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 →
Uncommon Mariners: A Nautical Almanac
A Voyage in a Book
How would you like to chase pirates and mariners across the seven seas? I’ve written a book Uncommon Mariners, and if you like the sea, and things of the sea, and stories about men and women who have lived and died on it, I think you’re going to love this book. But let’s forget the book for now, and let me tell you a little something about my birth into the world of the sea, pirates, and mariners.
Maybe it was one of those day trips to the Jersey Shore as a kid. My oldest sister Sandi and my brother-in-law Larry Molinaro arrived at the curb of my home in their maroon Lincoln, and they piled my sisters and me into the back seat along with my mother and off we went barreling down Black Horse Pike. The pungent salt air that rose from the marshes outside Atlantic City and the sand castles I built at the edge of that miraculous sea were bliss itself.
It was with a deep sense of loss that I packed up my sand bucket and shovel and headed for the local bathhouse as the sun lowered in the sky. Weeks later back in Philly, I could still feel the rise and fall of the sea as surely as those white curling breakers hurled themselves relentlessly towards my sandcastle that hot August day.
Or maybe it was that auspicious birthday years later, when my daughter Maureen and her husband Jason Olsen gave me the legendary gift box of Jimmy Buffett’s four CD’s Beaches, Boats, Bars, and Ballads. There was something about that mix of songs on the Boats CD that awakened the sleeping pirate in me. Suddenly, a black flag snapped somewhere in my brain, and I realized Jimmy vocalized what I had been feeling for years.
My first trip to the Florida Keys only further inflamed those pirate aspirations. Less than fifty yards down the isolation of Card Sound Road, civilization was replaced by the stark beauty of a paradise I could only guess at, and I knew I was home. Anyone who ever set foot on a ship and lost sight of land knows what I‘m talking about. I stood on the edge of the Universe and my whole soul opened up and I was swept into eternity.
Soon after, I experienced another event that insured I would never sleep again without the Jolly Roger wrapped tightly around my soul. One crisp October afternoon, while doing yard work, I disturbed a nest of hornets. I was stung on my ankle as the machine rattled and snarled at the aggravated bees. Armed with a can of wasp killer in each hand, the scene quickly deteriorated into hand to hand combat. Eventually I was able to slip in between the fragmented cloud of bees and turn the machine off. I left the wasps that were left to deal with their dying and dead.