April 15, 1916: A last night in the boats before landing on Elephant Island

–Excerpt from “In the Boats” Chapter Eight, “Hold Fast: Tom Crean with Shackleton”–

The wind was a help, but sunset found the men of the Wills too exhausted to manage the sail. She was again taken in tow by the Caird. As the night came on, the weather turned for the worse, and furious squalls stormed down the mountainsides bearing great clouds of whirling drift. The Docker, straining badly, cut loose from the other two boats and vanished into the blizzard. The two boats remaining made heavy weather of it, pitching and nearly capsizing in the violent cross-seas. At times it seemed as though the little Wills must be cast loose to meet her fate alone. Not quite beyond hope, she hung on through the night.

This was a night that would try the faith of the most devout of men. To have seen the island after fifteen months marooned on the floe, to have come this far across the water to be swamped and drowned in the darkness within reach of the promised landfall was unthinkable. It may have crushed the spirits of some of his shipmates, but not Tom Crean’s. Through his damp windproof he touched the brown scapular around his neck. Assured of his place in the next world, he found no fears in this one. The strength of his body would give out soon, but until that moment came he was a seaman first and always, until the sea would claim him. Each hour of the night he checked on his men, and raising his voice above the tumult of the howling squalls and the spume-driven waves called out his reassuring hail, “All well, sir!”

Or, if not well, at least alive.


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