Elephant Island to South Georgia Island: A Hard Journey

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Endurance" by Alfred Lansing. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is it like to sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island? How did Ernest Shackleton endure the difficult journey?

Alfred Lansing’s book Endurance recounts the survival story of the Endurance crew, who were forced to flee their ship after it sank on the way to Antarctica. A part of their journey was sailing from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island.

Learn how the head of the crew, Ernest Shackleton, was able to make the trip that saved everyone’s lives.

Sailing from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island

Ernest Shackleton and five members of his crew sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. On the first night out, Shackleton sent everyone but the boat’s captain to sleep. He stayed up with him, going over his reasons for separating the group and attempting to carry out this unlikely bid for rescue. The author of Endurance, Alfred Lansing, believes Shackleton needed reassurance, and the captain offered as much as he could.

(Shortform note: Shackleton knew they were the only chance the 22 men left on Elephant Island had of survival. But he also knew that the odds of making it safely to South Georgia on their little boat were slim. Contemplating the possibility that he might not survive, he said he would “feel like a murderer” if something happened to him and he couldn’t rescue the men he left behind.)

Surviving the Drake Passage

Shackleton and his crew soon found themselves at the Drake Passage (between Cape Horn and Antarctica), the stormiest sea in the world. At the passage, the wind often reaches hurricane intensity, creating waves 90 feet tall. 

Sailing through the passage was punishing. Lansing describes how the men were soaked through and cold all the time. Their navigational books, which they relied on to know which way to go, were soaked, too, and the pages began sticking together, making reading them difficult.

A third of the way to South Georgia Island, they faced a gale of 60 miles per hour. Their boat wasn’t capable of withstanding the wind and the waves, so they let down a sea anchor to wait for the wind to pass. Overnight, the boat froze in place. They chopped at the ice with axes to try and free the boat. Meanwhile, icicles had formed inside the cockpit, and the anchor’s chain was frozen stiff. They lit the stove to melt the ice on board the boat and bailed the water out. Finally, after two days, the boat set sail once more.

Nearing South Georgia Island

After several similar encounters with gale-force winds, they realized that the freshwater they were carrying had been contaminated by seawater. It was no longer drinkable. But by this time, they were near South Georgia island.

However, between them and the shore were massive waves breaking into the island that would have destroyed their boat before they reached land. Instead of nearing the island, they circled it. They tried not to get sucked into the open ocean or dragged against the waves on the shore. Meanwhile, it began to hail, and their boat found itself in cross-currents, slammed by waves and wind in every direction. It was impossible to stand up without getting blown over, and they were barely holding on as they were unbearably thirsty.

Finally, on May 10, after two weeks in the most treacherous sea on the globe, they reached the island through reefs that buffered the wind and the waves. They drank fresh water at last.

Elephant Island to South Georgia Island: A Hard Journey

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Alfred Lansing's "Endurance" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Endurance summary :

  • The story of the Endurance, an expedition ship that sunk on its way to Antarctica
  • The crew's journey of survival and their search for rescue
  • How Ernest Shackleton lead the crew to safety

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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