Bligh and Shackleton's boat journeys

Unplanned epics - Bligh's and Shackleton's small-boat voyages

The Mutiny on the Bounty | Shackleton's impossible voyage

Sailing Today logo This article by Carol Fowler was first published in the magazine Sailing Today, Issue 75, July 2003. It delves into the archives at the National Maritime Museum to explore the epic small-boat voyages of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain William Bligh.

The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and part of the officers and crew adrift from HMS Bounty, 29 April 1789The Mutineers turning Lt Bligh and part of the Officers and Crew adrift from His Majesty's Ship the Bounty, 29th April 1789 by Robert Dodd [artist & engraver]; B. B. Evans [publisher], 2 October 1790. Repro ID: B1337 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonBoth Shackleton's and Bligh's voyages were undertaken in situations of great stress, with only the most rudimentary navigation equipment, in small boats of almost exactly the same size. In both instances, almost all their men survived – Bligh lost one but that was due to an attack and not to lack of seamanship – and both returned to a hugely changed Europe. The French Revolution had started during Bligh's absence and, in Shackleton's case, the First World War, expected to be over by Christmas, was still raging with the loss of millions of lives.

These coincidences apart, it would be difficult to find two men who were more different in style and personality as were these two seafaring legends. William Bligh was not the sadistic monster depicted by Hollywood but he certainly lacked the instinct that would make men follow him, while every report of Sir Ernest Shackleton portrays him as a born leader who inspired absolute trust.

The real story behind 'The Mutiny on the Bounty'

Captain BlighCaptain Bligh, frontispiece to A Voyage to the South Sea, 1792 by John Russell [artist]; John Conde [engraver]. Repro ID: PU3277 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonBligh had gone to sea at the age of seven as Captain's servant on board HMS Monmouth. It was an unpromising start for an ambitious man in a world when naval officers were likely to be promoted less on ability and more on their contacts and social standing. However, a flair for mathematics ensured his advancement and in 1776, aged 22, he was appointed Sailing Master on HMS Resolution, serving under Cook on his final voyage, and it was Bligh’s charts and surveys that were published along with Cook’s journals.

By 1781 he had made Lieutenant and eight years later he was recommended by Sir Joseph Banks to command the Bounty and was duly appointed Acting Captain for an expedition to Tahiti to collect breadfruit plants destined for transplantation in the West Indies. It was a long and difficult voyage.

A delayed departure meant it was too late in the season to round Cape Horn and, after several attempts in appalling weather, he turned for the Cape of Good Hope. Ten months after embarking from Spithead they reached Tahiti, but by now it was the wrong season for collecting the plants and they delayed on the island for five months.

Discipline had been a problem throughout the voyage. The ship had been altered to carry its cargo and overcrowding broke down the usual segregation between officers' and men's quarters. It also meant they carried fewer officers than normal and no marines – the military complement used to ensure that the Captain's word is law. Although Bligh was critical, quick tempered and prone to bad language, to the extent that the seamen found it objectionable, he had an aversion to flogging and relied on his command to ensure discipline. It turned out to be far from adequate.

Despite desertions among the crew, Bligh appears to have remained completely unaware that the long stay in Tahiti provided a fertile breeding ground for mutiny: Naval discipline was relaxed, the climate was balmy and many of the men took Tahitian 'wives'. The men's lives were now more comfortable and harmonious than anything they could expect on return to Britain. There had been friction between Bligh and his Acting Lieutenant, Fletcher Christian, on the voyage out. In Tahiti, Christian went completely native and appeared for re-embarkation with his buttocks entirely blackened by tattoos – a Polynesian sign of male initiation.

Twenty-four days later, it was Christian, the second in command, who led the mutiny. Bligh was taken completely by surprise when, just before sunrise on 28 April, Christian and the Master at Arms, armed with muskets and cutlasses, burst into his cabin, tied his hands and threatened him with death. The mutineers decided to cast Bligh and his supporters adrift, in a 23 ft ship's launch, with sufficient rations for five days. Including Bligh there were 19 men in the boat. Whether they were more willing to join their Captain out of loyalty or fear of the death sentence for mutiny it’s impossible to say, but the boat was already overladen.

