Although the crew of Endurance had finally reached Elephant Island their struggle for survival was far from over. Elephant Island was remote, uninhabited, and rarely visited by whalers or other ships. Shackleton now made a difficult decision, he would sail for South Georgia with only five of the crew, leaving the rest behind. They would travel close to a thousand miles through one of the stormiest oceans in the world, the Drake Passage, to an Island which was only 25 miles wide at its widest point. It would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but it was a risk Shackleton was willing to take for the sake of his men.
On April 24, after leaving the rest of the crew under Wild’s command, Shackleton along with Worsley, Crean, McNeish, Vincent, and McCarthy set sail in the Caird to begin their arduous journey to South Georgia and civilization. Wood and parts had been used from the other two boats in order to make the Caird sea worthy for such a long trip. Orde-Lees wrote, “We watched them until they were out of sight, which was not long, for such a tiny boat was soon lost to sight on the great heaving ocean; as she dipped into the trough of each wave, she disappeared completely, sail and all.”
For the men on Elephant Island the weeks and months ahead became a time of anxious waiting. They converted their remaining two boats into a hut, providing them shelter from the wind and cold. During this waiting period, Macklin and McIlroy had to amputate the ends of Blackboro’s feet which were frost bitten and had become gangrenous, using the only anesthetic they had – chloroform. The surgery was successful and Blackboro recovered. Orde-Lees wrote during this time, “Wild is always saying that ‘the ship’ will be here next week; but, of course, he says this just to keep up the spirits of those who are likely to become despondent. Optimism it is, and if not overdone, it is a fine thing…..He says……that he would not get uneasy about Sir Ernest until the middle of August.”
Meanwhile, Shackleton and the other men were fighting an angry sea, storms, salty drinking water polluted by the sea, rotting sleeping bags (literally), salt boils, and constantly being soaked by the freezing water. Shackleton made sure that the men had hot milk (made from powder) every four hours and regular meals, giving the men something to count on and look forward to. Worsley wrote, “It was due solely to Shackleton’s care of the men in preparing these hot meals and drinks every four hours day and night, and his general watchfulness in everything concerning the men’s comfort, that no one died during the journey. Two of the party at least were very close to death. Indeed, it might be said that he kept a finger on each man’s pulse. Whenever he noticed that a man seemed extra cold and shivered, he would immediately order another hot drink of milk to be prepared and served to all. He never let the man know that it was on his account, lest he became nervous about himself, and while all participated, it was the coldest, naturally, who got the greatest advantage.”
On May 10, 1916 Shackleton and his crew landed on the uninhabited side of South Georgia. The original plan had been to make this spot only a temporary stopping place to replenish their food and water, but the rudder from their boat had been torn off and she was no longer sea worthy. Instead of going by sea to the inhabited side of the Island, their only choice now was to cross the 29 miles over mountains and glaciers on foot – a feat that had never been done before and was said couldn’t be done.
Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean were the only ones able to begin the journey. They would travel light, each man carrying his own three days sledging rations and biscuits. In addition, they took a small, portable stove, enough fuel for six meals, a small pot for cooking, a half-filled box of matches, two compasses, one pair of binoculars, a carpenters adz to use as an ice pick, and 50 feet of rope. Before leaving, Shackleton left his final instructions with McNeish in this letter:
I am about to try to reach Husvik on the East Coast of this island for relief of our party. I am leaving you in charge of the party consisting of Vincent, McCarthy & yourself. You will remain here until relief arrives. You have ample seal food which you can supplement with birds and fish according to your skill. You are left with a double barreled gun, 50 cartridges [and other rations]….You also have all the necessary equipment to support life for an indefinite period in the event of my non-return. You had better after winter is over try and sail around to the East Coast. The course I am making towards Husvik is East magnetic.
I trust to have you relieved in a few days.
E. H. Shackleton
After waiting over a week for the weather to become favorable for travel, the moon came out from behind the clouds and the air finally cleared. At 2 A.M. on the morning of the 19th Shackleton made the decision to start and they roped themselves together so they wouldn’t become separated. They had to make it across the island before the weather became hazardous, because without proper supplies, being caught in a blizzard would be fatal. The trip was difficult especially in their current physical condition. Several times they had to retrace their steps costing them precious time. One time, after cresting the top of a ridge of glaciers, estimated to be around 4,500 feet in altitude, they saw that the decent was a sheer drop. The sun was getting lower in the sky and fog was rolling in. At this altitude they would freeze to death without any shelter wearing their thin, worn, clothing. Shackleton led the way, working feverishly fast, hiking at an angle across the side of the ridge. After finding a spot where they could descend they began working their way down the glacier. After a few minutes, Shackleton took in the situation; at the rate they were traveling they would freeze as the temperature was dropping quickly. Far below them appeared to be a flat plain of some kind, but it was too foggy to be able to tell for sure. Shackleton turned to Worsley and Crean and told them they would have to slide down. The men were stunned – Shackleton was usually a careful and conservative leader, not one to take unnecessary risk. They slid down, tied together as one unit. It didn’t take long for them to reach the bottom and their slide abruptly ended in a snow bank. They had survived! Another time, after the discouragement of yet again retracing their steps, all three men who were on the point of exhaustion, paused and sat down to rest. Both Worsley and Crean fell asleep and Shackleton himself started to nod off until he suddenly jerked himself awake. He knew that falling asleep now would mean never waking up. Shackleton fought against sleep for five minutes before he woke the others telling them they had slept for half an hour to boost their moral. They trudged on – tired, stiff, and discouraged.
