The end of Shackletons voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia

15th May 2016

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Pictures of Cave Cove and King Haakon Sound    from www.wanderingalbatross.org (2008)

They knew that in all probability they would die, swept beyond South Georgia into an empty antarctic ocean or overpowered and sunk by one of the continuous storms that circle the earth in the latitudes of the ‘furious fifties’. They also knew if they remained on Elephant Island that in all probability they would die of cold, starvation or illness. They chose to rely on themselves and their skills and do what they could while they still had the strength. This is about the end of the voyage Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McNeish, Vincent and McCarthy made from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

They had come within sight of South Georgia the day before in the middle of a storm but had been unable to find shelter or somewhere to land. Now on the morning of the 9th of May they were still hove-to in a storm with waves breaking over their 6.9 metres long boat ‘James Caird’ and them needing to frequently bail and pump. By noon the storm had risen to a hurricane with squalls of rain, hail, sleet and snow from the southwest and it was driving them toward the mountainous shore. At 2 pm a rift in the clouds and spray showed the cliffs three or four swells away. With disaster reaching for them they set jib, main and mizen sails in a desperate attempt to claw away from the rocks. 

Now sailing, the James Caird would gather way then crash into an oncoming wave which would sweep across her to the mast heads. Stalled then charge and crash again. Repeat and repeat. Each wave was like hitting a wall. With each impact the bow planks were sprung open and water spurted in. For the next nine hours this continued while one man would steer and the other five bailed or pumped. Thinking they would die, Worsley later wrote of his regret at bringing his diary and his annoyance that no one would ever know how far they had got. They were still “bailing death overboard” as darkness came.

Just before 9 pm they cleared Annenkov Island so close that they had to strain their necks to see above the cliffs but almost immediately they had more space to sail and the wind dropped. By midnight the boat was pumped dry enough for three men to go below and rest. Miraculously they had survived the worst hurricane any of them had experienced in a tiny twenty two foot boat. A 500 ton steamer on route to South Georgia disappeared with all hands. 

At daybreak on the seventeenth day thirst and hunger tormented them. Their fresh water was finished and their throats were now too swollen to swallow food. They set sail back northwest to try and make a northern bay but having done so the wind swung to the northwest and, being unable to sail into the wind, forced them to steer north for a fjord called King Haakon Sound some nine miles away. Once again the wind changed and they had to tack, and row in turns, to make it into the sound against both wind and current. As the last light faded they saw a narrow cove to the south and made for it. They beached the James Caird on a rocky beach at nightfall. The rudder was unmounted by rock and washed away. 

They unloaded the boat, found fresh water and had a meal while one man held the boat. They were too weak to lift the boat above the waves but tied it to rocks. Crean found a cave that provided shelter. At 2 am on the 11th of May the boat broke free of the rocks, Crean had caught it but had almost been dragged out to sea. No more sleep for them that night. From then until dark, using the masts as rollers they hauled the James Caird clear of the water. Worsley estimated that fit men could have done the job in an hour. 

In the following days, aided by abundant fresh water, fresh meat from albatross and sea elephant and adequate shelter, from a shallow cave on the shore, they started to recover. Shackleton made the decision that their best hope was to cross the island on foot to the whaling stations on the north coast so their voyage was over - but not the journey.

100 years ago today they moved their camp from Cave Cove to the head of King Haakon Sound and set up base, Peggotty Home, underneath the upturned James Caird, in readiness for the expedition over the mountains. 

Back to....  South Georgia - so close yet impossible to reach