Endurance and beyond, Chris Orsman

Shackleton’s Captain: a Biography of Frank Worsley
John Bell Thomson
Hazard Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1 877161 40 3

In April this year a major exhibition, entitled “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition”, opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “Get Ready for Shackleton Mania” proclaims an article in the Wall Street Journal. In Boston, an experimental high school is named after Shackleton, deriving  its philosophy from the great Polar explorer. A big-budget movie about the Endurance journey is to begin filming next year, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who made Das Boot, and starring Liam Neeson in the title role. The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, will open a Shackleton wing of its library in November. Again in New York, Shackleton is used as a model of “crisis communication” by a corporate relations firm.

“Shackleton’s the Man” – this is scrawled in the visitor’s book of Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island. But there are other stories to be told, and other men who unobtrusively took their part in building the legend. The photographer Frank Hurley is one: his visual record of the Endurance expedition – that most compelling and celebrated failure of South Polar exploration – is a classic of its kind. Frank Worsley is another.

Worsley was Shackleton’s Captain on the Endurance expedition, the man whose superb seamanship and navigational skills made possible that extraordinary 800-mile boat journey which will, I suspect, always be the centre of gravity of the Shackleton mythos. It is, naturally, the centre of gravity of this book – a rounded, well-illustrated and very readable account of Worsley’s adventurous life.

Worsley was born in Akaroa, gained his ticket aboard the wool clippers of the New Zealand Shipping Company, sailed the Pacific in the Government Steamer Service, and was on leave in London in 1914 when an extraordinary dream – “Burlington Street … full of ice blocks”  – took him to the office where Shackleton was organising his “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition”. The rest, as they say, is history.

In a well-paced and dramatic account, Thomson tells how Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was trapped in the ice only one day’s sail from the continent. For ten months the crew of 27 were effectively castaways on the ice, drifting north-west until the Endurance was finally crushed in the floes. After four months adrift on an iceberg,  the crew were compelled to take to the ship’s boats, and landed, after many dangers, on Elephant Island. Shackleton, Worsley, and four others then embarked on the famous 800-mile crossing to South Georgia Island, navigating the James Caird, a 22-foot lifeboat, under appalling conditions. From South Georgia, the rescue of the rest of the crew was organised.

Worsley’s adventures did not end there. He commanded a P-boat on anti-submarine duties in the Atlantic, ramming and destroying a U-boat off the coast of Ireland and winning his first DSO for his efforts. He served in North Russia in 1919, receiving a bar to his DSO following an operation behind the Bolshevik lines. He was sailing master and hydrographer on the Quest expedition, Shackleton’s last. He was in a neighbouring cabin when Shackleton died early in the morning on 5 January 1922.

The final two decades of Worsley’s life were spent in a variety of pursuits – Arctic exploration, a two-year treasure hunt off Cocos Island in the Pacific Ocean, domestic life in London. He saw service in the Second World War, too, as an advance agent in Norway in 1940, and later taking command of a home trade vessel, the Dalriada. When he succumbed to lung cancer in February 1943, his death was reported at some length in the British press.

Worsley the man seems inseparable from his adventures, but there are anecdotes in the book that reveal his character more closely: his sense of fun; his relaxed leadership style, even liberality, that did not countenance any lapse in seamanship among his crews; his engaging and romantic prose. He seems to be always photographed with a cigarette in his hand.

John Thomson has found the balance in Shackleton’s Captain: the adventures of Worsley are underpinned by thorough research; we never lose sight of the subject; and the famous events of which he was part fall into a just perspective.

Chris Orsman’s collection South has just been published by Faber.

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction and Review
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