By Peter Tyler
Captain Shackleton woke that morning after a few hours of a light and fitful slumber only possible from sheer exhaustion. The first sight as he opened his eyes was of his black slicker covered with ice, and then his gaze shifted forward to a small pool of water collected on the brown deck. He was too groggy to lift his head any further to face the day.
‘God, it’s cold,’ thought the Captain, while shivering to icy wind blowing across the black ocean. He wanted to spend the next few minutes, even the next hour, staring at the bottom of the boat in an uncomfortable semi-slumber, which seemed better than facing and fighting what the day would offer.
“Good morning, Sir! Gorgeous day, ay, Captain?” That was Samuel, belting out his enthusiastic greeting. He had the early watch, from the third hour past midnight until dawn. He was sitting up, with his hand on the wooden tiller of the twenty-two foot boat, looking east to the sunrise. Not seeming to notice the cold, his back was straight, facing the horizon, smiling and determined. He was not just steering the boat but enjoying the sky, the sea, and everything nature had made for the entire crew at the moment. Shackleton asked himself, as he did every day, where Samuel could possibly get his never-ending zeal? The dangers of the journey failed to bring him down, as did the monotony of sky and ocean.
For ten days, the crew of six of the Endeavor had been in the small vessel, more lifeboat than true seafaring ship, trying to make the seven hundred miles to South Georgia Island before their luck ran out. The crossing was mostly freezing rain and ice, dark days, and darker nights.
“Some breakfast, Sir? It is going to be a clear morning, and the wind feels like less rain today,” Samuel offered his cheerful observations of the coming day and respect for his captain. Breakfast meant the bare day’s first ration, a single bite of the last of the biscuits from long ago England. “The biscuits are still dry. Not bad at all, today,” he added with a loud and curious flare, considering it was the same pasty meal served every morning since the crew had climbed aboard the boat for this last, dire leg of the journey.
Captain Shackleton raised his head to witness the view Samuel described. It was a bobbing horizon where the rising sun broke over the shallow line of low clouds colored with differing shades of gray. Even with the freezing cold and four-foot oily waves, the red and yellow sunrise was striking. Samuel’s morning was gorgeous. Perhaps it was the contrast to the rest of the scene in the far southern Atlantic Ocean, but the colors drew the Captain’s gaze like a compass magnet. It was a sight not seen by almost anyone else in the world except for the six sailors, a few hundred miles from the Antarctic coast.
Samuel looked down at the Captain from the tiller and gave him a broad grin. His slicker was not just wet, but like those worn by all in the boat, covered with ice. The crew had learned quickly that the ice became insulation, keeping the biting wind off their layers of wool and sweat-enshrined clothes. The ice represented the difference between physical discomfort and death by the elements.
“How did you sleep, Sir? Good and solid, ay? It looks like we are going to have a sound and steady journey for the day.” From anyone else this chatter would have sounded either sarcastic, or at best insensitive considering the situation. Their months of a failed mission to explore Antarctica, then a sunken ship, and finally a desperate attempt to get a dangerously small boat to sail across hundreds of miles of cold, choppy seas should have worn them all down to despair.
The Captain smiled back. How could he not? Samuel always gave off an infectious, hopeful feeling.
Samuel was still regarding the sea as the boat bobbed up and down, while the Captain saw fast moving, narrow clouds and the last few early morning stars that broke up the purple sky. An errant, random splash of south Atlantic Ocean struck Samuel’s bare face, but he merely licked the briny sea water from his lips and smiled some more. He gave the Captain a professional sailor’s nod, then went back to steering the boat through the waves and toward the horizon.
‘Yes, I am his Captain,’ Shackleton thought. ‘And he part of my crew.’ So the Captain did his duty and raised himself from the low spirits that were a danger to everyone on board. He stretched his aching, cold muscles, and looked at the rest of the men. Some were sleeping, others stirring against the tired day, probably listening idly to the conversation with the ever-happy Samuel. Shackleton reached for the navigation tools to get the dawn bearings and try to figure the next course adjustment toward the rocky shores of South Georgia Island.
Then Samuel started again. “Morning, Rogers, gorgeous day! Take a look at that sunrise in the horizon,” he said to the First Boatswain’s Mate.
Rogers smiled, and shook the ice from his cheeks and nose. “Sure as the day, Sammy. Good morning to you—yes, more gorgeous than yesterday.”
The other men responded in turn to their boatmate, warming to his joy.
The day would be good.