Ex Libris Online: Shackleton’s Boat Journey

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Review: Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Worsley

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The first time I heard of Sir Ernest Shackleton was when National Geographic did a big spread on his famous expedition on the Endurance when I was a child. I don’t think I had ever even read much of National Geographic at that point, but my dad must have known that I would find this particular feature interesting, because he put it down beside my 5th grade homework on my desk. I was absolutely captivated at the incredible feat of survival that this leader and his men accomplished against such odds, and that every man survived… even the young Welsh stowaway Perce Blackborow.

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Shackleton (right) and another crew member leaning over the Endurance as she is crushed by ice. 19 October 1915

Upon picking up Captain Frank Worsley’s firsthand account recently– this year marks the 100th anniversary of the voyage– 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 off the shores of Antarctica, beginning when they reached the edges of the ice floe. This particular Folio Society edition was introduced by venerated polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes, who, with his wife, was the first man to circumnavigate the world’s vertical surface, crossing both Poles in the course of a single journey. He writes a thorough summary of the events leading up to Shackleton’s voyage and of the catastrophes they encountered when the Endurance was crushed by pack ice.

Worsley picks up his tale a few days before they were able to launch the three life boats five months later. I frankly expected a rather dry sailor’s account of primarily longitudes, latitudes and nautical miles. On the contrary, Worsley narrates with descriptive flair all of the characters with whom he journeyed and recalls the many jokes that kept their spirits alive. He also often waxes poetic in his descriptions of the scenery surrounding them, including the hurricane which struck them just as they were about to land in South Georgia:

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Landing the James Caird on 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.” (86)

AllSafeAllWell
The remaining men marooned on Elephant Island wave farewell to the James Caird sailing for South Georgia. 24 April 1916

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 from there to South Georgia. From his point of view, however, he 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 then 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 judgement, even when they disagreed. His respect and veneration for his “Boss” is a high testament to the man and leader Shackleton was. He tells of countless situations where Shackleton willingly put his life on the line for the survival of the other men, including giving up his warm boots before crossing over the deep snow-drifts of the Allardyce Mountain Range of South Georgia and breaking the trail through their entire trek– leading through the snow. Worsley notes, “How Sir Ernest avoided frost-bite, wearing leather boots, is a mystery… Responding to Shackleton’s unselfishness, teamwork was pulling us through. “ (120, 6)

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Captain Frank Worsley

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 for of the man, all unaware, for whom it had been ordered.” (95)

This book is going down in my log as an all-time favorite… I strongly recommend it for anyone who enjoys a good tale of adventure, survival, comradery and miracles. The most incredible part of this book is that it is all true.

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 Buy this book here
Binding illustration by Simon Pemberton, courtesy of The Folio Society edition of  Shackleton’s Boat Journey (c. 2015).
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