An Epic Rescue

Sheelagh Mooney recalls the superhuman efforts of Crean, Shackleton, McCarthy and others to save their stranded ‘Endurance’ crewmates in 1916.

Tom Crean And Ernest Shackleton

On Easter Monday, the 24th April 1916, Padraig Pearse stood on the steps of the GPO and read out the proclamation of the Republic of Ireland, on the other side of the world three other brave Irish

Men, Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and Timothy McCarthy, were preparing to launch a 23ft lifeboat called James Caird from the remote Elephant Island, on an epic 800 mile rescue journey to South Georgia. The other three were Captain Frank Worsley, Henry McNish and John Vincent.

Their ship The Endurance had been stranded in the ice for months and then sank. The six and 22 other crew made it to barren Elephant Island where they set up a makeshift camp, with the other two lifeboats providing the only shelter. 

Their only hope was that the six in the James Caird would make it across 800 miles of treacherous sea to South Georgia, with only the most basic of navigational aids. 

Their position, so critical for success, was determined by Worsley using a sextant to line up the sun and horizon. In the rough seas he had to be held upright by McCarthy and Vincent to catch a glimpse of the sun while Shackleton crouched beneath the canvas recording the readings as they were shouted out.

Yet, even in these conditions, absolute accuracy was vital as a small margin of error could see them sailing past the tiny Island of South Georgia and into the vastness of the South Atlantic and probable oblivion. 

Despite this and the violence of the seas, the lack of waterproof clothing, the bitter cold and the continual flooding of the boat, they made good progress. By the 5th of May they were well over half way to South Georgia when a massive wave all but upturned the small boat. 

When the huge wave passed the boat was half full of water and the six men had to bale for their lives. They were left with a greater problem though, as the salt which had contaminated their water supplies left them limited to a half pint of drinking water each per day and they suffered severely parched mouths, cracked lips and swollen tongues. 

How they must have rejoiced at the first sight of the rugged black mountains of South Georgia appearing over the water after fifteen days. But how their elation must have dissipated when it became apparent that they had reached the Southern coast of South Georgia, the furthest point from their destination of Leith.


The weather was so treacherous that they could not even risk landing the boat and were forced back out to sea as the storm raged on all night and the little boat was battered by rolling seas and winds of over 80mph. 

It would be a further 24 hours before they were able to row up a narrow passage and into a small cove. With the exception of a fresh water supply from glaciers along the beach, there was little else to rejoice about as they were still 130 miles away from their destination by sea and over 30 miles by land.  

Shackleton choose the unmapped and unknown interior route, selecting two of his men, Worsley and his fellow Irish man, Crean, to accompany him.  The trio trekked for 36 hours without a break over icy slopes and frozen descents to finally arrive exhausted but triumphant at the whaling station of Leith.

They had made it across one of the most inhospitable terrains in the world. It was a superhuman feat of endurance and a testimony to their physical and mental strength that they had survived the 800 miles journey across the Southern Ocean and the trek across the glaciers and inner ice fields of South Georgia.  

The first task was to rescue the three left on the other side of the island, and then they had to retrace their steps to Elephant Island to pick-up the other 22 who were surviving in unimaginable conditions. 

There were a number of failed attempts before the stranded crewmen were eventually picked up three months later. It was truly a rescue feat of epic proportions and not one man was lost. 

Years later all three explorers, none of whom were particularly religious men, revealed in individual interviews that in that final harrowing trek across South Georgia they had all been personally aware of the presence of a fourth invisible member on the trek. This revelation later became the inspiration for T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. 

Maybe such thoughts were mere illusion, brought on by the sheer strain of the trip, or perhaps it was an answer to their prayers. God alone knows!