There’s a lot of skill in crafting furniture. Still, it doesn’t compare to other professions like healthcare. Imagine a situation where your carpentry skills actually saved your team. This was the situation faced by Shackleton’s Carpenter – Harry McNish.
Harry McNish was the shipwright and master carpenter onboard Endurance, the boat Shackleton used for the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–16. The polar expedition is an epic story of human endurance, survival, and rescue. The skills of McNish played a significant part in the survival of the entire crew. This is the first of a new series of posts entitled Extraordinary Making Stories.
I first read of the skills of Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish in the book “Let my people go surfing”by Yvon Chouinard. In it, Chouinard claims that the carpenter had three tools with which to repair ‘The James Caird’. This was one of the lifeboats from Endurance that a crew of 6 navigated 700 treacherous miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia and ultimately, safety.
For those not aware of events. Shackleton and a crew of 27 set off on a scientific expedition to navigate across the South Pole. The ship, Endurance became trapped in the ice flow in the Weddell Sea. The crew had to abandon the stricken ship and continue in 3 small lifeboats. All the crew made it to Elephant Island before a team of six navigated The James Caird, onto South Georgia. The journey in the James Caird took 18 days. Navigating over 700 miles of the southern ocean in a boat designed to act as a life raft. An epic story of heroism, skill, and survival.
McNish adapted the James Caird using wood from the other two boats. He added a covered canvas deck and strengthened the hull with a spare mast. To help keep the tiny craft watertight, he made a waterproofing caulk made from paint & seal blood. He used nails from the boats to create spiked-walking boots for the final trek over South Georgia. All with limited tools!
McNish was a troublesome member of the crew and clashed with Shackleton. He was one of the few men not put forward by Shackleton for the Polar Medal. He was, nonetheless, skilled and relied on by the rest of the crew. It seems cruel that he wasn’t recognised for his contribution.
I have long admired the popular story behind Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole. It’s a tale of leadership in adversity. The mention of Shackleton’s carpenter and his tools piqued my interest and I’ve revisited the story to find out more. What tools did McNish actually choose when his shipmates’ lives depended on them?
Finding out which tools has proven elusive but a visit to Dulwich College – home to the James Caird Society and Shackleton’s old school. This provided the information I needed. There, revealed in the diary of McNish, 4 tools.
An Adze, hammer, chisel, and saw.