Chasing Shackleton, Chasing Polar Dreams

March 30, 2020 Doug O'Neill

 

Shackleton (second from left) was one of the central figures in what is known as the Heroic  Age of Antarctic Exploration . 

The same Antarctic journey in two vastly different eras. One in 1916 and the other in 2013. Yet the leaders of the two polar voyages—undertaken almost a century apart—shared an undeniable bond: a passion and thirst for polar exploration.

Shackleton and his five-man crew board the James Caird for their treacherous 800-mile (1,300 km) journey from  Elephant Island to South Georgia.

It was this almost palpable spirit of exploration that prompted Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the most heroic explorers in polar history, to attempt the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent in his famous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914 to 1917). After the ship, Endurance, was crushed by Antarctic ice, leaving the men trapped on a small island under extremely harsh conditions – with hopes of rescue being nil – Shackleton determined the only option was to risk an 800-mile (1,300-kilometre) journey across the treacherous Southern Ocean. For 17 days in 1916, Shackleton and his five-man crew—sailing in a damaged 22.5-foot open wood boat, the James Caird— battled gale-force winds, unforgiving sub-zero temperatures and 60-foot (18-metre) waves.

With the most rudimentary of navigation instruments, the exhausted, frost-bitten crew succeeded in making the voyage in their small boat from Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands through the Southern Ocean to the shores of South Georgia. Reaching safe harbor wasn’t their only motivation. Shackleton and his crew were also driven by desperation—they had to rescue the remaining 22 members of their mates who were left behind, with few rations, on Elephant Island. Polar historians regard this feat as one of the greatest small-vessel journeys of all time.

Landing successfully on South Georgia wasn’t the end of their struggle. There still remained a petrifying climb over glaciated mountains to reach Stromness, the whaling station on the far side of the island. This challenge, too, was conquered. However, Shackleton’s feats were not yet complete: he and his crew, once their health was restored, returned to Elephant Island to rescue their 22 compadres who had been stranded for 127 days. Shackleton considered that rescue to be one of his proudest moments.

Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition  (1914-1917)  was an attempt to make the first land-crossing of Antarctica.

Fast-forward to 2013:  Australian explorer, author, environmentalist Tim Jarvis, at the behest of Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of Sir Ernest, re-enacted Shackleton’s heroic journey with a team of five (the same crew size as Shackleton’s) in a replica of the James Caird. For navigation, Jarvis and his team had only 1900-era chronometers and sextants to guide them. They were clothed in era-authentic apparel (made of wool and fur) and survived on a diet of pemmican and biscuits. Their boat, named Alexandra Shackleton in honor of their patron, was a truly faithful recreation of the James Caird, meaning it had no ballast keel, which made for a dangerous journey.

Jarvis and his crew—facing the same kinds of oceanic challenges as Shackleton’s crew—reached the once-thriving whaling station of Stromness on remote South Georgia island 19 days after leaving Elephant Island, the same length of time it took Shackleton and his men in in 1916. And, like the crew they were simultaneously honoring and emulating, Jarvis and his team not only sailed the 800 nautical miles across the Southern Ocean in their small lifeboat—they also climbed the crevasse-filled mountains in the interior of South Georgia to reach Stromness.

 

Modern-day explorer, author and environmentalist Tim Jarvis kitted out in authentic early-1900s gear for his 2013 re-enactment of Shackleton's famous small-boat voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia. (Courtesy: Tim Jarvis)

Jarvis, who produced the documentary and book titled, “Chasing Shackleton: Re-creating the World's Greatest Journey of Survival,” was inspired by Shackleton’s detailed accounts and by diaries kept by fellow crew members of the Endurance.

An excerpt from Shackleton’s account of the epic journey on the James Caird:

"I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted ‘For God's sake, hold on! it's got us.' Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We bailed with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us." 


Jarvis’ 2013 account echoes the grit, determination and courage of Shackleton:

“The most dangerous section of the boat was the fifteen centimeters that separated the below-deck access hatch and the cockpit, which each man needed to sit astride momentarily when going on or coming off watch. It felt high and exposed, particularly in a big sea where the Alexandra Shackleton was perched atop a massive wave as you looked down into deep, forbidding valleys either side of its crest. All of us had close shaves where a sideways impact from a wave threatened to knock us either through the hatch, into the cockpit, or, worse still, overboard.”

 In 2013, experienced polar explorer Tim Jarvis led the re-enactment of Shackleton's 1916 voyage from  Elephant Island to South Georgia, in a replica of the James Caird. 


In a chapter of his book aptly titled "Tempest," Jarvis describes in gritty detail the physical agony he and his crew experienced in the midst of a horrific storm:

“Fingers fluctuated from feeling dead and numb to burning with pain as you adjusted your grip to get circulation back while your forearms ached with the effort. Each man chose the glove combination that worked best for him; I opted for woolen as the rough wool helped me grip the rope. Still my fingers would turn numb and white as the ferocious wind and wet mercilessly stripped warmth away and my old frostbite injury to my right thumb and forefinger came back.”