According to Bligh's notebook, he was equipped with a magnetic compass needle, a 10 inch sextant, a quadrant and two books containing mathematical, astronomical and geographic information on the enforced journey aboard the launch. Within days they knotted a log-line and the men learned to count seconds accurately so as to estimate their speed. Bligh already had a knowledge of the waters gained from his voyage with Cook and, on a personal level, the ability to focus on the minutiae to the exclusion of all else. This last trait may have triggered the mutiny but it was this very quality that was now to save his life and those of the men with him.

Their first landfall on Tofoa on 30 April was almost their last. Determined to conserve their meagre supplies, Bligh sent a landing party ashore to search for food and water and, on 3 May, they were attacked and one man was killed. They had collected a few coconuts but the breadfruit and some of their original supplies were trampled in their haste to escape. When they took stock, their provisions consisted of 150 lbs of bread, 20 lbs of pork, 28 gallons of water, three bottles of wine and five quarts of rum – little enough to sustain 18 men for what they knew would be a long voyage.

Bligh wrote,

I now made a pair of scales with cocoa-nut shells, and having accidentally some pistol-balls in the boat, 25 of which weighed one pound, or 16 ounces, I adopted one as the proportion of weight that each person should receive of bread, and a quarter of a pint of water, at eight in the morning, at noon, and at sun-set. Today I gave about half an ounce of pork for dinner, which, though any moderate person would have considered only a mouthful, was divided into three or four.

Two weeks later, concerned about missing Timor in contrary winds, the rations were shortened to breakfast and dinner. Cutting out one 'meal' a day meant they had sufficient bread and water for 43 days. All agreed to live on the meagre ration.

Bligh had a coconut shell on which he carved his name, the date and the following words: 'the cup I eat my miserable allowance out of'.

He records that,

I generally broke mine [bread] into small pieces, and eat it in my allowance of water, out of a coconut shell, with a spoon: economically avoiding to take too large a piece at a time, so that I was as long at dinner as if it had been a much more plentiful meal.

It rained almost incessantly for the first weeks of the voyage, allowing them to collect rainwater and supplement their water supplies.

Ever attentive to detail, Bligh continued to chart the water they sailed through. They reached Timor 48 days after their escape from Tofoa; a voyage of 3618 nautical miles in an overladen boat with only basic navigation equipment and little food. Anyone less focused would almost certainly have failed so it seems that being pernickety has its value.

Having seized the Bounty, the mutineers returned to Tahiti to resume the life they had been enjoying. However, fearing the arrival of a Royal Navy ship and the inevitable consequences of their mutiny, Christian and eight of the mutineers decided to take the Bounty and make for Pitcairn Island where, because it had been wrongly placed on Admiralty charts, they considered themselves safe from detection. Despite having risked everything, they now began to fight among themselves and life in paradise soon began to lose its attraction, but there was no going back.

The main town on the island, Adamstown, takes its name from the last mutineer, Samuel Adams, who died in 1829. Descendants of the mutineers still live on Pitcairn.

Most people's perceived knowledge of Bligh comes from the 1935 film, Mutiny on the Bounty. Charles Laughton, scowling magnificently, played Bligh as a humourless tyrant, the archetypal bad guy, while Clark Gable portrayed Fletcher Christian as a handsome charmer. Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard were paired as Christian and Bligh, respectively in 1962. Brando was so taken by Tahiti he married a girl from both the 1935 and 1962 versions! In 1984, Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins took the roles of mutineer and captain – the last film version to date.

