When it comes to epic sailing survival stories, few can compare to the story of Shackleton’s Boat Journey.
If you haven’t already read the book, then I highly recommend you do so. (You can buy a copy here) written by Frank Worsley, Shackleton’s boat captain.
In summary way back in 1914 – 1916, Antarctic Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton along with his boat captain Frank Worsley (who was born in Akaroa – more about this later) and 26 crew, sailed the Endurance to Antarctica with the aim of being the first men to cross Antarctica from sea to sea via the South Pole.
In February 1915, the Endurance became stuck in pack ice. Shackleton quickly realised that they were trapped, the expedition doomed, and the ship eventually broke up under the pressure of the melting ice in October 1915. They salvaged as much as they could before the Endurance was crushed and disappeared, including the three life boats – the James Caird, the Dudley Docker & the Stancombe Wills. The crew then camped out on the drifting ice pack until the 9th of April 1916.
It was at this stage that they’d drifted far enough in to the open ocean to be able to take to the life boats. The 28 crew sailed 347 miles over five exhausting days across the Southern Ocean in the three tiny lifeboats, eventually making landfall at Elephant Island.
I remember shivering away under my thick warm and dry duvet in a warm heated house, reading the Shackleton’s Boat Journey story, imaging myself on Elephant Island, an uninhabited ice covered, mountainous island located at around 61º South, 55º West. With winter temperatures reaching -49ºC, their woollen clothing was constantly wet with salt water, they slept in frozen reindeer sleeping bags, these were some very tough men!
But with winter once again bearing down upon them, they knew that staying put in Elephant Island wasn’t going to be an option, the island was way off the usual shipping routes, and the chances of being discovered and rescued there were very slim. So Shackleton and Worsley decided to take to go in search of help.
While the Falkland Islands were closer, the prevailing Westerlies meant that South Georgia was a better option. Especially considering that the lifeboats weren’t well equipped for the voyage, let along upwind sailing. The ship’s carpenter set to work on the strongest of the three life boats – the James Caird. He raised the gunwales, enclosed the open deck, they loaded on extra rocks as ballast, strengthened the keel and loaded some provisions for the voyage ahead.
On the 24th April 1916, Shackleton, Worsley and the four other crew set off from Elephant Island to South Georgia – 720 miles away. Leaving the remaining 22 men behind.
The fact that they survived the horrendous fifteen day voyage, enormous stormy seas, and that they managed to navigate safely to South Georgia (a feat in itself given the limited opportunities to get a sight on the sextant during the voyage) must surely come down to the incredible navigation and boat handling skills of Akaroa born Frank Worsley.
Even though they’d arrived at South Georgia, the survival story wasn’t over yet. The whaling station – their only opportunity for rescue was on the other side of the island, via mountains and glaciers. A hazardous journey that had never before been attempted. They drilled screws into their boots to give some grip on the ice, and the three strongest men – Shackleton, Worsley & Crean set off – a 32 mile hike which took them 36 hours. They eventually arrived at Stromness on the 20th May 1916.
The rescue of the remaining men is another long and complicated story which for various reasons didn’t happen until August 1916. But every single one of them survived. Shackleton became renowned for his leadership, and a man who under times of extreme circumstances he was able to keep his team together.
Fast forward to 2013 when adventurer Tim Jarvis set out to recreate “Shackleton’s Epic” crossing of the Southern Ocean. A replica of the James Caird was commissioned in 2008. Built from the original plans and identical materials she was christened the Alexandra Shackleton (named after Shackleton’s granddaughter).
Tim Jarvis wrote a book about his exploits “Chasing Shackleton – Recreating the Worlds Greatest Journey of Survival” not only was the voyage difficult, but also getting the adventure off the ground was a major undertaking. Tim and his crew did the voyage utilising the authentic equipment – clothing, footwear, navigation equipment, and food supplies.
Needless to say it wasn’t easy, but Alexandra Shackleton proved herself to be a solid seaworthy vessel, and she safely delivered her crew from Elephant Island to South Georgia.
An incredible adventure for a tiny 23 foot yacht. Not only is she a replica of an iconic vessel, but she also has her own story to tell.
And now, under the guardianship of the Christchurch Foundation – she is sitting in my shed! Patiently waiting for her next adventure. A homecoming of sorts to where the some of the success of the Shackleton’s Boat Journey story began – way back in 1872 when Frank Worsley was born in a little town called Akaroa.
We’ve got an exciting story to tell of how she came to be here and where she is going to next. Watch this space!
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