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Dispatch
Return to Elephant Island
November 20, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Elephant Island Wind: 19 knots, S
Latitude: 61 degrees 05'S Air Temp: 35°F
Longitude: 54 degrees 53'W Water Temp: 35°F
Never for me the lowered banner, never the last endeavor.
        —Ernest Shackleton
It is a measure of their desperation that this desolate place looked like salvation. Elephant Island is a forbidding cliffed fortress, enshrouded by mist and rendered nearly impregnable by unpredictable currents. The mariners' chart bears that dread admonition, "Warning: Uncharted Dangers." Blasted by the full fury of the Drake Passage weather and seas on the north side, Elephant Island is rarely visited.

Alone in the Antarctic for 15 months, Ernest Shackleton and his men made their bid for rescue in April 1916. After drifting for four months on the open pack ice of the Weddell Sea, they launched their three lifeboats, the James Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills, in the direction of Elephant Island. For eight days, they labored through unimaginable misery. Explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who suffered unspeakable privation in the Antarctic himself, shuddered to think of their plight:
A picture haunts my mind—of three boats, crammed with frostbitten, wet, and dreadfully thirsty men who have had no proper sleep for many days and nights. Some of them are comatose, some of them are on the threshold of delirium, or worse. Darkness is coming on, the sea is heavy, it is decided to lie off the cliffs and glaciers of Elephant Island and try and find a landing with the light....
We, too, know what it is to lie off the cliffs and glaciers of this isle to await passage. For the past two days, a northerly storm has sent a vicious swell here too treacherous for zodiacs. Now, on the third day, the confused seas have faltered somewhat, and we are set to continue filming part of Shackleton's story—the arrival of the boats at Elephant Island. The three replica boats are craned into the water and dip gracefully through the swell, accompanied by a flotilla of zodiacs and a camera boat.


Caird and Docker The James Caird and the Dudley Docker sail in to Elephant Island.
We christened the Shackleton boats in polar waters a month ago, and now they move lightly and easily on the waves. They seem so tiny and frail in the immensity of this place, with wide seas and towering icebergs dwarfing them. But they are resolute in their mastery of idiosyncratic southern seas. Their builders and skippers, Bob Wallace, Stuart Hoagland, and Andy Fletcher, sail them with assured grace.

The seas are calmer and the wind nearly still here, but the shore is rocky and demands caution. Today the boats, filled with rowers, execute their maneuvers flawlessly again and again. The timelessness of the scene is uncanny. Brooding off the beach is Gnomon Rock, which dominates Frank Hurley's photographs of the scene. It is not merely the rough vintage polar gear that sets this scene in another time. Something is awakened in the men by the physical effort of their task and the immediacy of the elements, transforming them into Shackleton's men.

Shackleton's words come alive again: "A line of reef stretched between the shore and this pillar, and I thought as we approached that we would have to face the raging sea outside; but a break in the white surf revealed a gap in the reef and we labored through, with the wind driving clouds of spray on our port beam."

The crew is exhilarated by the moment. The boats are held safely offshore, while the players land on the beach by zodiac and climb the rocks to the narrow strand that was the site of Shackleton's camp. It is a mean scrap of rock, exposed to the fury of the sea on two sides, backed by towering cliffs scraped by katabatic winds. Directly ahead, Gnomon Rock offers meager protection from the sea. As in Shackleton's time, a colony of thousands of chinstrap penguins occupies the strand.

Penguins Chinstrap penguins nest on the site of Shackleton's camp; Gnomon Rock is visible in the background.

The first night they spent here was, by consensus, the worst they had ever spent in their long odyssey in the ice. Katabatics screamed down and collapsed their tent, and the heat of their bodies melted the penguin guano beneath their tent, leaving them lying in malodorous mud. The men were demoralized. Shackleton knew there was no hope of rescue from this remote place and had an idea that he would need to make a second boat journey to save them. Now, he saw what he must do: sail the James Caird to South Georgia. He would not stop until he brought them home.


Brash ice and island A calving glacier fills the seas off Cape Wild with brash ice.
At 7:00 p.m., director George Butler calls the day's shooting a wrap. The Shuleykin lies offshore, where the swell has picked up. Lumpy brash ice from a newly calved glacier surrounds the ship. The air is alive with the fizzing sound of the ice releasing air, possibly thousands of years old. The boats stand off as the crew works out a strategy for returning to the ship. The rowers aboard the replica boats all disembark onto the camera boat, a flat sturdy structure built on two pontoons. Two sailors each man the replica boats, attended closely by guides in zodiac support boats.

Suddenly, a leopard seal pops up next to the James Caird and eyes Wallace with predatory intent. It vanishes, then resurfaces again around the perimeter of the boat. Wallace warns the crew of the Dudley Docker to keep their bodies well inside the boat, just as the seal appears over its bow.

The camera boat pulls alongside the Shuleykin first, rising and dropping with the swell by as much as eight feet. Crew members drape a cargo net on the side of the ship. With the rising and lunging of the boat, each person grabs hold of the net at the peak of a swell and gets hauled aboard by waiting hands. All on deck don hard hats when the crane moves to reel in the camera boat. Its swinging hooks finally grab hold, then lift the boat to the deck as the crew steadies it overhead. We unload in the driving sleet.

