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Antarctic explorer a hero for all ages

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002

TAMPA -- They say time loves a hero.

But Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) couldn't have dreamed that 80 years after his death he would achieve near rock status even though he failed in his attempt to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot.

Much has been written about the legendary polar explorer in recent years. There have been several books, an IMAX film, and next weekend, a two-part mini-series will debut on A & E.

For those unfamiliar with the Shackleton Saga, here goes:

In 1914, the Englishman, an accomplished explorer, set out for the South Pole aboard a wooden ship named Endurance, after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus, "by endurance we conquer."

Hundreds had responded to his unusual recruitment notice: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success." Only 27 were chosen.

But the climate was particularly harsh that year, and soon the ship was trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea.

For 10 months, the Endurance drifted with the ice until the wooden hull finally succumbed to the pressure. With little food or shelter, Shackleton and his crew set up camp.

Many men would have given up at that point. But Shackleton, called "Boss" by his men, rallied his troops. There were only 18 sleeping bags for 28 men so they drew lots. Shackleton's stick came up short, so he slept with a blanket. As morale began to sink, Shackleton did his best to boost spirits, rising each morning to heat milk and deliver a cup to each man.

After five months, they drifted close enough to the edge of the pack ice to venture out in three small lifeboats salvaged from the Endurance. After seven days of hard rowing, they came to an uninhabited rock called Elephant Island.

But it was miles from the nearest shipping lanes, and the chances for rescue were no better than when they were stuck on the ice.

So Shackleton and five others climbed into one of the boats and sailed across some of the most inhospitable waters on earth. Seventeen days and 800 miles later, they arrived at South Georgia Island.

The only problem ... the whaling station was located on the other side. So Shackleton and two other men climbed across 26 miles of mountains and glaciers and got help.

He sailed back to Elephant Island and rescued his men. Not one of the 28-man crew was lost.

In the years that followed, the survivors said Shackleton's courage and unshakable optimism kept them alive.

So when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick wanted to turn his last-place finishers into winners, he took the team to see Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure. The rest is history. Shackleton would be proud.

Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure will be shown at the Museum of Science and Industry through June 27. Part one of A & E's Shackleton airs April 7 at 8 p.m. Part Two airs April 8 at 9 p.m.

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