Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on October 21, 2013
ENDURANCE SHACKLETON'S INCREDIBLE VOYAGE by Alfred Lansing is a 280-page book about a voyage to Antarctica, where the goal was to cross the continent on foot, and where this goal was prevented when the ship, the Endurance, became permanently trapped in ice. The ship became trapped at a point about 30 miles from the LUITPOLD COAST, followed by dragging of the trapped ship by the ice to a point 800 miles away from the Luitpold Coast, and at this more distant point, the trapped ship finally sank. After the ship sank, the men continued on foot, but most of their travel was provided by the movement of their ice floe. The movement of the ice floe brought them a further 500 miles, and to within 100 miles of their final destination (Elephant Island). When the ice floe broke up, the men set out in three small boats, and traveled this final 100 miles. Aside from the name of the ship, the word "endurance" occurs in only one context, namely that of "bladder endurance." Bladder endurance was a problem when the men were camping in the stone shelters on Elephant Island, and needed to use a common 2-gallon gasoline can as a urinal at night (page 204).
The book begins on August 1, 1914, when the Endurance set sail from London. The story ends on August 30, 1916, when Shackleton managed to land his rescue ship on Elephant Island, Antarctica, to retrieve the men who were left behind. The expedition was called, IMPERIAL TRANS-ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION, and all 28 men are listed on page 1 of the book. The book has two maps, the first tracking the location where Endurance was trapped (Jan. 19, 1915) in ice, the location where Endurance was crushed and therefore abandoned (Oct. 27, 1915), the location of the men's journey on the moving ice floe, and the final 100 mile stretch where the men took three small boats to Elephant Island to land on April 9, 1916. The second map shows the entire journey of Endurance from South Georgia Island to just off the coast of Antarctica, and the journey of one of the three small boats (the Caird) from Elephant Island back to South Georgia Island, where Shackleton successfully rounded up a rescue party.
There are six black and white photos, taken by crew member Frank Hurley. The photos show the Endurance locked in ice, the Endurance after being crushed, Frank Hurley posing with Ernest Shackleton by their tent on an ice floe (taken on May 10, 1916), and a photo of the rescue vessel arriving on August 30, 1916. There are also reproductions of two paintings by the ship's artist.
THE WRITING. Aside from a handful of literary excesses in the first several pages, this book is absolutely devoid of journalistic fluff. There is no attempt at re-creating conversations. There is no attempt at drama or pathos. There is no attempt to impress the reader with difficult words or with long sentences. I love Mr. Lansing's writing style. Mr. Lansing prefers to remain invisible, and his writing comes so naturally, and the result is that I felt like I was one of the crew members when I read the book.
CLIFF HANGERS. The narrative provides a dozen or so cliff hangers, where the reader is aware that the men are faced with the threat of immediate death. These threats include savage storms at sea, having an ice floe disintegrate under the men's camping area, threats of having the three small boats crushed between ice floes, and threats of freezing to death. In the final chapter, when Mr. Shackleton set foot on South Georgia Island, and attempted to cross the Island on foot, he repeatedly took pathways that led to a dead-end that terminated at the top of a high cliff, producing the threat of death due to lack of food and exposure to the cold.
OPTIMISM AND COURAGE. In a broader sense, the book is an illustration of courage in the face of constant life-threatening cold, and in the face of the threat of being lost at sea. The book provides little explicit guidance on the meaning of leadership, but it is easy to read between the lines. We learn that Mr. Shackleton never expressed thoughts of hopelessness, the fact that none of the men were drama queens (see, page 40), the fact that the men possessed a good sense of humor (see page 42), were incapable of malice (page 78), and were willing to join in singing (pages 17, 45, 75). What also helped keep the men in good spirits was that one man had a banjo, and that there was ususually plenty of powdered milk, canned beets and cauliflowers, and biscuits on hand. My own personnal opinion is as follows. Although it is difficult to eliminate drama queens during the job interview process, it is very easy to keep employees in good spirits by providing free food at regular intervals.
EXCERPTS. We learn that the trip was funded by James Caird ($120,000), the UK government ($50,000), and the Royal Geographic Society ($5,000). We learn that second in command was Frank Wild, who had accompanied Shackleton on earlier trips to Antarctica. We learn that Endurance set sail from London the week that World War I started. The Endurance had three sails and a coal-fired 350 hp steam engine, that she was designed by Aanderud Larsen, and was built in Norway. Frank Hurley, the photographer, had already been to Antarctica with another explorer (Douglas Mawson). Sixtynine dogs were also brought along, though they never had a chance to pull the sledges over Antarctica.
DISTASTER #1. On page 30, Endurance gets permanently trapped in ice. Although this entrapment occurred only 60 miles away from land, the ship was trapped in an ice floe that has a surface that was too "hummocky" to risk travel (page 34).
DISASTER #2. By page 36, a quarter of the dogs had died, and the cause was foot long red worms.
DISASTER #3. We learn that the ship's order of phonograph needles was discovered, instead, to consist of a box of 5,000 sewing needles (page 43). This is not really a disaster, but it is amusing to recount this.
DISASTER #4. On page 59, the ship, which had been trapped for nine months, was finally crushed, and the men rescued their mittens, tobacco, surgical instruments, banjo, photographic negatives, cases of sugar, flour, rice, barley, and jam, stoves, and toothbrushes (page 80).
DISASTER #5. Sometimes walk through the deep slush on the ice floe was very slow, for example, after one five hour walk the party had advanced only a half mile (page 93). At one point, a sea leopard attacked Thomas Orde-Lees, and he was rescued by Frank Wild, who shot the sea leopard, which weighed 1,100 pounds (page 102).
DISASTER #6. The banjo-playing proved to be torture, because Leonard Hussey (meteorologist) knew only six tunes (page 104). It is amusing to recount this, even though it is not really a disaster.
DISASTER #7. The men complained that their meat-based diet (seals, sea leopards, penguins, dog pemmican) was causing flatulence and a "squeaky gut." Ice was used for toilet paper, and ice freezing on the skin caused chronically unhealed sores (page 112).
DISASTER #8. The continued drift of the ice floe brought the men too far north to be able to debark at Paulet Island, leaving open the possibility of debarking at islands further to the north, such as Elephant Island or drifting even further north to be lost at sea in the dreaded DRAKE PASSAGE (pages 117-121, 124, 134).
DISASTER #9. Food shortages with concomitant sub-zero temperatures was an occasional threat (page 122). The continued failure of the ice pack to disintegrate prevented the men from sailing to land, which at one point, was only 42 miles away (page 123). The ice was too lumpy to cross, and the floes were too close to each other for a safe sailing.
DISASTER #10. Eventually, the ice floes used by the men for camping started to break apart (pages 128, 132, 137) and on page 138, the three small boats were launched. Killer whales surfaced on all sides of the boats (page 141), and masses of churning ice caused by rip tides threatened to overturn the boats (page 141). It is interesting to point out that the small boats were caulked with seal blood, or with cotton lamp wick and oil paints (pages 85, 107).
CONCLUSION. This book is an excellent model to other historians, as a guide on how to write history books. Love this book! The last time I read a book like this was in elementary school, when I read THE RAFT by ROBERT TRUMBULL. The Raft is another non-fiction book about survival at sea. I read The Raft during the time of the Seattle World's Fair (ha, ha, not really recently).