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by Eric Mackenzie Lamb

Boilers in South Georgia used to convert whale blubber to heating oil

Sir Ernest Shakleton joined the British Merchant Navy at the age of 16, achieving the rank of First Mate by the age of 18, and becoming a Master Mariner at 24. Having built his career as a professional seaman, Shakleton joined Captain Scott’s Antarctic discovery expedition in 1901, the best equipped expedition of the age. On November 2nd, 1902, Shakleton, Captain Scott, and Dr. Edward Wilson set off on a journey which,  at the time, would be the southernmost trek by any explorer. They had traveled 300 miles further south than anyone before them and were only 480 miles from the pole when Shakleton fell seriously ill with scurvy, coughing blood and suffering fainting spells while dragging a sled. Scott and Wilson, they themselves suffering, struggled to continue the trek. After covering a distance of 960  miles, they returned to their ship in 1903. The following month, Captain Scott invalided Shakleton home and continued to make three independent excursions to the Antarctic.

The Nimrod expedition (named after their ship N.Y. Nimrod) will go down in history as one of the most pioneering endeavors of showing every aspect of leadership and impeccable teamwork. On January 9th, 1902, they reached a latitude of 88.23 South, just 97.5 nautical miles from the South Pole. This was by far the longest polar expedition ever undertaken to that date, setting a new world record. A separate group led by Professor Edgeworth David reached the south magnetic pole, and the expedition also achieved the first ascent of Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s second highest volcano. The expedition pioneered the use of horses and a new form of transport known as a “motor car”, the first time that both forms had been used on the continent.

Upon Shakleton’s return to England, King Edward V11 stepped aboard the Nimrod and bestowed a knighthood upon the young explorer.


The Argentine Antarctic scientific research station in South Georgia.
Anglican Church in South Georgia

Shakleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition (1914-1917) would later become known as one of the greatest epics of human survival and one of the finest displays of leadership, seamanship, and camaraderie. Shakleton’s planned for a shore party to quickly establish a base camp at Vahsel Bay on the edge of the Filchner ice shelf. The men would perform initial scientific assessments of the coastal regions, followed by a couple of forays inland, fine tuning their equipment in preparation for crossing the continent.

Shakelton would head south, using dog-drawn sleds. If they managed to reach the South Pole, they would head toward the Beardmore glacier, picking up provisions laid by the Ross sea party. After descending from the polar plateau, they would rendezvous with the ship Aurora in McMurdo sound. In the event that no ship was present upon their arrival, Shakleton had planned to overwinter in his hut at Cape Evans, the same hut built in 1909 during the Nimrod expedition.

The Endurance trapped in ice


Sadly, though, Shakleton’s optimism for an overland journey was short-lived. After traversing a treacherous path through the ice fields of the Weddel Sea, and only 85 miles of the coast, the ship was trapped in sea ice less than a mile from Vahsel Bay. The temperature dropped dramatically overnight, cementing the loose ice which surrounded the ship, sealing their fate. Over the period of several days, pressure began to increase around the wooden hull and timbers began to crack and split. The strong karabatic winds pushed them to drift further northwest, carrying the Endurance and its crew further from land.

Everyone knew that one of two things would happen-either the pack ice would thaw, break up, and disperse in the spring, thus freeing the ship. Or it would consolidate and be driven by the effects of wind and current over thousands of miles of sea-all of which would take hold of the ship and crush it like matchsticks. The first real damage was with the stern post at the rear of the vessel. Many of its frames became twisted. Instead of being able to slip upwards with the increasing pressure, the ice began to raft up the ship’s sides, pushing it toward the port side. Water soon began to leak into the hull. Repairs were started by the ship’s carpenter, but to no avail. A death blow had been sustained when a stern post was torn clean off the hull, which flooded the engine room and provisions hold.

