Adventurers recreate 'greatest survival story' of the Antarctic

Story highlights

  • Adventurers set to re-enact polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's epic journey.
  • The team will only use equipment and clothes available during early 20th century.
  • No one has yet managed to replicate Shackleton's entire rescue voyage.
  • Australian explorer Tim Jarvis will be the expedition leader.

In 1916, British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton managed to save his entire crew after they had been stranded in the Antarctic for almost two years. Now, nearly a century later, Australian explorer Tim Jarvis and his team of five adventurers have set sail Thursday on a voyage to emulate Shackleton's epic survival journey, using almost exactly the same equipment and rations.

During the original, grandly titled "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition", Shackleton had attempted to cross the Antarctic and reach the South Pole with a crew of 27 men on his ship, the Endurance.

But, after little more than a month, temperatures dropped so dramatically that the ship froze solid in the ice and eventually sunk. So began the long mission to survive, culminating in what is regarded by many to be one of the most astonishing rescue journeys in history.

After abandoning ship and finding land on the inhospitable and remote Elephant Island, Shackleton set out with just five of his men in a small open lifeboat to seek help for the rest of his crew.

Braving 20 meter-high waves, they rowed for two weeks across 800 nautical miles (1,482 kilometers) of icy ocean to the island of South Georgia. There they trekked 32 miles along the island's mountainous interior, eventually securing vital assistance at a manned whaling outpost.

Shackleton's 800 mile journey

Attempts to repeat Shackleton's rescue mission have been done before, but Jarvis' journey has a special twist. In the name of authenticity, they will reenact the whole thing on a replica of the original lifeboat and use only equipment and rations available in the early 20th century.

"Nobody has managed to do it the way Shackleton did it -- with the same gear and the same boat," said Jarvis, who believes it's the most challenging expedition of his life.

"It's not to be taken lightly," he added.

The only modern adjustments on board are the emergency gear and radios. Apart from that, the crew are facing exactly the same privations as their predecessors -- right down to the handmade reindeer skin sleeping bags, unpalatable but nutritious Pemmican (a concentrated mixture of fat and protein) and Shackleton's favorite whiskey "Whyte & Mackay".

Jarvis and his crew have just left Elephant Island and are now sailing the rough Southern Ocean in their replica of the James Caird, a wooden lifeboat only 6.85 meters (22 feet) long; the size of a typical six-seated mini bus.

They will then attempt the climb using only one small section of rope and a carpenter's adze -- just as Shackleton did.

Read: Pensioner to sail world in 'bathtub' boat

As the centenary of Shackleton's journey approaches, the motivation for this expedition is in large part to honor the great explorer's legacy, even if it means risking life and limb and overcoming some enormous challenges.

"There is a certain amount of luck involved, as well as the skill of the crew and the preparation of the boat," explained Jarvis, in an interview before he left for the Antarctic.

The team's skipper Nick Bubb is concerned about the technical difficulties of operating an antiquated yacht.

"The boat doesn't have a keel, which means it will capsize easily. And since we are relying on celestial navigation, a cloudy sky will make it more difficult knowing where we are," he said.

For the worst case scenario, there is a modern boat trailing them, ready to pick them up if disaster strikes. And, unlike Shackleton and his men, this crew hasn't already spent over 500 days abandoned in the Antarctic.

Read: 'World's unluckiest boat' bows out

Polar historian and author Dr Huw Lewis-Jones thinks this reenactment is an excellent way of resussitating interested in the early 20th century period known as the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration".

"We need people like Tim Jarvis to do things like this that bring history alive," Lewis-Jones said. "Anyone who has ever been to the Southern Ocean knows how awesome Shackleton's journey was. It's quite rightly called an epic," he added.

Read: Could you sail around the world?

"The human will to survive is strong and in Shackleton it found its perfect exponent. The man was a legend," Lewis-Jones said.

As an environmental scientist, Jarvis also wants to draw attention to the climate change affecting Antarctica since Shackleton's time, which he attributes to global warming.

Most of all, however, he wishes to honor the spirit of Shackleton's philosophy.

"One of his key messages was the importance of team work," Jarvis said. "We need to all act together in this world today, to overcome our problems."


    • Wide shot of a sailboat from a drone

      Drones offer new angle on superyachts

      "Sometimes, I fly the drone with my head in a trash bag so I don't get salt spray from the sea on my equipment," says drone operator Justice L Bentz.
    • Dave Swete and Nick Dana on the bow of Alvimedica for a windy downwind sail change during the team's second trans-Atlantic training session, this time from Newport, Rhode Island, USA, to Southampton, England

      Disney duo's new 'fairytale story'

      Navigate the world's most treacherous seas, crossing 73,000 nautical kilometers in a confined space with stressed-out, sleep-deprived crewmates. 
    • The Triton Submarine.

      Millionaire water toys

      Personal submarines, jetpacks, even 'walking boats.'
      Why the Monaco Yacht Show is a bit like stumbling upon James Bond's secret gadget lab.
    • London's new superyacht hotel, in Royal Victoria Docks.

      Inside $67M superyacht hotel

      London's new superyacht hotel is so enormous, authorities had to lower the water level by five meters just to fit it under a bridge.
    • Thomson hurtles up to the top of the mast aware that the boat can keel at any moment and fling him either onto the deck or the water below

      What next for sailing's daredevil?

      His mast-walking stunts have attracted over 3.5 million hits on YouTube, but Alex Thomson just wants to get back to doing what he does best.
    • Endeavour, a 1934 J-Class yacht, racing during The America's Cup Anniversary Jubilee around The Isle of Wight 21 August 2001. The four entries in the J-Class category represent the oldest remaining class used in America's Cup competition. Over 200 boats, including vintage yachts are taking part in the America's Cup Jubilee to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the first America's Cup race in 1851. AFP PHOTO Adrian DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

      Through hell and high water

      Elizabeth Meyer talks to CNN's Mainsail about the "Armageddon battle" to restore the pioneering J-class boat Endeavour.
    • Specatators use a boat to watch as boat crews race on the River Thames at the Henley Royal Regatta on July 2, 2014 in Henley-on-Thames, England. Opening today and celebrating its 175th year, the Henley Royal Regatta is regarded as part of the English social season and is held annually over five days on the River Thames. Thousands of rowing fans are expected to come to watch races which are head-to-head knock out competitions, raced over a course of 1 mile, 550 yards (2,112 m) which regularly attracts international crews to race. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

      'Downton Abbey' on the water

      Like "Downton Abbey," Henley's Royal Regatta reminds its visitors of an England of old. But for how much longer?
    • LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 10: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge poses next to the America's Cup as she visits the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for the Ben Ainslie America's Cup Launch on June 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

      Britain's $134M secret weapon?

      Can a $134 million budget and the royal seal of approval bring the coveted America's Cup back to British shores for the first time in sailing history?
    • Eyos Expeditions offers superyacht journeys to the most remote places on Earth.

      Yachting to the ends of the Earth

      Bored of lounging on your superyacht in the Mediterranean? An increasing number of millionaires are now sailing their luxury vessels to the ends of the Earth, to get their kicks.