I first read the name of Sir Ernest Shackleton while trudging through the tedium of a fifth grade homework assignment. My father strategically placed on my desk a spread in National Geographic on Shackleton’s famous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard the Endurance. I had never read much of National Geographic, but my dad must have known that I would find this particular feature enthralling. While I don’t remember what I was studying in school at the time, I have never forgotten the way this amazing piece of history immediately captivated me. The epic nature of the quest and the miracle of any leader accomplishing such an incredible feat against such odds with every man surviving — even the young Welsh stowaway, Perce Blackborow — made it seem more of an adventure novel than a historic event.
Upon picking up Captain Frank Worsley’s firsthand account recently, I found that the enthusiasm I first felt for this tale was by no means ungrounded. In Shackleton’s Boat Journey, Worsley gives a detailed narration of their remarkable survival from the shores of Antarctica to South Georgia, beginning when they reached the edges of the ice floe. Worsley begins his vivid account a few days before they were able to launch the three life boats for Elephant Island, five months after the Endurance was crushed by ice and subsequently sank.
I expected a rather dry sailor’s account primarily consisting of longitudes, latitudes, and nautical miles. On the contrary, Worsley depicts with descriptive flair all of the characters with whom he journeyed and recalls the many jokes that kept their spirits alive. He also frequently waxes poetic in his descriptions of the scenery surrounding them, even including the hurricane that struck them just as they were about to land in South Georgia:
“The ocean was everywhere covered by a gauzy tracery of foam with lines of yeasty froth, save where boiling white masses of breaking seas had left their mark on an acre of the surface. On each sea the boat swept upward till she heeled before the droning fury of the hurricane, then fell staggering into the hollow, almost becalmed. Each sea, as it swept us closer in, galloped madly with increasing fury for the opposing cliffs, glaciers and rocky points. It seemed but a few moments till it was thundering on the coast beneath icy uplands, great snow-clad peaks and cloud-piercing crags. It was the most awe-inspiring and dangerous position any of us had ever been in. It looked as though we were doomed — past the skill of man to save.”
It is well known that without Worsley’s exceptional navigation skills (using nothing but a compass, a chronometer, and the stars) the group never would have made it from the ice to Elephant Island, not to mention the 800-mile open-boat voyage that Shackleton, Worsley, and four others then undertook to South Georgia aboard the lifeboat the James Caird. From his genuinely humble point of view, however, Worsley did nothing more extraordinary than the other men on the expedition.
By the time Worsley published his account, Shackleton had succumbed to a heart attack. Many men would have taken the opportunity to publish an inflated memoir of their personal superior wisdom during the journey, taking perhaps quite a bit more credit than their proper due. Worsley in every situation defers to Shackleton’s judgment, even when they disagreed. His respect and veneration for his “Boss” is a high testament to the man and leader Shackleton was. Worsley tells of countless situations where Shackleton, as the expedition leader and commander, willingly put his life on the line for the survival of the other men. He even gave up his warm, insulated boots to a comrade who was staying behind before he, Worsley, and another crossed the deep snow-drifts of the Allardyce Mountain Range of South Georgia to reach civilization and thus deliverance, breaking the trail through deep snow for his two companions throughout their entire trek. Worsley notes, “How Sir Ernest avoided frost-bite, wearing leather boots, is a mystery … Responding to Shackleton’s unselfishness, teamwork was pulling us through.”
Worsley adds, “Looking back on this great boat journey, it seems certain that some of our men would have succumbed to the terrible protracted strain but for Shackleton … He seemed to keep a mental finger on each man’s pulse. If he noted one with signs of the strain telling on him he would order hot milk and soon all would be swallowing the scalding life-giving drink to the especial benefit of the man, all unaware, for whom it had been ordered.”
This book is now an all-time favorite of mine. I strongly recommend it for anyone who enjoys a wild adventure of survival, comradery, and miracles. The most incredible part of this book is that it is all true.