Monday, January 13, 2014

Evanston: Chasing Shackleton

        If you can get past the script, the three part series, “Chasing Shackleton,” presently airing on Wednesday nights on PBS in the United States, is worth watching.  
        I had a very hard time getting past the contemptible hyperbole of the script read in, of course, the most solemn of tones.  So much so that I went back and viewed the first episode a second time to be certain my impression was correct.  It was.  Within the first five minutes, the phrase “the roughest ocean on the planet” was used four times.  “Deadly” and “death defying” were used so often that by the nineteenth minute I lost count.  Everything was “est”.
        My criticism does not refer to Sir Ernest Shackleton, for whom I have admiration and respect, but to the expedition to “faithfully” recreate his small boat voyage from Elephant Island off Antarctica to South Georgia Island 800 miles away, “across the roughest ocean on the planet,” in case you didn’t know, after his ship, ENDURANCE, was trapped in the ice almost a hundred years ago.
        I’m not sure why people resort to hyperbole when reality is enough.  Perhaps because it has become the norm and is not only accepted but expected.  I have always held hyperbole in disdain and shunned it.  Hyperbole debases truth, and, in a variation on Gresham’s Law where the bad drives the good out of circulation, in a world of strident self promotion, the true is lost.
        Thus far only the first episode has aired, and the redeeming part of it is the photography. 
        The six men who sailed aboard the replica of Shackleton’s JAMES CAIRD underwent discomfort and ate bad food, but they by no means recreated Shackleton’s voyage.  Chase Shackleton?  Perhaps.  But they didn’t come close to catching him.
        Twice in the course of the first episode, which is the only one to have broadcast yet in the US, it is said that the attempted recreation is being “shadowed as required by Antarctic governing bodies.”  And the first episode comes to a triumphant conclusion when the crew aboard the replica manage to get the radio and AIS ship tracking device working again so they can be observed after dark by the 72’ escort vessel that is during the day within sight.  Somehow I doubt that Shackleton had a radio, AIS, or an escort vessel.  And that makes all the difference.  These men were not in real danger.  If it all got too bad, rescue was less than a half mile away.  For Shackleton it wasn’t.
        I also don’t know who these “Antarctic governing bodies” are.  There didn’t seem to be any inspectors in sight at Elephant Island unless they were disguised as penguins; and if there had been, any crew who really wanted to do it the way Shackleton did would have send the  escort vessel away as soon as they were over the horizon.
        Some of you are aware that, except when Carol sailed with me, I have always gone to sea as Shackleton did, with no way to call for outside help.  With the Yellowbrick on GANNET, this will no longer be the case, which troubles me.  I like to believe that if it is only a matter of survival, I will save myself, or not, as I always have.  But if something happens which results in persistent intolerable pain, well, I’m weak, and I might set off an alert.  Not that I would likely be where help could even reach me.  Hopefully such a circumstance will not arise.  And I expect that only a few would even consider there to be an ethical issue.
        To me the worst aspect of the expedition would have been being on that small boat with five other people.  I’ve thought that of Captain Bligh’s open boat voyage as well.  To sail the voyage is one thing; to do so with others in such a restricted space intolerable.
        Oddly, not all the six men on the replica were sailors, including the expedition leader.
        And curiously, the boat was steered with two lines led forward from the rudder rather than a tiller.  I surmise that this was done to give the helmsman some protection from the elements; but it certainly gave him less control.  I think I would have mounted a tiller.
        You can still view the first episode online here.
        The second is due to broadcast on PBS Wednesday, January 15.  
        Despite the script and false claims of authenticity, I’ll be watching.  I thank James of the Adirondacks for bringing the series to my attention.