Launching the Caird
“As we were getting her of the beach a heavy surf came up & owing to us being unable to get her up of the beach she almost capsized as it was she emptied Myself & Vincent overboard.” (McNish, diary)
April 1916, Shackleton and the five strongest sailors-Worsely, Crean, McNish, McCarthy, and Vincent set sail in the 22-½ foot lifeboat, the James Caird, from Elephant Island. Knowing that the risks were extreme, they set out to cross 800 miles of the roughest seas on earth in order to reach the whaling stations on the East side of South Georgia Island. Their navigational equipment consisted only of a sextant and compass. Given that the skies were perpetually gray and overcast, their chance of a clear and accurate celestial sighting, in order to plot their position, was slim. Accuracy however, for this journey was critical. If they were off with their calculations by the slightest amount, this could translate into an error of many miles. This kind of error would have them missing South Georgia entirely and heading out into the open ocean.
In the small boat, which pitched and rolled in the heavy seas, Worsely was held steady by two shipmates while he sighted the sun between thick gray clouds. The horizon which is also necessary for a position calculation, had to be estimated due to the large swells. As the boat was pounded by wind and waves, he calculated at the bottom of the boat and consulted the tables in his Nautical Almanac. Over the 17 days, which they were at sea, Worsely was only able to take four sightings.
Despite the overwhelming odds against success, on May 10,1916 the James Cairdlanded on South Georgia Island.The boat which was beginning to fall apart, the lack of fresh drinking water, and ill health of the crew forced Shackleton to land on the West side, while the whaling stations, and rescue, were on the East side.
Ten days after landing, with frostbitten feet, Shackleton, Crean, and Worsely headed out on foot for the whaling stations, 22 miles away. With only a compass to guide them, they trekked over the mountainous interior of the island, with screws from the Caird sticking out of the soles of their boots for traction. Along with the compass the men carried only enough food for three days, a carpenters adze, and 90 feet of rope. Shackleton’s drive to return to his men was great as he states in his book “South”, “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.”