Bowermaster’s Antarctica — Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands

Six a.m. and the sea is clouded by a morning mist, making the always mysterious-looking Elephant Island appear evermore … mysterious. Its sharp rocky peaks climb out of the Southern Ocean in inverted Vs; the tide is high, washing out the few shallow beaches that ring it. Just off Point Wild – named for Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton’s right hand man – penguins feed near the surface of the gray sea and a solitary Weddell seal curls up in the rocks. Just around the point we watch a leopard seal rip a penguin to bits for breakfast, flopping it around on the surface like a rag doll.

I wonder how Elephant Island would have fared historically if this weren’t the very beach where Shackleton and the twenty two men from his crushed “Endurance” had pulled and sailed to back in 1916. It is impossible to land on the beach this morning, due to the high tide, but I have been here before. Even when the seas are calm and the tide low it is a narrow, rocky, inhospitable place. That they managed to sail their trio of tiny lifeboats here, to the far eastern end of the South Shetland Islands at all is a miracle. That they survived for many months on this thin sliver of rock is testament to … well … I’m not sure what exactly. Fortitude? Patience? Belief in myriad higher powers?

Minus the Shackleton quotient, I doubt many around the world would have ever heard of this rocky lump. But today it holds a historical context far larger than its minute circumference. Bobbing in the rough seas just offshore, I can make out the monument built by the Chileans who sailed to the rescue aboard the “Yelcho” to rescue Shackleton’s men.

As we rock in the morning mist I try to imagine the scene as Shackleton and his crew prepared the small, twenty-three foot, six-inch lifeboat “James Caird” for its last-gasp, 800 mile sail to South Georgia. I envision them chasing down seals as they slid up onto the rocks, both for the sustenance they would give and the warmth their just-slit bellies held for the men’s long-frozen hands. I can imagine the men gathering in small groups to discuss among themselves the wisdom in the choices made by “the Boss” of who would go … and who would stay behind.

Today the pack ice is far from Elephant Island, but in April 1916 it was threatening to return any day, trapping the entire crew for another winter. They’d already been “lost” for fifteen months and were nearing the end of … everything … food, health, sanity. Which meant as they pounded nails straight, gathered provisions (matches, paraffin, extra socks) and filled the bow of the small boat with rocks for ballast there was an urgency that we cannot imagine from this vantage point. They all knew the risks of trying to sail a gerry-rigged lifeboat across the stormiest seas in the world with the scantest of navigational tools and a tiny, homemade sail. In the quiet of this morning I can almost hear their last conversations as they readied to push the “James Caird” off into the rising seas.

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