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An incredible act of leadership...

Comment
Gordon Boyle


I’ve always admired the leadership skills of Ernest Shackleton especially his handling of the disaster that befell the 1914 expedition he led. The plan was to cross the Antarctic continent from coast to coast via the South Pole; a total distance of 1,800 miles.

The plan was to set out from the Weddell Sea region across a completely unexplored region of the Antarctica to the South Pole and then to the Ross Sea/McMurdo sound area south of New Zealand. The ship he would use was the Endurance a newly constructed vessel that had been intended to be used for Arctic tourist cruises.

Recruiting a team was commenced with this newspaper advertisement. “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger and safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Funding was a problem but at the end of 1914 everything was in place and with the blessing of Winston Churchill they set sail the same week The First World War started. On August 8 they set sail to Buenos Aires and thereafter to the Norwegian whaling station on the islands of South Georgia.

They left South Georgia on December 5, 1914 battling their way through a 1,000 miles of pack ice for six weeks but with just 100 miles to go to reach their destination the ice closed in on them on January 18, 1915.

Now the ship drifted southwest with the ice and by the end of February it was clear with temperatures regularly falling to -20°C they were frozen in for the winter. Most worrying was the pressure on the ship and the crew all knew either the ice would thaw and free the ship or take hold and crush the ship.

On October 27 Shackleton wrote, “After many months of ceaseless anxiety and strain we have been compelled to abandon ship which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted. We are well equipped for the task ahead to reach land with all members of the expedition.

On November 21, 1915, just over 15 months after leaving England, the Endurance sank below the ice. All 28 of the team were now stranded on drifting pack ice hundreds of miles from land. On December 20 they started a march west towards the nearest land, Paulet Island.

Their lifeboats were manhandled in relays across the ice with Shackleton testing all his leadership skills focused upon keeping up morale. On April 12, 1916 they spotted Elephant Island and launched the boats and set foot on dry land for the first time in 497 days.

Still stranded far from civilisation with nobody knowing they were still alive this was just a temporary respite. No ships passed this way and they had no radio to summon help. Shackleton made up his mind that a rescue was only possible if they could reach the whaling station on South Georgia. It was more than 800 miles away across the stormiest stretch of ocean in the world. Their only navigation was by sextant and a chronometer of unknown accuracy.

On April 24 Shackleton set off with a crew of five leaving the rest of the team behind with the other lifeboats upturned on low stone walls with fabric to keep the wind and weather out. Through rough seas they made progress of 70 miles per day until they hit severe storms that resulted in frozen sea spray 15 inches thick on the deck.

After seven days and a break in the weather they took a reading from the sun and calculated they were almost half-way. On May 8 they saw sea birds and caught a glimpse of South Georgia. Two days later they managed to enter a small cove and land on a beach.

As a result of amazing leadership and navigational skills they had landed back on South Georgia rather than being swept off into the mid-Atlantic. The bad news was they had landed 22 miles from the whaling station as the crow flies and had to cross the mountains that ran the length of the island.

Two of the team were very weak so Shackleton went on with two other team members leaving one fitter team member to look after the weak. On May15, led by Shackleton, the three of them set off and by nightfall they were at a height of around 4,500 feet with no tent or sleeping bags.

They continued climbing and walking through the night until 5am the following morning when they collapsed exhausted. At 6.30am Shackleton was standing on a ridge when he heard a steam whistle from the whaling station. By 1.30pm they saw a small whaling boat enter the bay 2,500 feet below.

At last on the afternoon of May 20 they walked into the outskirts of the whaling station. They arrived at the wharf where they met the man in charge who welcomed them into his home. After washing, shaving, eating and sleeping one of the team boarded a whaler and went around to the back of the island to rescue those left behind.

Shackleton immediately started planning to rescue the men left on Elephant Island. On May 23 he set out on a British whaler but 60 miles from the island pack ice forced a retreat to the Falkland Islands. On a Uruguayan government trawler Shackleton set out again but again he had to turn back because of pack ice.

A third rescue attempt failed when the auxiliary engine of a chartered schooner broke down 100 miles from the island. Finally, the Chilean government loaned a steamer which made it all the way to the island. On the afternoon of August 30, the men on Elephant Island spotted the steamer and set alight a fire with the remaining fuel.

Within an hour every man who had been left behind were heading north back to civilisation having survived 105 days on Elephant Island. Every member of the team who had set out from England all returned home safe and well.

Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at gordonboyle@hotmail.com

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