Life Seldom Imitates Art

On May 2, 1915 Ernest Shackleton and a crew of five were barely afloat in a jury-rigged lifeboat on one of the world’s angriest oceans. Their destination was a whaling station on South Georgia Island. Six months earlier the twenty-eight man crew watched as one last pressure wave crept through the packed ice like an invisible sea monster. Endurance—the ship that was to take them to glory—was ground into a pile of feckless splinters. It was an ignominious end to a dream of being the first to cross the South Polar continent from sea to sea. It was also the beginning of one of history’s greatest escapes, an escape that has far surpassed the failure it signaled.

On that May morning Shackleton and five of his men were eight days out of Elephant Island where they left behind, on a barren sliver of beach, the remaining twenty two members of the expedition. If the rescue attempt failed, they were all of them dead. They were one third of the way across the evil expanse between Elephant and South Georgia Islands. The Caird—named after a benefactor— and its crew were fighting mountainous seas urged up by a three day running 60 knot gale. The temperature was below zero. Ice had begun to collect on every surface. The weight drove the boat down deep into the water like a coffin into a grave.

The crew chiseled the deadly layers into the sea, fighting to restore buoyancy. It was hard work. The crew was near the breaking point. Suddenly out of nowhere, a lone albatross appeared. It hovered a mere ten feet over their heads; then, on its 11 foot wing span, soared in a matter of seconds several hundred feet up, only to drop down again like a child on a swing. The men in the skiff watched with envy as the creature flew above them hour after hour with the utmost elegance and grace. What was, for them, a gale of life-threatening proportions was, for the albatross, a playground.

This account of men fighting for their lives while a bird played over their heads can be found in Alfred Lansing’s 1959 book, Endurance, Shackleton’s Incredible Adventure. Lansing drew on the logs of the sailors themselves.

Would any of them, I wondered as I read through the passage, note the extraordinary coincidence of their encounter with one of the most prominent birds in English poetry?

At length did cross an Albatross
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

Unfortunately no. Not even the well-educated Ernest Shackleton, himself, or his captain, Frank Worsley, the crack navigator who hit South Georgia Island dead on after 850 miles of nautical torment, had given it a legible thought.

Despite its acceptance as a common occurrence, life seldom imitates art. When a 14 caret, knockdown, drag-out moment comes along, what a shame to let it pass. Just imagine the impact on all of us had an entry like this appeared in Worsley’s log:

May 2 - 11am

Waves taller than buildings continue to threaten.
Albatross hangs over us like a mother hen over her chicks.
South Georgia Island seems assured.
Bless you, Coleridge. Bless you, Ancient Mariner.