The Crew, the Plan, and the Ship

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Summer, 1914: Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole three years earlier, beating Robert Scott, who froze to death on the return trip. The world was just about to enter what Shackleton called "the red horror of war." Shackleton was ready to begin what he'd call the "White Warfare of the South."

For his assault on the "last" continent, Shackleton handpicked a crew of 26 sailors and scientists - picked them not just for their experience at sea or in polar exploration but for their spirit. He apparently simply liked the looks of Captain Frank Worsley, and he asked another applicant to sing for him. An 18-year-old stowaway brought the crew total to 27, putting the full complement at 28 with Shackleton.

The crew of the Endurance.
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Alexander: This isn't Hollywood casting going out and getting sort of 28 ready-made heroes who are all going to go in together on a mission. These were a shy scientist straight out of Cambridge, a young stowaway, a handful of tough sailors who, tough as they were, had never planned to spend any time on the ice of Antarctica.

Sir Ernest also brought sixty dogs aboard, sturdy mutts bred for strength and named for the English schools that contributed to the expedition.

Shackleton: We had worked out details of distances, courses, stores required, and so forth. The dogs gave promise, after training, of being able to cover fifteen to twenty miles a day with loaded sledges. The trans-continental journey, at this rate, should be completed in one-hundred-twenty days unless some unforeseen obstacle intervened. We longed keenly for the day when we could begin this march, the last great adventure in the history of South Polar exploration, but a knowledge of the obstacles that lay between us and our starting-point served as a curb on impatience.

Most of the men of the expedition boarded the Endurance in London in early August, 1914, and headed to Buenos Aires, where Shackleton joined the ship. The Endurance left Argentina in late October and made for what Shackleton called the "most southerly outpost of the British Empire," the mountainous and glacier-covered island of South Georgia. A thousand miles east of the Falklands, South Georgia was discovered by Captain Cook in 1774. It became a southern base for sealers and whalers, and if it wasn't the most luxurious port of call in the world, it was the natural point of embarkation for an expedition like Shackleton's.

Shackleton's trip was different in at least one important respect. Here's how. Take a globe and turn it so you're looking down at the South Pole. See how Antarctica is roughly circular, and right there, south of New Zealand, there's a giant indentation. That's the Ross Sea, which is really a giant shelf of ice. The other major expeditions to the South Pole - including Scott's, and Shackleton's, and Amundsen's - had been through this inlet. But take your finger and move it to the other side of Antarctica, the side that's south of South America. There's another wider dent there. That's the Weddell Sea. Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition would try for Vahsel Bay on the east side of the Weddell, and then go in to the South Pole. Nobody had done that. Shackleton was to travel through almost totally virgin land.

The Endurance waiting for departure on South Georgia Island.
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There's a great photo taken in South Georgia just before the Endurance left for Vahsel Bay. The day looks peaceful, the men in the foreground look like Alpine day trippers, not men about to embark on the most remarkable survival journey in history, and the Endurance waits sleek and black in the harbor. She was built of wood to withstand ice, which was the special problem of polar navigating. Today we're used to steel-hulled icebreakers, but in those days the steel wasn't strong enough and the ice crushed the metal hulls like a car tire flattens a pop can. Up to a point, wood can take it. In his account of the Endurance expedition, Alfred Lansing writes of the ship's construction.

Alfred Lansing, Endurance, read by Eric Ringham: The Endurance was built in Norway by the famous polar shipbuilding firm which for years had been constructing vessels for whaling and sealing in the Arctic and Antarctic. However, when the builders came to the Endurance, they realized that she might well be the last of her kind - as indeed she was - and the ship became the yard's pet project. Her construction was meticulously supervised by a master wood shipbuilder, who insisted on employing men who were not only skilled shipwrights, but had been to sea themselves in whaling and sealing ships. They took a proprietary interest in the smallest details. They selected each timber and plank individually with great care, and fitted each to the closest tolerance. By the time she was launched on December 17, 1912, she was the strongest wooden ship ever built in Norway - and probably anywhere else.
All photographs by Frank Hurley unless otherwise noted

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