Current Issue
April 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

The original lifeboat, the James Caird, built in 1914, had an open top, exposing its inhabitants to the elements. (Frank Hurley)

Reliving Shackleton's Epic Endurance Expedition

Tim Jarvis's Plan to Cross the Antarctic in an Exact Replica of the James Caird

Legend has it that Antarctic adventurer Ernest Shackleton posted an advertisement in a London paper before his infamous Endurance expedition:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Although no one has been able to find the original ad, the sentiment, at the very least, should serve as a strong warning to Tim Jarvis, the British/Australian adventurer who is attempting to recreate the expedition as authentically as possible.

“For Shackleton it was a journey into the unknown made out of desperation,” Jarvis says. “For us it will not be that different.”

Shackleton was a leader of an era of polar exploration, but his misadventure began in 1915, when his ship sank just 15 months into the Antarctic journey, stranding him and 28 men. Their once-proud journey was reduced to a sad hamlet of windblown tents on the ice. Desperate, Shackleton and five others embarked on the 800-mile mission across the Southern Ocean in the James Caird, a dinky, 22.5-foot, oak-framed lifeboat. Seventeen days of frigid winds and treacherous seas later, they landed on the remote island of South Georgia where they clambered over the rocky, glaciated mountains to find refuge. It would take more than four months for Shackleton to return to Elephant Island and rescue the 23 men left behind. Despite the odds against them, all 28 survived.

It’s an astonishing journey that has yet to be authentically replicated. But in January, Jarvis and his crew will set out in a replica of the Caird and venture on the same 800-mile journey, titled the “Shackleton Epic,” and they plan on doing it exactly as Shackleton did—down to the reindeer skin sleeping bags and Plasmon biscuits.

In fact, the only concession to using period equipment will be modern emergency gear on board as stipulated by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

When Jarvis commissioned the replica from master boat builder Nat Wilson, it was nothing short of a challenge—exact record of sail rig and hull construction does not exist—the only surviving reference is the boat itself, now on permanent display at Dulwich College in London. ‘Replicas’ of varying kinds exist from IMAX films and other mission reenactments, but according to Sebastian Coulthard, the Petty Officer aboard the Alexandra Shackleton, this lifeboat is the most accurate copy of the Caird ever constructed. All of the dimensions were taken from the original—at an accuracy of a quarter of an inch.

The original James Caird had an open top, exposing its inhabitants to the elements. All of the seams were caulked with wax and plugged with a blend of oil paint and seal blood. When the hatch was open and the waves were pouring in, the crew had very little protection from the sea.

Like the Caird, there is little legroom in the Alexandra Shackleton—the masts, spars and oars are tied to the rower’s seat. Damp and dank, the space available will be used more for supplies than the comfort of its inhabitants.

About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

Read more from this author |

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus