The question about Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama put me in mind of another sea-faring leader, the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
In January 1915, five months out of England on what was supposed to be a year-long adventure, Shackleton and the twenty-seven crewmen of the ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice within sight of Antarctica. Through the whole of an Antarctic winter--with no daylight and temperatures averaging -17F--the men sheltered on their tiny wooden island. Shackleton managed to keep them busy and sane; he maintained order and the crew's good health. He ran a tight ship, but his concern for the men as individuals and his mastery of every aspect of the expedition both inspired and steeled the crew--and they would need every ounce of fortitude to survive.
On October 28, 1915 the crew was forced to abandon ship as shifting ice crushed the wooden hull of the Endurance. They were thousands of miles from home and nearly a thousand miles from the nearest civilization, with no transport and limited supplies. That night, Shackleton wrote in his diary, "A man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground . . . I pray God I can manage to get the whole party to civilization."
Over the following months Shackleton and the crew dragged their heavy lifeboats over the pack ice to a point from which they could launch into open water. It wasn't until April 1916--fifteen months after the Endurance was captured by the ice--that the men set foot on the solid ground of Elephant Island, one of the northernmost points on the continent. But Shackleton quickly determined that the barren, uninhabited rock was scarcely better than being adrift on the ice. The men became despondent; they had sailed their tiny boats through ice storms only to be cast away on a tiny spit of land, with nothing there to sustain them. Their prospects seemed to be long months of suffering until their supplies finally gave out; then they would starve to death.
On April 24, 1916, Shackleton, with five men and a six-week supply of food, set sail again in the tiny twenty-two foot sailboat James Caird for an 800 mile journey through the world's coldest and most treacherous waters. He left behind 22 men at a site they named Camp Patience. Shackleton and his little crew endured sleepless days and nights, terrible cold and the constant threat of foundering in the enormous waves that rolled through the Drake Passage. Their skin was rubbed raw by wet clothing; their legs swelled from constant immersion in salt water. Hands and faces were chapped to bleeding while saltwater boils developed on arms and legs. And still they persisted.
After two weeks of constant suffering that would have killed lesser men, Shackleton and his crew landed on South Georgia Island. But they were on the uninhabited coast; the whaling station where they could find help was still twenty-nine miles away--directly across a 10,000 foot mountain ridge that divided the island. Without hesitating, Shackleton led two men inland and up. After twenty-four hours of trekking through steep hills, the tiny party reached the whalers. Shackleton's first concern was how quickly he could rescue his men on the opposite coast of Georgia Island, then how fast could they find and outfit a rescue ship that could reach Camp Patience.
On August 30, 1916, four months after Shackleton's departure in the James Caird and more than two years after the Endurance left London, Shackleton pulled within view of Camp Patience in a rescue ship he had begged from the Chilean government. He counted the tiny figures waving from the icy beach: all 22 of his men were still alive.
Shackleton's display of almost superhuman abilities is justly famous among sailors and those of us who study leadership, the results just as incredible as they were that morning when his boat hove into view of those men whose lives he had saved.
For more information see Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing; and The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander.
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