 

Jarvis and his team, just like Shackleton and his crew, were tested time and time again throughout their journey. In Jarvis’ chapter “The Great Grey Shroud,” there’s a passage that eerily echoes Shackleton’s experience:


”The seas were now building and at a rate faster than we could acclimate to. Sea sickness began to grip us all, with Larso and Ed choosing to vomit raucously over the side as the rest of us battled our rising nausea. The waves continued to grow in height and thickness, great, gray-green wedges of ocean pushed up by the wind…The gale grew in strength and the boat became too much for one man to steer, so two men’s wet, gloved hands were called upon to pull the rough rope and move the rudder…We spent much of our time in the dark valleys between the waves with menacing peaks of water peering down on us and obscuring our view of the sky…. We were doing one-and-a-half hour shifts at the helm at this stage but after half an hour of my first shift on day three, I realized I could barely stand, feeling lightheaded and sick in roughly equal amounts. When I was back on duty later with Seb, he easily contributed more grunt than I could, even though I was twice his size. Trying to think of when I’d last eaten or drunk, I couldn’t recall anything passing my lips in the past two and a half days.”

Jarvis and his team, just like Shackleton and his crew, were tested time and time again throughout their journey. In Jarvis’ chapter “The Great Grey Shroud,” there’s a passage that eerily echoes Shackleton’s experience:

Jarvis and his team, just like Shackleton and his crew, were tested time and time again throughout their journey. In Jarvis’ chapter “The Great Grey Shroud,” there’s a passage that eerily echoes Shackleton’s experience:

"The seas were now building and at a rate faster than we could acclimate to. Sea sickness began to grip us all, with Larso and Ed choosing to vomit raucously over the side as the rest of us battled our rising nausea. The waves continued to grow in height and thickness, great, gray-green wedges of ocean pushed up by the wind…The gale grew in strength and the boat became too much for one man to steer, so two men’s wet, gloved hands were called upon to pull the rough rope and move the rudder…We spent much of our time in the dark valleys between the waves with menacing peaks of water peering down on us and obscuring our view of the sky…. We were doing one-and-a-half hour shifts at the helm at this stage but after half an hour of my first shift on day three, I realized I could barely stand, feeling lightheaded and sick in roughly equal amounts. When I was back on duty later with Seb, he easily contributed more grunt than I could, even though I was twice his size. Trying to think of when I’d last eaten or drunk, I couldn’t recall anything passing my lips in the past two and a half days.”

Polar enthusiasts will be able to hear more of Jarvis’ tales—and there are many—as the modern-day adventurer will be joining Quark Expeditions  as a special guest on the upcoming voyage Celebrating Shackleton: Journey from Antarctica to South Georgia.”  Guests will be able to hear first-hand the details of Jarvis’ journey and ask questions, one of which will undoubtedly be: “Why? What possesses a someone to brave such an incredibly challenging—and at times terrifying—journey?”

Jarvis has cited a variety of reasons for leading this arduous re-enactment journey. But what resonates strongest for me were his philosophical reasons for helming this “double” of Shackleton’s voyage of a century ago:  “At a more philosophical level, I consider exploration to be the adventure of seeing whether or not you can achieve something, the thrill of trying, and the process of learning more about yourself and your surroundings that going on a journey to find out affords you, and I think this outlook is so consistent with Shackleton’s. That we as individuals need to challenge ourselves to find out more about the world and our place in it is, I believe, as relevant a concept now as it was for Shackleton. As André Gide said so eloquently, ‘It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves, in finding themselves.’”

This idea of “challenging ourselves to find out more about the world” has long been woven into the fabric of Quark Expeditions. It’s what compelled our co-founders in 1991 to take the first set of commercial travelers to the North Pole. It was this thirst for discovery that fueled the dreams of our expedition team to lead the first-ever tourist transit of the Northeast Passage.

It’s this same spirit of exploration, as embodied by Shackleton and later polar explorers like Tim Jarvis, that guides the Quark Expeditions team today. It’s why we’re bringing two vessels of guests in 2021 to witness the Total Solar Eclipse in Antarctica. It’s this very same spirit that guides us as we prepare to retrace Shackleton’s journey of a century ago—and it’s the spirit of discovery and challenge that prompted us to build Ultramarine, the first-ever ship built specifically for polar exploration.

Throughout the history of polar exploration, each Shackleton, each Amundsen, each Scott has built upon the achievements of the previous polar pioneer. At Quark Expeditions, we see this as part of our own mission—to continue exploring, to continue building on our past successes, to forever go beyond.

Click here to learn more about Quark Expeditions’ “Celebrating Shackleton:  Journey from Antarctica to South Georgia.

About the Author

Doug O'Neill

Even though I’m a seasoned traveler and travel writer, I was 27 years old when I hopped on an airplane for the first time. As one of eight children in a rural Ontario family, travel was limited to road trips to Wasaga Beach – in a very crowded Pontiac. But I eventually caught the travel bug and have now visited 40-plus countries. Landing at Quark Expeditions as Brand Copywriter seems like a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo followed by a Certificate in Magazine Journalism at Ryerson University, which ultimately led me to a print-and-digital publishing career at various Canadian magazines. One of my most fulfilling career experiences was launching a travel blog that I produced for several years at a national magazine. Hiking (or simply time spent in nature) tops my list of passions. In 2015 I completed the 800-km Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. I’m a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and I volunteer with the Bruce Trail Conservancy. I’ve co-authored a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” released by Firefly Books in April 2019.

More Content by Doug O'Neill
Previous Article
A message from Andrew White, President of Quark Expeditions
A message from Andrew White, President of Quark Expeditions

We’ve introduced a Book With Confidence policy so we can offer you flexible rebooking and risk-free cancela...

Next Article
Living the Polar Promise: Embracing Sustainable Travel
Living the Polar Promise: Embracing Sustainable Travel

At Quark Expeditions, sustainability is more than a goodwill gesture. Our Polar Promise is a holistic strat...