Sir Ernest Shackleton's impossible voyage

Portrait of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, 1874–1922Portrait of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, 1874–1922 by Reginald Grenville Eves, 1921. This portrait was probably painted from life, before Shackleton set off on his final voyage, the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, in 1921. Not long after the start of the voyage, Shackleton died of a heart attack on 15 January 1922, at Grytviken, South Georgia. Repro ID: BHC3022. We regret that Museum enquiries have not been able to identify the copyright holder and would welcome any information that would help us update our records. Please contact the Picture Library.

The legendary trust that Shackleton inspired in his men was never more tested than on the Endurance expedition of 1914–17. Amundson had reached the South Pole two years earlier and Shackleton knew that achieving glory and the hoped for riches that would follow, would need a new and spectacular project. He came up with the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, an 1800 mile crossing of the Antarctic by sledge, the longest-ever attempted. It was hailed by The Times as the project that would 're-establish the prestige of Great Britain… in Polar exploration'.

With his usual energy and enterprise, Shackleton succeeded in raising the money and signing up a diverse group of experts that included seasoned polar explorers, scientists and Frank Hurley, a hugely-talented photographer and film cameraman whose pictures still inspire awe almost 90 years later.

Despite warnings that the ice was the worst in living memory, Shackleton could not afford to delay – waiting a full year would have cost him money he simply didn’t have. Filled with a combination of optimism, inspiration and a certainty in his own ability to succeed, they left the whaling station of Grytviken on South Georgia on 5 December 1914. Endurance was beset in January and drifted north in the grip of the ice until she sank on 21 November 1915.

The party floated further north on an ice floe until, on 9 April, it began to disintegrate and they took to the three lifeboats salvaged from the ship. A week of hard sailing and rowing brought them to Elephant Island; a barren, ice-capped rock, last visited in the 1830s and far from any shipping lane. It was solid land but there was little else to recommend it. Remaining there would clearly mean a slow death. The only alternative was to seek help. Shackleton had always wanted to make a great open boat voyage, but this was probably not the one he would have chosen.

All three boats had been severely battered by their journey over the ice and attempting to embark all 28 of the party, on what they knew must be an almost impossible trip, was doomed to failure. Shackleton decided to take a small party in the most seaworthy boat, the James Caird, and head for South Georgia 800 miles away. It was further than either Cape Horn or the Falklands but at least prevailing winds and currents would be in their favour. They certainly needed something on their side if they were to succeed in navigating 800 miles in a small and battered boat through what Worsley described as,

the unceasing swell of the Southern Ocean rolling unchecked round the globe… waves were the highest, broadest and longest in the world, 40–50 ft from crest to hollow and moving at between 25 and 50 miles per hour.

The chronometer believed to have been used by Shackleton on the James CairdMarine chronometer made by Thomas Mercer, c. 1890–95. Believed to have been used on Sir Ernest Shackleton's 800 mile open boat journey to South Georgia on the James Caird, after his ship the Endurance was crushed in ice in 1915. Repro ID: D5337 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

On 24 April the rescue party set out. The most vital member of the group was Frank Worsley, a very experienced small-boat handler and one of those rare people who navigate almost by instinct. Shackleton also chose McNeish, the ship's carpenter, Crean and McCarthy who were both good sailors, strong and emotionally stable, and Vincent, the ex-bosun demoted for bullying, who proved unable to cope and rapidly became little more than a passenger. They were equipped with dilapidated reindeer skin sleeping bags, blankets and the clothes they stood up in – none of them waterproof. Navigation gear consisted of a sextant, a liquid boat's compass, which was affected by the iron in the boat pump, a chronometer and books of tables for making calculations. Apart from a single check by the light of a flaming lifeboat match each night, the compass could only be used during daylight since they were saving the candle they had for when they reached land. South Georgia is a speck in the ocean and if they missed it there would be no second chance.

Conditions were unspeakable. The interior of the boat was dark and cold with barely room to sit up, and the improvised decking leaked. Soon after they set out the weather deteriorated to a Force 9 gale. Two days later, when they got their first sight, they had covered 128 miles. Worsley described the difficulty of snapping off a sight in a boat which was 'jumping like a flea', with two men holding his legs to save him from falling overboard while Shackleton recorded the time. Two days later, they encountered a southwesterly and, in danger of broaching, put out a sea anchor and hove to under a small jib. On day six the gale moderated and they managed another sight. They were on course.

