My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Next time you’re having a hard day, the world is dumping on you and you need some inspiration to get yourself moving again, read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s account of his “failed” expedition to Antarctica. I keep a copy of his book “South” on “Kuan Yin” for just such occasions when I need to grit my teeth and get some perspective on petty discomforts, frustrations or difficulties, “South” is the book I reach for, and with a cup of tea and ten minutes with Shackleton I’m ready to take on the world again.
You may care nothing for sailing or Polar exploration, but Shackleton’s story reminds all of us of just how much stamina and intelligence human beings possess. The story of how 28 men survived for two years is so extraordinary, you wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true! And there isn’t a single word of whinning or complaining in the whole book.
In 1914, Shackleton sailed to the end of the world. His ship Endurance got caught in the ice and eventually sank even before reaching land, leaving 28 men marooned on sea ice, with no radio communication and no-one in the outside world expecting to hear from them for at least one year. Safety was 1000 miles away across the worst ocean in the world. The Antarctic winter brought four months of total darkness and ferocious blizzards, which Shackleton and his men survived huddled in canvas tents. When they started trekking towards the uninhabited continent, what they could not carry or drag across the ice had to be abandoned, including food and spare clothing. In the general comfort of our lives, and with satellite communications, it’s almost impossible to fully imagine their complete isolation and the horrors of their difficulties.
After their ship “Endurance” was squeezed and broken by the ice, Shackleton moved all his men and their stores onto an ice floe measuring 2 1/2 miles long and 3 miles wide.
“But though we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition. It is hard to write what I feel. To a sailor his ship is more than a floating home, and in the Endurance I had centered ambitions, hopes, and desires. now, straining and groaning, her timbers cracking and her wounds gaping, she is slowly giving up her sentient life at the very outset of her career. She is crushed and abandoned after driftingmore than 570 miles in a northwesterly direction during the 281 days since she became locked in the ice.”
It’s easy to miss something there – they spent 40 weeks (281 days) locked in the ice before abandoning ship. Much of that time was during the freezing and dark Antarctic winter. On their first night “ashore”, Shackleton was pacing the ice at midnight when he noticed a crack running through through their camp. Everyone hastily moved supplies and tents but one can easily imagine the uneasiness of trying to go back to sleep on ice that, at any moment, might crack open and drop men and supplies into the freezing water. The air temperature was -16 Fahrenheit (- 27 Celsius). Killer whales aptrolled the waters around their floe and there were 400 fathoms (2400 feet) of water under their camp.
Inevitably, food soon became the dominant thought on people’s minds. Shackleton kept a 40-day supply of food in reserve, ready for when they could haul two lifeboats across the ice, and otherwise was mostly dependent on catching seals or penguins.
“Our rations are just sufficient to keep us alive, but we all feel that we could eat twice as much as we get. An average day’s food at present consists of 1/2 lb of seal meat with 3/4 pint of tea for breakfast, a 4 oz. bannock with milk for lunch, and 3/4 pint of seal stew for supper. That is barely enough, even doing very little work as we are, for of course we are completely destitute of bread or potatoes or anything of that sort.”
Soon even these meagre rations had to be cut as the shortage of seal cut the amount of oil for cooking:
“We are now very short of blubber, and in consequence one stove has to be shut down. We get one hot beverage a day, the tea at breakfast. For the rest we have iced water. Sometimes we are short even of this, so we take a few chips of ice in a tobacco tin to bed with us. in the morning there is about a spoonful of water in the tin, and one has to lie very still all night so as not to spill it.”
They ate this monotonous diet of boiled seal meat for months. Certainly, I will never again complain about food.
If they were going to have any chance to survive, Shackleton had to get his men to land. So they started hauling their two heavy wooden lifeboats across the pressure ridges and hummocks of the ice in the hopes of reaching land that at that time was 300 miles away. On one day they made only one mile! Shackleton makes no mention of how frustrating and disappointing this impossibly slow progress must have been. The men were sometimes up to their hips in the snow
They make camp and wait for better conditions, first at “Ocean Camp” and later at “Patience Camp” where it was necessary, Shackleton reports, “to possess our souls with what patience we could till conditions should appear more favourable for a renewal of the attempt to escape.”