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Sir Ernest Shackleton's name will for evermore be engraved with letters of fire in the history of Antarctic exploration"
Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctica expedition of 1914 - 1917 is one of the most incredible adventure stories of all time. It is remarkable even for an era and region that already has far more than its fair share of incredible tales of heroism and fortitude in the face of appalling hardships.
The intention was to cross the Antarctic continent from one coast to the other via the South Pole. In the event, the main expedition never set foot on continental Antarctica. The expedition managed to survive the loss of their ship in the middle of the Antarctic pack ice at a time when there was no chance of contacting the outside world, let alone of being rescued. It is a classic tale of leadership and heroism.
The Endurance battled her way through a thousand miles of pack ice over a six week period and was one hundred miles - one days sail - from her destination, when on the 18th of January 1915 at 76°34'S, the ice closed in around her. The temperature dropped dramatically cementing together the loose ice that surrounded the ship as the ship's storekeeper wrote, she was "Like an almond in a piece of toffee".
On October 27th Shackleton wrote, "The position was lat. 69°5'S, long. 51°30'W. The temperature was -8.5°F, a gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun shone in a clear sky. After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, 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".
The Endurance had drifted at least 1186 miles since first becoming fast in the ice 281 days previously, she was 346 miles from Paulet Island, the nearest point where there was any possibility of finding food and shelter.
They had three lifeboats named after patrons of the expedition who had donated funds. Two of these were now manhauled in relays, the James Caird and Dudley Docker.
Shackleton realised that in order to effect a rescue, he was going to have to travel to the nearest inhabited place which was the whaling station back on South Georgia, some 800 miles distant and across the most stormy stretch of ocean in the world. They expected to encounter waves that were 50 feet from tip to trough "Cape Horn Rollers" in a 22 foot long boat.
The James Caird set off on the 24th of April 1916, the very last day before the pack closed in again around Elephant Island on a day of relative calm. The crew was Shackleton, Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent, the anticipated journey time was a month. It was to become one of the most astonishing small boat journeys of all time.
On may 5th, the eleventh day out at sea, the sea became much rougher, Shackleton was at the tiller:
"I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave.
During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic.
It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted 'For God's sake, hold on! It's got us.' Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We baled with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us"...........Google the rest, hint, the entire crew survived to tell the tale..