Finally, on the morning of May 21 the shrill sound of what they thought was a factory whistle greeted their ears through the thin morning air, but was it? They had been deceived once before, thinking they saw the whaling station in the distance when in reality it had only been their imaginations. It was exactly 6:30 in the morning and they knew that if it really was a whistle it would blow again at 7:00 to call the men to work. Waiting anxiously and watching the time, finally at 7:00 o’clock sharp the sound of a whistle blew again – they had succeeded! The whistle was the first sound from the outside world they had heard in seventeen long months.
After a treacherous decent down the side of the ridge, Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean slowly walked the last mile to Stromness whaling station. Everyone at the whaling station knew that a ship by the name of Endurance had sailed from the station in 1914, but nothing had been heard from the ship or crew and they were presumed to be dead. As Shackleton and the rest approached, they considered their appearance for the first time. Their hair hung to their shoulders, their beards were matted down, their faces were blackened by the smoke of burning blubber oil, and their clothes were torn and filthy. The men at the dock stared in surprise and confusion, there was no question that these were indeed strangers, that much was evident, but what confused them was that they were coming from the interior of the island and not the docks. The station foreman, Mathias Anderson, took the three men to Thoralf Sorlle’s house, the factory manager. Shackleton and Sorlle were acquaintances, but when Sorlle saw Shackleton he did not recognize him and was stunned to learn who he was.
Shackleton, Worsley and Crean were provided with every comfort that the whaling station had to offer. That same night, after a hearty dinner, Worsley joined the crew of the whale-catcher Samson for the trip around the Island to rescue McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent. On the evening of May 22, 1916 a reception was held for the six men. At the reception, a spokesman for four veteran Norwegian skippers told Shackleton and his men that they had been sailing the Antarctic seas for forty years and they wanted to shake the hands of the men who could bring an open 22-foot boat from Elephant Island through the Drake Passage to South Georgia. Less than seventy-two hours after arriving at Stromness whaling station, Shackleton and two of his men set out in the Southern Sky to rescue the crew still on Elephant Island, but were unable to get through the pack ice surrounding the Island. For three months Shackleton tried again and again to get through, but was unable to reach Elephant Island until August 30.
For the rest of the crew on Elephant Island the morning of the 30th dawned clear and cold. Almost all of the men walked individually to the top of the bluff to look for any sign of a ship as they had done every day since the Caird had sailed, now out of habit rather then hope. It had been four months and six days since the Caird had left for South Georgia and everyone had reached the conclusion that neither the crew nor the ship had survived. They didn’t see anything and went about their day. At about 12:45, everyone gathered for lunch except Marston, who had climbed the bluff once more to make some thumbnail sketches. From the bluff he saw a ship approaching and quickly ran down to the hut and breathlessly asked Wild, “Hadn’t we better send up some smoke signals?” After a moment of silence, all the men grasped what Marston was saying. Orde-Lees wrote, “Before there was time for a reply there was a rush of members tumbling over one another, all mixed up with mugs of seal hoosh, making a simultaneous dive for the door-hole which was immediately torn to shreds so that those members who could not pass through it, on account of the crush, made their exits through the ‘wall,’ or what remained of it.”
Macklin, as he dashed to the top of the bluff, tore off his Burberry jacket. When he reached the top he tied his jacket onto the halliard of the oar that served as their flagpole, but Macklin was only able to hoist the jacket part way up before the halliard jammed. From the ship, Shackleton saw the jacket half-staff and his heart sank, thinking it was a sign that not all of the men had survived. After signaling to the ship, Macklin went back to the hut and carried Blackboro, who was still unable to walk, to the edge of the water so that he could be a part of the excitement as well. The ship came to a halt several hundred yards from the shoreline and lowered a boat. The men on the shore saw the boat lowered and then four men get into it followed by the man they knew so well – Shackleton. The men were ecstatic and they sent up a mighty cheer – their leader was alive! When the boat was near enough, Shackleton shouted, “Are you all right?” They shouted back that all was well. After two trips all the men were safely on board the ship. Macklin recorded, “I stayed on deck to watch Elephant Island recede in the distance…I could still see my Burberry jacket flapping in the breeze on the hillside – no doubt it will flap there to the wonderment of gulls and penguins till one of our familiar gales blows it all to ribbons.” It had been nearly two years since the crew of the of Endurance set sail from England and now they were going home, but not just going home, they were ALL going home.
Shackleton’s men wrote of him:
“Shackleton’s first thought was for the men under him. He didn’t care if he went without a shirt on his back so long as the men he was leading had sufficient clothing.” – Greenstreet
“How he stood the incessant vigil was marvelous, but he is a wonderful man…He simply never spares himself if, by his individual toil, he can possibly benefit anyone else.” – Orde-Lees
“Shackleton had a genius—it was neither more nor less than that—for keeping those about him in high spirits. We loved him. To me, he was a brother. The men felt the cold it is true; but he had inspired the kind of loyalty which prevented them from allowing themselves to get depressed over anything.” – Worsley
“It was his rule that any deprivation should be felt by himself before anybody else.” -Worsley
The story of Endurance and her crew is incredible. It teaches us to persevere in hardship and never give up no matter what the circumstances are. It shows that a true leader is also a servant. Shackleton was loved by his men because he led by example, putting his men first. This kind of leadership and sacrifice is what inspires true loyalty in the hearts of those who follow. The most important thing in life, however, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. It is only when you do this that you will find true worth and purpose!