Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ernest Shackelton and Endurance

Glen Ellen, California

Some stories should be read, reread, and fully absorbed by all hands. Sir Ernest Shackleton's life should be part of any amateur historians short list of epics. His book, South : The Endurance Expedition is a well thumbed volume sitting upon the physical and electronic shelf of my life. It can be turned to for inspiration during times of difficulty and tumult. 

During my Coast Guard career leadership was a constant topic. What is it? Is it innate or developed, or maybe a latent gene activated during times of stress? What does it mean to "take care of your people?" What is the correct mix of nurturing and Bligh like discipline? The story of the rush to the South Pole is a terrific study in different leadership styles. Since I have been to the Antarctic while serving aboard a Polar Class icebreaker, The Polar Sea, I've always found all things Polar to be fascinating. Pictured below is Endurance's Lifeboat, the James Caired. Shackleton used this lifeboat to make one of the most treacherous journeys ever in the history of the nautical. He and a small crew crossed the Weddell Sea at the onset of winter in the JC, a 22 foot open lifeboat, navigating his way to South Georgia Island, and then mountaineering his way across the island to a whaling station. He continued to push to save his 28 man crew, and was successful. This unbelievable story took place from 1914-1917.

More than ten years ago, while on one of my numerous walkabouts around New York City, I stood at the chiseled marble steps of the The New York Metropolitan Museum staring wide eyed with my jam dangling. A huge banner read "The Shackleton Exhibit." Holy Ice Floes Batman!!! Within five I was running my fingers along the gunwhale of the James Caird, the actual boat pictured above. My heart thumping, nose pressing against the glass as I looked at Shackleton's journal, ships log, and the sextant used to navigate to South Georgia Island

Picture of South Georgia By Frank Hurley, Endurance's Photographer
 It was thrilling beyond imagination to be so near items I fully understood and appreciated. This morning while doing a quick news round up, I came across an article in the New York Times written by a Harvard business historian who did a leadership case study on Shackleton. Turns out, the case study is the most popular study on the business of leadership ever. The author, Nancy Koehn, argues that Sir Ernest is more relevant today than ever. Please read the NYT article by clicking here.

The Kid Front and Center Cape Hallet Antarctica circa 1988
 One of the many things my ship, the Polar Sea, was tasked with during the deployment was breaking ice accessing Cape Hallet to remove old jet fuel sitting in a above ground fuel tank. Cape Hallet is an abandoned research base, and was an emergency refueling depot for aircraft that crisscrossed the icy continent. The tank was about two miles inland and was slated to be dismantled before she sprung a leak. Yours truly, and my shipmates pictured above, had to hump two miles of thick hose, fuel pumps, and other gear to pump the fuel from the tank to the ship. My point is that I've trekked the polar region much like Sir Ernest and I'm still tired. Well, "much like" is a stretch, but all my stories reap dramatics with time.
Cape Hallet 2006. Still looks chilly to me
What is factual is the above picture taken in 2006 is as dramatic as I remember when I was just 21 years old. Below is a 35mm shot I took with my little Vivitar in 1988. If you look closely you can ascertain the shape of the mountain peaks. The water was fully frozen over when I was there.

Capt C

1 comment:

ljrmisty said...

Having done 2 tours to the Artic, on the CGC Northwind, at the tender age of 17 & 18,in '70& 71,I was astonished at the variety of leadership skills I witnessed.
They were by no means all good, and lives were nearly lost due to egos and inexperience.
The ones that had it, to this day, hold me in good stead by their positive influence on me and the crew.
Great post and a terrific reference.
Happy New Year.