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      Endurance


      FACTS


        Shackleton's Endurance Expedition is the greatest survival story written in the annals of the history of the 20th Century


      The goal of Shackleton's Endurance expedition was to cross the Antarctic overland. Shackleton envisaged starting from the Weddell Sea coast and cross the continent via the South Pole to the Ross Sea. Two years previously, Amundsen had reached the Pole, beating Scott, so the first crossing of the Antarctic was, according to The Times: "... re-establishing the prestige of Great Britain in ... Polar exploration". It wasn't a view wholly shared. Winston Churchill, who had recently become First Lord of the Admiralty, scrawled across the page: "Enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest. The Pole has already been discovered. What is the use of another expedition?".

      Neverthless, there was enough interest in the expedition via financial backers for Shackleton to fund it and in 1913 to buy the ship Polaris in Norway for 225,00 kroner (£11,600). At the time he did not actually have the money; but he did not have to pay for some months yet. He changed her name from Polaris to Endurance. 300-ton ship was equipped with both sail and a steam engine fired by coal, built especially to withstand the ice. He recruited crew members at the expedition headquarters at No 4, New Burlington Street, London.

      In the summer of 1914, the Endurance set off bound for the South Atlantic. She made ports of call at Madeira, Montevideo and Buenos Aires, where she was joined by Shackleton himself; he had delayed his departure to attend to business which included people chasing their bills (Shackleton himself always struggled with lack of finance). Finally, he rejoined the crew in Buenos Aires, having left Liverpool on the Houlder Bros. liner, SS La Negra. The ship's crew included 28 men, 69 Canadian sledging dogs and the carpenter's cat, Mrs. Chippy, and they made their way to South Georgia Island at the gateway to the Antarctic Circle.

      From the whalers who lived there Shackleton learned that the ice conditions in the Weddell Sea were the worst in memory, with pack ice extending far north. Shackleton held the ship at South Georgia for an entire month. Then, in December, he decided to press ahead, despite the fact that the ice had not improved. In two days she encountered the first pack ice. For the next six weeks, the ship dodged and weaved between loose floes, or rammed through them.

      On January 18, the Endurance entered dense pack ice. Reluctant to use the enormous steam power required to push through it, Shackleton and Captain Worsley waited for an opening. In the night, however, the ice closed around the ship. A northeasterly gale wind arose, compressing the ice tightly against the continental shore—and the ship within it. Several days passed before the expedition realized they were trapped until the austral spring—some nine months away.

      Through the coming months the pressure of the ice besetting Endurance grew worse. The crew soon realised the ruin of their ship loomed. Thus the men set up Ocean Camp, a makeshift camp on the ice. Quietly, Shackleton ensued that the warmer reindeer skin bags went to the sailors, while the officers took the less desirable woolen ones. This was but one of countless selfless acts Shackleton showed towards his men throughout the expedition. The result was to keep up everyone's morale to say nothing of their physical well-being.

      One day Shackleton assembled his men and said: "Ship and stores have gone, so now we'll go home."

      The men resigned themselves to camping on the ice for an indefinite time. A galley and storehouse built from the Endurance's broken timbers stood in the center of the five tents, while the dogs were pegged nearby in teams. Along with the three life boats, three tons of food supplies were salvaged from the half-sunk ship, and when these ran out the men existed on penguins and seals. At the end of March, the last of their beloved dogs were shot, and eaten. Shackleton also ordered McNish's cat Mrs Chippy to be destroyed, something the carpenter never forgave him for.

      The temperature ranged from highs in the 30's to a low of -21 degrees Fahrenheit; the mean temperature in March was 1 degree. Day by day, the dwindling floe of ice on which they were camped drifted north toward open sea.

      At first, Shackleton hoped to march to land some 300 miles to the northwest, hauling the lifeboats and sledging rations that had been evacuated from the Endurance. He eventually made two attempts to march to land, both futile. The dogs successfully hauled the sledges loaded with supplies, but it was left to the men to pull the lifeboats. Loaded, the boats weighed at least a ton each, and it proved impossible to haul them over the colossal upheavals of ice. Nor could the boats be left behind, as beneath the unreliable ice was the ocean, countless fathoms deep. Helplessly, the men watched to see if the drift of the pack would carry them to land. Meanwhile, they could only wait. The men named their second encampment Patience Camp.

      On April 9, 1916, the 28 men struck camp and piled into the three life boats. At the mercy of prevailing winds, the boats set course for a splinter of land called Elephant Island, some 100 miles north. This terrible journey, made in heaving seas, nearly cost many of the men their lives; it did cost some their sanity. On the seventh day out from Patience Camp, the boats arrived at Elephant Island.

