Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

I recently finished reading Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. The book was written 60 years ago, and it’s the story of an expedition that took place over 100 years ago — still, I found the narrative to be highly engaging and relevant for today, and I would definitely recommend this book for summer (or winter) reading.

Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who set out to lead the first expedition to cross the continent of Antarctica by land. Shackleton and 27 others sailed from England in August of 1914, on a ship called Endurance. They crossed the Antarctic Circle in December of that same year. By January of 1915, however, they found themselves caught in the ice pack just off the coast of Antarctica — and they never succeeded in landing on the continent. So in the most basic sense, their expedition was a complete failure. The Endurance never made it out of the ice pack. After nine months of drifting with the ice pack, the ship was crushed between blocks of ice, and the crew was stranded on an ice floe in a completely uninhabited, unfamiliar part of the planet.

After the Endurance went down, the real feat of Endurance by Shackleton and his crew began. Here are some of the highlights of what exactly they had to endure:

  • The entire crew survived on the ice floe for seven months, including an entire Antarctic winter (where the sun did not creep above the horizon for months at a time). They survived attacks by leopard seals and killer whales, gale-force winds, crashing ice bergs, and fissures in the ice beneath them. The majority of their sustenance came from the meat and blubber of penguins and seals they captured with their bare hands, and their only heating implement was a small stove fueled by the blubber.
  • When their ice floe was finally about to break apart, the entire crew spent seven days at sea on three life boats that had been salvaged from the Endurance. The boats were not designed for sailing on the high seas. But the men alternated between pulling at the oars and freezing to death while their crew-mates took their turn. The boats nearly sank to the bottom of the sea on numerous occasions before they finally managed to land on an inhospitable beach on an uninhabited island called Elephant Island.
  • It soon became clear that the crew’s only avenue for rescue was to send a small group for help. A team of six men spent 17 days at sea on one of the life boats, navigating over 800 miles from their camp on Elephant Island to a whaling station on South Georgia Island. To get there, they had to cross the most treacherous ocean landscape on earth with nearly-perpetual gale- or hurricane-force winds and waves hundreds of feet tall — even though their boat would probably not be recommended for sailing across Lake Erie. Fighting against winds and currents, they somehow managed to find their target using only a compass, a chronometer (a watch), a sextant, and some charts.
  • When they finally managed to land on South Georgia Island, their boat was dashed against the rocks before they could make it to civilization. A still-smaller team of three men hiked, climbed, and slid overland across the uncharted interior of South Georgia Island, across glaciers, over crevasses, and through razor-backed mountains until they finally stumbled into the whaling station.
  • The whole ordeal lasted nearly two years (22 months)! And even though one crew member suffered a heart attack, and another was frostbitten so badly that he had to have most of the toes on one foot crudely amputated, all 28 men survived the ordeal and made it back to England.

The book shared all the details of how they survived, but it never dragged or lost my interest. The author clearly held a great deal of respect for Shackleton and his crew, but it wasn’t a hagiography by any means. The book was driven by journal entries and first-person interviews, yet I didn’t feel any of the gaps in language or culture that I might have expected from a group so far removed from my time, place, and circumstances. The story felt accessible and strangely relateable.

This was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.

In addition to the compelling narrative, I feel like there were some fascinating lessons in leadership that could be drawn from Ernest Shackleton. He managed to take a crew of men from very different backgrounds and temperaments and form them into a cohesive unit that endured one of the greatest challenges such a group could ever face. He led with caution, but he could also be decisive at key moments. He was willing to make unpopular decisions, but he was almost universally beloved by his crew. He bore a keen sense of responsibility for the crew’s well-being, but he also knew when to take risks. He captained an improvised expedition to the Antarctic from 1914-1916, but he inspired me to be a better church leader in 2019 (and beyond).

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