(Sheridan House)Ernest Shackleton set out in 1914 to cross the Antarctic by foot. He never made it. His ship, the Endurance got crushed in ice, like a big juicy margarita. He and his crew of twenty-seven men had to start walking... home.To get to the nearest whaling station involved two years of puttering across a frozen wasteland, all the while pulling a life boat, trying to live off the barren land, wandering from ice pack to ice pack, finally sailing across Esperanza Bay amidst towering waves to reach South Georgia, then crossing over the high mountains of the island to reach the whaling station at Stromness. To say they damn near died is an understatement.It was a dismal failure as a cross-
Antarctic trek. But the survival of the twenty-seven of them made it a success of another order. "Sheer pluck," as they would say in 1916.In 2000, Arved Fuchs elected to follow the last part of Shackleton's path using a replica of the lifeboat James Caird. The purpose was to try to evaluate the choices that Shackleton made, to see if the desperate journey for survival could have been shortened, or at least have been less desperate.
Despite the title of the book, this is hardly a trek on the order of Shackleton's. The Dagmar Aaen, a large sailing vessel, is never too far from our doughty crew of four. There is constant radio contact. TV journalists are placed at strategic points to record it for German television. At the start of their journey, Fuchs, his three companions and the ersatz James Caird arrive aboard a luxury cruise ship, complete with bar, cruise liner foodstuffs, air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, medical staff, and frozen margaritas.
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Once Fuchs' gang deploys, we are regaled with non-stop stories of their agony. It is cold. It is wet. There are large swells. The bunks are cramped. It stinks down there below-decks, what with the head and the bilge and all. It's hard to sleep. You pour a cup of tea, and with the waves slop it all over your gloves.
His message to the reader: It's a bitch crossing Esperanza Bay in a twenty-two foot life-boat what with the waves slopping all over you. And we think, "What in God's name did you expect?" And then, after fifty pages or so, we think, "Could you please stop whining?"
Fuchs is what my Mum used to call a Sob Sister. He reeks not only of bilge, fog, cold, and icebergs, but self-pity. After he chose his bed-of-nails, this hot tea spilling out of the cup and over his gloves isn't very dramatic or brave. Hell, during those two years, Shackleton would have given his right arm for a cup of hot tea.
The book reeks of a publicity machine cranking up. Sponsors turn up like toadstools after the rain: the cruise ship Hanseatic, the various boat-builders out of Denmark, Pro Freight boat haulers, and most unseemly of them all, one that rests on Fuchs' perfervid brow. From the photos, we thought for a moment there that his name was Jack Wolfskin --- that being the name emblazoned on his boating cap (and on the sail of the James Caird II). Turns out it's a sleeping bag manufacturer.
This is, then, no teeth-chattering knuckle-whitening adventure book. It's an extended plug for various outfits that supply the carriage trade in arctic adventures. For 200 pages, amidst the boo-hoos (it's so cold, it's so wet, my teeth are chattering) we get commercials. Thus, this is not a journey to investigate the truth or fiction of Shackleton's awful trek, but, instead, a crude effort to play on the public's hunger for yet another gimmicky adventure story to be featured on the Nature Channel.
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Last month, we reviewed Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. His was a perilous journey equivalent to that of Shackleton's. We wrote that part of the charm of his book was that Slocum underplayed the hardships. In none but the simplest language, he lets us join him --- an eccentric a man alone in a boat --- on a three years journey of some 25,000 miles.
Slocum tells us what he saw, how he interacted with various peoples he came across in his astonishing journey, even some of his spectacularly delusional visions. He was a humble man who, with a spare style of writing, constantly plays down his obvious heroism: he made the journey he made because he wanted to do it --- and that's it. No big deal.
Compare this to:
We can't expect anyone to stay on deck for more than three hours straight. No matter how many layers of fleece you put on, after three hours in this kind of weather, you are frozen through and through.... The deck is like a dripstone cave, in which moisture condenses as drops of water. With our breath, our sodden clothes, the steam created by boiling water --- the boat never feels dry.
Too bad Fuchs didn't learn anything from the man he calls his hero, Ernest Shackleton: that you cannot manufacture bravery. Nor, god knows, is it there to be sold. It comes from within, not from some extended television infomercial.--- Lolita Lark