Hard journey, soft landing

The crew of the Alexandra Shackleton arrived at King Haakon Bay, South Georgia early in the morning on 4 February (AEDT) completing the first leg of their expedition.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts – Winston Churchill

Forget about food and navigation instruments, patience has been one of the most valuable commodities on this expedition. It was a basic requirement to live on the Alexandra Shackleton each day but was needed more than ever as we neared the end of the ocean leg of our journey.

Just 20 nautical miles from land, a thick band of fog settled in, a real pea souper that enshrouded the boat. We could no longer sail safely towards land, despite being so very, very close. Realising we had to 'heave to' for the night with only 20 nautical miles to go was an exasperating moment that tested our already low reserves of patience. But in a journey of lucky breaks we received another the next day - the fog lifted early in the morning and we were able to press on.

Sailing towards King Haakon Bay at a cracking pace, our spirits lifted higher and higher with each nautical mile ticked off the chart. Negotiating large breaking waves and uncharted rocks, we were grateful we were sailing with good visibility as that last stretch of sailing could have easily brought us undone had we not had such experienced sailors in Nick Bubb and Paul Larsen in our crew.

Sailing into Peggotty Bluff assisted by a generous tailwind, was a memorable moment filled with emotion. It was a gloriously soft landing after a journey of hardship. Stepping foot on terra firma was as surreal as it was a relief. This journey was always risky and I'd been warned against attempting it by many. The line between success and failure is always thin, but in the case of this journey it was as thin as a strand of hair. There was little room for error and although I was aware of this, I tried to not let myself project too far ahead into the future. All I could do each day was push on, focussing on whatever was in front of me whether that be a night on watch or a mundane day trying to dry-out my ever damp clothes during a break in the weather.

Now we stand on the windswept shores of South Georgia Island – treacherous to reach but beautiful beyond measure. Home to colonies of King Penguins and Fur Seals, we are once again standing where Shackleton and his men were, nearly a century ago. The last time I had the pleasure of standing where Shackleton did was back on Elephant Island – which seems an age ago but was just 12 or do days back! This time around I'm much more tired, cold, hungry and wet than back then, but my amazement and gratitude at being here hasn't been dulled one iota. The term 'life changing experience' is bandied around quite lightly, but this truly has been a life changing experience for me.

I'm not the same person I was standing at Elephant Island. I have been pushed to the limits of what I thought I could endure and now that I have the knowledge that I've survived this part of the journey I feel I can do anything. To stand up to the worst of the Southern Ocean is very empowering indeed.

Shackleton's resourcefulness and never-say-die attitude in the face of such extreme circumstances is the stuff of legends. He stands mightily tall in the annals of polar exploration and after what I've experienced over the past 12 days, he deserves to. Shackleton had great faith in his crew and to say that I'm immensely proud of my crew is an understatement. They all proved themselves to be outstanding members of the team. Despite some pretty tough times, their commitment never once wavered. They remained solid in the face of both danger and deprivation, and worked well together as a team. While there may have been times we doubted the journey, we never doubted each other – a true reflection of each crew member's capabilities and attitude.

Now we're preparing to take on the mountain crossing part of this expedition with two crew members, which is no small undertaking. Traversing the crevasses of South Georgia Island wearing traditional gear (old boots with screws put through the sole) and using vintage climbing instruments is certainly a challenge - we'll be exposed to the elements, at the mercy of the notoriously fickle weather conditions and at the end of our energy reserves. Like the sea leg of this journey we will need strength, supreme climbing skills and of course my old, familiar friend, patience.

Follow the expedition live at www.shackletonepic.com.

As told to Jo Stewart aboard the support vessel the Australis

The story Hard journey, soft landing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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