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How Shackleton Picked his Crew

Dan Snow joined the Endurance22 expedition in search of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance.

Dan Snow

08 Feb 2022
The bow of the Agulhas II ploughs into rough seas. 5 February 2022.
Image Credit: History Hit / Endurance22

Today was spent preparing for some rougher seas. We strapped our camera equipment down, wedged tripods into corners of storage lockers and read the instructions of boxes of seasickness tablets.

The weather took its time, the day passed and the sea grumbled but never lost its temper. We sat, drinking tea and talking. Laughing about past adventures and wondering what lay in store.

One Antarctic explorer who was a contemporary of Scott and Shackleton, Aspley Cherry-Garrard, wrote that “in Antarctica, you get to know people so well that in comparison you do not seem to know the people in civilisation at all.” I hate to think what dark truths my fellow crewmembers will have worked out about me by the end of it.

The Endurance22 team

Our team is led by Natalie Hewitt, an old friend and superb filmmaker. This is her second trip to Antarctica. She has two brilliant camera operators, James Blake and Paul Morris – both with heaps of sailing, Antarctic and other experience between them.

The world-renowned photographer Esther Horvath is taking photos and Nick Birtwistle is keeping us all in order with his invaluable spreadsheet, scheduling and satellite knowledge. Saunders Carmichael is the hugely talented and multiskilled social media influencer and creator. Some of us have been this far south before, others haven’t.

Shackleton’s crew

Experience was not a prerequisite for Shackleton’s crew. When he announced that he would be crossing the Antarctic, there is an apocryphal story that he placed an ad in the newspapers, which apparently read: “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.”

Sadly we cannot confirm whether this is true, but it is essentially his sales pitch. He was eccentric in his selection. The handful of female applicants were rejected. On Endurance22, by comparison, a sizeable minority of the crew are female. He chose Frank Wild, a 40-year-old triple Antarctic veteran as his deputy, and another legendary veteran of the ice Tom Crean, 37, as second officer.

But he also took men because he liked the look of them, or they gave unusual answers to weird questions. He asked a medic not about his medical knowledge but if he was any good at singing, by which he meant, “can you shout a bit with the boys.”

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Team by Frank Hurley

Image Credit: Royal Geographical Society/Alamy Stock Photo

He took a meteorologist without any experience because he “looked funny”. The gentleman in question, Leonard Hussey, had also just returned from an expedition to Sudan as an anthropologist and it tickled Shackleton to drag him from the hot to the cold, so Hussey retrained and proved a valuable crew member.

Shackleton believed that positive, optimistic, keen people were of more use than experienced trouble makers. He seemed to have that strangely British, Edwardian attitude, that the right sort of chap could pick up any skill quickly enough. It was an attitude that had almost got him killed on several occasions.

On Endurance22, the team leaders have taken a rather more modern approach to team selection. The helicopter pilots can fly helicopters, and the engineers know their way around Underwater Autonomous Vehicles.

Rough seas

As the sun set, the ship started shuddering as the bow ploughed into bigger and bigger waves. White water crashed over the bows and a fine mist travelled the length of the deck. The shock of each impact seemed to stop the ship dead in the water,  Late at night I went out in the pitch black and struggled to stand upright as the wind howled across us.

No stars tonight.

Read more about the discovery of Endurance. Explore the history of Shackleton and the Age of Exploration. Visit the official Endurance22 website.

Tags: Ernest Shackleton

Dan Snow