The harshness of Point Wild

After leaving Penguin Island at 0230 we had an energetic day sailing close hauled in 3m of swell until eventually the wind headed us completely. It was after dark when we anchored close under the south east side of Elephant Island in preparation for rounding its tip in the morning and seeing if we could anchor off Point Wild.

In the morning the barometer had increased and it was foggy but by the time we dropped anchor under Furness Glacier it had begun to clear though the swell still ran into the bay. Together with the thick brash ice lining the coast, there was no way we could go ashore. Instead, we piled into the zodiacs for a fascinating cruise around the headland.

The brash ice was thick indeed and undulated like a carpet in an earthquake, but without end. It was beautiful and moving (though I advise anyone prone to seasickness to swallow hard on watching the videos in this post). The beach is smaller now due to rockfalls but it was never large.  

We had visited Hope Bay and Paulet Island on sunny days, been able to go ashore and walk away from the surf. I don’t think this spot seemed immeasurably bleaker just because of our luck with the weather: there was nowhere to go but the small beach or the stinking rocks of the penguin colony. It was winter and even facing north the weather was cruel. Of course, no-one knew where they were or if they had survived. The will to live must have been immense to live through that winter. It is appalling to think that just months after their rescue several of these men died on the Western Front.

We returned to Europa, enjoying seeing her from the water but chastened by the horrendous situation of the camp. Soon enough, we had hauled up our anchor, bid farewell to the islands of the Peninsula and set our course for South Georgia. We had a big ship, plenty of food and modern forecasts. It was never going to be like the voyage of the James Caird, and I’m very glad of it.

Doing it the hard way: How Point Wild got its name

Shackleton made landfall at Point Wild after many months of struggles on the ice, trying hard for Paulet, then for Hope Bay and Deception Island, and after a short pitch at exposed Cape Valentine on the western tip of Elephant Island. He arrived with three strained and patched whale boats (much like the ones I have pictured elsewhere), not much food or fresh water and an exhausted crew.  It was mid-April, the penguins and seals were vanishing on migration and the weather was closing in.

Elephant Island is almost directly north of Paulet. It is much easier, though, to sail to it from the western side of the Peninsula as we did. Shackleton found his every effort to get west thwarted by the wind and ice and indeed his own description of making for this last piece of land before the open Atlantic makes it clear that they were both fortunate and skilled to reach it. His description of their last night at sea is typically understated:

It was a stern night. The men, except the watch, crouched and huddled in the bottom of the boat, getting what little warmth they could from the soaking sleeping-bags and each other’s bodies. Harder and harder blew the wind and fiercer and fiercer grew the sea. The boat plunged heavily through the squalls and came up to the wind, the sail shaking in the stiffest gusts. Every now and then, as the night wore on, the moon would shine down through a rift in the driving clouds, and in the momentary light I could see the ghostly faces of men, sitting up to trim the boat as she heeled over to the wind. When the moon was hidden its presence was revealed still by the light reflected on the streaming glaciers of the island. The temperature had fallen very low, and it seemed that the general discomfort of our situation could scarcely have been increased; but the land looming ahead was a beacon of safety, and I think we were all buoyed up by the hope that the coming day would see the end of our immediate troubles. At least we would get firm land under our feet. (from South by Sir Ernest Shackleton)

It was 15 April 1916,  497 days since the men had stood on solid ground, when they came ashore, but the landing place was untenable. There was no beach free of high water at Cape Valentine. After a scouting party they moved seven miles westward to a narrow beach underneath a glacier at the bottom of deepish bay exposed to the north. Here there was a colony of penguins which did not look immediately likely to desert them, hope of setting up camp above the water line and ice for fresh water. Their demands had sunk very low but those were the basics covered.

Shackleton knew he would have to leave to find help. Although South Georgia was further away such a course would enable them to sail down or across the wind: there was no way the battered James Caird, though the strongest boat they had, could sail upwind in the south Atlantic. And he did not have long. The weather was closing in as they made camp and the shifting ice made it ever harder to leave the beach. Shackleton knew who to put

 in charge. Frank Wild had been his right hand man throughout the last stressful years and he repeatedly writes about how calm he was. Indeed he describes, when landing at Cape Valentine  “Wild, who always rose superior to fortune, bad and good, came ashore as I was looking at the men and stood beside me as easy and unconcerned as if he had stepped out of his car for a stroll in the park.” Despite Wild’s wish to accompany Shackleton on the voyage north-east, he had to stay and manage the camp. The party had arrived on the island on 15 April, and Shackleton left on 24 April.

Wild ran the camp brilliantly, pulling them through the following months even when he began to think that Shackleton had failed and he would need to try and reach Deception Island. A camp was set up by upturning the two other whale boats on top of low stone walls, covering them with seal skins and creating space inside for 22 men. (Frank Hurley stayed at the camp and these are some of his famous record of the expedition.) Wild created routines and activities and dealt with the inevitable fractious tensions of such a situation. He had one man with a heart condition, one whose toes had to be amputated and (at least) one who was seriously depressed. Nonetheless, no-one at Point Wild died before Shackleton returned on the Yelcho on 30 August 2016.

The memorial to Captain Pardoe of the Yelcho still stands on the isolated rocks of the penguin colony.

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