Mayday then: shipwrecked souls on ice, the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition 1914-1916
This small boat The James Caird – is famous beyond Antarctic lore. But perhaps less known is the Yelcho for its significance in the ultimate rescue of the men stranded on Elephant Island fleeing Shackleton’s crushed Endurance ship in the pack ice, 1916. This Chilean cutter boat captained by Captain Luis Pardo Villalón was the hero and salvation for the surviving/dying men some 800 km away from other human souls on South Georgia, across the roughest seas in the world. The stranded men were mostly Brits but also Irishman Tom Crean and Australian Frank Hurley living on meagre remaining rations from the abandoned ship and what seals, penguins and birds they could catch.
Today the image of rescue of men from Elephant Island is seared in many of our minds – but perhaps only in a relatively small part of the world still from the UK to South America. This is an incredible survival and rescue story, a determination that lives were worth saving, the lives of strangers. Expedition leader Ernest Shackleton knew if he didn’t go for rescue, all 28 men including himself would soon die. Despite harsh odds he and a rescue crew took the wooden James Caird across Antarctic seas to South Georgia where several rescues including several nations were attempted. The fourth rescue attempted worked because of sheer determination, calculated risk and kindness.
Mayday now: people flee war and violence, take to unsafe boats. Too many bystand as the boats sink
In the news today are images also seared in my mind: that of people fleeing harsh conditions in unsafe boats – and only some of them being rescued at sea also by strangers who care. Asylum seekers in Europe in the Mediterranean sea and the Asia-Pacific in the Andaman sea are crossing in unsafe often smugglers boats, trying to reach a safer better place. Land routes would be safer, but they are not open. The differences with the voluntary explorers and scientists caught in difficult circumstances and those fellow humans today caught in conflict, violence, depravation and war who flee are many, but the similarities are there: the need for external rescue or risk of death.
There’s a couple contemporary rescue boats to mention:
Life saving device then and now: a conscience, a desire, a boat
Why this fascination with the survival of a small group of men on an imperial Antarctica expedition? I think we all love survival stories and this one is full of lessons for humanity: micro and macro cooperation, living off the harshest of land, keeping hope, caring and sharing, daring as well as leadership, innovation and ultimately desiring so much to stay alive and also help those in an even more desperate situation. Those who helped rescue the men on Elephant Island, those Norwegians, Chileans and others felt these unknown stranded desparate men’s lives were worth saving.
At a recent Scientific Conference on Antarctic Research history social science and humanities meeting I participated in in Colorado, participants from Chile suggested the Yelcho rescue of the Endurance survivors story from the Chilean perspective is lesser known in the English speaking world. I’d like to learn more of it; the government, the captain’s desire to help. After a forth attempt and Shackleton’s own endurance to ensure his team was rescued, all the men made it onto the Yelcho and back to civilization after what must have seemed endless months living on an ice floe then on a remote desolate island off the Antarctic Peninsula: the place on earth considered most like the moon.
The scale is much much greater of the need for sea rescue today yet much of the world and Europe at the moment is especially closing its eyes, arms and borders. A result is people fleeing their homes die horrible deaths drowning in the Mediterranean sea. Why is the international rescue so relatively limited? The death toll of migrants in the Mediterranean was up to 1 out of 50 people in October 2015 and stands to worsen with winter approaching and resultant rougher seas and frigid waters.
I’m inspired by stories of colleagues at Médecins Sans Frontières and MOAS and other rescue vessels who decided they could not tolerate the indifference. They use the boat the MY Phoenix (and two others MSF boats, The Argo and the Dignity1) to search for and rescue those migrants and asylum seekers who embark on a highly risky voyage to what they hope is a better life in Europe. They are stuffed in unsafe boats, often smugglers’ ill-equipped vessels. MSF’s goal is helping people survive but also making a demand: rescue those in need – respect people’s right to flee . And for those who do flee, they need basic safe passage, humane reception and medical care.
On the James Caird and Yelcho story, it’s the cooperation of the men stranded that makes me smile and believe in humanity as does the story of the others such as Captain Luis Pardo Villalón who helped them. Like the MSF and MOAS sea rescue story, along with those other search and rescue and fishing vessels that pick people out of the sea, it’s a humanizing story of the other women and men behind the scenes who helped too. Are we not compelled to reach out to someone drowning, in need?
The James Caird
So first the James Caird. Here is a wonderful website with timelines, visuals, maps and thematic stories.
In short the Endurance ship with Shackleton leading the expedition with 28 men would attempt to cross the Antarctic. They left for Antarctica on October 26, 1914 but after reaching the continent the men had to abandon the ship as the pack ice encircled and ultimately choked and crushed it. They made a makeshift home from what they could take from the ship and fashion for their survival.
From the James Caird website:
‘On Saturday April the 8th 1916, the ice floe upon which Shackleton and his crew had established Patience Camp, suddenly split in two, and spurred the men into readiness for evacuation. “At 6.30 p.m. a particularly heavy shock went through our floe. The watchman and other members of the party made an immediate inspection and found a crack right under the James Caird and between the other two boats and the main camp. Within five minutes the boats were over the crack and close to the tents. The trouble was not caused by a blow from another floe. We could see that the piece of ice we occupied had slewed and now presented its long axis towards the oncoming swell.“*
The following morning April 9th, Shackleton had hoped that the south-south-westerly and south-easterly breezes would drift the precarious floe nearer to Clarence Island, making its attainment easier, but the ice was soon breaking up with alarming frequency beneath them, and they were soon forced to set sail.
