In 1915, Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) lost his ship and his dream of crossing Antarctica on foot. What began as a journey of exploration became a 20-month battle to stay alive, demanding ingenuity, courage and leadership. All these Shackleton held in full measure.
AN EPIC OF SURVIVAL
The story of Ernest Shackleton's unsuccessful expedition to Antarctica in 1914 is one of the greatest in the history of exploration. Shackleton saved his men from almost certain death when their ship was crushed by ice in the frozen sea off Antarctica. But this is no ordinary adventure story. The strength of Shackleton's determination and leadership is so great, and the story itself is so incredibly thrilling, that it has the power to move people deeply.
One evening, I was standing at a bus stop with South, Shackleton’s written account of his adventure, tucked under my arm. A man turned to me with pure admiration in his eyes. ’Shackleton’, he said quietly, knowing that if I had read even half of the book, I would share his respect for this wonderful man and what he achieved.
On the expedition, Shackleton planned to cross Antarctica from one side to the other, something never achieved before. But his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice when the sea froze just 100 miles from the coast of Antarctica. Shackleton realised that the crossing would have to be abandoned. The only thing he and his men could do was wait in the hope that, when the ice melted, the ship would survive intact. In the event, the ship remained stuck in the ice for ten months and eventually sank.
Shackleton also realised that he would have to keep the 27 members of his crew fit and in good spirits if they were going to survive. For this was 1915, and they had no radio or other means of contacting the outside world. He organised games of football on the ice to keep the men occupied. Despite the extremely cold conditions, and with only wild birds to eat, Shackleton remained confident and optimistic. He paid great attention to the psychological condition of his men and responded immediately to any signs of depression or despair.
This was just as well because things were going to get worse. As the ice began to melt, it crushed the ship to pieces instead of freeing it. The situation seemed hopeless, but Shackleton had a plan. They would walk across the floating ice, dragging three small boats saved from the Endurance behind them, until they reached the open sea; then they would sail to Elephant Island, the nearest piece of dry land. The difficult trek took weeks, but the sea crossing was even worse. For seven sleepless, nightmarish days and nights, the men endured storms and cold that froze their clothing into solid ice. But somehow they reached the island. They had not stepped on land since leaving England 497 days before. They were exhausted, but almost hysterical with joy.
But they were still in danger. Elephant Island was uninhabited and no ships ever visited it. The winds blew at 150 kph; they were cold, wet. hungry and suffering from frostbite. But Shackleton had another plan. Taking one boat and five men, he decided to set sail for the island of South Georgia, where there was a whaling station. (line 55) It was their last chance of rescue, but involved sailing 1,200 km across a sea well known for its 80-metre high waves. If the navigator made a mistake and they missed the narrow island, the nearest land was Africa, 4,000 miles away.
One day, I went to see the little boat they sailed in on display at Shackleton’s old school in London. I stood in front of the boat, thinking about that terrible journey. The boat seemed so small, so fragile, and what they had achieved seemed so wonderful, that I was overcome by emotion and I wept.
For Shackleton and his men did reach the island, only to spend another three days crossing a mountain range on foot before they reached the whaling station. They had survived the most unimaginable hardships to save their shipmates, all of whom were later rescued. The survival of every member of the crew is a tribute to Shackleton’s leadership skills, because here was a man who knew how to motivate and inspire others; something his story is still doing today.
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