Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ – The Power of Navigation

Taken crew member Frank Hurley while trapped on the ice flow in 1914.

It took me a few months (school readings and work got in the way) but I finally finished Alfred Lansing’s classic account of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated attempt to cross the South Pole. In Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,  Lansing retells the story of how the 28-man crew of the Endurance in 1914 found themselves stuck within a pack of drifting ice sheets. Before they knew it, the ice had the Endurance pinned forcing them to abandon ship and live on the ice sheets. Then, the ice finally won, sinking the Endurance and stranding them on the ice with just three lifeboats and their prayers.

For those aware of this classic tale of survival, you know how it ends. Shackleton and his men, after a year on the ice, finally find an island suitable enough to land for a short time. Shackleton then, along with a six-man crew he selects, launch a lifeboat in search of Elephant Island where they know a whaling station can provide them help.  The problem? Finding Elephant Island was (inserting cliche) like finding a needle in a haystack. They were launching into the unknown. And, although Shackleton was a tremendous leader who managed to keep the moral and hopes of the men alive for 18 months, it would be his captain, Frank Arthur Worsely, who would navigate the men to safety.

This had me thinking: Could a crew today survive a similar situation?

I’ve been debating this question for a few weeks and I’m not sure the answer I keep coming to would be appreciated by the experienced sailor. I don’t think they could. First off, I’m not sure men in this century have the toughness to last for such a long period of time together. Second, I’m not sure there are many people out there with the skills to navigate without modern technology. GPS navigation has become such a large part of our lives, whether we’re sailors, hikers or even drivers. Last time you took a trip to see a friend or relative a decent distance away, did you take out a map and trace the route or did you plug the address into Google Maps? Don’t be ashamed to say the latter.

This had me thinking of a trip my troop took a couple of years ago to partake in an orienteering race. The boys had to use a map and compass to navigate a course to find small markers and punch their ticket only finishing after they found each hidden marker. The goal was to teach them how to navigate using these “primitive” navigational tools. It was actually a big hit with the boys. After reading Endurance, I think it’s more important than ever to resurrect this lesson and reteach the importance of navigation without using a GPS unit or an ap on their iPhones. I’m not working it into what I want to accomplish this year and, maybe, having them race again.

Worsely was the key to the successful rescue of the crew of the Endurance. He may not have been a great leader and, if he was solely in charge it could be argued they never would have survived each other, his skills were essential to their rescue. These skills need to be passed down to every generation. Sure, it is great to have GPS and navigational tools; but when the power goes out or the battery drains, what’s next?

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