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Shackleton’s <i>Endurance</i> Expedition: A crewman’s view

By Thomas Orde-Lees, Quartermaster

"April, 1916. 7 & 14.

7th: A fine day again an the island is sight part of the morning.

We got another sea leopard but no stomach-fish this time. These, undoubtedly, indicate that we are near the pack edge for they prey on the penguins which resort to the edge of the pack about this time of year. The floe split again suddenly just after we had turned in. The watchman calls out "crack" and we are all out in a moment or two, but this frequent splitting up of the floe gets on one's nerves a bit for one never knows whether the ice is going to open underneath one's sleeping bag during the night.

The boats were cute of from the rest of the camp for a time but the crack kept opening and closing and whilst it was closed we got the boats across in safety on their sledges.

"The Night Ship" - courtesy of Shakcleton Endurance Photography
"The Night Ship" - courtesy of Shackleton Endurance Photography

14th: It was a truly magnificent sunrise, as beautiful a one as we had seen and the brightness and genial glow put new warmth into our half frozen bodies and raised new hopes in our hearts. The spray during the night had frozen on our outer clothing and our Burberry blouses were as stiff as parchment on us. As they thawed out they became correspondingly wet, but when the sun got higher in the sky its warmth, aided by the breeze was sufficient to dry things and we hung out our mitts, socks, etc., on the stays of the mast and got them fairly dry during the day.

During the whole voyage, even on the coldest nights, we found that in spite of our mitts being so sopping wet that we had to take them off from time to time to wring the water out of them, they kept our hands reasonably warm. Or if not exactly warm, they did get so cold as to be in danger of frost bite, though they felt wet and cold all the time, as was only to be expected. In the case of our socks, however, this did not apply and we had to resort to every possible expedient to keep our feet fairly dry.

As it grew lighter, Elephant Island loomed up through the mist on our port hand and for various reasons, thenceforth, became our goal.

It was considered that the precipitousness of Clarence might preclude a landing thereon, and, should we be carried by adverse winds or currents to the eastward we might fail to weather it altogether and Elephant Island was approximately no further off.

If, on the other hand, having set our course for Elephant Island, we should fail to weather it we should still have Clarence Island under our lee to the eastward, and various other small islets if we should be carried to the westward. A lot might happen in a run of forty miles, and we were not for taking any risks just then, so that decision, to run for the central point of the group, received general endorsement.

This morning was a truly beautiful one, we all got quite warm again rowing, Marston in the "Docker" enlivened us with songs and we all felt much happier then we had for several days, confident this time of making the land. If the S.E. wind, which had sprung up, was maintained throughout the day it seemed probable that we should make the land before night fall. Except for sucking ice chips, we had had nothing to quench our thirst with since the milk of the evening of the 12th inst., as whilst waiting for the poor old "Stancomb Wills" to catch up, the "Docker" drew up to a small lump of ice and tried to secure it with an ice axe, but it proved, on closer acquaintance, to be bigger than at first supposed and the attempt to take it in tow by means of impaling it with the business end of the ice axe all but resulted in the loss of that valuable implement. Not having slowed down they overshot it by so much that by the time they had checked their was the "growler" was far astern of them that it was not worth while "going about" to retrieve it, but coming on another piece they commenced preparations to secure it in a more systematic manner. Just then the "Caird" came up and Sir Ernest, being anxious to proceed, ordered them to desist. This proved unfortunate for, save for a very small fragment of ice in the "Docker", and part of which was subsequently given to the "Caird", we did no encounter any more ice and were thereafter without means of quenching our thirst. We had too, to wait about of half an hour for the "Stancomb Wills" to catch us up. She had been the lame duck all along, and though her presence added enormously to our resources and carrying capacity, yet she seriously impeded the progress of the other two boats. We could but sympathize with her occupants as, having a wholly inadequate spread of canvas, she was heavily handicapped and her crew had the harder work on the oars, besides which , her low gunwale rendered her much the wettest boat of the three. We never pulled more than four oars at a time in any of the boats so as to work the crews in two watches by half hour spells.

This was a very satisfactory arrangement as it gave one a complete rest between spells but not long enough to get chilled through; one was generally glad enough to get back on the oars, after a resting spell, to get warm again. Signs were not wanting that we were beginning to have about enough of it. More than one of the party in the "Wills" was suffering from general exhaustion, but nothing could be done for them just then. We had to go on. The ultimate safety and resuscitation of the party depended upon our reaching terra firma at the earliest possible moment. Delay was dangerous - dispatch imperative.

Blackborrow, one of the sailors in the "Wills", reported that he thought there was something wrong with his feet, and examination proved this to be only too true; but it was impossible to do much for him under the circumstances, so he had to grin and bear it.

Fortunately severe frost-bite itself is unaccompanied by pain; it is the revival that is painful. There was little likelihood of Blackborrow's feet reviving at all until we reached the land when proper means could be supplied. Earlier in the morning, Greenstreet in the "Docker" had found that one of his feet had "gone". On taking off his sock he revealed a foot as white as a tallow which I eventually succeeded in restoring to vitality in the classic manner by alternately massaging it and placing it against my bare stomach inside my shirt. Quite the "little hero" that time.

We sailed on and on all morning before a fresh breeze passing a couple of bergs in one of which into which the swell was rolling and breaking against the steep slopes of the berg, with a fine roar. Another berg rather resembled a Red Indian's feathered headgear, but still the land did not seem to get appreciably nearer.

