‘Spooning” or snuggling up with fellow crew to keep warm in the soaking, suffocating confines of a seven-metre (22.5ft) boat, while being tossed about in a 52-hour-long Antarctic storm, would test the mettle of most. There were times the six men who underwent this discomfort for the sake of “historical authenticity” must have questioned their choice.
Earlier this year, British-Australian environmental scientist Tim Jarvis attempted to recreate one of the most famous rescue expeditions: Ernest Shackleton's bringing to safety of his 27 men after their ship the Endurance was crushed in pack ice in 1915, as they tried to cross the Antarctic peninsula.
At least Jarvis didn't have to word an advertisement like that penned by Shackleton to recruit his accomplices. "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success," the original ad had read. When the Endurance was crushed, some 15 months into Shackleton's voyage, the "Boss", as the Kildare man was known, needed a plan.
With five of them, including fellow Irishmen Tom Crean and Tim McCarthy, Shackleton set out on an 1,300km lifeboat trip to the island of South Georgia, where he knew there would be help. After more than two weeks of wind, gale, storm and sea, and some incredible navigation by Endurance captain Frank Worsley, the six landed on South Georgia. More than four months later, Shackleton arrived back on Elephant Island to rescue his 22 stranded companions and bring them all home.
There have been several attempts to recreate the voyage – including the Irish South Arís expedition of 1997, led by sailor Paddy Barry and mountaineer Frank Nugent. The Irish group was forced to abandon the sea voyage when the replica lifeboat capsized three times in a row in storms. They completed the land traverse.
Period equipment and food
Jarvis studied these previous experiences before his attempt, which would use period equipment such as wool and gabardine, and food such as biscuits and pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein.
While Jarvis and company did have a motorised support vessel shadowing them, there would be “no guarantee of rescue” if something happened at night in the Southern Ocean.
Jarvis left his wife Elizabeth at home with two small children. His oldest son had not even been born when he began planning the project. His accomplices were round-world racing sailor Nick Bubb, Royal Marine mountain leader Barry Gray, navigator and round-world sailor Paul Larsen, Royal Navy petty officer Seb Coulthard, and mountaineer and Arctic explorer -cum-cameraman Ed Wardle.
“Our one concession to safety, apart from lifejackets and lines – which we didn’t use – and the support vessel, was an automatic identification system tracker, which would prevent us from being run down by another ship,” he says. “That was all that Elizabeth had to follow on a screen to know that we were still alive.”
The group had tried coating their woollen and gabardine gear in animal fat – as the original expedition had done – but it made no difference, once the first wave of many came over the small boat.
“Some of us took our boots off, and tucked socks under our armpits, and some of us didn’t,”he says. “Some made themselves sick – it was very seasick-inducing sea, with 100 degrees of movement. But there were times when you had a chance to appreciate the wonder of it all. The close encounters with Right whales, which would roll over and one eye would appear, for instance. About 400 miles from Elephant Island one penguin popped up beside us, entirely alone, and then vanished again.”
“The sea journey took us 13 days, compared to the original 16, as a hurricane had knocked Shackleton’s group back. Three of our guys got trench foot, and two had to give up when we got to Peggotty camp. One of our cameramen also got injured. So the traverse came down to three of us – as had happened in the original expedition.”
There were other similarities. “Among the three of us doing the traverse, Gray was the Tom Crean type character, as he hadn’t been a great sailor but cooked and sang; and Larsen, as our navigator, was our Worsley.”
There were some “differences” of opinion, but no serious rows, he swears, and there is a taste of this in the three-part television series. “We did share a sense of unity in adversity,” he says.
As an environmental scientist, Jarvis had been keen to incorporate a climate change dimension to the venture. “People don’t listen to hockey stick curves by US guys in suits on this issue, “he says. “They respond to stories and personal experience.”
“Shackleton and company crossed three glaciers on South Georgia. One of those, Konig, is gone entirely,” he says. Penguin numbers are also falling, he says. With less sea ice, there is less algae on which krill feed, and less food then for the birds.”
“There has been 2.5 degrees of warming in parts of Antarctica since the 1950s, and so, where Shackleton was trying to save his men from the Antarctic, we feel we are trying to save the Antarctic from man.”
"And you know, although we did succeed in our mission, we still haven't done what he did, because we didn't have to leave 22 men on Elephant Island who were dependent on us for their lives. So his legend lives on."
Shackleton: Death or Glory is on the Discovery Channel on Thursdays at 9pm from October 24
Shackleton school: Focus on Mawson
The 13th annual Shackleton Autumn School, which will focus on Australian antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson – whose adventures Tim Jarvis has also recreated – runs from Friday, October 25th, to Sunday, October 27th, in the Athy Heritage Centre- Museum, Co Kildare. Details on shackletonmuseum.com
The Shackleton Endurance Exhibition of Frank Hurley's photographs of the expedition continues, in association with the Royal Geographical Society, at Dún Laoghaire ferry terminal, Co Dublin.