The James Caird Embarks
October 21, 1999
By Kelly Tyler
Location: Montevideo, Uruguay
Wind: 3.5 knots, W
Latitude: 34 degrees 54' S
Air Temp: 68°F
Longitude: 56 degrees 12' W
Water Temp: 71°F
We are leaving now to carry on our white warfare.
—Sir Ernest Shackleton
With this wire from Buenos Aires, Shackleton set
a course for the Antarctic aboard the Endurance, determined to cross the continent from coast
to coast. Little did he know that he was not to return to civilization for 19 months, without his
ship. When he departed on October 26, 1914, Europe had just crossed the threshold into World War
I. Like a man out of time, he would arrive home to the terrible death toll of "the red fields,"
as he called the battlefields of France.
Shuleykin (center, with blue hull) may look insignificant in the enormous port of Montevideo,
Uruguay, but it will become our entire world for the next six weeks.
Just shy of 85 years later, our NOVA film crew is poised to follow in the footsteps of
Shackleton. At anchor aboard the Akademik Shuleykin in Montevideo, just 68 miles across
the water from Buenos Aires, we mark time in the harbor, impatient to sail beyond the River
Platte to the Atlantic Ocean. Our intended departure yesterday was postponed. A customs
strike, called the day the first shipments for our expedition arrived, leaves us at the
dock waiting for equipment.
Considering the massive scale of our enterprise, it's remarkable that we're only
waiting for a handful of items. A total of 178 pieces of filming and survival equipment,
weighing 40,800 pounds, was air freighted from our
production office in the United States by shipping coordinator Larry Matson. "The inventory
document is actually a catalogue three inches thick," says Matson, a veteran of seven
large-format films. "We designed our own computer software to handle it." The nearly
40 film crew members contributed baggage of their own, including ten pieces for NOVA
Online. After Uruguayan stevedores and our crew unloaded three tractor trailers, the
ship sat a yard lower in the water, prompting Captain Sergey
Maslennikov to release ballast in the tanks.
But our true anticipation is saved for another truck, one that will bring prized cargo
from a shipyard in Montevideo. Bob Wallace, a Boston sea captain and shipwright,
has spent the past month in a Montevideo shipyard building seaworthy replicas of the
three lifeboats Shackleton took to the Antarctic: The Dudley Docker, the Janet Stancomb
Wills, and the James Caird. The Caird, named for a benefactor of the
Endurance expedition, is the 22-foot vessel that carried Shackleton on his
harrowing 800-mile journey across the Drake Passage to ultimately rescue his crew.
To try and grasp the enormity of Shackleton's feat, Wallace will skipper the Caird
through the same frigid waters, to attempt segments of the journey for our cameras.
We all pace the decks glancing at the port gates, anxious for the first glimpse of
the vessels that will carry us into the past.
Amazingly, the original Caird still exists, and it is the object of reverence.
After all, the sailing of the Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia has been
called the greatest open boat journey ever. As we wait, director George
Butler tells me about Tom
McNeish, the son of Harry "Chippy" McNeish,
the ship's carpenter who girded the boat for its epic voyage with flotsam rescued from
the doomed Endurance. Butler was with McNeish when he saw the Caird for the first time.
McNeish approached the boat alone and wordlessly ran his fingers gently from stem to
stern. "He is a man of great composure, and you could see his restrained emotion,"
remembers Butler. As surely as Shackleton's leadership, McNeish's woodworking skills
saved the lives of 29 men.
Stevedores hoist the replica
of the James Caird onto the Shuleykin.
Later, Reed Smoot, IMAX cinematographer,
passes me in the hall. "The Caird is here," he says over his shoulder as we both race
to the gangway. There on the docks, on two tractor trailer beds, are the three little boats.
We are all drawn to the Caird replica, which has taken on the aura of its namesake. It is a
simple mahogany rowboat, elegantly curved but austere. I'm awed watching it craned aloft onto
the Shuleykin; it is so seemingly frail dangling above our 1,800-ton ice-strengthened
steel ship. For two hours, the crew delicately choreographs her stowing on the ship. As we
prepare to leave port, we are bracing for the potential savagery that lies in store in the
unpredictable Drake Passage. The Drake has capsized container ships in its history. And yet,
this tiny wooden boat braved 100-foot waves to carry its passengers to safety.
It is now 9:20 p.m., and the Shuleykin begins to rock gently as a tugboat nudges her
from the dock. There is hushed expectation on deck among the polar veterans and newcomers
alike as we watch Montevideo recede into the distance. Soon we are free of the harbor. The
wind is freshening with a hint of chill. Orders are to lash up and stow every mobile object
to prepare for our unpredictable crossing. We are underway.
Answer to October 19 Question of the Day:
It's 1914. Your rival made it to the South Pole and back before you. What
Antarctic "first" will you try to claim?
According to Ernest Shackleton,
"After the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen who, by a narrow margin of a few days
only, was in advance of the British Expedition under Scott, there remained but one great
main object of Antarctic journeyings—the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea
to sea." Since then, explorers have achieved new firsts. In 1993, Ann Bancroft led the
American Women's Expedition to become the first woman to reach the South Pole. Admiral
Richard Byrd was the first to fly to the South Pole in 1929. But maybe there's more to
Antarctica than racing across it. What would you do?