May 2021

Sir Ernest Shackleton's Expedition to Antarctica 1914-1916

by Ron Hewett

Explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, plus a crew of 27 men boarded the Endurance and left England in August of 1914 just before WWI broke out. The expedition was to sail to Antarctica, land on the north shore and be the first to cross Antarctica overland. The Endurance, a sailing vessel with steam power, sailed to South Georgia Island, 1000 miles southeast of Cape Horn and departed South Georgia Island December 5, 1914. They sailed south to the Weddell Sea and arrived at the coast of Antarctica, but by January 18, 1915 the ship was icebound.

Shackleton's family motto was "By Endurance we Conquer" and by demonstrating his persistence and his leadership, his expedition would soon be called upon to improvise, adapt and overcome to survive.

As soon as the Endurance became icebound in January 1915, Shackleton had to improvise. Not knowing how long they would be stuck in the ice, along with his Second-in-command, Frank Wild, and ship's Captain, Frank Worsley, he assessed his options based on current resources. External rescue was not an option since no one would be able to reach them even if they had communication with the outside world. They surveyed the risks and decided to shelter in place aboard the Endurance until they could determine if the ice floe that they were now a part of would drift toward the north and eventual open water. The primary risk at that point was the constant pressure of the ice floe on the hull and potential catastrophic break-up of the ship. They prepared for this by setting up a camp on the ice beside the ship in case a quick evacuation was needed.

The expedition learned to adapt. Shackleton knew the mental health of the men was at risk and anticipated the ice and cold would be less of an obstacle than maintaining their sanity. They set up a daily work routine and included drills to evacuate and be prepared for other emergencies. They all kept diaries and used every opportunity to socialize during work and meals to share personal experiences before their present situation. They got to know each other extremely well and teamed up on camp set-up, work details, and living arrangements.

Their focus was to survive and overcome by eating seals and penguins along with the stores they had brought, stay healthy as best as they could in the damp, sub-zero conditions, and hope that the ice would eventually break up and free the vessel as they drifted northward. Although Shackleton was an extremely driven person, he spent every opportunity to get to know each member of his team. He was recognized by his crew for his strength and resolve, yet his ability to be a "mother" to his men, when necessary, stood out. Humor was also evident in many of the interactions among the crew during the toughest times.

As the vessel began to show signs of hull stress, the men moved into the camp alongside the Endurance. By October 27, 1915 the ship was being crushed, and on November 21st, it sank. Over the next 6 months the expedition made adaptations and eventually reached Elephant Island on the north tip of Antarctica by dragging their provisions and 1000-pound boats over ice. They transferred to three small boats as the ice broke up. Finally, Shackleton and 7 crewmen sailed across heavy seas in open water, 850 miles in a 22-foot boat back to South Georgia Island. There they managed to arrange for the rescue of the rest of their expedition team and on April 10, 1916, after 18 months of constantly battling the elements and other adversities, they were all back on South Georgia Island.

Sir Ernest Shackleton returned to England as a hero for making such a bold attempt, leading his men by improvising, adapting, and overcoming, and bringing them all back alive. As he exclaimed on his return, "We reached the naked soul of man."

It would not be until 1956-57 that a successful transit across Antarctica was made.

Ron Hewett brings these principles to life when he facilitates the Leadership Excellence Course aboard the Battleship North Carolina in Wilmington, NC.