When Shackleton and his men finally arrived at Elephant Island, they were finally back on dry ground, but their position was still far from safe. Elephant Island was little more than a mountain rising out of the sea. There was no vegetation and only a small spit of land was fit for camping. It did have fresh water and seals and penguins for food, but there was little chance of rescue as no one knew where they were, and ships rarely stopped there. Shackleton knew that if they were to survive, they would have to save themselves. As he walked down the beach, Frank Worsley told him, “Whatever happens, we all know that you have worked superhumanly to look after us.” “My job is to get my men through all right,” he answered. “Superhuman effort isn’t worth a —- unless it achieves results.”1
Voyage to South Georgia
He decided to make for South Georgia, the small whaling station on a mountainous island where the Endurance had stopped on the voyage out. All the men could not go. Many were exhausted from their hardships in the past months, and the boats were too small to take them all. Shackleton decided that he would go with five other men, the navigator, Frank Worsley, Tom Crean from the Discovery, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy, able seamen and McNish, a good carpenter.
They set off in the James Caird on April 24, 1916. They sailed 920 miles through the stormiest seas in the world, suffering incredible hardships. At times the sea water froze on the boat, and they had to scrape it off with their hands to keep the boat afloat. Worsley saved them with his wonderful navigation. He caught few sightings in the cloudy skies, but none the less the sighted land on May 8th, an incredible achievement. They landed two days through a high surf. It was one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished.
Crossing South Georgia
Although they were on dry land, there was still one more obstacle in their way. They had landed on the wrong side of the island, and it seemed impossible to sail around. They would have to make their way across the high mountains in the unexplored interior of the island. After a few days of rest, Shackleton set off with Worsley and Crean, leaving the others behind as they were not fit to travel. It took them 36 hours to cross the island without a map. Knowing that to stop and sleep would be suicide, they bravely pressed forward. All three later remembered feeling as though God himself was with them. Shackleton said, “I have no doubt that Providence guided us…I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers it seemed to me often that we were four, not three”. After a perilous descent down the mountains, they finally arrived at the whaling station, in a very different condition than when they had left so many months before.
Shackleton himself was safe, but he did not forget his stranded men. The three on the other side of the island were soon picked up, but it took months to rescue the men on South Georgia. But, always the leader, he persevered and did not rest until he had all of his men back to civilization. His expedition had gone very badly, but through his good leadership he had saved the lives of all of his crew. His leadership had won their hearts, and most would remain devoted to him for the rest of their lives.
1. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure by Frank Worsley, p. 84.
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