"We concentrated our meagre resources on the largest boat, the JAMES CAIRD, so named by SHACKLETON."
~ Captain Frank Worsley,
Skipper of the Endurance.
The voyage of the 'James Caird' was an epic boat journey from Elephant Island (Antarctica) to South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, a total distance of approximately 830 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 mi). Undertaken by Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions, their objective was to obtain rescue for the main body of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–17), twenty-two men left marooned on Elephant Island after the loss of their ship Endurance. History has come to know the voyage of the James Caird as one of the greatest small-boat journeys of all time.
In October 1915 the Endurance had been crushed and sunk by pack ice in the Weddell Sea, leaving Shackleton and twenty-seven men stranded on the frozen surface of the ocean, thousands of miles from civilization. The three ships lifeboats where mounted on sleds and dragged toward the Antarctic Peninsula (Paulet Island) in the hope of finding a cache of food supplies cached by the Swedish Antarctic Expedition in 1902. Failing to make the mileage, the long haul was abandoned and during the months that followed the party drifted northward towards the open sea until 9 April 1916. When the ice floe beneath their tents began to break-up due to the ocen swell, all twenty-eight launched from the ice in three heavily loaded lifeboats.
Shackleton and his men made their way across the broken pack ice towards the remote and inaccessible Elephant Island, where Shackleton quickly decided that the most effective means of obtaining relief for his beleaguered party would be to sail the largest of the lifeboats to South Georgia.
Of the three lifeboats, the James Caird was deemed the most seaworthy. It was named by Shackleton after Sir James Caird, a Dundee jute manufacturer and philanthropist whose sponsorship helped finance the expedition. Before the voyage across the South Ocean the lifeboat was strengthened and adapted by the ship's carpenter, Harry 'Chippy' McNish, to withstand the 'mighty upheaval' of the Southern Ocean.
The James Caird would carry a six-man crew led by Sir Ernest Shackleton including:
When Sir Ernest set off to find rescue he did so with one purpose in mind, to obtain relief as quickly as possible for 22 men left behind with no prospect of rescue from the outside world. At 12:30 pm on 24 April 1916, Shackleton set sail in the James Caird toward South Georgia, hoping to obtain help from one of the whaling stations on the island’s eastern shore.
Fifteen days after setting off, in the navigational equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack, they sighted South Georgia’s towering cliffs, negotiating the dangerous rocks at the entrance to King Haakon Bay and landed at Cave Cove on the wetsern side of the bleak island. Their landing was a stroke of luck, prior to finding a suitable cove, they hove-to during hurricane force winds, and tacked away from overhanging sea cliffs. After four days recovering from their ordeal, they sailed the James Caird for the final time to the northern shore of King Haakon Bay where they spotted a sheltered bluff - later named Peggotty Bluff in honour of their David Copperfield inspired shelter.
Anxious about putting to sea again because of a shortage of food and a damaged boat, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean made a 33-hour dash across the island via a 3,000ft mountain range, criss-crossed with treacherous glaciers wearing totally unsuitable clothing and footwear for the task. Upon arrival at Stromness Whaling Station, Shackleton duly raised the alarm, and after four months, and four separate rescue attempts, he rescued all his men on 30 August 1916.
After a heroes welcome in Chile, Shackleton learnt of the impending disaster about to befall the other half of his expedition, The Ross Sea Party. After making his way to New Zealand, Sir Ernest boarded the Aurora and set sail for the Ross Sea. On arrival to McMurdo Sound he found seven of his ten men alive, three had died during the previous seasons work to lay food deports that would never be used by Shackleton's trans-continental party. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition came to an end on 10 January 1917, closing one of the most legendary chapters in polar history.
Months after Shackleton returned to civilization he was informed that a 500 ton steamer named 'Argos' ran aground near King Haakon Bay and disappeared during the hurricane hat nearly claimed the James Caird on 7 May 1916. Some of the ship's survivors found shelter at Prince Olaf Harbour but, it is believed that they perished while trying to find help.
After their epic boat journey, the James Caird was hoisted onboard the steam powered whale catcher Samson, which had come round the north of the island to rescue Vincent, McNish and McCarthy who were unable to complete the mountain traverse. Fortunately, the Norwegians who rescued the men, understood the historical significance of the boat and insisted on the Caird being rescued too and sent back to England. On arrival at Leith Harbour in Stromness Bay, the whalers mustered on the beach and, according to Frank Worsley's account "they would not let us put a hand on her". Every man claimed the honour of lifting her on to their shoulders, carrying her immense weight of 1000 kilos up the wharf.
Captain Thom of the Southern Sky, the ship that in May 1916 first tried to save the party marooned on Elephant Island, sent the James Caird back to Liverpool aboard the S.S. Woodville as deck cargo, arriving on 5 December 1919 along with a cargo of whale oil for the Lever Brothers.
The boat was stored temporarily at Grayson's Shipyard, Birkenhead, and after an appeal by the yard owners to have her saved from the breakers yard, the boat was brought back to London as the largest relic to survive the now famous, Endurance Expedition. The James Caird went on static display at the Royal Albert Hall, the rooftop gardens at Selfridges on Oxford Street, and the Middlesex Hospital where Shackleton delivered one of many charitable public talks. After various exhibitions, the boat was eventually gifted by her custodian, John Quiller Rowett, the main benefactor of Shackleton's last poalr expedition. With Shackleton's untimely death in 1922 the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration came to and end. The little lifeboat is now preserved at Dulwich College, London.
