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.
What he estimated to be a journey of thirty days, they managed in fifteen. But when they reached the rocky coast, hurricane force winds forced them to wait out the gale in monstrous waves. When they finally landed, three men were so weak they were unable to make the trek across glaciers, snow fields, and jagged peaks.
So Shackleton took his two healthiest men and set out. Pausing only to rest and eat, they hiked thirty-six hours straight. Shackleton did allow his companions to nap briefly while he stayed awake, knowing if they all slept, they might never wake. In the back of his mind, he knew twenty-five other men were waiting.
When the whaling station finally was in sight, they had one last obstacle, a treacherous waterfall that soaked them to their very skin. Miscalculating the crossing would have meant death for every man in the expedition.
His arrival at the whaling station was met with rejoicing, but he would not allow himself the luxury of delaying his return. The clock was ticking, and three sick, exhausted men on the other side of South Georgia Island waited. And then there were the twenty-two men stranded on Elephant Island.
Were any of them still alive? If so, how many? Five? Ten? A dozen?
Three efforts to rescue them failed. Finally, able to persuade the government of Chile to give him a tug, he returned August 30, 1916 to take every single man in his expedition home. Alive.
When Shackleton returned home, the world took little note of his incredible feat. World War I was in progress, and it wasn’t till years later that people realized what an astounding achievement he and his men pulled off.
Shackleton eventually made a fourth expedition to the Antarctica, and while there died of a heart attack. His widow gave permission for his body to be buried there.
My wish for you is that you not only find something worth dying for, but more importantly find something worth living for. When hunger and sleep and cold don’t matter, like Ernest Shackleton, you’ll know you’re on the greatest adventure of your life. I wish you success!
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