“I had decided to take the James Caird myself, with Wild and eleven men. This was the largest of our boats, and in addition to her human complement she carried the major portion of the stores. Worsley had charge of the Dudley Docker with nine men, and Hudson and Crean were the senior men on the Stancomb Wills.”
The 28 men of the Endurance were stranded on Elephant Island, reaching the desolate outcrop on April 16th, after a gruelling seven day voyage. They had sailed there in three lifeboats, salvaged from the expedition ship, before it was crushed and sunk, by the ice floes that had held it captive for months.
While it was a welcome relief for the crew to be back on land, after surviving on the drifting floes, since abandoning the ship on October 27th 1915, their survival chances were still very slim.”
They lived there for months hunting and eating seals, birds and keeping hope. But Shackleton knows they cannot survive much longer and the James Caird – the largest and heaviest of the boats – is summoned once again to ferry the men through the harshest of waters to South Georgia where they will seek help to rescue the rest of the men still eeking out a feeble living.
The rescue is closer
The James Caird Reaches South Georgia The Endurance Expedition, “We fought the seas and the winds and at the same time had a daily struggle to keep ourselves alive. At times we were in dire peril.” Sir Ernest Shackleton – South On May 10th 1916 Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McCarthy, Vincent and McNish reached South Georgia.”
In South Georgia Shackleton and team lobbied for help to get the 22 men from Elephant Island, the forth attempt was a success.
The Yelcho: imperfect for Antarctic waters, but perfect
It was Chile’s President who offered the Yelcho for the fourth attempt of the stranded men on Elephant Island. From wiki:
“At dawn on the 7th of August the Yelcho under the command of Captain Luis Pardo was ordered to Port Stanley in order to tug the Emma and the British explorers back to Punta Arenas to make a fourth attempt.
She [the Yelcho] was totally unsuited for operations in Antarctic waters. With no radio, no proper heating system, no electric lighting and no double hull the small ship had to cross the 500 miles (800 km) of the Drake’s Passage in Antarctic winter.”
It was a risk on the part of several involved including Captain Pardo and his crew, but the rescue worked.
The M.Y. Phoenix, Argos, Dignity1 & other rescue boats – otherwise, a mass grave
In response to numerous drownings and ongoing indifference in Europe in the spring, MSF decided to help at least as a temporary measure. It’s really a big responsibility of governments, but the medical and humanitarian need in this crisis is pressing. “At least 1750 people have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, many of whom are fleeing war, violence and extreme poverty. The number of people attempting to cross the sea will increase in the summer season, and we are stepping up our response to address this tragic crisis by launching an additional ship that will reinforce our existing support”, says Francois Zamparini, MSFs emergency coordinator onboard the Bourbon Argos.
The international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) launched an additional ship to carry out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea to assist people who are risking their lives trying to reach Europe by boat. The ship is carrying a crew of 26 people, including an experienced search- and rescue crew as well as medical staff to provide emergency medical care.
The Bourbon Argos, which left the port of Augusta, Sicily, on 9 May, will provide additional search and rescue support in the Mediterranean. The ship will work in parallel with the MY Phoenix, a boat jointly operated by MSF and MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station), which launched on 2 May. The MY Phoenix has so far rescued 591 people and assisted in the rescue of 101 more. All 692 have received medical screening and assistance as required from the MSF medical team on board.
Onboard medical staff (doctors and nurses) and non-medical staff (logisticians, water and sanitation experts, cultural mediators) provide medical care and distribute emergency relief items to the rescued people. The medical care includes medical screening and stabilisation of vulnerable patients, as well as referral of emergency cases.
Faced with another tragedy in the Mediterranean sea, European Member States must urgently launch large-scale search and rescue activities in order to avoid more deaths at sea, the medical humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres said.
“A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea and European policies are responsible,” said Loris De Filippi, MSF president. “Faced with thousands of desperate people fleeing wars and crises, Europe has closed borders, forcing people in search of protection to risk their lives and die at sea. There is no more time to think, these lives must be saved now. Ending the Mare Nostrum operation was a serious mistake. European States must immediately launch large-scale search and rescue operations, with proactive patrolling as close as possible to Libyan shores. The current means are not enough. This tragedy is only just beginning, but it can and should be stopped.” MSF Press release May, 2015. For updates: MSF Sea Rescue @MSF_Sea
I wrote the majority of this post in July. Then life got busy and I got more involved with refugee and migrant issues. The problem didn’t improve, it got worse for migrants still facing closed doors. The silver lining is the people who lend a hand and the government efforts that actually are humane and helpful. As of mid-November 2015, two MSF boats continue to do sea rescue of migrants fleeing in the Mediterranean, as do other vessels. Humanitarians and well-intentioned people can’t do it alone or on a big enough scale without dedicated, significant, coherent government actions. Already too many lives have been lost at sea and will be lost without the political will to address the immediate needs of safe passage and the immediate and longer term needs of tackling the root causes that force people to flee. We cannot forget the majority of people in flight who are still in neighbouring countries, next to their homes at war. They are not home, they are in precarious conditions with no ‘boat’ nearby to help.
Yet we can celebrate the historic and present examples of strangers, of people from different countries, lending a hand whether it be a sea rescue in Antarctica or one in between Libya and Italy or Turkey and Greece. Antarctica gives inspiring examples of international cooperation. It’s the one place in the world right now dedicated to peace and science.
In tough times, the choice is to collaborate or perish. What do people need to survive? Air, food, water, shelter, dignity, to be cared for and to have someone to care about?