Are you looking for a good addition to your summer reading list? Endurance by Alfred Lansing reveals the challenges Ernest Shackleton encountered on his trans-Antarctic expedition. Here’s a brief overview to whet your appetite.
Endurance departed from South Georgia for the Weddell Sea in 5 December of 1914. As the ship moved southward, early ice was encountered, which slowed progress. Deep in the Weddell Sea, conditions gradually grew worse until, on 19 January 1915, Endurance became frozen fast in an ice floe. She drifted slowly northward with the ice through the following months. When spring arrived in September, the breaking of the ice put extreme pressures on the ship’s hull.
Until this point, Shackleton had hoped that the ship, when released from the ice, could work her way back towards Vahsel Bay. On 24 October water began pouring in and Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. For almost two months, Shackleton and his party camped on a large, flat floe, hoping that it would drift towards Paulet Island, approximately 250 miles away. By 17 March, their ice camp was within 60 miles of Paulet Island but, separated by impassable ice, they were unable to reach it. On 9 April, their ice floe broke in two, and Shackleton ordered the crew into the lifeboats, to head for the nearest land. After a harrowing week at sea, the exhausted men landed their three lifeboats at Elephant Island, 346 miles from where the Endurance sank. This was the first time they had stood on solid ground for 497 days. Shackleton’s concern for his men was such that he gave his mittens to photographer Frank Hurley, who had lost his during the boat journey. Shackleton suffered frostbitten fingers as a result.
Elephant Island was an inhospitable place, far from any shipping routes; rescue upon chance discovery was very unlikely. The men only had a narrow beach to call home and it was constantly blasted by gales and blizzards. One tent had already been destroyed and others flattened. Many of the men were mentally and physically exhausted. Shackleton decided to risk an open-boat journey to the distant South Georgia whaling stations, 800 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 miles) away. The problem was that this island lay across the Drake Passage, one of the fiercest stretches of water in the world. The strongest of the tiny 20-foot lifeboats, christened James Caird after the expedition’s chief sponsor, was chosen for the trip. Ship’s carpenter Harry McNish made various improvements, including raising the sides, strengthening the keel, building a makeshift deck of wood and canvas, and sealing the work. The James Caird launched from Elephant Island, 24 April 1916 with five crew members.
Shackleton refused to pack supplies for more than four weeks, knowing that if they did not reach South Georgia within that time, the boat and its crew would be lost. During the next fifteen days, they sailed through the waters of the southern ocean, at the mercy of the stormy seas, in constant peril of capsizing. To navigate accurately with the sextant Worsley needed to make sightings of the sun. But the sun was rarely visible, and when it was the high pitch and roll of the boat made it difficult to be accurate. They entered the treacherous Drake Passage, a band of ocean where huge rolling waves sweep round the globe, unimpeded by any land. This area was common for waves known as greybeards that could be 100 feet from trough to crest. Shackleton now set a course directly for South Georgia. If they were too far north, they could be pushed right past the island by the fierce southwesterly winds. Worsley’s navigation was dead on and he had accomplished one of the most incredible feats of navigation in maritime history.
On 8 May, thanks to Worsley’s navigational skills, the cliffs of South Georgia came into sight, but hurricane-force winds prevented the possibility of landing. The party was forced to ride out the storm offshore, in constant danger of being dashed against the rocks. They later learned that the same hurricane had sunk a 500-ton steamer bound for South Georgia from Buenos Aires. On the following day, they were able to land on the unoccupied southern shore. They were exhausted and dehydrated as they came ashore on the uninhabited southwest coast. The whaling stations were still 150 nautical miles (280 km; 170 miles) around the coast. Shackleton’s plan had been to sail round, hugging the shore, but he knew that the boat wouldn’t make such a voyage; nor would two of the exhausted men. After a brief recuperation, he decided to traverse the island on foot and get help at Stromness whaling station. No one had ever crossed the interior of South Georgia and they had no maps.
Rather than risk putting to sea again to reach the whaling stations on the northern coast, Shackleton decided to attempt a land crossing of the island. For their journey, the survivors were only equipped with boots they had pushed screws into to act as climbing boots, a carpenter’s adze, and 50 feet of rope. Shackleton traveled 32 miles with Worsley and Crean over extremely dangerous mountainous terrain for 36 hours to reach the whaling station at Stromness on 20 May.
The next successful crossing of South Georgia was in October 1955, by the British explorer Duncan Carse, who traveled much of the same route as Shackleton’s party. In tribute to their achievement, he wrote: “I do not know how they did it, except that they had to — three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration”.
Shackleton immediately sent a boat to pick up the men from the other side of South Georgia while he set to work to organize the rescue of the men on Elephant Island. His first three attempts were foiled by sea ice, which blocked the approaches to the island. The British whaler SS Southern Sky reached Elephant Island on 30 August 1916, at which point the men had been isolated there for four and a half months, and Shackleton evacuated all 22 men.
Raymond Priestly summarizes Shackleton’s achievement, “Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
As you enjoy the warm summer sunshine, you will find this book a refreshing, and thankfully vicarious, adventure.
Associate Pastor – Discipleship. The Church at LifePark
Professor of Discipleship, Columbia International University
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