Five and a half months after abandoning the treacherously ice-crumpled
Endurance and moving onto the pack ice, Shackleton and his men, with the
ice breaking up around them, took to the sea in their three lifeboats—the
James Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills.
For all save those men who later sailed the Caird to South Georgia, this
journey, which eventually landed them on Elephant Island, constituted the most
harrowing seven days of the entire two-year-long expedition. In the following
excerpts from a previously unpublished first-hand account penned by
Shackleton's ski and motor-sledge expert, Thomas Orde-Lees, relive the
brutally cold and increasingly dangerous days and nights of April
9th to 15th, 1916.
The cover of the journal Orde-Lees kept on Shackleton's Endurance
Note: We have excerpted below what we consider the most riveting
passages from that week of trial 86 years ago. If you would prefer to read the
diary in its original, which we would recommend for the sense of immediacy it
affords, we also offer scans of the actual diary pages. These include the
complete set of entries Orde-Lees wrote in his blubber-smoke-filled hut on
Elephant Island in the days following the boat journey (not just those portions we
excerpt here) as well as edits he made
later. To access the
originals, click on the diary images within each dated section.
Asterisks within the original denote additions that Orde-Lees hand-wrote later.
These additions appear on the next available diary page. Finally, be aware that
the diary pages are large and may take a moment to load.
To see this portion of the diary in the original, click the image above.
9 April, 1916
About 2 p.m. we all shoved off, the "Caird," of course, leading. Owing to the
bag of sea leopards, we had recently been able to considerably increase the
meat ration and had had a good hoosh for luncheon and every one felt very fit
and full of hope, but the attempt to break out of the pack in such small boats
must fill the most fearless with apprehension.
We pulled hard making about three miles to the north when our further course in
that direction was arrested by a bolt of loose pack, whereupon we bore to the
westward. In endeavouring to find a channel through the ice belt the Dudley
Docker got into difficulties owing to her getting entrapped in a cul de sac,
the entrance to which closed behind her before she could be extricated, but by
dint of half an hour's shoving and struggling they managed to regain the open
lead, but it was a "near thing."
By this time the other two boats had pulled off some distance towards a large
tabular berg, against the sides of which the heavy swell was breaking with a
loud roar. The Dudley Docker had a job to catch them up.
"The whole pack was in motion as if impelled by some mysterious force."
Immediately after doing so, all three boats passed under the lee of the pack
edge when all of a sudden, almost before we realized it, the whole pack was in
motion as if impelled by some mysterious force against the direction of
the wind and as if descending upon us to once more engulph [sic] us in its
awful grip. It was certainly advancing upon us at a speed of over two miles an
hour and we had all our work cut out to outstrip it in our heavily laden boats.
As it approached, it was creating a regular bow wave—a most uncanny sight.
Although we were passing through more or less open channels all the time we
were never really altogether clear of drift ice and the large lumps of pack or
broken bergs, called growlers, and it was necessary to keep a sharp look out to
avoid their hitting us or our charging into them.
By 5 p.m. it was getting dusk and shortly after we all pulled up at a small
floe, to which the Caird had gone on in advance under sail.
Here we unloaded the boats, hauled them up on to the ice and prepared to spend
a quiet night, but it was not to be so, as we shall presently see, in spite of
the fact that the swell had somewhat subsided.