extraordinary mariners

Ernest Shackleton, Explorer Extraordinaire

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Leap Year Day is almost upon us, and I can’t help but be reminded of one of the most simple, kind, human things one of the greatest explorers of our time did for his men that day when death seemed inevitable.

Ernest Shackleton, with his twenty-eight men in three lifeboats pitching in one of the harshest and violent seas in the world, gave his men an extra helping of rations. His excuse? They were celebrating Leap Year. A clever and wise leader, he knew the extra ration would not only nourish their bodies but buoy their spirits.

But the real story of Ernest Shackleton starts far before Leap Year. Born February 15, 1874, Shackleton took to the sea like a natural. One job led to another till his endless thirst for exploration and adventure brought him to the Antarctica three times. It was his third voyage, known as the Trans-Antarctica Expedition of 1914-1917 for which he is most famous. The goal was to cross from side of the Antarctic to the other by way of the South Pole.

If he were a CEO of a company, he would have been fired because of the strange way he procured his men. An ad he took out in a newspaper read:

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.

            Even when he interviewed the men, he threw the corporate book away. Some men he hired just by meeting with them, feeling he knew all he needed to know about them, their skills, and their character. One man he asked a simple, almost silly question: “Can you sing?”

Shackleton wanted not only technically qualified mariners, but men whose spirit and character would stand the brutal challenge they were about to endure.

But things didn’t go well from the outset. The Endurance became stuck in ice. They stayed with the ship hoping the floe would bring them closer to their destination. Unfortunately, the pressure from the ice crushed the hull, and on October 24, 1915, it sank.

Shackleton’s men salvaged what they could: tools, supplies, a stove, sail cloth, miscellaneous items, and three lifeboats. They camped on an ice floe in hopes it would bring them to Paulet Island where supplies awaited. Eventually, when the ice floes disintegrated, the twenty-eight men were forced to the lifeboats.

It took five days of incredible courage and endurance, battling ice and relentless seas that threatened to swamp their lifeboats before arriving at Elephant Island.

The extra rations Shackleton ordered for his men on Leap Year Day was indicative of his leadership. But so was the simple but poignant gesture of giving his mittens to his photographer causing him frostbite.  And what kind of man would give up his biscuit, his only ration for the day, because he knew one of his men needed it far more.

Shackleton knew the moment they reached Elephant Island that to remain there would mean certain death. Immediately, he formulated a plan to take five men in an open rowboat 720 miles to South Georgia where he could get help at a whaling station. Continue reading →

Captain Joshua Slocum… Blue Water Warrior

Never a ship sails out of bay, but carries my heart as a stowaway. - Roselle Mercier Montgomery

Never a ship sails out of bay, but carries my heart as a stowaway.                                                – Roselle Mercier Montgomery

Today I’d like to introduce you to a great friend of mine, Joshua Slocum. Well, I never personally met him since he died thirty-seven years before I was born, but I wish I did. Those of you who are inveterate sailors may be excused. The sun is over the yardarm for you. You know his story better than you know the difference between the port and starboard sides of a ship. Keep my Bloody Mary waiting, mates. I’ll be joining you shortly.

Joshua Slocum was born to a hardworking Nova Scotian family on February 20, 1844. Though he ran away earlier, by the time he was sixteen, he heard the sea call his name so clearly, he was gone for good, working on a merchant ship headed for Ireland. As he matured, his travels brought him to the Dutch Indies, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan, Australia, and other destinations only a man with the sea in his veins could dream of.

When it came time to marry, Slocum was lucky enough to marry Virginia Walker, a woman who loved the sea as much as he did. And it was a good thing she did. They had seven children, typical for a family at that time. What wasn’t typical was that they were either born at sea or in a foreign port.

Slocum’s prowess as a mariner and captain was particularly evident aboard the Washington. The ship got into terrible trouble during a gale and broke up on shore. Risking his life, he not only rescued his wife and crew but the cargo as well.

By the time Slocum was thirty, he became the owner of the Pato, a freighter he operated along the West Coast of the United States and between San Francisco and Hawaii. An industrious mariner who knew the value of hard work and personal drive, he eventually traded up till he became part owner of the Northern Light 2, a handsome clipper ship. Though it made his heart sing, it came with multiple troubles which included mutinies, physical and legal problems. Though the ship didn’t last long in Slocum‘s life, the experience seasoned him into a tougher, wiser sailor.

His next ship was the Aquidneck. Sadly, his wife died on it in Buenos Aires, and things were never quite the same. His second wife, Henrietta, hardly shared his passion for the sea. Perhaps it was the hurricane they sailed through that did it. Or maybe it was the crew that came down with cholera then were quarantined for months.

During the trip, Slocum was attacked by pirates and forced to shoot one of them. He went on trial for murder but was acquitted. Then his crew came down with smallpox and three died. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, his vessel was shipwrecked in Brazil.

Joshua Slocum always had a hopeful heart and a dream to match. With the help of his wife and two older sons traveling with him, he built a boat using scraps from his shipwrecked boat and pieces of local timber. Because he launched it the same day Brazil outlawed slavery, May 13, 1888, he named her the Liberdade.

The trip back to the United States though somewhat long- fifty-five days- was relatively uneventful. Henrietta never went to sea again. Continue reading →