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Gone for a century, but still a rock-star sailor

2022 June 1

Who’s the most famous sailor of all time?

A few candidates in random order:

Ferdinand Magellan, first circumnavigator.

Joshua Slocum, first solo circumnavigator.

James Cook, explorer, pioneering chartmaker.

William Bligh, mutiny victim.

Dennis Conner, three-time America’s Cup winner.

Horatio Nelson, naval hero of Trafalgar.

Jack Aubrey, fictional star of Patrick O’Brien novels.

Leif Erickson, first sailor to reach America.

Christopher Columbus, not the first sailor to reach America.

And the winner is . . . someone who is not on the list because he’s so obvious. 

It’s Ernest Shackleton, who in 2022, more than a century after he accomplished his astonishing sailing feat, is the subject of unrestrained adulation from sources as varied as business schools and Broadway and the eclectic pop culture span in between. 

The finding of Shackleton’s ship Endurance in March on the bottom of the Weddell Sea (“the worst sea in the world,” in Shackleton’s words) triggered a new burst of glory as his legend was retold in media across the English-speaking world.

The discovery is sure to be a legend of its own in marine archeology circles. Following rough sextant coordinates recorded at the site of the ship’s sinking in 1915 by Frank Worsley, the redoubtable captain of the Endurance, searchers deployed a Saab Sabertooth autonomous underwater vehicle, and on March 5, 2022, exactly 100 years after Shackleton was buried on South Georgia Island, it transmitted images of the remarkably preserved three-masted schooner barque sitting upright 10,000 feet below the surface. 

The discovery added to an aura generated by the Shackleton brand that includes leadership training courses inspired by the hero’s example, a hit musical titled “Shackleton Loves Me,”  two TV productions and two theater movies and a new biography joining the vast Shackleton oeuvre. The book is written by a kindred spirit, Sir Randulph Fiennes, who has been called the world’s greatest living explorer and is known for, among other feats, sawing off his own frostbitten fingers after a polar adventure.

I rate The Endurance by Caroline Alexander as the best Shackleton book, but the most precious one in my library was written by the great man himself. Shackleton’s South was published in England in 1919. My copy, printed that year, was a gift from a used book dealer who shared some of his collectibles with friends when he shuttered his New York City shop shortly before his death. A handwritten note on the yellowed first page reads “rec’d from London 9/3/20.”

Shackleton’s account of the fateful Endurance expedition is somewhat stilted compared to others, but his telling of the small-boat voyage on which his fame rests is the most gripping of any.

That voyage, a 16-day passage of 800 miles in a 23-foot boat in the worst ocean-sailing conditions imaginable, was a result of the failure of Shackleton’s original mission to win glory for England and himself by making the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent.

The expedition never had a chance. Endurance got stuck in the ice and Shackleton and his 27-man crew watched from an ice floe as the ship was crushed and sank to its grave nearly two miles down.

When the ice floe started to break up, the men boarded the ship’s three small boats for an unpleasant but comparatively short trip to Elephant Island. With no hope of rescue from that desolate spot, Shackleton rose above any hubris he may have had as a celebrated explorer with grand expectations, and demonstrated for the ages the power of inspiring leadership to accomplish the barely possible.

With five of the Endurance crew, he launched one of the boats amid freezing surf for a tortuous passage to South Georgia Island. The boat, named the James Caird, built as an open double-ended whaleboat of the Colin Archer type, had been jury-rigged as a ketch using pieces of Endurance’s spars and sails, loaded with stones for ballast and fitted with a crude deck made of salvaged lumber and canvas treated with lamp oil and seal blood.

Shackleton wrote, “The tale of the next 16 days is one of extreme strife amid heaving waters. The sub-Antarctic ocean lived up to its evil reputation.”

That was a classic understatement. He went on to write,“We suffered severely.”   

“Gale after gale” assaulted the boat with the mountainous waves for which the furious-50s latitudes are famous. To keep it afloat, the crew had to bail constantly and were “chilled almost to the limit of endurance.” There was little relief when they “crawled into sodden sleeping bags and tried to forget their troubles.” The deerskin sleeping bags were to become so heavy that they had to be thrown overboard to lighten the boat, which was imperiled by a growing burden of ice on deck. 

Yet, Shackleton wrote, “the boat lived.” With South Georgia Island in sight, it endured “one of the worst hurricanes any of us had ever seen,” as with “a great cross-sea running . . . the wind simply shrieked as it tore the tops off the waves and converted the whole seascape into a haze of driving spray,” before squeezing through a cut in a reef and making a fraught landing on a boulder-strewn beach.

Survival stories don’t get much more compelling than this, and Shackleton’s Caird voyage has enthralled millions since it came to light more than a century ago, but it has a special resonance for sailors. 

None of us knows what it was like to be sailing through that nightmare, in a tiny leaking boat in vicious storms wearing primitive clothing soaked with freezing seawater, but we have an idea of the challenges the sea can mete out. We get that idea even while protected by high-tech foul weather gear and inflatable life jackets, on boats built of indestructible space-age materials, with warm cabins and dry bunks, and yet we complain about being too cold or too wet, we’ve been exhausted, maybe even scared.

Thanks to more heroics by their leader, Shackleton’s crew was rescued from Elephant Island and South Georgia Island. 

Strong, courageous people often fail to survive the stress of ordeals far less threatening, but not a single life was lost in Shackleton’s epic adventure. There is no explanation for that other than the authority and inspiration of Shackleton’s leadership. 

It was said at the time that sailors would follow him anywhere. Generations later, we are still following him.