August 30th 1916 – The 22 men stranded for 127 days on Elephant Island in Antarctica are finally rescued by Shackleton, Crean and Worsley who arrived onboard the Chilean vessel Yelcho.
It was another epic moment in an expedition filled with high and lows. Though this must surely have counted as the greatest moment for these barely alive men.
Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on board the ship Endurance is a tale of epic proportion. A few weeks into the voyage the ship became trapped in ice and for eight months they drifted off course until finally the ship gave up, crushed under the weight of the ice the Endurance sank.
For several months the crew trekked as far as Elephant Island but most were unable to go much further and supplies were getting low. Shackleton needed to find help so he took five of his best men including his fellow Irishmen Tom Crean and Tim McCarthy and set off on an epic voyage within an epic voyage onboard the James Caird. They took the small open lifeboat to find help at the whaling station on South Georgia, 1500 km away. For over two weeks they battle with the harshest environment on earth and managed to arrive safely in South Georgia to put out a call for rescue.
The rest of the crew stayed behind on Elephant Island with Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second in command, left in charge. They had no way to contact the outside world , no way to know if or when the James Caird landed safely on Georgia, or if anyone was coming to save them.
In Wild’s memoir he recalled “We gave them three hearty cheers and watched the boat getting smaller and smaller in the distance. Then seeing some of the party in tears, I immediately set them all to work”.
There was no natural source of shelter so they men needed to construct a shack from the remaining lifeboats and pieces of canvas from the tents. They hunted penguins and seals, neither of which were abundant and set watches looking for any sign of approaching ships.
On the 10th of May, after 16 days at sea the James Caird had made it. Shackleton, Crean and Worsley left the other three men, who were too sick to travel, and trekked across the island to the whaling station. Once they got there a few days later they sent a boat to retrieve the men on the beach. The next priority was rescuing the crew from Elephant Island. Several attempts were made to but the harsh conditions made it impossible for boats to pass through the icy sea.
For the fourth and final attempt Shackleton appealed to the Chilean government for help. They offered him the use of Yelcho, a small seagoing tug. Shackleton was joined by Crean and Worsley and they set out to rescue their friends.
Back on Elephant Island, the men were losing hope. Wishfully Frank Wild had estimated their rescue would take around four or five weeks. But four and a half months later their food was running low, many of the men were ill and had frostbite. Each day men were assigned to watch out for approaching ships, which at this point must have seemed fruitless. But on this day George Marston was on lookout when he spotted the approaching ship. He ran to the camp and the men frantically signalled to the ship.
Shackleton and Crean went out on the lifeboats and rescued the 22 men. They were taken to the port of Punta Arenas where they were met by cheering crowds and brass bands.
Amazingly all 28 members of the expedition survived the gruelling endurance of Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition.