Glad as Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance were to have finally reached the solid ground of Elephant Island, during their attempted return to civilisation from the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the island itself was far from a hospitable home. Official photographer Frank Hurley described in his diary one headland as being ‘black and menacing’, and records how one tent was ‘torn to shreds’, requiring one lifeboat, the Dudley Docker, to be overturned and used as shelter from the ‘atrocious weather’.
Recognising the futility of waiting on the island for an unknown rescue party to arrive, Shackleton instead opted to himself launch the James Caird (with five crew members – captain Frank Worsley, second officer Thomas Crean, carpenter Harry McNish, and sailors Timothy McCarthy and John Vincent), and attempt to sail the 750 miles to South Georgia – where the expedition had begun in December 1914 – in search of help. This would allow those members of the crew suffering from frostbite and other ailments to rest and recover on Elephant Island.
Hurley describes the departure of the James Caird: ‘The launching nearly ended in her destruction, as owing to the heavy surf rolling in, and being unballasted, she rolled almost on to her beam ends. In this unmanageable position she was carried by the rollers to within a foot of the rocks. When it seemed that she must be capsized and dashed to pieces, two of the sailors were thrown into the surf, and so relieved of this top weight, she righted.’ With the boat stocked and loaded, she and her crew set sail for what Hurley called ‘one of the most hazardous and arduous voyages that has ever been attempted in a small boat’.
Shackleton himself recognised the dangers which lay ahead, leaving a statement behind which read: ‘In the event of my not surviving the boat journey... you will do your best for the rescue of the party’. Second-in-command Frank Wild was left in charge of the crew remaining on the island.
The journey was punishing, the conditions unforgiving. Shackleton described, in his memoir South, the discipline required to maintain a steady ration of water supplies, despite begs from his crew for more to drink. ‘Thirst took possession of us,’ he writes. ‘I dared not permit the allowance of water to be increased since an unfavourable wind might drive us away from the island and lengthen our voyage by many days. Lack of water is always the most severe privation that men can be condemned to endure, and we found, as during our earlier boat voyage, that the salt water in our clothing and the salt spray that lashed our faces made our thirst grow quickly to a burning pain.’
Finally, after 14 days at sea, they sensed their journey was approaching an end. Upon sighting kelp (‘a glad sign of the proximity of land’) the men eventually caught sight of the black cliffs of South Georgia. ‘Thirst-ridded, chilled, and weak as we were, happiness irradiated us,’ wrote Shackleton. ‘The job was nearly done.’
Unfortunately, there was still some work to be done. After the rocky coastline kept them at bay for one more night, the James Caird landed on the south coast of South Georgia on 10 May 1916, in a cove a little inside the southern headland of King Haakon Bay. However their final destination was to be the whaling station located on the opposite side of the island. With the rest of the men marooned back on Elephant Island, finding a way to reach the station remained the only chance of survival for not only the six man party in the James Caird, but the entire crew of the Endurance.