Growing up my dad was a shipwreck buff, along with his passion for the Civil War and his teaching American Literature. When it came to fiction, Moby Dick loomed large in our house. But what we most often read aloud were tales of real ships going down off the Coast of Maine or real-life stories of open water survival for weeks and months.
Amidst the canon of shipwrecks the Endurance stands out as truly heroic. As in most cases, the tale began with arrogances and stupidity. Shackleton intended to walk across Antartica but never even got there because the ice locked his ship into place with winter coming well before landfall. But in shipwrecks, like in life, the most interesting and revealing part of the story is what happens after the catastrophic mistake.
Shackleton returned all 27 of his men alive after being frozen in place, hauling their boats across the ice, executing the most daring open water voyage in a life boat (600 miles in the roughest seas in the world with primitive navigation tools and no room for error in terms of heading) and then a climb across a glacial mountain.
As some talented research assistants and I worked on the study, I was struck by Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival.
This capacity is vital in our own time, when leaders must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans.
So what are we to make of the Costa Concordia disaster and Captain Schettino’s dereliction of duty? Not only did he not go down with his ship he drove it into rocks, jumped off, and refused to go back aboard even under direct orders from the Coast Guard while people were in fact dying (an American couple from Minnesota is still among the missing).
The Italians see the shipwreck, and the lack of leadership, as a metaphor for their broader collapse. There are those too who see the actions of Captain Schettino–coming on top of Captain Joe Hazelwood sleeping off a bender while the Exxon Valdez caused ecologically disaster–as a metaphor for what is wrong with men.
To those I would offer up Capt. Richard Phillips, who gave himself up to save his crew and was part of a heroic escape.
It is true that in general the sea has brought out the best in men, or at least those are the stories that get told over and over again to reinforce what it means to be a real man for us landlubbers. But there have always been those who acted just as horribly as others did bravely.
One that sticks in my mind involves the whaling ship Essex captained by George Pallard, a good Quaker (as is my family) from Nantucket. The sinking of the Essex in the Pacific Ocean by a sperm whale attack was the inspiration for Moby Dick. What Melville did not write about, however, was the fact that in the life boat starvation drove the men to draw lots to see who would be given up for food. Captain Pollard ended up eating his 17 year-old cousin, who had sworn to protect, when the boy drew the short stick. Pollard survived to have to face the boy’s mother when he returned to Nantucket.
Image of Earnest Shackleton with credit to: http://hilobrow.com/