Elephant Island

archive photo of man holding 2 large penguins

Hudson with young Emperor Penguin chicks
© Scott Polar Institute, University of Cambridge

The great boat journey

In early March Thomas Orde-Lees reported feeling sea-sick - the ice was so thin that the swell of the ocean was now apparent. On 9 April 1916 the 28 men struck camp and piled into the three lifeboats. At the mercy of prevailing winds, the boats set course for a splinter of land called Elephant Island, some 100 miles north. This terrible journey, made in heaving seas, nearly cost many of the men their lives; it did cost some their sanity.

On the seventh day out from Patience Camp, the boats arrived at Elephant Island. Knowing that rescue would never come to the remote island, Shackleton made a momentous decision. Selecting five of the toughest and best seamen - Frank Worsley, Thomas Crean, Henry McNish, Timothy McCarthy, and John Vincent - he announced that they would sail the largest lifeboat to the whaling stations of South Georgia island, over 800 miles away across the most dangerous ocean on the planet. Navigation of this desperate journey would be by sextant - and yet stormy skies could well prevent a single celestial sighting. As blizzards raged, McNish, the carpenter, laboured to equip the 22.5 foot long James Caird for the ordeal ahead.

The men left behind

"We gave them three hearty cheers & watched the boat getting smaller & smaller in the distance. Then seeing some of the party in tears I immediately set them all to work."
Frank Wild, memoir

Setting off on 22 April 1916, Shackleton left his trusted second-in-command, Frank Wild, in charge of the 22 men who remained on Elephant Island. Their circumstances were bleak. Some of the men were frostbitten or in poor health, while others were temporarily mentally unstable. The island was "almost continuously covered with a pall of fog and snow", according to meteorologist Leonard Hussey. A gale blew non-stop for the first two weeks, at times reaching wind speeds of over 100 miles an hour. The men's clothing was by now threadbare, and they had no shelter.

Under Wild's persistent command, the men labored to improve their living conditions by small degrees. The two remaining boats were overturned on stone walls and made into a hut, and the remnants of tents served as insulation. Makeshift blubber lamps gave off dim light. Wild organized daily hunting expeditions along the narrow beach. In the evening 'sing-songs' relieved the tedium of this second polar night, the three months of darkness that occur annually in the Antarctic.

Crammed into their small shelter, living hand-to-mouth off penguins and the occasional seals, the men stoically prepared to wait for 'the boss' to return from his heroic journey.