The story of the Endurance

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Rumored to exist since the days of Aristotle, when he hypothesized the symmetry of the earth in which vast southern lands were required to balance the planet against the weight of the northern lands, the discovery of Terra Australis Incognita (literally “Unknown Southern Land”) in the early nineteenth century sparked a wave of excitement around the globe. Countless intrepid explorers from many nations rushed to be the first to explore the new continent, resulting in a dramatic race to the South Pole in December, 1911. Although the South Pole was reached by a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen, public interest in Antarctica did not subside and, in August of 1914, the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition” led by Ernest Shackleton set out to carry the British flag across the vast, icy continent. Along with his hand-picked crew, the selection of which he based as much on character as on skill, Shackleton set sail from Argentina. As the expedition closed in on its destination, the Endurance began to encounter sea ice which slowed its progress. Pressing onwards, the ship ultimately became frozen fast in the ice on the 17th of January. Knowing that they would be stuck for months, Shackleton ordered the vessel winterized. In May, the Antarctic sun set for the last time and Shackleton and his men settled in for a long, dark winter. When spring finally arrived, the sun re-emerged above the horizon and the ice began to melt. However, this did not bring about the reversal of fortune that the men had hoped for over so many months. The shifting of the ice as it melted began to exert pressure on the ship’s wooden hull, which slowly began to splinter. On the 27th of October, nine months after his ship became frozen in the unforgiving Antarctic ice, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship and set up camp on the ice. A month later, the Endurance disappeared beneath the ice. Stranded in an inhospitable wasteland, out of contact with the outside world and far from any shipping lanes and the possibility of rescue, the outlook for Shackleton and his men was bleak. His only option as he saw it was to head back on a journey of around 800 miles to the nearest inhabited landmass, South Georgia Island, and search for help. As the continent again plunged into its wintry darkness, Shackleton and a handful of men set out in one of Endurance’s lifeboats, carrying with them the hopes and prayers of the entire crew.

The crossing to South Georgia Island traversed the so-called “Drake Passage” in the Southern Ocean, arguably the most treacherous body of water in the world. For more than two weeks, Shackleton and his men fought gale-force winds and swells approaching 50 feet. Poor weather conditions further complicated the voyage, making accurate celestial navigation nearly impossible. When the men finally (and indeed miraculously) sighted land, they were greeted by a storm with hurricane-force winds. Heroically pressing onwards, the men battled the storm for nine hours and finally made landfall. They soon learned, however, that their challenges were far from over.

Having landed on the opposite side of the island from the settlement, Shackleton and his men found themselves at the foot of a treacherously steep and glacier-covered mountain range that towered more than 9,500 ft. above the sea. Furthermore, it was a mountain range across which no man had ever ventured. Nevertheless, with no other options before him, Shackleton and his men successfully arrived on the other side of the island after a grueling day and a half long journey. Enlisting the help of the local community, Shackleton made three failed attempts to reach and rescue his men, who at this point were likely beginning to lose hope of being rescued. Finally, on August 30th, a full 105 days after setting out from Antarctica, Shackleton returned to rescue his stranded men. Miraculously, all 22 of them were still alive.

Shackleton’s expedition to find help for his stranded crew is considered one of the greatest sea voyages of all time. The conditions which he and his men faced in their small lifeboat are almost unimaginable, and with the recent sinking of a modern cruise ship in those same waters in November of 2007, Shackleton’s brave and desperate struggle against the most extreme forces of Mother Nature becomes an even more amazing feat. It is indeed nothing short of a miracle that he was able to find help for his crew, 22 men whom he steadfastly refused to leave behind. The success of his mission depended solely on Shackleton’s key personal strengths of thoughtful planning, inspiring motivation, and a strong refusal to accept defeat. Most importantly, Shackleton’s actions paid homage to the namesake of his lost ship. It is no wonder that he named it for his family motto, “Fortitudine vincimus” or “By endurance we CONQUER”.

Length of Shackleton’s rescue voyage: 105 days
Length of crossing to South Georgia Island: ~17 days
Distance traveled: 800 miles
Average wind speed: 37-45 mph
Maximum wind speed: >70 mph
Average height of ocean swells: 20 ft.
Maximum height of ocean swells: ~50 ft.

Length of lifeboat: 22.5 ft.
Months that crew survived after the sinking of the Endurance9
Number of months without sunlight: ~4
Average Antarctic Peninsula winter temperature: -4° to -22°F
Crew Members of the Endurance: 28
Casualties: 0

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