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Journey of the James Caird lifeboat

One of the most astonishing feats in history got underway this day when Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, Frank Worsley, Tim McCarthy, Harry McNish and John Vincent, set off in the adapted lifeboat, the James Caird, in an attempt to rescue their colleagues who can be seen below waving them off from the beach at Elephant Island that would be their home for the following four and a half months.

The three Irishmen aboard the lifeboat, Crean, Shackleton, and McCarthy were utterly oblivious to events taking place the very same day back in their Irish homeland as the Easter Rising got underway. It would be a day that would eventually, after two further conflicts, lead to the formation of a new nation; the Republic of Ireland.

As the James Caird struggled through gales and high seas on its historic journey to South Georgia, Tom Crean sat in the cramped space below the canvas facing Frank Worsley.

The two men used their feet to steady the Primus stove on which Crean, as the designated cook, sought to make a hot dish of hoosh – generally made up of fat, dried Pemmican, and biscuits mixed with hot water. Not the tastiest of dishes yet it provided the calories and nourishment required if they had any hope of surviving before making it to land.

Frank Worsley, in his book, Shackleton’s Boat Journey, painted the picture of one particular meal time where Crean made sure none of those precious calories went to waste. He wrote as follows:

“By this time we were exceedingly dirty, our faces nearly black – our hands quite so – from blubber and soot. I remember once while holding the cooker and absorbed in watching Crean stirring. I saw him stop and stare into the hooch. I almost trembled!
The next moment a filthy black paw shot out, seized a handful of reindeer hair from the hooch, squeezed it out, so as to waste nothing, and threw it away. We didn’t mind a little dirt but we drew the line at reindeer hair”

I wonder, as their crewmates saw them disappear into the most perilous seas on the planet, if they had any belief that the mission of the James Caird would ever lead to their rescue?

I believe they did. They had tremendous faith in the men on board and they were proved right. The feat they undertook went down in the annals of history as probably the greatest rescue and survival tale ever documented.

No amount of words depicting the terrifying ordeal or the hardships suffered by the crew of the James Caird lifeboat and the men left stranded on the island, could ever convey the harrowing experience it must have been but remembering the staunch camaraderie and unswerving duty to protect one another’s well being when the chips are down left an important lesson for us all.

Tom Crean’s role both physically and mentally was vital. Downplaying their dire situation, he sang away at the tiller and employed humorous banter at a time when the hurricane conditions and huge waves threatened to swallow them up.

Journey of  the James Caird lifeboat Tom Crean BookToday this historic James Caird lifeboat sits in Dulwich College, Shackleton’s former school and it’s there as a reminder of a rescue task most thought impossible.

To read Tom Crean’s full story. The book can be purchased at the following link.

Biography of Tom Crean – Crean – The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero