The rescue

archive photo of people on an icy shore waving at a ship

The departure of the James Caird from Elephant Island, or 'The rescue' © Royal Geographical Society

The crossing

"The final stage of the journey had still to be attempted. ...Over on Elephant Island 22 men were waiting for the relief that we alone could secure for them. Their plight was worse than ours. We must push on somehow."
Sir Ernest Shackleton, 'South'

On 10 May 1916 the James Caird landed on South Georgia island. This feat, a miracle of navigation as much as seamanship and endurance, is widely regarded as the greatest boat journey ever accomplished.

The condition of the boat, shortage of drinking water and deteriorating health of one of the men forced the group to land on the island's uninhabited western shore. Ships and relief lay on the opposite side.

On 19 May, only ten days after landing and with their feet still numb from frostbite, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean set out on foot for the whaling stations, a journey of 22 miles across the mountainous interior of an island that had never been charted. Their sole equipment was a carpenter's adze, 90 feet of rope, and a compass, while screws from the James Caird provided traction in their worn shoes. The men carried food for three days: any longer they knew to be beyond their limits.

The return to Elephant Island

On the afternoon of 20 May Shackleton, Worsley and Crean walked into South Georgia's Stromness station. They had marched non-stop for 36 hours. Dressed in rags and black with blubber smoke, they were at first unrecognizable to the station manager, whom they had met nearly two years before.

The whalers received the trio with open arms. After reuniting with the men on the other side of the island, Shackleton made immediate plans to rescue the Elephant Island group. The Norwegians volunteered a ship but ice prevented the unprotected vessel from getting closer than 60 miles from the island.

As the months passed Shackleton, still with Worsley and Crean, made increasingly frantic rescue attempts, each time thwarted by ice or weather. At last on 30 August they succeeded in bringing through the Yelcho, a tug loaned by the Chilean government. It was their fourth attempt. Four months had passed since the Caird's departure, and Shackleton feared the worst.

On Elephant Island, the Yelcho was spotted. As the castaways ran onto the beach, Shackleton, straining through binoculars, counted anxiously. "They are all there!" Worsley reported him crying.

Hurley entitled the photograph above 'The rescue', and viewers were to believe that it showed the lifeboat of the Yelcho coming into view. In reality, it depicts the men waving farewell to the James Caird, which has been removed from the negative. The boat seen in the photograph is one of the expedition's other lifeboats, the Stancomb Wills, returning to shore. Hurley altered the photograph in order to provide an appropriate climax for his post-expedition lectures.