To prepare hot food two people had to wedge the primus stove between their knees and heat up water while avoiding getting scalded in a pitching boat. Shackleton knew that hot victuals were essential for morale and twice a day the crew got 'huish' – a mixture of Bovril sledging rations (dried beef for sledge dogs), biscuits and sugar – and hot milk from powder.

Day eight was particularly bad. Fifteen inches of ice had built up on deck and the James Caird was riding deep and liable to capsize. A man had to crawl on deck with the carpenter’s axe and hack at the ice while being soaked by the next wave. They did this three times during the day. With typical understatement, Worsley remarked, 'what a job'. They were unable to reach the bows and eventually a build up of ice sawed through the painter and they lost both it and the sea anchor.

At day 11 they were almost half way to their destination. At midnight on the next day, Shackleton saw a freak wave bearing down on them – the worst he’d seen in 26 years at sea. He just had time to shout a warning before it hit. The boat was half filled with water and they spent the rest of the night frantically pumping and bailing. When they managed their next fix they were 100 miles from South Georgia.

Grytviken was on the north of the island but Shackleton decided they must head for the nearer southern coast since there was a serious danger of missing it altogether or of being unable to beat back. The freak wave had contaminated their fresh water and things were getting desperate when they finally sighted land.

It was too rough to land and they spent another day and a half in gale conditions beating offshore and back, nearly losing the mainmast in the process. At noon on 10 May they saw the entrance to King Haaken Bay through jagged rocks and after five attempts managed to enter the bay and land, luckily close by a fresh water spring. The James Caird was by now too battered to risk sailing round the island – the only alternative was to climb over the top.

Shackleton took Worsley and Crean. Brass nails from the boat were fitted to their battered boots to turn them into makeshift crampons. Their only other equipment was the carpenter's axe, 50 feet of rope and the primus. The weather was clear and the moon was full – if they were to go, it must be now. They only rested for brief periods on the trek, sleep was a luxury they dared not risk. They crossed two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges, covering 40 miles in 36 hours before they stumbled into Grytviken.

All the men, three on the other side of South Georgia and the 22 on Elephant Island were rescued. Shackleton wrote to his wife, 'Not a life lost and we have been through hell'.

Some facts...

James Caird

The whaler was 22 ft 6 in long with a 6 ft beam. The ship's carpenter, James McNeish, raised the sides so she was 3 ft 7 in deep, decked her by recycling timber from a sledge and reinforced the keel by lashing the mast from the Stancomb Wills internally. She was ballasted with shingle from the beach.

She was reasonably stable but with round bilges and no keel she made monumental leeway which could only be estimated. Shackleton had insisted on two masts being built in, which might be unorthodox but the trusty boat found its way to its destination.


Shackleton and Marston had designed the innovative dome tents in which the party survived on the ice – they were stable, storm-proof and years ahead of their time.

They also carried dehydrated food, a new technology never before used on an expedition, and supplies of vitamin supplements to prevent scurvy. The last was an extremely far-sighted move by Shackleton since the theory proposing their use had only been published in 1912.

In Shackleton's footsteps

Following the Falklands War, British troops were stationed on South Georgia. In 1985, 70 years after Shackleton's crossing, Captain Roger Morgan-Grenville got permission to take 11 men on a training exercise from King Haaken Bay to Stromness Bay. All were young and fit, wearing four layers of clothing under outer waterproofs and equipped for the climb with crampons and abseil ropes. They covered 28 miles in 32 hours, a great achievement but one which makes Shackleton’s all the more outstanding.

Sailing Today logo Sailing Today

Issue 75, July 2003.

The National Maritime Museum gratefully acknowledges the commitment and cooperation of the Sailing Today editorial team and the author of the articles, Carol Fowler.