Luck for the Endurance: The Fortune of Shackleton’s Voyage

Luck appears at a moment in time when people need it the most. When all of one’s knowledge, experience and skills have been exhausted, luck can alter given circumstances thus allowing people to push past difficult situations. Luck can be defined as a spontaneous change or stroke of good fortune that alters a seemingly unchangeable situation for the better. On account of luck’s elusive nature, most societies do not believe it exists at all: these nonbelievers view a situation altered by luck as instead events as containing controllable factors, which through perseverance can be overcome by human ingenuity and the ability to look for alternate solutions. In cases of extraordinary luck, these nonbelievers easily view them as purely circumstantial. Yet luck is undeniably present whether it be in day-to-day life, or the stroke of luck that changes the course of someone’s life. Luck played a major role in the true story of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. The experienced captain and crew could not foresee the dire circumstances they would endure. Their survival was in thanks to luck providing them food, water, and favorable environmental conditions, and not due to their own abilities or realities. In the case of this true story, their experience and ingenuity was helpful, but could not have saved them alone, only with luck were they able to survive.

Two miraculous events saved the lives of the crew after they had depleted all their available rations. The crew of the Endurance began running out of food due to the unexpected thickness of ice cap that would not permit their ship to advance. Their only option was to test and see what would give out first – their rations or the massive ice caps. “The food situation was also far from reassuring. … But on January 1, it seemed that the New Year might have brought with it a change of luck” (Lansing 127). Orde-Lees walked around the ice one day searching for food, as everyone was starving. Suddenly, he encountered a huge and aggressive leopard seal. He cried in fear knowing this was a life or death situation that would likely result in the leopard seals aggression killing him. Luckily, Frank Wild ran out of his tent and shot the leopard seal that was thirty-feet away from the men. The leopard seal’s arrival can be seen as luck. The men were on the edge of dying from starvation and within a moment had hundred of pounds of meat. This seal only lasted a few weeks, and the men once again faced a serious lack of provisions. With amazing coincidence, the unexpected appearance of another leopard seal, even larger than the last one, changed their luck once again thus providing them with a needed food source. Wild was able to change the dire living quality of the crew with one lucky bullet: “With one bullet, it seemed, Wild had changed the whole complexion of their lives. … nearly 1,000 pounds of meat—and at least two weeks’ supply” (162). These two events occurred when the crew had run out of any options to ration or conserve food to survive any longer. Their wit and experience was often meaningless on account of their situations, it was the instances of luck that propelled the men forward.

With luck on their side, the men endured a grueling journey to Elephant Island, not only survived but also found the water necessary to sustain them. The melting of the ice floes around them forced the men to moved from their current location into three small boats to try to find Elephant Island: the closest known island. They prepared by bringing the remaining food and water with them in the boats so they might ration these things based on how long they thought it would take to get there. The journey took much longer than expected and their water supply began to run dangerously low. Water shortage concerned the men, as living without water is physically impossible. “…the men’s thirst was now so intense that few of them could eat [their food ration]” (208). The men hit rock bottom when their luck began to turnaround. They spotted Elephant Island in the distance and landed on the island. Incredibly, the crew noticed fresh running water flowing down from the side of the mountain. Immediately, the men began greedily drinking to quench their thirst. “A moment later they were chewing and sucking greedily, and the delicious water was running down their throats” (215). This miraculous event is a stroke of luck, because the men did not know that Elephant Island would provide them with the water they so desperately needed to survive. In the environment they were in, they had no way of knowing if this trip would be beneficial or if they were even going to survive it. They placed their lives in the hands of luck, and were provided with the exact resource they needed. Once again their survival was beyond their own abilities and luck provided the necessities to continue on.

The men were initially happy at Elephant Island, but the captain realized they had to start looking for a way to be rescued or they would never live. Shackleton made the decision to leave Frank Wild in charge of the men while he took five men in a boat to search for South Georgia Island. This was their only hope for rescue from where they began their expedition over a year ago. Knowing South Georgia Island had a whaling station, Shackleton calculated enough supplies for four weeks because if the journey took any longer then the boat and its crew would most likely be lost at sea due to limited navigation technology of 1914. Their navigator, Worsley was working with just a sextant and a compass, and was unsure if he would be able to keep them moving in the right direction. “Shackleton asked Worsley how accurate he thought their navigation had been. Worsley shook his head. With luck, he said, maybe within 10 miles, but it was always possible to make a mistake” (305). The six men in the smaller James Caird had to battle through one of the stormiest open water conditions, which made navigation all the more difficult. They had no idea if they were heading in the right direction and only brought a certain amount of supplies, but against all odds still were able to land on South Georgia Island. Luck was on Worsley’s side more than his navigational skills were at work with them finding the island instead of being lost in the ocean. When they finally saw the island, “Shackleton was the only one who spoke. “We’ve done it,”… Feeble foolish grins spread across their faces, not of triumph or even joy, but simply of unspeakable relief” (311). The men were so surprised and speechless that they had reached South Georgia Island because they thought their luck had run out; the odds of successfully navigating to rescue were slim at best, but with luck they found sanctuary.

The Endurance crew survived the unimaginable. They began their expedition with an experienced captain and a very organized plan to be the first people to cross Antarctica. Their mission took a turn for the worse when their ship became immobilized in the ice caps and they had to go into survival mode. The crew brought enough food, water and supplies for the planned expedition duration, but as time passed they soon began to run out of food and water. Even more concerning, was the lack of options to obtain food and water. Starvation and dehydration became the men’s worst fear, and these fears were quickly realized. In addition, the navigational systems of 1914 supported their planned expedition but were not sufficient to ensure their safety. The environmental conditions of the ice floes forced them to leave the sinking ship and when they realized that no rescue operation would be looking for them, they began the treacherous path to find their way to safety. The men required the aid of luck to survive the movement of the ice floes, the severe weather conditions, and successfully use their limited navigational aides. With the extreme conditions of this journey, the captain and crew would have never made it out this situation alive on their own abilities alone. The survival of the whole crew, in events beyond their control, can only be attributed to a significant amount of good luck.