The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (Weddell Sea party 1914–16) is considered by some the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. By 1914 both Poles had been reached so Shackleton set his sights on being the first to traverse Antarctica.
The plan was for the Ross Sea party, who travelled aboard the Aurora to a base at Cape Evans (Scott's HQ during the Terra Nova Expedition), to lay a series of supply depots to the base of the Beardmore Glacier and then return to the base. Meanwhile Shackleton would take Endurance into the Weddell Sea, make his way to the South Pole and then to the Ross Sea via the Beardmore Glacier (to pick up the supplies). Although the expedition failed to accomplish its objective it became recognised instead as an epic feat of endurance.
This is the third of the issues, based on the photos of Frank Hurley, being released by the Government of the British Antarctic Territory to mark the centenary of the Expedition and continues the story with the launching of the James Caird from Elephant Island. On the eastern limits of the South Shetland Islands Elephant Island was far beyond normal shipping routes and as the expedition had never planned to go there the likelihood of rescue was negligible.
Shackleton decided to try to reach help, using one of the boats. The nearest port was Stanley in the Falkland Islands, 540 nautical miles away, but made unreachable by the prevailing westerly winds. After discussions with the expedition's second-in-command, Frank Wild, and ship's captain, Frank Worsley, Shackleton decided to attempt to reach the whaling stations of South Georgia, to the north-east. This would mean a much longer boat journey, of 800 nautical miles across the Southern Ocean. The heaviest and strongest of the three boats, the 22.5-foot (6.9 m) long James Caird, was chosen.
Shackleton’s first choices for the crew were Worsley and Tom Crean, who had distinguished himself on previous expeditions. Worsley later wrote: "We knew it would be the hardest thing we had ever undertaken, for the Antarctic winter had set in, and we were about to cross one of the worst seas in the world".
For the remaining places Shackleton chose two strong sailors, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy and the carpenter, McNish from those who volunteered.
Leaving Frank Wild in charge the James Caird was launched from Elephant Island on 24 April 1916 and so began one of the greatest small-boat journeys ever undertaken.
Shortly after noon on 8 May came the first sighting of South Georgia but heavy seas prevented a landing until, after several attempts they made their landing at King Haakon Bay. Shackleton later described the boat journey as "one of supreme strife".
For the rest of the party on Elephant Island there was to be a long and uncertain wait. Frank Wild had instructions to make for Deception Island the following spring, should Shackleton not return. The priority was to find shelter against the fast approaching southern winter; achieved by hastening the excavation of an ice cave started before Shackleton’s departure and by turning the two remaining lifeboats upside down atop rocks and cases to provide some shelter and headroom. This became known as the “Snuggery”.
Meanwhile Shackleton took a few days to consider his next move. The populated whaling stations of South Georgia were on the northern coast so the only options were another boat journey or a land crossing through the unexplored interior of South Georgia. It was determined that just Shackleton, Worsley and Crean would make the crossing. Without a map and with any rest out of the question they crossed the island to Stromness Station. Shackleton wrote afterwards: "I have no doubt that Providence guided us...I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers it seemed to me often that we were four, not three".
Shackleton made immediate arrangements for the rest of his James Caird crew to be rescued but it took 4 attempts before those stranded on Elephant Island could be saved due to an impenetrable barrier of ice around the island. Eventually Shackleton was lent the Yelcho by the Chilean Government and on 30 August 1916 all were safely aboard and bound for Punta Arenas, Chile.
66p Launching the James Caird.
66p Digging a cave for shelter, Elephant Island.
76p The “Snuggery”, Elephant Island.
76p Crossing the South Georgia Mountains.
£1.01 The Yelcho rescuing the crew from Elephant Island
£1.01 The Yelcho with crew arrives in Chile.
Layout: Bee Design
Photography: Frank Hurley, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
Printer: BDT International
Perforation: 14 per 2cms
Stamp size: 28.45 x 42.58mm
Sheet Layout: 10
Release date: 17 November, 2015
Production Co-ordination: Creative Direction (Worldwide) Ltd