The Shackleton Epic Expedition on shores of South Georgia

Shackleton's Endurance rescue mission recreated

Environmental engineer Tim Jarvis recently completed a reconstruction of Sir Ernest Shackleton's classic Endurance rescue mission in the southern Atlantic Ocean. To do so, he needed to commission a replica of the original James Caird lifeboat.

Sir Ernest Shackleton's legendary rescue of the entire crew of the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1916 is one of the great tales from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. He may well have lost his ship - the Endurance - but he didn't lose a man, largely due to an extraordinary sea voyage he accomplished through 800'miles of the roughest sea in the world in a modified whaler little more than 20ft long.

To mark the centenary of Shackleton's adventure, Tim Jarvis, environmental scientist with global engineering consultancy Arup, set up the Shackleton Epic Expedition to replicate Shackleton's Herculean feat in a specially commissioned replica of the James Caird. The dream started to become reality in March 2012 when, at a traditional naval naming ceremony at Portland Marina, the replica, named the Alexandra Shackleton, was launched. Sir Ernest's granddaughter, the Hon Alexandra Shackleton, named the boat in her role as patron of Jarvis's expedition.

Less than a year later, on 11 February 2013, a severely weather-beaten Jarvis, along with Royal Marine Barry Gray, brought the centenary voyage to its conclusion with every objective attained. The two were part of a six-man team who crossed the South Atlantic from Antarctica's Elephant Island to South Georgia before taking on a mountain trek to the old whaling station at Stromness. Alexandra Shackleton greeted the victors at her grandfather's grave at Grytviken.

Jarvis's aim was to complete the expedition using equipment as similar as possible to that of the Endurance crew. "We wanted to see what it was like for these men of iron in their wooden boat," says Jarvis. So the crew ate pemmican (a customisable mixture of fat and protein), navigated by sextant, wore wax-coated cotton clothes and ventured forth in a wooden tub. Inevitably there were small concessions made to modern health and safety concerns (personal locator beacons, immersion suits, life raft) and digital communications (they had cameras and social networking devices). But beyond that "it was pretty much what the original crew experienced, with no realistic chance of survival if anything went wrong".

For the most part, the Alexandra Shackleton "stood up well to the conditions" although Jarvis admits that "steering her required enormous strength". The real problem was the fact that there was no way of getting dry. "The wax waterproofing didn't work. Below deck, the boat was constantly damp, while being on watch meant that you were exposed to the elements. Waves washed over the deck and down the hatch soaking everything." The crew wore leather boots that were "terrible" both at sea and on land. "While on board they would be saturated all the time, as we were standing in 3-10cm of water despite baling. When we made landfall on South Georgia three of us were unable to continue due to trench foot."

Externally, the Alexandra Shackleton is virtually indistinguishable from the original lifeboat. It may look a little smarter due to being a century younger, but inside it is every bit as claustrophobic and unpleasant as the James Caird. The big question is, how did all this old technology stack up?

"I would say that, by virtue of the fact we made it, and our traditional navigation worked well, there is real value in the traditional technology. In fact it worked, which is more than can be said for the modern electronics on board designed to record what happened. These constantly suffered and failed in the damp and cold."

The trials of the replica

For expedition boatswain Petty Officer Sebastian Coulthard, the biggest problem was getting the boat built. He recalls Jarvis and Alexandra Shackleton commissioning the International Boatbuilding Training College at Lowestoft. This presented "a great challenge to master boat-builder Nat Wilson". Dimensions had to be taken directly from the James Caird in its dry dock in the North Cloister of Dulwich College and "lofted to an accuracy of a quarter inch. Upon inspection, it was assessed as a double-ended whaler which didn't conform to Board of Trade regulations".

"The basic plan of the replica consists of a hull planked in Scottish larch with a stem, stern post and keel crafted from fully grown English oak," says Coulthard. "The timbers were secured with copper and bronze fasteners using century-old techniques still taught today at the IBTC. The upper deck is a simple construction made from Scots pine planks, covered in canvas, finished with white paint."

Shackleton described the improvised covering of the James Caird as bearing "a strong likeness to stage scenery". The Alexandra Shackleton's plank seams are caulked with cotton, as they were on the James Caird, and are paid up with a mixture of putty and white lead paste. Originally Shackleton's carpenter, Henry 'Chippy' McNeish, used oil paints commandeered from the expedition artist George Marston.

McNeish also built up the James Caird's sides by three planks fitted to the hull with short timbers, as well as extending the stem at the bow and the stern. In order to strengthen the keel and to allow a mast step for the main mast, he bolted a section of a spar onto the hog/keel. The Alexandra Shackleton follows the same principles and the mizzenmast is stepped on the aft athwart. The main cabin area has strong watertight integrity formed by two structural bulkheads and an escape hatch. The cabin also doubles up as a buoyancy chamber.

Traditional expertise

There were times when the project felt like a lesson in forensic maritime archaeology. The sails were a typical case in point, with the expedition members turning to one of the UK's leading traditional sail makers. Coulthard explains how Philip Rose-Taylor of Weymouth carried out a detailed examination of the James Caird with assistance from Calista Lucy, keeper of archives at Dulwich College - a process made complex by the current suit of sails being replicas from in the 1950s.

"These sails have been cut very flat and would not work in practice. Sail canvas leaves enough slack in the material so that it can stretch over time. This gives the sails the 'bulgy' appearance we are so familiar with. The bolt-rope stitched around the periphery maintains the shape and prevents fraying."

Rose-Taylor assessed that the material used was probably Royal Navy No 7 duck canvas made by Francis Webster of Arbroath. He went about reproducing a full suit of sails, in the correct proportions, using modern flax canvas of similar specification. It took three weeks of hand-stitching every seam, cringle, and reef point, but "the results were astonishing".

During trials, the Alexandra Shackleton was deliberately capsized five times to assess self-righting ability. "The boat failed to self-right during the first run due to the fact that heavy sea conditions cannot be replicated. Thanks to modern technology, however, capsize vulnerability can be assessed using computers." Southampton University Wolfson Unit, which specialises in ship stability and capsize risk, took on the challenge of modelling the replica in 3D.

End of an era

The Shackleton Epic reconstruction of the voyage of the James Caird had always been intended to be a centenary commemoration. But conditions in the south Atlantic mean that to plan such an expedition you need to leave yourself plenty of time. In the final analysis Jarvis was lucky to complete the task three years ahead of deadline. "But of course it was psychologically different for us. What Shackleton achieved was a rescue mission. Our expedition had a different emotional dynamic attached to it."

Coulthard says: "Central to any expedition that seeks to replicate Shackleton is the need to bring all expedition members back home safely. Shackleton is best remembered for this singular achievement - and that was always at the forefront of our plan."

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles