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The lessons of Bligh and Shackleton

Superior leaders and seamen, both beat impossible odds in small, open boats without losing a man

Before I began research for this column, I envisioned Capt. William Bligh as the harsh disciplinarian I read about in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and saw portrayed by Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard in film adaptations.

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Ernest Shackleton, on the other hand, was a faintly remembered Antarctic explorer around the time World War I started.

Boy, did I have it wrong.

Both men were inspired leaders who were forced to undertake horrendous voyages in small, open boats. Both are worth learning more about.


Sailing master, navigator, and cartographer to Capt. James Cook, 33-year-old William Bligh was commissioned lieutenant in His Majesty’s Navy, with the recommendations of Cook and Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. On Aug. 16, 1787, he was appointed to command the armed vessel Bounty, with the task of bringing breadfruit plants from Polynesia to British colonies in the Caribbean as a cheap food source for slaves. On April 28, 1789, he lost HMS Bounty to mutiny.

Charles Laughton as Bligh

After the mutiny, committed by acting Lt. Fletcher Christian and 21 mutineers, Bligh was cast adrift in a two-masted open boat (23 feet by 6 feet, 9 inches) carrying lug sails. There were 19 men, including Bligh, though other seamen wanted to leave the Bounty. However, the small boat, with its supplies, was overloaded to the point that it had only 7 inches of freeboard. Bligh was denied charts or an ephemeris to navigate, but he did keep his sextant and pocket watch.

The men had about a two-week supply of food: 150 pounds of bread (ship’s biscuit, or hardtack), 16 pieces of pork, six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, 28 gallons of water, and four small, empty casks. The boat was expected to make nearby Tonga or the Cook Islands, where they would be indefinitely marooned.

Bligh, however, had other plans. He would sail for Timor in the Dutch East Indies, 3,600 miles away (by way of Cape York, Australia), and from there to Batavia (Djakarta) to obtain passage on a ship for England.

The only casualty on board was the quartermaster, who was killed by natives when they tried landing at Tofua for coconuts and water. Then came weeks of gale-force winds driving 20-foot seas, and rain. Though they were in the tropics, a good day was described as a winter’s day in England.

Soaked and with waves breaking aboard, it was necessary to lighten the boat, so spare sails, rope and all but two changes of clothes per man were tossed overboard. They emptied the carpenter’s chest into the bottom of the boat and used the chest to store the wet bags of hardtack, which were starting to rot. Food and water had to be rationed. The ration was 1/24 pound of hardtack — the weight of one pistol ball, measured on an improvised scale using coconut shells — twice daily along with 4 ounces of water and 1 ounce of pork, while it lasted.

The unusually stormy, cold weather for the tropics worked for them; they could collect rainwater. If they’d been subjected to normal tropical weather, their water would have been exhausted, and the men would have succumbed to the heat.

Bligh averaged almost 4 knots and hit his landfalls with unerring accuracy, sailing from memory of the charts he had drawn up as Cook’s cartographer. Bligh’s superb seamanship gave his men confidence. He gave them structure, their daily routines: hourly recording of their jury-rigged log, steadying Bligh upright for his noon sights, measuring the meager food supply, rum and wine (for the weakest), songfests and story-telling every evening. Forty-seven days after being cast adrift, they raised Timor. Bligh hadn’t lost a man at sea.


Of Ernest Shackleton, it was said his men would trust him with their lives but never with their money or with their wives. Shackleton was Anglo-Irish. His family re-emigrated from Ireland to England, where his father reinvented himself from not-well-to-do but landed gentry to a moderately successful suburban London physician.

Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton wanted to go to sea, but his family could not afford the 70 pounds a year necessary for HMS Britannia, the Royal Navy training ship at Dartmouth. They could, however, afford 15 pounds annually for Dulwich College — not Eton but a respectable school for the sons of reasonably solvent but not wealthy families.

After school, Shackleton obtained a trainee’s berth on a fully rigged ship. His career as a merchant seaman progressed, and he was certified to be a first officer. He transferred to steamships and received a berth on a royal merchant ship, where he began meeting wealthy and influential passengers. Through those contacts, he was able to join the 1901-’03 Discovery Expedition to the South Pole under Capt. Robert Scott.

Shackleton had no real interest in polar exploration at this time, but it was an opportunity to gain a reputation that he could then leverage into accumulating sufficient wealth to enable him to marry. With Scott, he was part of the final assault team assembled to trek to the Pole, but he became very sick. When they arrived back at the ship, Scott sent him home to England on a relief ship. By some accounts, Scott blamed Shackleton for their failure to reach the Pole.

But the South Pole had hooked him. With funding from wealthy acquaintances, Shackleton led a 1907 expedition that in the Antarctic summer of ’09 got to within 111 miles of the Pole — a record farthest south latitude. For his accomplishment he was knighted Sir Ernest Shackleton. Knight or not, he was known as an operator and schemer, chasing skirts and wild investment opportunities that inevitably failed.

Shackleton and five of his crewmembers spent 17 days in a 22-foot boat after the Endurance was crushed in pack ice.

In my mind, what makes Shackleton worth knowing about is what happened after his abortive attempt to cross the Antarctic continent in December 1914. His ship, Endurance, entered the ice of the Weddell Sea in December 1914 and became trapped. After drifting more than 500 miles, she was crushed by the ice and abandoned in October 1915. She sank a month later. Marooned on the pack ice with tents, supplies and three small, open boats, the expedition of 28 men drifted north until the ice began breaking up. They abandoned the ice in early April 1916 and sailed to Elephant Island, landing April 24. On land again, they faced death in the oncoming winter if they could not manage a rescue.

Shackleton decided to leave 22 men on the island and attempt an open-water passage to a whaling station on the north side of South Georgia Island, some 650 miles distant. He and five others would make the attempt in the expedition’s largest boat — 22 feet, 6 inches with a beam of 6 feet, draft of 3 feet, 7 inches and decked at both ends. It had around 2 feet of freeboard.

Shackleton’s inspired leadership was supported by the unsung hero of this episode, Capt. Frank Worsley, a superb merchant seaman and brilliant navigator. With high seas and temperatures around the zero mark, their feet soaking in salt water and wet through their Burberry foulies, the men had a “pleasant” 17-day sail through hurricane force winds to South Georgia.

After their landfall May 10, they had to cross more than 25 miles of mountain and glacier to reach the whaling station. Immediately after obtaining sanctuary, Shackleton prepared to return and rescue his men. The rescue was aborted several times but was eventually carried out. Everyone survived. In all of his expeditions, Sir Ernest never lost a man.

After World War I, many of those survivors joined Shackleton again. He died in 1922 during his final expedition — the last of the Edwardian-era heroes.

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Under stress, both Bligh and Shackleton were inspired leaders. It is when we are stressed that our worst behavior comes to the fore. When scared or nervous, it’s time to take a deep breath, tone down the volume and act calmly. You know there is a problem, but your crew and you will perform more effectively if your demeanor doesn’t show your concerns. You’ll fool your crew — and you’ll fool yourself as well.

There’s a tendency among some to go for the biggest boat they can afford. As Bligh and Shackleton showed, a small boat and the proper seamanship skills can get you just about anywhere you need to go. Also, resist the tendency to rely exclusively on your electronics. Learn the basic elements of navigation and use them; let your GPS/chart plotter confirm your growing effectiveness. The skills that you’ve nurtured will always — like “the Force” — be with you.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.