The James Caird Sets Sail
November 8, 1999
By Kelly Tyler
The 20-foot boat had never looked big; she appeared to have shrunk
in some mysterious way when I viewed her in the light of our new undertaking.
The James Caird has set sail again, and she is as seaworthy as her namesake
in the fractious waters of the Southern Ocean. In the past week of filming,
skipper Bob Wallace,
along with Chad Burtt
and Nick Lewis,
have sailed her in Cumberland Bay and beyond, into the open ocean. There have
been beautiful days, gliding through the sunlit aquamarine sea with ease; then
suddenly, storm-tossed waters dip her into steep troughs. Through it all, a boat
follows with an IMAX camera and cinematographer Reed Smoot
in her wake, or documentary cinematographer Sandy Sissel
harnessed to the decking of the boat itself.
Two days ago, both film crews stood expectantly on the rocky strand of a hidden
cove near Cape Rosa, in King Haakon Bay. They awaited the arrival of the James Caird,
recreating the moment when Shackleton
reached safe haven with his five companions after their 800-mile boat journey. A few others
have built and sailed Caird replicas, but this was to be the first to sail King Haakon
since Shackleton and his men sought safe harbor here in 1916. It's rare for ships of any
kind to stray there because, says Wallace, "King Haakon Bay is a wild place. The mountains
and winds here make their own weather, and it changes so suddenly. And it's filled with
ice." His words rang true as we ventured into the bay in zodiacs, threading through
alleys of looming icebergs. When tons of ice suddenly calved from a berg just ahead of
us, we quickly pulled away from the rough chop generated by the collapse and listened
warily to the ice stresses all around.
The James Caird negotiates brash ice calved from icebergs in King Haakon Bay.
Wallace was confident that the Caird was ready, because he built her. After months
of scrutinizing diaries and photographs and visiting the first James Caird in a
museum, he began construction in a Uruguayan boatyard last month with Andy Fletcher and
They were not only building the Caird, but the other two boats, the Dudley Docker
and Janet Stancomb Wills as well, so-named for financial backers of Shackleton.
According to Wallace, "We used traditional plank-on-frame construction, a technique that's
been around for centuries. The shape of the boat is also traditional—it's like a whaler,
which was meant to be fast in the water." A flurry of modifications took place the morning of
the sail in King Haakon Bay: Pauline Carr, one of only two permanent residents on South Georgia,
noticed a problem. She recalled Frank Worsley
writing that the boat was rowed in at the last moment, to steady her. After confirming this fact
in his book, Fletcher fitted historically accurate oarlocks to the boat.
The only question looming in Wallace's mind as the Caird was craned into the water for the
first time was if there was enough ballast, necessary to keep the boat from capsizing easily.
Shackleton's account of the expedition, South, wasn't entirely clear on the amount used, but
Wallace estimated 2,700-3,000 pounds. He ultimately settled on 2,600-2,900 pounds, because
more may damage the boat as it is craned out of the water and brought back on board the
Shuleykin daily. On that day of shooting, as the film crew waited in the cove, the boat was
well ballasted. Mike Sharp,
and Stuart MacFarlane
joined the crew, rounding out the six-man party on Shackleton's great journey.
The James Caird replica sails in Cumberland Bay.
We waited watchfully. Then, in a moment, the Caird was there, gliding into the cove.
It was an unreal sight, a moment materialized from another time. The men on the boat
seemed also transfigured, seeing this place described by Shackleton with new eyes.
After filming was done, Wallace and Burtt decided to sail the Caird back to the
Shuleykin, and I went with them. The boat was like a graceful seabird, yielding
easily to the curving tumult of the waves. She responded to the wind, heeling lightly and
springing steady once again. I could also imagine her flung about according to more
capricious whims of the Antarctic seas, and shuddered to think of it. Burtt raised
the sails as naturally as he would in the familiar waters of his native South Africa.
Wallace was in reverie, at home in the iced Antarctic seas at the tiller of Shackleton's small boat.
The James Caird arrives in the cove at Cape Rosa.
"You have to remember that it was largely skill that got them here." Wallace said.
"Shackleton and Worsley, especially, were very experienced seaman—awe-inspiring, in
fact. But luck was often with them."
But Shackleton and Worsley knew the limits of their skill. They knew the men were so
debilitated by their harrowing journey that they couldn't muster the strength to sail
another 150 miles to the inhabited north side of South Georgia. They loaded the Caird
and sailed east to the end of the sound, and set up a camp for McNeish,
Vincent with the upturned boat.
It is here that Shackleton set off for undiscovered country. The day after the Caird
filming, we followed them.
Kelly Tyler and shipwright Bob Wallace sail aboard the James Caird replica.
Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.
Question of the Day
Your ship is sinking. The commander of the expedition allows each crewmember to take
two pounds of personal items each, in addition to essential clothing. What do you take with you?
Answer to November 5 Question of the Day:
You're not feeling so well. You have a burning sensation in your eyes. What's wrong?
Snowblindness. It's a good idea to wear high ultraviolet A and B blocking sunglasses or
goggles in the Antarctic that also protect your peripheral vision. And use some high SPF
sun cream while you're at it!
Sound of the Day
Sounds from within the cavern in which Shackleton and his five companions sheltered after reaching South Georgia:
Get RealPlayer software
View Expedition Maps
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)
Photos: (1-3) Kelly Tyler; (4) Rob Meyer.
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