Worsley’s Polar Shipwreck

Worsley_review_20210306Frank A. Worsley. 2000. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure (orig pub 1931). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Humility is a lost art. While each generation holds its own accomplishments most dearly, ours tends to write off history altogether and to puff up today’s cultural icons. Part of the reason for our generational myopia arises from ignorance, but most of it stems from valuing feelings over reason. Recent pains sting more than those of our parents and grandparents. One cure for this myopia is to read memoirs from prior generations to hear firsthand about their challenges and responses


Frank A. Worsley’s memoir, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure, is an excellent place to start. Worsley was captain of the Endurance under the command of Sir Ernest Shackleton that attempted to reach in the South Pole in an expedition in1914-16. After recounting the story of the Endurance, Worsley goes on to describe other adventures, including recapping his military service later in World War One.

The Endurance became trapped in pack ice and ultimately sank on July 13, 1915 leaving the expedition in the dead of the southern winter stranded eight hundred miles from the nearest whaling station at South Georgia Island. What began as a gallant attempt to reach the bottom of the earth had morphed quickly into an epic survival story against odds few would gamble. The most recent film (2013) made of the Endurance story, entitled Shackleton’s Captain, is available on Netflix.

Worsley’s account has all the trappings of the later story of Apollo 13’s attempt to reach the moon in April 1970 that failed due to an accident leaving the crew unable to complete the mission and making their survival problematic.

Background and Organization

Frank Arthur Worsley (February 22, 1872–February 1, 1943) was a New Zealand sailor who served as captain of the Endurance. During the First World War, Worsley captained the Q-ship PC.61 that rammed and sank a German U-boat, UC-33. After the war he became a popular lecturer.[1]

Worsley’s memoir is written in fifteen chapters, preceded by a preface and foreword, and followed by an index. The chapters are:

  1. We Lose the Endurance
  2. Looking Back
  3. On the Pack-ice
  4. We Reach Elephant Island
  5. On Elephant Island
  6. The Boat Journey Begins
  7. We Reach South Georgia
  8. The Crossing of South Georgia
  9. The Rescue
  10. Northwards Again
  11. The Ross Sea Party
  12. In Northern Waters
  13. Southwards Again
  14. Shackleton Looks Back
  15. The Death of a Hero (xi)

Judging from the page numbers, about half of the book focuses on the Endurance. Other chapters recount Worsley’s wartime experiences, time as captain of a merchant schooner, and the second attempt to reach South Pole. He also recounts some of the stories told him by Shackleton and gives a lengthy description of the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic regions in terms of climate, animal and plant life.

 Arctic and Antarctic

Worsley sailed seas in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions and writes at length about the differences between the two. Having visited neither, I generally assumed the two to be roughly equivalent, although I would never confuse where to look for Santa’s residence!

Worsley observes: “Antarctic is a continent surrounded by ocean, whereas the Arctic is an ocean almost surrounded by continents.” (247) “The Antarctic average yearly temperature is probably twenty-five or thirty degrees cold than that of the Arctic.” (248) Unlike the Arctic, Antarctica poses

“no trees, no real soil nor vegetation, no land animals, land birds, winged insects nor human beings. There are only herds of seals and flocks of sea birds along the coast and on the pack-ice, schools of whales where there is enough open water for them to blow in, and fish in the sea.” (251)

The Northern seals are smaller and different species than in the South. Unlike in the South, the North has no penguins while the South has no polar bears (253). In addition to studying the wild life in both regions, the explorers needed to hunt and live off local animal populations in order to survive.


Frank Worsley’s memoir, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure, is a fascinating book to read during pandemic times to gain some perspective on suffering and personal sacrifice. Worsley has an expert eye for his surroundings and a key insight into the human condition. His seamanship skills are repeatedly tested and displayed, which proved interesting to the novice in me.

Worsley writes in the midst of the Great Depression primarily to inhabitants of the British empire. His writing is mostly devoid of the class and cultural criticism. This point is raised in the 2013 film where Shackleton’s decision to push the expedition forward despite unfavorable weather is criticized as poor judgment and self-serving. In a society and at a time when loyalty was prized above all things, one could not expect Worsley to offer such observations about his self-described boss and best friend.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Worsley.

Worsley’s Polar Shipwreck

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com


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