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Century-old lessons from the 'bottom of the world'

"I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During 26 years experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic.

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“It was a mighty upheaval of ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted, ‘For God’s sakes, hold on! It’s got us!’ ”

— Sir Ernest Shackleton, “South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage”

It is a story that never grows old: the harrowing journey at the bottom of the world by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew of five intrepid seamen from desolate ice-covered Elephant Island 500 miles south of Cape Horn all the way to South Georgia Island during the Antarctic winter of 1916.

The 16-day, 800-nautical-mile voyage through gales and huge, foaming Southern Ocean seas, in frigid weather, freezing spray and ice is still considered one of the most amazing small-boat journeys ever. Nearly 100 years later, 21st century sailors, explorers and armchair adventurers remain in awe of the accomplishment.

Shackleton and his 27-man crew were trapped on the ice for almost two years in one of the most remote regions of the world after their expedition ship, Endurance, was crushed in pack ice in the Weddell Sea. It was nearly the end of the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. And it was these waters that spawned the old seaman’s adage that “below 40 degrees south there is no law, below 50 degrees no god.”

This remarkable survival story was recently back in the news after a small team of British and Australian adventurers re-created what it termed “the double,” Shackleton’s 800-mile sail to South Georgia and his trek over the formidable mountains to the site of an old whaling station, where the outside world, such as it was, first heard of the expedition’s great peril.

“These early explorers were iron men in wooden boats, and while modern man mostly travels around in iron vessels, I hope we’ve been able to emulate some of what they achieved,” expedition leader Tim Jarvis of the Shackleton Epic said after completing the adventure, during which the team wore traditional clothing and equipment.

On completing the re-enactment voyage, Australian navigator Paul Larsen remarked, “Putting on your traditional outer gear at night in the dark was like putting on a cold animal carcass.” And two-time Mount Everest veteran Ed Wardle called the 800-mile voyage the “hardest thing I have ever done. … When the storm hit, we were riding really huge waves — it was terrifying.”

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Shackleton’s epic survival sail to South Georgia was made in the now celebrated 22-1/2-foot whaleboat James Caird, built of Baltic pine planking on steamed oak timbers and ballasted for the rescue mission with boulders. The Shackleton Epic sailed a purpose-built replica, the Alexandra Shackleton, named after the Epic’s patron and Sir Ernest’s granddaughter. “The Alexandra Shackleton really stood up well to the conditions,” said Larsen, a veteran of several polar expeditions. “As an exact replica of the James Caird, she was designed as a lifeboat, and that’s exactly how she performed. She did brilliantly.”

Before departing Elephant Island on April 24, 1916, the Endurance shipwright Harry “Chippy” McNish raised the sides of the whaleboat to improve her odds of surviving and fashioned a deck out of wood and canvas. He also stiffened and strengthened the double-ender by fastening a section of spar from another lifeboat along the length of her keel on the inside, which also provided a mast step for the main mast that he fitted onto the James Caird, along with a mizzen.

The men were crammed into a cold, clammy hold, where the only thing they had to look forward to was a hot meal cooked every four hours on a tiny primus stove. They were wet, cold, seasick and at times had to bail almost constantly. They also had to chip away at the heavy, foot-thick sheath of ice that formed on deck from freezing spray, threatening the little boat’s stability and the lives of the men inside.

That they made South Georgia in more or less one piece is a testament to leadership, seamanship and superb navigation. With conditions mostly overcast, navigator Frank Worsley, skipper of the ill-fated Endurance, could take only four sun sights during the entire 16 days. The rest of the time he navigated by dead reckoning.

Had the men and their small double-ender missed the remote, surf-blasted island, they surely would have been swallowed by the Southern Ocean, dramatically reducing the odds that the rest of Shackleton’s crew back on Elephant Island would have been found alive. In the end, not a single member of the Endurance crew was lost.

If you haven’t read the story or seen Frank Hurley’s stunning photographs of the 1914-17 Endurance expedition, get yourself at least one of the several excellent books on the subject. You’re in for one terrific story.

So what lessons can we learn from Shackleton?

The 800-mile survival odyssey to South Georgia Island is as good an example as you’ll find of what capable seamen can do with a well-found small boat, a lot of nerve and a bit of luck. And I think it is a valuable reminder that bigger is not necessarily better. Think Costa Concordia, Yogi or the Bounty.

It’s more about judgment, competency and experience than it is LOA. Size matters, of course, but no more, perhaps, than what’s in the hearts and minds and sinew of a level-headed skipper and crew.

Shackleton is revered today for his leadership — not his hubris, never that — which is another powerful takeaway from this story.

Competency, adaptability and decisiveness, with the appropriate respect and humbleness in the face of the enduring power of the sea — those are qualities we need as much today as did the iron men who stoically ventured through the age of polar exploration.

Clock hands whirl, calendar pages turn, and the sea still holds the trump card.

“I have been conning and working the ship from the crow’s-nest and find it much the best place, as from there one can see ahead and work out the course beforehand, and also guard the rudder and propeller, the most vulnerable parts of a ship in the ice.” — Endurance captain Frank Worsley

April 2013 issue