{AWE} Shackleton Epic


In honour of the safe arrival yesterday at Stromness on South Georgia Island by Tim Jarvis and the members of the Shackleton Epic team, here is the text of a post about Shackleton’s journey, originally published here in February 2012.


After a string of unspeakable difficulties, including the sinking of his ship, Endurance, which left he and his men scraping a precarious existence on the unstable ice floes of the Antarctic, and an extraordinary journey in the three open life boats to the penguin-shit-covered speck of Elephant Island, Sir Ernest Shackleton faced his most severe challenge. There was no other option. The men couldn’t last on Elephant Island.

Surely, they would starve or die of exposure before anyone passed by. They had only five weeks’ worth of rations, and the polar winter was about to set in, forming a widening barrier of ice between them and passing seals and penguins. After six months of living outside the ship, the Boss had to admit that there was little more he could do to keep his men together: ‘The health and mental condition of several men was causing me serious anxiety.’

He determined that he and five others would take a boat and “make a bid for South Georgia, eight hundred miles away, as impossible as that sounded.” He explained,

The risk was justified solely by our urgent need of assistance.


Now came the matter of choosing who to take. He called for volunteers, “though he already knew the crew he wanted.” Not only did he have to think of the task ahead, he had to think of the “consequences for those left stranded on bleak Elephant Island.”

Which is why he knew he couldn’t take his most precious comrade, the inimitable Frank Wild. All of Wild’s skill and intelligence and experience would be needed to keep the men together on Elephant Island. For similar reasons, he knew he had to take the two trouble-makers, McNeish and Vincent, for they couldn’t be left to poison “the already grim atmosphere on Elephant Island.”

He took Crean who begged to go, and was “tough and levelheaded”; and McCarthy, “whom everyone liked” and was “a quiet, highly efficient Irishman brought up in sailing ships” who never “groused or gave any backchat”.  And of course, he took Captain Worsley, the navigator, for if they

missed their mark they would be lost in the vast open waters of the South Atlantic.

On 24 April, 1916 they set off on the voyage that

nearly a century later is still hailed as the greatest boat journey ever accomplished.

By the time they arrived at South Georgia Island 17 days later by some miracle of the human spirit, both McNeish and Vincent were lying at the bottom of the boat, incapable of doing anything. Vincent had been like it for most of the journey. In the midst of hurricanes and ice storms, and bailing for their lives, he had been useless.

Shackleton and his party had not only survived, they had done so carrying two men. Four men did the work of six. It was no accident, Shackleton noted, that the two slackers were the “two most pessimistic members of the entire Endurance crew.”


All references from Shackleton’s Way by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.

Image: The Endurance, by Frank Hurley

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