Of pack or drift there was none. It was evident that we had a clear run to the land. All depended on the wind. At 3 p.m. it died down. Two hours later heavy lowering skies to the N.W. betokened a storm brewing and at 5 p.m. the sot burst upon us with a strong S.W. wind. We were apparently about 8 miles from Elephant Island before the gathering darkness shut if off from view; in reality we were more like 18 miles off, but we were able to see the details and configuration of the land very cleary, though we afterwards found out that what we took to be rocky cliffs a couple of hundred feet high were actually mountains as many thousands.

For some time we had been feeling the affects of thirst, and, having no ice left, we now took to chewing raw frozen seal meat for the sake of the moisture in it, and very good it seemed to be at that juncture.

It now grew very dark, the gale increased, the seas, lashed into foam by the wind, dashed over us in spray chilling us through to the marrow, and we were not wrong in supposing that we were in for yet another night of extreme exposure. But all the while, we felt we were nearing land, the land that would dispel all our troubles. The wind now veered round to N.W. and this brought the sea full on our port beam. We were able to sail well enough on this "slant" but the change of wind caused more and more water to break over the boats and we had to resort to almost continuous bailing.

Before the night had fairly set in, the "Caird" took the "Wills" in tow and henceforward never let go of her. Sir Ernest hailed the "Docker" and she drew up along side him, he shouted out some directions but his voice was almost wholly inaudible above the storm, though, as we correctly assumed, he was enjoining them to follow and keep in sight of the 'Caird" all night. Practically ever since we had first started Sir Ernest had been standing erect all day and night on the stern counter of the "Caird", only holding on to one of the stays of the little mizzen mast, conning our course the whole time the boats were underway.

How he stood the incessant vigil and exposure is marvellous, but he is a wonderful man and so is his constitution. He simply never spares himself if, by his individual toil, he can possibly benefit anyone else.

A characteristic instance of his unselfishness in this was occurred in the boats. Hurley lost his mitts, Sir Ernest seeing this, at once divested himself of his own, and in spite of the fact that he was standing up in the most exposed position all the while, he insisted upon Hurley's acceptance of the mitts, and on the latter's protesting, Sir Ernest was on the point of throwing them overboard rather than wear them when one o this subordinates had to go without; as a consequence Sir Ernest had one finger rather severely frost bitten.

Captain Worsley in the "Docker" too stuck to his post gallantly hour by hour steering his boat skillfully to safety, sitting up in the stern wet through to the skin. Lt. Hudson and Crean who steered the Wills alternately are likewise deserving of the highest praise.

We again did the best we could during the night pulling the tent clothes over us to afford some protection from the cold and wet. We were under reefed sail all night, rowing became out of the question early in the evening owing to the roughness of the sea.

We had to bail almost continuously and as this was much hindered by the encumbrance of baggage over the well in the stern we several times contemplated throwing certain articles overboard as the necessity of access to the well became more and more urgent and finally in the "Docker" we ejected the greater part of the sack of seal meat. About midnight, Cheetham, our old sailor-officer in the "Docker", thought he heard the boat's back cracking and so there was nothing for it but to shift some of the cases from forward aft, a task of no small difficulty under the circumstances, and thereafter they had all to crowd down in the stern and keep on shifting every time that bailing was in progress. Wave after wave dashed its spray over us and we got miserably wet.

The "Docker" had no light but the "Caird" had a lamp which she exhibited from time to time and by means of which the former were able to keep in touch with her for some time.

Having no light and only a pocket compass which was quite invisible in the dark, Captain Worsley elected to keep his boat as close to windward as possible, so as to keep both the land and the "Caird" under his lee. He feared too that the wind might have veered still more to the northward. As a result, he finally failed to the "Caird's" intermittent light any more and thereafter was, so to speak, "on his own".

The boat made a great but more leeway than headway. After, we wondered whether we might not ultimately overshoot the land, if we had not indeed already done so, by passing between Elephant and Clarence Islands, so much longer was the way than we had expected it to be. At times we thought we saw the faint "blink" of Elephant's snow cap right ahead of us.

About 3 a.m. the moon rose and some diffused light penetrated the barge but the moon itself was not visible. Only twice during the night and after repeated efforts, did we succeed in keeping matches alight long enough, under the tent cloth, to see the little compass and so enable Captain Worsley to verify his course and the wind.

One of two of her crew now noticed that he was showing signs of succumbing to his unceasing vigil; several times he did not seem to hear them speaking to him, finally they could get no replies from him, his head sunk on to his chest and he seemed on the point of collapse, so they persuaded him to lie down for a bit and let Greenstreet take the helm.

Now the night was nearly done; the worst experience of all our trip was coming to a happy conclusion, but just what the issue would be we were still in some doubt as we could not yet certainly see the land."

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One hundred years ago this August, Ernest Shackleton rescued his crew after the failure of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Rauner holds a complete transcript of the diary and the manuscript diary from March 24th, 1915, through April 16th, 1916.” These entries are a selection from the diary of the expedition's quartermaster Thomas Orde-Lees.

Rauner Special Collections Library in Webster Hall holds a complete transcript of the diary and the manuscript diary from March 24th, 1915, through April 16th, 1916. To see them, come to Rauner and ask to see MSS-185 or Stefansson G850 1914 .O7 1997 during normal hours of operation.  An exhibit on Shackleton’s Antarctic explorations will be on display in Rauner from July 1-September 2, 2016.

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