple of days earlier, they had discovered one of their two casks of drinking water had been damaged and it was contaminated with sea water. Rationed to a quarter of a pint per day now, they were thirsty all the time and becoming dehydrated.

At dawn on the fifteenth day, the 8th May, they saw more seaweed and were soon talking of clean clothes and a dry bed. The day was foggy and the sky overcast but the sight of a shag, a bird that doesn’t stray far from land increased their conviction that the voyage was almost over. In the afternoon it cleared and before them were towering crags with patches of snow. They had made it to South Georgia. As they drew closer they could see huge combers crashing into the cliffs and sending great spouts of white water high into the air. Nowhere to land a boat. In the late afternoon they had a fierce stormy sunset and then a hard gale set in with rain, sleet, hail and snow. Finally they sailed clear and hove-to for the night knowing a good harbour lay to the north but the wind and currents made it impossible to get there.

Next.... South Georgia desperate measures

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