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  • Lee Elliott

Shackleton's boat journey

In Fortitudine Vincimus - We Conquer by Fortitude


The greatest adventure story? This is about one of the top contenders and for me it takes the prize.


Adventure is defined as “an unusual, exciting, and possibly, dangerous activity, such as a trip or experience.” (Cambridge Dictionary) Of course, many (or most) adventures are unintentional and the participants are more likely to use the terms “disaster”, “catastrophe,” “misfortune,” tragedy,” or more colloquially, “screw-up.” If you could ask the crew members who survived the unbelievable hardships of the 1914 Shackleton expedition to Antarctica, they might have a more colorful description.


To summarize the story: Ernest Shackleton was a renowned and highly skilled polar explorer who in 1914 led an expedition to cross Antarctica on foot from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. “Adventure” reared its ugly head early on; their ship, Endurance, got stuck in pack ice in the Weddell Sea and the crew had to watch as their only refuge was slowly crushed to death, leaving them with what they could salvage and three lifeboats. There is a wonderful book of photographs of the Endurance and the expedition members by Caroline Alexander and it is heartbreaking to see the pictures of the beautiful ship that was soon to be destroyed.



Then what? Normally, there would have been nothing but starvation and death by exposure for the explorers, but fortunately they were captained by one of the bravest and most resourceful leaders in history. Ernest Shackleton had a genius for inspiring hope and confidence in the darkest hours. He was the “boss” and his crew loved him for his strength, intellect, determination, and particularly, his sense of humor. He could keep their spirits up when all seemed lost. This was “crisis management on an epic scale. So brilliant was his achievement in saving his entire expeditionary force that many executive seminars and courses have been devoted to his leadership techniques. In the final analysis, his character and personality saved his people. For more about Shackleton as a leader read Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer by Morrell and Capperell.


Twenty-eight men were on the ice for five months. Then, when the ice pack began to break up, Shackleton guided them to Elephant Island, (so named for the walruses) where they remained under unimaginable conditions, while their leader and five of his best sailors made an incredible lifeboat journey of 800 miles through the roughest seas on earth to seek help on the island of South Georgia where there was a whaling station. Unfortunately, they ended up on the wrong side of the island, as their boat began to disintegrate. The description of how they reached the whaling station over unforgiving ice bound mountains is one of the most remarkable things I’ve read. They were saved and went back and saved everyone else. Not one soul was lost.



You may not think of yourself as armchair adventurer but I would recommend reading the entire story as few things in the history of exploration have come close. There are a number of excellent books on the subject, some written by members of the crew, like The Worst Journey in the World by Aspley Cherry-Garrard, but you might wish to begin your obsession with polar stories by reading Endurance by Alfred Lansing. I don’t know why, but Antarctica inspires amazing literature. If you’ve never delved into the subject, you might want to give it a try. If nothing else you will learn something new about the magnificence of the human spirit.

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