The discovery in early March of the polar exploration ship HMS Endurance 106 years after it sank in icy waters near Antarctica brings to life a story of courage, fortitude and—indeed—endurance.

Born in Ireland, groomed for a career in the Royal Navy, Ernest Shackleton in the early years of the 20th century was part of two Antarctic expeditions that fell short of reaching the South Pole.  At age 40 Shackleton tried again. He recruited a crew with this advertisement in a London newspaper.

“Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small Wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Shackleton and 26 crew set out from England in October 1914 in the sail and steam ship, Endurance, that had been specially constructed in Norway with the thickest of timbers to withstand icy conditions.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

On 5 December the expedition left its base on South Georgia Island, east of Cape Horn, for Antarctica, 1 700 miles to the south.  They hoped to be the first men to cross the Antarctic continent.

Approaching the South Pole with its sub-zero temperatures, howling winds, and mountains of ice, Endurance became entrapped, unable to move. For ten months the crew lived in the  immobilized ship waiting for better weather.  It never came. Indeed, things got worse as the drifting ice pack squeezed the vessel even tighter, cracking floor boards, poking holes in the hull.  Despite pain and discomfort the men of Endurance never gave up.

Mealtime on board Endurance

After one terrifyingly loud crack, Shackleton declared, “ She’s going, boys. It’s time to get off.”

Dragging two life boats across the ice, the Endurance crew camped on the ice floe now drifting even farther from their destination.  When the ice floe began to break up Shackleton and his men retreated into the small boats making their way through fierce winds and towering waves. After six harrowing days rowing against giant waves with frozen spray lashing their faces the frost-bitten exhausted sailors on April 15 came ashore on Elephant Island, an uninhabited shoal 800 miles from South Georgia.

With no way to send a distress signal and knowing there was little prospect of being found, after a week’s rest Shackleton and three others set out in one of the lifeboats to find help. They steered for South Georgia, battling fierce waves for 16 days. When they finally stumbled ashore at South Georgia they were on the deserted far side of the island. Still not out of danger, they summoned their flagging strength for what was a 36-hour slog over mountains to reach the Norwegian whaling station at Stromness.

Even then the Endurance crew was still in danger. Successive vessels, one from the Falkland Islands, another from Uruguay, tried but failed to punch through the ice to reach the 22 crew members stranded on Elephant Island.  Finally, on August 30, 1916, a Chilean vessel got through. It had been four months since Shackleton departed on his frantic race for help.

Miraculously, 20 months after leaving England the entire Endurance crew arrived safely back home. Their ordeal finally over, not one member of the expedition had been lost.

Shackleton pressed on, driven to try again. Five years later he organized a new expedition. Several sailors from Endurance signed on. Shackleton was suffering the effects of his earlier ordeal. There was no spring in his step, his infectious confidence was diminished. His energy was dissipated, he was worn down. In January 1922 with the expedition paused at South Georgia, he suffered a heart attack while in his bunk, dying soon after. He was 47 years old. 

Finding the Endurance is testimony to the wondrous technological age in which we live.  The robotic submersible—operating at a depth of two miles—came from Saab in Sweden. The 2022 expedition was launched from Cape Town, sailing in the modern SA Agulhas. They had tried twice before and failed. What they found in March was a sunken ship that was remarkably untouched, protected by the freezing Antarctic waters. Antarctic wrecks are protected by treaty and there will be no attempt to raise the Endurance. Finally, remember that heroic actions often occur during times of tribulation.  The Endurance sailed while World War One raged in Europe, its wreckage was found while a wider world is recovering from a pandemic and a large country in eastern Europe copes with brutal invasion.   

The photos come from Frank Hurley, a member of the 1914 expedition, courtesy of the Royal Geographic Society in London. The video link comes from the 2022 expedition:

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at Watch