      Knowing that rescue would never come to the remote island, Shackleton made a momentous decision: selecting five of the toughest and best sailors—Worsley, Crean, McNish, McCarthy, and Vincent—he announced that they would sail the largest lifeboat to the whaling stations of South Georgia, over 800 miles away across the most dangerous ocean on the planet. Navigation of this desperate journey would be by sextant—and yet stormy skies could well prevent a single celestial sighting. As blizzards raged, McNish, the carpenter, labored to equip the 22-1/2-foot James Caird for the ordeal ahead.

      In April 1916, as Shackleton and five other men took to the sea in a tiny lifeboat, their only hope for survival was to land at the island of South Georgia, some 800 miles away.

      Few challenges posed by the James Caird journey were more daunting—or critical—than navigation. This task fell to Frank Worsley, the hitherto not always commanding and successful captain of the lost Endurance. To plot the course to South Georgia without any landmarks, Worsley drew upon a handful of tools including a sextant.

      Taking an accurate sextant sight is not easy even in calm sailing, and for sailors Frank Worsley's successful navigation of the Caird has an almost mythic dimension. As high seas pitched the small boat, Worsley was held upright by two companions while he sighted the sun between thick clouds; the horizon could only be estimated. Then, crouched in the bottom of the boat, he worked out the math with the stub of a pencil and consulted his blurry, waterlogged tables and his Nautical Almanac. In the course of the 17-day, 800-mile journey, Worsley was able to take only four sextant readings. Yet even a degree of error could cause the boat to miss her landfall.

      Shackleton left his trusted second-in-command, Frank Wild, in charge of the 22 men who remained on Elephant Island. Their circumstances were bleak. Some of the men were frostbitten or in poor health, while others were temporarily mentally unstable. For the first two weeks after their landing, a gale blew without cessation, at times reaching wind speeds of over one hundred miles an hour. The men's clothing was by now threadbare, and there was no shelter.

      Under Wild's persistent command, the men labored to improve their living conditions by small degrees. The two remaining boats were overturned on stone walls and made into a hut, and the remnants of tents served as insulation. Makeshift blubber lamps gave off dim light. Wild organized daily hunting expeditions along the narrow beach. Crammed into their small shelter, living hand-to-mouth off penguins and the occasional seals, the men stoically prepared to wait for "the Boss" to return from his heroic journey.

      On May 10, 1916, the James Caird landed at the island of South Georgia. This feat, a miracle of navigation as much as seamanship and endurance, is widely regarded as the greatest boat journey ever accomplished.

      The condition of the boat, shortage of drinking water and deteriorating health of Vincent forced the group to land on the island's uninhabited western shore. Ships and relief lay on the opposite side.

      On May 19, only ten days after landing and with their feet still numb from frostbite, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean set out on foot for the whaling stations, a journey of 22 miles across the mountainous interior of an island that had never been mapped. Their sole equipment was a carpenter's adze, 90 feet of rope, and a compass, while screws from the Caird provided traction for their worn shoes (modified by the ever inventive McNish). The men carried food for three days: any longer they knew would be beyond their limits.

      On the afternoon of May 20, 1916, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean walked into South Georgia's Stromness station. They had marched non-stop for 36 hours. Dressed in rags and black with blubber smoke, they were unrecognizable to the station manager, whom they had met nearly two years before.

      "Who the hell are you?" Mr. Sørlle, the manager, reportedly asked. "My name is Shackleton," the Boss replied.

      The whalers received the trio with open arms. After reuniting with the men on the other side of the island, Shackleton made immediate plans to rescue the Elephant Island group. The Norwegians volunteered a ship; but 60 miles from Elephant Island, the ice prevented the unprotected vessel from continuing.

      As the months passed, Shackleton made increasingly frantic rescue attempts, each time thwarted by ice or weather. At last, on August 30, they succeeded in bringing through the Yelcho, a tug loaned by the Chilean government. It was their fourth attempt. Four months had passed since the Caird's departure, and Shackleton feared the worst.

      On Elephant Island, the Yelcho was spotted. As the castaways ran onto the beach, Shackleton, straining through binoculars, counted anxiously. "They are all there!" Worsley reported him crying.


      Further Reading

    • "Endurance": Shackleton's Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic
    • "Endurance": Shackleton's Legendary Journey to Antarctica
    • Shackleton





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