"We concentrated our meager resources on the largest boat, the James Caird, so named by Shackleton."
- Capt. Frank Worsley
The voyage of the 'James Caird' was an open boat journey from Elephant Island in Antarctica to South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, a distance of approximately 800 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 of 1914–17, 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 27 men stranded on the frozen surface of the ocean, thousands of miles from civilization. During the following months the party drifted northward until 9th April 1916, when the ice floe on which they were camped broke up. Shackleton and his men made their way in three lifeboats to 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 had been named by Shackleton after Sir James Key Caird, a Dundee jute manufacturer and philanthropist, whose sponsorship had helped finance Shackleton's expedition. Before their voyage the lifeboat was strengthened and adapted by the ship's carpenter, Harry MacNeish, to withstand the 'mighty upheaval' of the Southern Ocean. It carried a six-man crew led by Sir Ernest Shackleton:
The James Caird set sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia on 24th April 1916 at 12:30 in the afternoon. Worsley navigated north-east across the Southern Ocean by means of celestial navigation and dead reckoning, miraculously they arrived at King Haakon Bay, South Georgia, after seventeen days at sea surviving a 90ft rogue wave and hurricane force gales. On arrival at Cave Cove (Cape Rosa) on 10th May, the upper deck was removed in order to bring the boat ashore further down King Haakon Bay at Peggotty Bluff. The Caird was upturned and used as a shelter by MacNeish, Vincent and McCarthy while Shackleton, Worsley and Crean crossed South Georgia to raise the alarm.
After the 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, MacNeish and McCarthy. At 'Peggotty Camp' the James Caird was found overturned and being used as a hut; the raised gunwales were burnt to generate warmth for the three debilitated sailors. The Norwegians who understood the historical importance of this boat insisted on the Caird being sent back to England; on arrival at Leith Harbour in Stromness Bay, the whalers mustered on the beach and, according to Worsley's account, they 'would not let us put a hand on her', and every man claimed the honour of lifting her on to their shoulders, carrying her 1000 kilo dead-weight 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, shipped the James Caird to Liverpool aboard the S.S. Woodville as deck cargo, along with a cargo of whale oil for the Lever Brothers, arriving on 5th December 1919.
The boat was stored temporarily at Grayson's Shipyard, Birkenhead, and after an appeal to have her saved from the breakers yard, the boat was brought back to London as the only relic of the Endurance. The James Caird went on 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 to John Quiller Rowett by Shackleton in 1921 and 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 rig would have looked like as described by Worsley and Shackleton in their individual accounts. Close examination of the James Caird at Dulwich College, and Frank Hurley’s photographs, reveal various components in the running and standing rigging.
All known features were reproduced in the construction of the Alexandra Shackleton including the ‘widow maker’ block attached to the clew of the main sail – a large wooden pulley attached to the end of the main sail which would swing violently across the helm position. By removing the mechanical advantage of the main sheet blocks, the crew of the Alexandra Shackleton had to pull harder on the main sheets in order to position the sails according to wind direction.
The mizzen mast and mizzen sail fitted aboard the James Caird were removed from the Stancomb-Wills and cut down to size. In the iconic photograph of the James Caird departing Elephant Island, its 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 in practice. 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 'broadseaming' has now been replaced by computerized sailmaking methods. 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. Today, if you stand in the North Cloister of the college and compare the original sail to the one fitted on the James Caird, you’ll notice a distinct difference.
With sail making experience gathered over a lifetime at sea, traditional sailmaker Philip Rose-Taylor was able to determine 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 main and jib sails can be reefed, the reef points are aligned with the clews of the sail 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 is a double sheave block employed in the mizzen sheet in order to gain purchase when the mizzen boom had to be trimmed across the stern of the boat.
Sails were ‘bent on’ (meaning ‘tied to the yard arm’,) using Manila spunyarn. Approximately 150 meters of 12 mm rope were employed in the running rigging and a further 60 meters of 14 mm rope employed in the painter line. Each yard travels up and down its mast independently by means of a ‘traveller’, an iron hoop which holds the yard close to the mast and therefore the sail in its optimum position. The halyard is connected to the 'traveller' and passed through a masthead sheave. No boom is provided for the main lug sail, an authentic feature of the James Caird, this feature is 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 large quantities 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, parceled 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 tied around the thwart risers.
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 Pegotty 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 whaleback). 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 like those of South Georgia and Elephant Island.
What happened to the original rudder?
Sadly, according to a little known account, the original rudder was replaced when she was repaired at Cory's Barge Works, Greenwich in 1968 - see below:
On the 25th of 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 cleaned up for exhibition in London, and with relics of the boat journey on display.
Along with clothes and sleeping bags, one can make out parts of two Primus stoves, what appears to be Hurley's brass baling pump made from the flinders bar from the ship's binnacle compass, the cases of Streimers Polar Nutfood and one of the barrels of drinking water. However, the boat in the background is not the James Caird; it is clearly discernible that the boat photographed is clinker built, the James Caird was carvel built.
Details show the stern post with the original rudder which was lost in a swell when the James Caird was fended-off rocks at Cave Cove. This legendary rudder returned a few days later: "with all the broad Antarctic to sail in", as Shackleton put it, "had come bobbing back into our cove".
Did you know?
What are VENESTA packing cases?
Venesta was the commercial name for high quality three-layer birch plywood that was strong, lightweight and weatherproof. In 1908 the Venesta Plywood Company was founded in London as a subsidiary of the Russian Lutherma Woodworking Factory, the word Venesta was derived from 'VENeer from ESToniA'. Shackleton used 2500 lightweight Venesta cases during his 1907-09 'Nimrod Expedition' , today over 200 of these cases still survive at the Cape Royds Hut at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.
Venesta packing cases are all the same size, with a footprint of 30 inches (76cm) by 15 inches (38cm). Venesta plywood was usually 4mm thick and the edges of each case protected by thin strips of angled steel. They were designed by Shackleton to be easy to manhandle, and when empty they would double as partitioning, shelving and other woodworking purposes including decking aboard the James Caird lifeboat.