Magazine article Geographical

The Importance of Being Ernest

Magazine article Geographical

The Importance of Being Ernest

Article excerpt

Ernest Shackleton's epic crossing of Antarctica has been called the greatest journey of all time. Eighty-five years later, a team travelled south to retrace his steps.

"We were a tiny speck in the vast vista of the sea -- the ocean that is open to all and merciful to none, that threatens even when it seems to yield and that is pitiless always to weakness." Ernest Shackleton

SIR ERNEST WROTE THIS after his ship, the Endurance, had been trapped in pack ice in February 1915, crushed and finally sunk. With his Trans-Antarctic Expedition aborted, Shackleton and 27 men took to the three `lifeboats,' part dragging them across the ice and part sailing to the nearest land at Elephant Island. From there, the James Caird, the largest at a mere 23ft long, was sailed by Shackleton and Frank Worsley with a crew of four to South Georgia, some 1,300 km away. It must have been a miserable and dangerous voyage. Arriving 16 days later at King Haakon Bay, their journey was not yet over. Between them and the safe haven of Stromness whaling station, lay 50km of uncharted mountains and treacherous glaciers. Only after crossing the island could Shackleton raise help to rescue the remaining 22 men stranded on Elephant Island.

After two years of planning, preparation and training, and on the 85th anniversary of the original expedition, I set off with five British friends to these very same latitudes. Our intention was to sail a James Caird replica in Antarctic waters, make a landing at Elephant Island and then cross South Georgia following Shackleton's route on foot and at the same time of year.

We boarded the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn in Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America on 24 February 2001 bound for the Antarctic Peninsular. The Royal Air Force had previously flown out our replica boat The Sir Ernest Shackleton and we were pleased to be reunited, particularly as she had all the expedition food on board. The ship skirted past Cape Horn, steered a southerly course through rolling seas and strong headwinds in the Drake Passage before sheltering in the lee of Petermann Island a few days later. Sir Ernest was made ready and then lifted off the stern deck and into the icy blue waters of Antarctica. Trevor Potts issued some instructions from the helm as the cable was released but we knew the drills and had already begun raising the masts and hoisting sails. Trevor, a 50-year-old outdoor instructor, had in 1994 sailed Sir Ernest from Elephant Island to South Georgia but had failed, due to poor conditions, to cross the island. If we were successful, Trevor would be the first, after Shackleton, to repeat the whole journey `unsupported', albeit in two stages.


On a beautiful Antarctic day, we headed off between crumbling glaciers on land and drifting icebergs offshore in the direction of Elephant Island. "Half standing, half sitting on the coaming of the cockpit, I steered by watching the angle at which the pennant blew out; at times verifying the course by a glimpse of a star through a rift in the clouds," wrote Worsley of the first journey. As we approached Cape Lookout on Elephant Island, a gentle sea swell and dense mist greeted our arrival.

Peter Oldham, a fit and wiry 36-year-old English teacher and I were rowing hard in unison to keep Sir Ernest from being dashed against the rocks either side of our intended landing point. This was a shingle beach no more than 13 metres wide. Our first attempt was off target and we narrowly avoided the reef and withdrew, sweat pouring down our faces despite the low air temperature. Tensions rose as we contemplated our next move. No-one had been prepared to insure the boat in these dangerous waters and a mistake now would be costly.

Our second attempt was on a perfect line and as we surfed into the shore on a breaking wave, I abandoned the oars and leapt off the bow onto dry land. However, the strength of the returning surf took me by surprise and I had to wade out up to my armpits to retrieve the bowline. …

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