The lifeboat that changed the way we look at lifeboats.
According to Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of the legendary explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, “the voyage of the James Caird is the stuff of dreams”. Exactly 100 years ago, the 23ft (7m) lifeboat (one of three carried by Endurance) made an 800-mile winter crossing of the Southern Ocean, the stormiest sea in the world, and in doing so played a critical role in saving the lives of every member of the lost Endurance’s crew. The story of the rescue has passed into history as one of the greatest sea voyages ever.
Yet for all the romance, the James Caird is doubly significant because she was also one of the first modern lifeboats that came into being as a direct result of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. That disaster brought about changes in maritime law, safety regulations and requirements of ship captains. Shackleton, who was to become commander of the 1914-17 Endurance expedition, gave testimony at the Titanic wreck inquiry. Seb Coulthard, an expert on the James Caird, believes the contribution Shackleton made to maritime safety has been overlooked.
The Class 1A open lifeboat, which wasn’t named until later in the expedition, was commissioned by the captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley. He was familiar with the 1913 Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, which required ships to carry lifeboats with sufficient seats, reserve buoyancy and cubic capacity in case of loss or disaster. In other words, the Caird was a result of legal compliance and as such, when brought on deck of the Endurance (which came ready fitted with two Norwegian lifeboats) she looked big and out of place.
Worsley, who would later be the navigator on the Caird’s rescue voyage, wrote in his account of the expedition that the lifeboat was ‘double-ended and carvel-built’. The fact that she was double-ended meant that there was a close resemblance to whaling boats of the time, which is why the Caird is often described erroneously as a ‘whaler’. The double-end format and carvel [edge-to-edge] planking made the boat more efficient in the water, so it was ideal for the Endurance expedition. The Caird came equipped with reserve buoyancy brass ‘air cases’, a single mast, sails, oars, compass, sea anchor, flares, water breakers and a box of biscuits.
Although robustly built, the Caird was not intended to undertake ocean voyages, having been designed and specified to stay in the vicinity of the disaster while survivors awaited the arrival of a rescue vessel. When the Endurance was crushed in the Weddell Sea, the three lifeboats were the men’s only chance of survival. The biggest and strongest - the Caird - would ferry a crew of six to South Georgia to fetch relief for the remaining 22 on Elephant Island. Yet the Caird could not even attempt such a voyage without structural modification, which is where expedition carpenter Harry McNish enters the story.
Although it is commonly thought that the Caird was hastily modified on Elephant Island, McNish had been strengthening and converting the boat for months, as well as preparing specially tailored sledges that would transport all three lifeboats across the ice.
Coulthard, who has built two replicas of the Caird, declares that “no-one today comes close” to McNish in terms of boat-building skills. With no drawings to work from and with only four tools - a chisel, hammer, adze and saw - McNish raised the side planking, covered the deck, added a mast and sealed the boat with oil paint mixed with flour and seal blubber. Out of thin air, he had converted a humble lifeboat into an ocean-going survival capsule.