Eventually, on October 27, 1915, Endurance succumbed to the colloidal pressure of the surrounding ice, sinking 2,000 fathoms into the freezing depths below. The crew had no control over the wind, current, or temperature. For five months, Shakleton and his men were left drifting towards an uncertain end. They were castaways in one of the most savage and inhospitable regions of the world.

Shackleton, Hurley, and Worsely


Prior to the ship’s sinking, Shakleton ordered three of the vessel’s lifeboats to be saved, along with sleds and food provisions. The larder was topped up with seal meat. The lifeboats were named after patrons of the expedition who had donated towards the expedition-James Caird and Dudley Docket. These were manhandled to the nearest spot of land, Paulet Island.

However, this turned out to be an impossible task. Instead, Shakleton would wait for the ice flow to drift northeast to the edge of the South Atlantic, from where they would embark for the nearest island.  Captain Frank Worsely felt that leaving a third lifeboat behind would serve as a safety option if anything went wrong.

Men led by photographer Frank Hurley returned to the area where they began to retrieve the third lifeboat, the Stancomb-Wills. By a twist of fate, which would turn out to be a blessing, on April 9, 1916, all 28 men were forced to row their way across the bleak pinprick of Elephant Island, most of their journey endangered by tabular icebergs. Captain Worsely’s ability to navigate their route around them would prove him to be one of the world’s best navigators.


Elephant Island was spotted on April 14, 1916. It had been 497 days without setting foot on land. That the men kept going during this time was a tribute to Shakelton’s abilities to look after their physical and spiritual survival. Precious food was replaced by a five-string banjo. He knew the importance of music to maintain morale. The whole group stayed together while pulling laden lifeboats across broken ice flows.

When they finally set up camp at Point Wild, Elephant Island, they were more secure than they had been for a long time, but were still far from the outside world. No radio at that time would work over such a long distance.

Shakleton realized that, in order to be rescued,he had to go and get help from the nearest inhabited island, which was South Georgia, 800 miles northeast across the stormiest ocean on earth. He decided to make the crossing in a 23 foot long wooden boat, the James Caird. Worsely would navigate by sextant and a chronometer, at times estimating their position within ten nautical miles.

For most of the voyage, the weather remained overcast, limiting his navigation to dead reckoning, calculations made to ascertain a vessel’s position using course steered and distance covered. The influence of wind and current, as well as errors in compass, are considered before latitude and longitude are determined without the aid of a sextant. This is the most challenging test of a navigator’s skills, and Worsely excelled at it.

The James Caird set sail from Elephant Island on April 24, 1916. The crew consisted of Shakleton, Worsely, McNeish, Vincent, and McCarthy. The anticipated journey would last approximately a month. It was destined to become one of the greatest open sea voyages of all time. After an incredible 800 miles crossing of the Southern Ocean, they made landfall on the west coast of South Georgia.

Recuperated from his ordeal, Shakleton made plans to cross the interior of the island to raise the alarm at one of the Norwegian whaling stations. Shakelton, Crean, and Worsely headed east across the uncharted interior of South Georgia, uncertain whether they could cross it at all. But the lives of the 22 men left behind drove them to complete the task. It would take them an amazing 33 hours to walk across glaciers, deadly crevasses, and rugged mountains.

On May 20, 1916, three men descended the icy slopes overlooking Stromness whaling station. It would take a further four months, and four rescue attempts, to reach Elephant Island. Eventually, all 22 men left behind were saved on August 30, 1916, by Shakleton aboard the Chilean ship Yelcho under the command of Piloto Luis Pardo.

In 1922, Shackleton led the Quest expedition with the objective of circumnavigating the Antarctic continent. Sadly, when his ship came to anchor in Grytviken harbor, he died suddenly of a heart attack. On his wife’s instructions, he was buried there, surrounded by the seas and mountains which forged his greatness.

Affectionately known as “The Boss”, today Shakleton is remembered as one of the greatest explorers from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.

Sir Ernest Shakleton



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