The spirit of endurance

Six British and Australian adventurers recreate one of the greatest journeys of human survival.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage – Anais Nin

With the expedition still in its early days, we’ve already had some significant milestones to add to our collection of memories. As a long time Shackleton admirer, standing on Elephant Island, the spot where Shackleton and his men were stranded almost 100 years ago was poignant – one that I won’t soon forget. To think that one of the greatest icons in the history of exploration and adventuring had walked on these very rocks, admired the same view and (after weighing up his rapidly diminishing options), made the bold decision to make the 800 nautical mile dash to South Georgia Island, is truly humbling. Elephant Island is as barren and isolated as it gets. A place populated only by chinstrap penguins and fur seals. Often battered by gale force winds and surrounded by a concentric circle of jagged rocks (some visible, some not) it’s a nightmarish place to sail in and out of. Although treacherous, it’s got a rugged charm about it – not unlike the crew of the Alexandra Shackleton.      

Only a few days into the sailing leg of our expedition, we’ve encountered many extremes already. The first night provided a complete lack of wind, sailing at under one knot for five hours is a recipe for a very, very long expedition! But what a difference a day makes because by the morning the wind had picked up to about 20 knots and we were able to sail at an average of 5 knots, making up for lost time and resulting in a very respectable 64 nautical miles sailed in 24 hours - a fair effort for our modest 22 foot wooden rowboat.  

The cramped conditions below deck are proving to be one of the biggest challenges to overcome. With bodies jammed into every bit of the boat, space is at a premium. It’s difficult to get anything done, with simple tasks taking 10 times the amount of time it would in 'real life'. With water seeping into the boat, we’ve had to bail and pump constantly, resulting in a layer of dampness permeating everything below deck. Cooking on our old Primus stove has proven to be an exercise in futility – with the boat rocking so wildly there’s no way to safely light it, control it and cook on it without everything getting spilt. This is genuinely concerning considering the amount of calories we need to ingest in order to survive the journey.   

Yet despite the sleep deprivation, the hunger, the cold and the discomfort, there are still moments of profound beauty out here. Flocks of beautiful Cape Petrels following our boat for miles, effortlessly graceful hump back whales spouting only metres from us and on a clear day textbook golden sunsets. It’s fleeting moments like these that give this journey a magical edge and the mind some brief respite from the momentous reality of what we are doing. It’s taken immense courage to start this journey, but courage alone won’t get us there. One of Shackleton’s best character traits was his ability to endure and I too hope to cultivate the same spirit of endurance as the expedition unfolds and the stakes get higher. 

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Tim Jarvis, The Shackleton Epic expedition leader, as told to Jo Stewart on support vessel the Australis.