Sail Arrangement & Rigging
There are no photographs of the James Caird under full sail, only artist impressions of what the sailing rig ought to have looked like based on descriptions by Worsley and Shackleton in their individual accounts. Close examination of the James Caird at Dulwich College, and Frank Hurley’s iconic photographs, reveal that a number of fittings on the original restored boat are missing or incorrectly reproduced.
All known features are reproduced in the new J. Caird replica including fittings not installed on the original lifeboat during her restoration in 1968. By close scrutiny of historical records and photographic archives, the J. Caird (its proper name as stencilled by George Marston) is the most accurate seaworthy representation of Shackleton's lifeboat anywhere in the world.
The mizzen mast and mizzen sail fitted to the original James Caird were removed from the Stancomb-Wills and cut down to size. In the iconic photographs of the James Caird departing Elephant Island, it's possible to see the Stancomb-Wills and the Dudley Docker without masts as both vessels had donated many of their fittings to equip the James Caird.
The current suit of sails fitted to the James Caird are not authentic to the 1916 period, they are replicas produced around the late 1960s. These sails have been cut flat and wouldn't perform well at sea. Sail canvas has to be lofted leaving enough curvature in the material so that it can take shape over time; this process gives sails the ‘bulgy’ appearance we are so familiar with. This method of sailmaking, better known as broadseaming, has now been replaced by computerized sail design. The bolt rope stitched around the periphery of the sails maintains the shape and prevents the edge from fraying or stretching. Fortunately, the original mizzen sail still survives and can be seen at Dulwich College.
With sail making experience gathered over a lifetime at sea, traditional sailmaker Philip Rose-Taylor determined that the material used for the original sails was a natural fibre, probably Royal Navy No.7 duck canvas made by Francis Webster’s of Arbroath. Only the mainsail and jib sail can be reefed, their reef points aligned with the clews of the sails so that the sheet leads don’t require re-positioning.
The main and mizzen sheet lines run through Admiralty pattern blocks, the largest block onboard being a double sheave block employed in the mizzen sheet in order to gain purchase when the mizzen boom has to be trimmed across the stern of the boat. All the running rigging was most likely operated by Chatham Hemp or Manila rope purchased in London.
Sails were ‘bent on’ (tied to the yard arm) using Manila spunyarn. Approximately 150 meters of 12 mm rope was employed in the running rigging and a further 60 meters of 14 mm rope employed in the painter line. Each yard travelled up and down its mast independently by means of a ‘traveller’, an iron hoop which held the yard close to the mast and therefore the sail in its optimum position. The halyard was connected to the 'traveller' and the rope passed through a masthead sheave. No boom was provided for the main lug sail, an authentic feature of the James Caird, this feature is commonly know as a ‘a sail with a loose foot’
When sails clutch the wind, the yards exert pressure on the masts bending them from side to side and imparting huge amounts of torque along the central axis of the mast. Steel wire ropes (SWR) known as shrouds secure the masts to the hull and prevent the masts from bending excessively – the shrouds aboard the James Caird were 'Liverpool spliced' by hand, parcelled and served over with tarred Marline and covered in Stockholm tar.
The shrouds which hold both mast in position were secured to the inside of the lower gunwales by four brass screws - not ideal due to the amount of tension required to secure the masts in place. In modern vessels, it is common to use chainplates or securing lanyards to thwart risers.
Did you know?
Rowing Positions & Oars
The James Caird was equipped with 4 oars – approximately 14 ft long (2½ times the boat beam) hand made from a single length of Spruce. The rowing positions of the James Caird are one of the great unknowns of Shackleton's boat. At Peggotty Camp, it is recorded that Shackleton ordered the topsides of the Caird to be removed as a source of wood and burnt. Sadly, this also means that all evidence of the rowlock positions were lost; only one rowing position survives (port, forward position). Neither Shackleton nor Worsley accurately record the rowing technique or the positions, therefore from a practical seaman's point of view, four functional rowlocks would have been necessary for the voyage. Rowlocks are essential when planning surf landings on rocky shores, specially the dumping surf shorelines of South Georgia.
Steering Yoke & Rudder
On 25 September 2001, the world famous auctioneer Christies, sold seven little known photographs of the James `Caird taken at Grayson's Shipyard, Birkenhead. They were the first photographs of the boat taken after the legendary boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and show her uniquely, in her condition prior to being exhibited in London, and with relics of the boat journey on display.
Along with clothes and sleeping bags, one can see Primus stoves, Hurley's brass baling pump made from the flinders bar from the ship's binnacle compass, a case of Streimers Polar Nutfood and one of the fresh water barrels. However, the boat in the background is not the James Caird; it is clearly discernible as a clinker built boat, the James Caird was carvel built.
Sadly, according to a little known account, the original rudder which was knocked off at Cave Cove and miraculously recovered, was replaced with a poor imitation for unknown reasons when the James Caird was restored by Cory's Barge Works in Greenwich, 1968.
"If you wish to learn a bit more about Sir Ernest Shackleton and the James Caird, obtain technical specifications, detailled equipment lists, and a true insight into how 6 brave men sailed a totally inadequate boat across the Southern Ocean, please watch this space for my book to be published in 2023".
~ Seb Coulthard