Historian Thomas R Henry wrote in his book The White Continent – “The Weddell Sea is, according to the testimony of all who have sailed through its berg-filled waters, the most treacherous and dismal region on earth.” Few, if any, would disagree with him. Winds are predominant in the area and frequently blow at an almost constant and unrelenting gale force, with little interlude. It has been established that the wind will manifest and appear as one of two meteorological situations, which are either a broad east to west flow of cold but stable air, or an intense cyclone. The crew of the James Caird would experience both.
Bidding farewell to the James Caird
And where the winds are high and violent, then so too are the seas. The Circumpolar Current whips around the globe, at latitudes unhindered by any landmass, and huge volumes of water pour through Drakes Passage, east of Antarctica, spawning massive waves known as Cape Horn Rollers. These wind driven monsters, which can frequently reach heights of 60 metres, churn into the Weddell Sea, conjuring a convulsive and unforgiving ocean, upon which no mere lifeboat should ever there sail.
But sail there did the James Caird, tossed, battered and flung about its ferocious surface, with six brave crewmen, hellbent on survival and the rescue of the 22 men they had left behind on Elephant Island, fighting every minute to survive the perils the seething sea continuously vomited upon them.
For these six men, Hell had been measured, and dealt to them within the confines of their boat. Not only was it the greatest feat of open boat sailing and navigation, it’s consequence is unrivaled in its complexities of human endurance, suffering and survival.
That battle for survival had of course begun long before the James Caird, departed Elephant Island. The Endurance had been trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea, since February 1915 and abandoned completely in October of that year as the pressure of the ice pulverized, and eventually sank the vessel. From that point onwards the men eked out an existence, living on the drifting ice floes, for months, before they too began to break up beneath their feet. Abandonment was again their only option, and the ship’s three lifeboats were their only means of escape. They set sail, on April 9th, and whilst Elephant Island was not their initial destination, a combination of strong currents, the ever deteriorating condition of the men, and the probable chance of its attainability, soon saw them set course there.