Offshore, the replica boats and zodiacs thread through the ice to the stern. Stuart Hoagland and Chad Burtt move the Dudley Docker into position. They wrestle the straps into place and attempt to grab the swinging crane hooks as the boat reels up and down. The wind has picked up, and the swoop of the crane is unpredictable. It is deemed unsafe to continue, and Captain Maslennikov suggests we tow the boats to the lee of an iceberg where they can be loaded carefully.

But the ring of gigantic bergs crowding the island provides no shelter, and the ship sails toward the south side of the island towing the boats behind. Sailors stand watch, while crew members frequently pace the stern with solicitous care to see the tiny boats bobbing in the backwash. We have barely begun dinner at 10:00 when an alarm goes up that the Dudley Docker has come loose. David German and David Rootes launch a zodiac and retrieve the boat, lashing it tightly to its companions behind the Shuleykin once again.

Rescuing the boats David Rootes and David German rescue the boats.

The crew is uneasy now, frequently pacing the stern deck to watch over the boats, especially Wallace and the other skippers. Wallace's stopwatch is set to prompt him to pace the cargo deck every 10 minutes. At 12:15 a.m., German sees a sailor pulling a slack line in. In the darkness, he can barely make out the object attached: the stem of the James Caird. And fading in the distance are the three tethered boats, colliding with each other in the fractious swell. Between the James Caird and the Dudley Docker, the Stancomb Wills has capsized, her hull upturned. Too soon, the three boats vanish out of sight astern.

On the bridge, Captain Maslennikov has seen them too. Quickly he notes the coordinates, reduces speed, and swings around to retrace his route. The officers of the watch and German are scanning the narrow searchlight beam that carves a path before the boat. Quietly, more watchers enter the hush on the bridge to stand and scan the dark sea as the 27-knot wind howls outside.

An hour later, a chilling sight appears in the slash of the beam: The James Caird and Dudley Docker still upright, the Stancomb Wills foundered face down between them, oars and props floating in the water. Then the beam slides past and they disappear again. Bob Wallace has seen them too, relieved to regain sight of them after the long search. Now, at 2:00 a.m., he agrees that nothing more can be done. The boats are at the mercy of the Drake Passage swell. A watchman is posted on the aft deck. We are powerless to help them until first light.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.


Question of the Day
You've got a discontented crew member. You're worried his attitude will hurt morale. Do you leave him on Elephant Island when you try to sail to South Georgia, or take him with you on this arduous journey? (This was the case with John Vincent, who was a bully and ultimately became very depressed.)

Watch our next dispatch for guest commentary from polar explorer and mariner Gareth Wood.

    Previous Questions

Answer to November 18 Question of the Day:
You successfully land on Elephant Island, but your captain reminds you that it is not in shipping lanes and your party will likely never be found there. What do you do?

I think Shackleton did precisely the right thing. Picture the scene: A sailing ship's crew of 28 men trapped in the ice pack for over a year. They were camped on the sea ice for months, ever since their ship, the Endurance, was crushed and sank. The ice rafted them over a thousand miles from where they had intended to land. After a few days in three tiny, open boats, they finally managed to make a landfall on Elephant Island on the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. All were frozen, several had badly frostbitten feet, and some were mentally at the end of their reserves. But all were ecstatic at having reached land for the first time in over a year.

Yet in reality, they were not much better off. They had no fuel and only a few weeks' worth of food; their only shelter was the upturned boats. This land was not land as we know it. They were confined to a few hundred yards of a pebbly beach fringed with vertical rock capped with ice. They were understandably becoming frightened and demoralized, and the future was bleak, with another ferocious winter fast approaching. They must have known that many would not survive, and only a miracle could save those that did.

Shackleton was faced with a stark choice: He could passively wait for rescue in the hope that a passing whaling ship would find them the following summer. (It was too late in the season for ships that year.) In my experience, having been in a real life-threatening situation, one must be proactive to survive. Shackleton was a proactive leader; indeed, he had made his decision well before they landed on Elephant Island. He had already modified the largest of their boats, the James Caird, by raising her topsides whilst they still had timber from the wrecked Endurance. He made sure that he took other materials, such as timber and canvas to enable the James Caird to be partially decked, in preparation for a possible rescue mission.

Shackleton was a planner, a forward thinker as well as being a great motivator. He never gave any indication that they were in a seemingly hopeless situation. He was a leader by example, who had to rationalize the risk in his own mind and then make a carefully calculated decision. He had to weigh the possible loss of himself and his ship's captain, Frank Worsley, along with four other crew members against the gain of rescuing his entire crew from almost certain death. It was not luck that saved them, but meticulous planning and teamwork. He left behind his trusted deputy, Frank Wild, who he knew would keep the crew motivated to survive during months of severe hardships. He took with him Worsley, a professional navigator who would have the best chance of finding South Georgia. Shackleton even took with him a potential troublemaker to ease the strain of those left behind. The whole ship's crew survived because of excellent teamwork inspired by a great leader.
Trevor Potts sailed a replica of the James Caird with three others in an unsupported re-enactment of Shackleton's journey to South Georgia. A teacher and expeditioner, he lives in northwest Scotland.


Sound of the Day
Chinstrap penguin colony on Cape Wild, Elephant Island:
    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)


Photos: (1,2) Rob Meyer; (3,4) Kelly Tyler.

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