Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part III – Patience)


We rejoin Shackleton and crew with their voyage well underway.

The Endurance had reached the Weddell Sea, a tricky area riddled with icebergs and impenetrable stretches of pack ice. With the ship getting nearer to the antarctic continent, Shackleton was looking for an area to land, but could not locate an ideal spot. Progress slowed to a halt, and eventually the ship was surrounded by ice. Soon it was stuck fast.

Realising that they were encased in all directions, Shackleton ordered the fires to be banked in order to preserve fuel. He had the men set to work trying to free the ship from the ice. Despite their toil, they did not make any significant progress. The chances of breaking free looked slim. There was no option but to sit and wait until the spring.

The men were now faced with the unenviable prospect of spending the antarctic winter afloat – but immobile – in the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation. There was no way to communicate with the rest of the world, and therefore no possibility of rescue. The crew was well and truly alone, entirely at the mercy of nature.

A lesser commander would have struggled under such a heavy burden, but Shackleton was made of strong stuff. Like a Stoic, he knew that he had no influence on outside conditions, so it would be pointless to fret about things that were beyond his control. His duty now was to make the best of the situation; to concern himself only with those things he could change.

The men set about turning the Endurance and its immediate surroundings into a winter base. They constructed igloo kennels to free the dogs from being kept on board all the time, and to allow them to be exercised. Occasionally dog races were held to raise spirits. Everyone did their best to maintain a positive mood.

Although the ship could not move in the ice, the ice itself was drifting, and carrying the ship with it. For a brief time it seemed that they might reach the continent after all, but it was not to be. The longer they were surrounded, the more pressure was being exerted on the ship. If the ice did not start to break up, it would eventually crush the Endurance. For anyone else this would be a terrifying possibility, but not for Shackleton. He kept his head throughout the ordeal.

Things went from bad to worse. The pressure caused the ship to shudder and list. The hull began to buckle and break. Water started seeping in. With the ship now leaning at a concerning angle, and the men trying their best to mend the leak, the decision was made to lower the lifeboats onto the ice, along with supplies. The situation looked grim. Shackleton finally had to give the dreaded order: abandon ship.

The crew set up camp on the ice, climbing on board the broken ship for the occasional piece of equipment and supplies. It is hard to imagine camping on ice; to be essentially afloat in a frozen expanse must surely be a surreal experience.

Shackleton and crew were stranded, with three lifeboats as their only sea-worthy vessels. Amazingly, things would get even worse, as we shall see in Part IV.

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