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Dispatch
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 The Akademik 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.

Lifting the Caird 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.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.


Question of the Day
Did Shackleton take a gaffer or a bo'sun with him to Antarctica?

    Previous Questions

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?

Sound of the Day
Recording of Shackleton's voice describing the Nimrod expedition:
    RealAudio: 28.8 | ISDN | Get RealPlayer software



View Expedition Maps
Dispatches
Survival Training (October 19)
The James Caird Embarks (October 21, 1999)
The Roaring Forties (October 23, 1999)
Crossing the Convergence (October 24, 1999)
Arriving in South Georgia (October 27, 1999)
Grytviken (October 28, 1999)
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival (October 31, 1999)
Stromness (November 1, 1999)
Kingdom of Blizzards (November 3, 1999)
King Haakon Bay (November 5, 1999)
The James Caird Sets Sail (November 8, 1999)
Glacier Traverse (November 10, 1999)
Elephant Island (November 11, 1999)
Erebus and Terror Gulf (November 12, 1999)
The Weddell Sea (November 15, 1999)
Visions of Endurance (November 18, 1999)
Return to Elephant Island (November 20, 1999)
Lost at Sea (November 21, 1999)
The End of the Quest (November 24, 1999)
Bound for South Georgia (April 7, 2000)
Return to King Haakon (April 10, 2000)
Farewell to Peggotty Camp (April 12, 2000)
Climbing South Georgia (April 13, 2000)
Stromness Revisited (April 15, 2000)
Reflections on Endurance (April 18, 2000)


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