American journalist and writer, Alfred Lansing, tells the story of British explorer Ernest Shackelton’s third expedition to the Arctic region and his first attempt to make a trans-Antarctic crossing in the last great age of explorations in the early 20th Century. His 1959 book, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic” is based on many interviews with the actual crew and a distillation of many of the diaries the men kept during a period of more than two years when they were trapped in a region many people still did not know much about.
The crew left England in the summer of 1914 just as war was breaking out in Europe. They hoped to reach the Waddell Sea in a timely fashion in order to prepare both men and dog sleds for the crossing; however, the weather turned cold earlier than expected and quickly ruined their timetable. They were soon marooned; trapped in their ship among an ever hardening pack of ice. As the ice closed in around the ship, it began to push in on the vessel. The pressure from the ice began to crush even the strongest boards; slowly breaking it into a rubble of shards, sail, and rope. Shackleton knew his men and the more than 60 dogs brought to sled the men overland would eventually have to leave the Endurance. By November of 1915, he gave the order to abandon ship.
The crew lived on the ice; raiding as many supplies as they could from the slowly sinking ship. They hunted sea lions, seals, and penguins for both blubber and meat. Blubber kept the crew’s main cook stove going in the freezing weather and also provided them with hot tea and milk to drink as long as those rations held out. The crew, while not always agreeing with Shackleton’s decisions, noted he was a positive and inspirational leader even in the midst of tough circumstances.
In the cold, the men found ways to entertain themselves. They wrote daily journal entries, read the Bible, and recited poetry and plays to one another. The common hardship of both being trapped by ice and living on it brought them close together. One of the worst things they eventually had to do was kill the sled dogs. They wouldn’t be needing them.
By the spring of 1916, with the pack ice melting, the men returned to the safety of three rescue boats. Their goal was to reach an island close enough to protect them from dangerous ice flows and water currents. After a grueling journey in which every man suffered almost constant wetness and lack of food, they reached Elephant Island. Once there, Shackleton knew he needed to keep moving. Food and water diminishing, he picked a small crew and lighted out for an Island 800 miles away in order to get help. The remaining men stayed back at the island. There was no guarantee he was going to make it, but the crew courageously rowed out into the unknown. Eventually, Shackleton reached land again and organized a rescue. In the last days of August 1916, the entire crew of the Endurance was reunited. All of Shackleton’s men survived the ordeal. Some served in the Great War. Others, like Shackleton, later returned to the Arctic ready for more expeditions.
The story of the Endurance and its crew speaks to how optimism and resilience can be present in our lives. Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and a successful attempt at coping in a crisis. Shackleton refused to give up. He continued to talk to his men about the expedition and his plans. The time spent on the ice and in the boats presented numerous examples where the crew had to practice resilience and quick thinking.
Lansing’s book is a story of ambition, struggle, and hardship. It is also a study in leadership.
Patience. Resilience. Fortitude. Rarely does a person grab these all at once.
Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times” writes about the quality of resilience. She says, “Scholars who have studied the development of leaders have situated resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, at the heart of potential leadership growth.”
Tough times can have the capacity to reveal our true selves. One thing is sure. There are always going to be moments of hardship and difficulty. Granted, we may not ever be chased by a sea leopard mistaking us for a penguin or suffer from extreme and prolonged symptoms of diarrhea due to changes in diet, but we do go through things. Knowing other people have struggled and come through it provides us with great hope and most importantly, time to reflect about our own work ahead.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and CCC&TI. He can be reached at Btomberlin50@outlook.com
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