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Frank Worsley’s Endurance book and Sir Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton lecture poster

Poster about a South Pole lecture by Sir Ernest Shackleton (click to enlarge). Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Men wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Well, it’s not the usual kind of ad you’d expect to find on Craigslist…..and according to another source, this job ad may never have existed at all.

But Sir Ernest Shackleton wasn’t kidding about what his crew would be facing as members of The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. It is one of the best real-life adventure stories ever told — how Shackleton and the men under his command sailed to the Antarctic in 1914, had their ship HMS¬†Endurance¬†trapped and crushed by ice, and were forced to survive hundreds of miles from any human assistance. They were eventually rescued when Shackleton and others split off from the group and made their way to whaling stations at South Georgia.

Apart from the hazards described above, Shackleton’s group coped with hunger, hypothermia, thirst, drowning, days of hard physical labor involving moving the lifeboats and their remaining supplies, seasickness, hurricane-force winds, monster waves, the risk of scurvy, attacks by sea leopards, water-soaked and disintegrating clothing, and cramped living conditions after the Endurance sank. There were also mental hazards such as fear and depression.

I’ve been reading Endurance by Frank Worsley, who was the captain on that voyage. He and Shackleton were good friends and he provides a fun first-hand viewpoint to all the action. The book starts with Shackleton, Worsley and Frank Wild (second in command) facing the fact that the ship is doomed to sink into the Weddell Sea. Worsley is a vivid storyteller; it’s as if you’re in Shackleton’s cabin with all of them, an invisible observer as they discuss what they’ll need to do.

Worsley goes on to tell the rest of the story through his perspective and recounts their eventual rescue. The major reason for everyone’s survival was Shackleton’s genius as a leader. He always put his men’s physical and mental welfare first, and they knew it and repaid him with devotion. It would have been easy to succumb and die under the harsh conditions, but Shackleton kept everyone busy and as cheerful as possible.

In Frank Worsley’s own words: “Shackleton’s popularity among those he led was due to the fact that he was not the sort of man who could do only big and spectacular things. When occasion demanded he would attend personally to the smallest details, and he had unending patience and persistence which he would apply to all matters concerning the well-being of his men. Sometimes it would appear to the thoughtless that his care amounted almost to fussiness, and it was only afterwards that we understood the supreme importance of his ceaseless watchfulness over things that, at the time, we had expected as a matter of course to be all right.”

After the rescue, Worsley goes on to describe his adventures fighting U-boats during WWI, sailing around the Arctic and another voyage with Shackleton in 1921. At one point, he compares the differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic, but I’ll leave that for you to discover when you read the book.

I first heard about Shackleton when I watched Kenneth Branagh’s excellent miniseries based on the life of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Below is a short YouTube video from the miniseries; it contains my favorite scene where they discover Welsh sailor Perce Blackborow has stowed away on the boat. I love it when Sir Ernest says that the stowaway is the person they’ll eat in event of starvation and Blackborow’s sassy reply. See for yourself.

(Note: The video goes dark for a few seconds, but keep watching.)

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