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There has never been a greater feat of seamanship than Shackleton's open-boat voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia after the loss of his ship the Endurance.

His ship the Endurance was part of an ambitious expedition which in 1914 attempted to cross Antarctica, The plan was that one ship, the Aurora, should land men on the Pacific Ocean side of the continent, and these men would set up food depots along the route to the Pole. Meanwhile at the same time another ship, the Endurance, would land men on the opposite side of the continent; and these men would cross Antarctica via the Pole, picking up the food left by the Aurora on the final stage of their journey.

The Endurance arrived in the Weddell Sea late in 1914. It was a bad year for ice. While the ship was still 160 kilometres from the coast she became ensnared, trapped fast without a hope of escape, by the thickening ice-floes. Shackleton tried frantically to cut and batter his way clear.To start with she was not in serious danger, but with the approach of spring, the ice caused them anxiety. The ice floes first split and then piled up one on top of another. Worst of all were the pressure ridges, great walls of ice advancing like slow-moving waves over the surface of the pack. In mid-October the Endurance was trapped between two converging ridges. She was flung onto her side and squeezed until she broke up.

The Endurance was gone, and with her, Shackleton's dream of an Antarctic crossing. As he and his twenty-seven men stood huddled together on an ice-floe, hundreds of kilometres from land, and with no hope of outside help, Shackleton had one objective only: survival. He salvaged as much as he could from the Endurance before she disappeared beneath the ice; then he tried to head for Paulet Island, some 640 kilometres to the north. The going wasn't just difficult, it was impossible. In some places the floes were thick, rafted together to form ridges four to six metres in height; in other places they were so thin that the sledges fell through them into the ice-cold water beneath. Sometimes the ice was so hard they couldn't chip it away even with picks, other times it was so soft that dogs and men found themselves floundering waist-deep in slush. At the end of an exhausting week, they had travelled less than 15 kilometres to the north, and the current had drifted them more than 8 kilometres to the southeast.He therefore decided to camp on the most solid floe he could find, wait for the ice to melt, and then take to the ship's boats which had been salvaged from the Endurance, A few days after Christmas 1915, he established a camp called Patience. Here, cold, wet, short of food and in conditions as miserable as any on Earth, he and his ship's company settled down to wait.

By the end of the first week of April, the great icefield in which the Endurance had been crushed had thinned down and drifted to within sight of the South Shetland Islands, It had now broken up into a number of individual floes, on one of which was Camp Patience. A heavy swell made the floes heave and quiver; it jostled them together, breaking them into ever smaller fragments. Cracks began to open up without warning in even the most solid looking surface, so that men who were one moment asleep in their tents would next moment be tumbled into ice-cold water.

Shackleton gave the order to take to the ship's boats, which had been salvaged from the Endurance. There now began a three-day voyage of appalling hazard: a voyage in which Shackleton and his men were many times within a hairsbreadth of death. The South Shetland Islands, bleak and uninhabited but offering a temporary haven, lay about 100 kilometres to the north-west. To reach them the three little overcrowded open boats had to cross seas that were lashed by constant gale-force winds, swept by great waves more than fifteen metres from trough to crest, and strewn with great blocks of ice.
" One moment we were on the crest of a tremendous Swell - you could see right away to the horizon, nothing but sea and ice,and sky- then you'd drop into the hollow and see a great roller coming towards you filled with blocks of ice . . . "

After three nightmare days, they managed to struggle into a bleak but sheltered cove on the coast of Elephant Island.The men's most urgent needs were food and warmth. And they were lucky. Within a couple of hours of landing, they found and killed an elephant seal. The great creature's flesh gave them meat for the most nourishing stew they had had for months, and its blubber fuel for the warmest fire. They were, for the moment, out of danger.The prospect of death, however, hadn't vanished altogether; it had only receded. Elephant Island was uninhabited, unbelievably bleak, and far from the usual track of sealers and whalers.

The nearest land was Cape Horn, that was only 650 kilometres away; but Shackleton knew that he hadn't a hope of sailing there against the constant gale-force winds. The nearest land to the east was the Island of South Georgia, where Shackleton knew there was a whaling station which was manned all the year round. But South Georgia was 1,100 kilometres away. To get there he would have to navigate with pinpoint accuracy, not for days but for weeks.

On May 8th they caught sight, through a rift in the clouds, of the black cliffs of South Georgia, It is hard to know which to admire most: the men's endurance, Shackleton's leadership, or Worsley's navigation. Their troubles, however, were not over. For no sooner had they sighted land than the wind increased to one of the worst hurricanes any of us had ever known and they were in danger of being swept to destruction against the ice-coated cliff of the island. Desperately they fought their way away from the land, until late that evening wind and sea subsided, and they drifted, battered and exhausted, onto a little beach, where, as if in answer to their prayers, a stream of fresh water cascaded from glacier to sea. After 16 days' sailing through the most dangerous seas on Earth, it seemed like a miracle.

One last difficulty had to be overcome. The whaling station lay on the opposite side of the island. Two of Shackleton's crew were by this time desperately weak; they had been driven close to insanity by their ordeal, and were in no condition to continue the voyage. In any case, Shackleton realised it would be highly dangerous to try to sail round South Georgia's cliff- bound coast. The quickest way to the whaling station was by land: directly across the island. The island, at the point where they had landed, was no more than 80 kilometres wide. But these 80 kilometres consisted of a precipitous range of 2000 metre mountains. The fact that the mountains were coated from base to summit in ice and had never been crossed, would have daunted most people. But after a couple of days' rest, Shackleton and his two fittest companions set out for the whaling station.They had virtually no equipment; no tent or sleeping bag, only some 15 metres of rope, and the carpenter's adze to use as an improvised ice-axe. They climbed non-stop for 24 hours, until at last, almost too wonderful to be true, they saw beneath them the whaling station at Husvik. After more than twenty months' imprisonment in the polar ice, with his ship long since reported as being lost with all hands, Shackleton had made contact with the outside world. The finale of Shackleton's expedition reads like a fairy tale come true. Within 48 hours of his arrival in Husvik, a whalecatcher had rescued his men from the opposite side of the island. Soon Shackleton himself was aboard a Chilean ice-breaker and on his way to Elephant Island, where he re-united with all his crew.

In all his journeys, and troubled adventures, Shackleton lost not even one of his loyal men ...


Shackletons grave
Shackleton is buried on the island of South Georgia.



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