“I went to see Shackleton. The greatest sailor of the 20th century”

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Retracing the route of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance through the ice of South Georgia is an unforgettable experience, especially if you sail on a Dutch sailing ship from the early 1900s. But if you are there while the wreckage of the Endurance is being found, the unforgettable becomes unrepeatable. Niccolò Banfi, sailor, reporter, photographer told us about his adventure “To the edge of the world and the center of history” in the footsteps of the greatest navigator and explorer of the 20th century. Almost all the photos accompanying the story are also his.

Shackleton
Bark Europa sailing in the Scottish Sea. Photos by Jordi Plana Morales

I went to see Shackleton

“To Niccolò, who shares my passion for Antarctica and unforgettable memories of South Georgia. Love, Mensun Bound.” It is said that adventure allows the unexpected to happen. This phrase comes to mind as I hold in my hands the book with the dedication of the underwater archaeologist whom some have dubbed “The Indiana Jones of polar ice,” the man who found the Endurance, Shackleton’s mythical boat.

Shackleton 2
The dedication of Mensun Bound, the man who re-tried the Endurance, to Niccolo on his book “The Ship Beneath The Ice”

When I decided to abandon all certainty to embark on an early 20th-century Dutch sailing ship, follow my passion for sailing and retrace the steps of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary expedition, I never imagined I would meet the person who wrote the final chapter of that epic of endurance and survival.

Mensun Bound, the man who found Shackleton's Endurance
Mensun Bound, the man who found Shackleton’s Endurance

It all started with a photograph taken, almost by accident, of a man walking absentmindedly holding a paper in his hand through the sparse and jagged vegetation of South Georgia. He struck me with his white hair, open blue oilskin, elegant bearing and the marks on his face of someone who has spent years at sea. I would find out a few days later that it was Mensun Bound going over the speech he would shortly be reading at Shackleton’s tomb to celebrate the discovery of the wreck of the Endurance. I was at the edge of the world, but I was at the center of history.

Paying tribute to the great navigator

March 2022, South Georgia, Grytviken: the ghost country of 1900s whalers in Antarctica. One of the most remote places in the world, where in the early years of the last century, whalers had built a base. Today in the buildings once used for whale slaughter and oil production, cormorants and petrels nest, while seals and elephant seals use them as breeding dens. There is nothing in Grytviken but a post office, a couple of houses for British government officials or passing scientists, a small museum about cetaceans, a church, and … the grave of Ernest Henry Shackleton, the explorer who died here on January 5, 1922, during his third Antarctic expedition.

A ‘sea lion and a wreck in the background at Grytviken, South Georgia

I had arrived in South Georgia about a month after embarking on Bark Europa, an early 20th-century Dutch three-masted, to take part in a sailing expedition from Ushuaia to Cape Town. From Argentina to South Africa, via Antarctica South Georgia and Tristan Da Cunha, the most remote inhabited island on the planet. A Cape to Cape voyage, totaling 52 days at sea and 5600 nautical miles.

Niccolo Banfi on the bowsprit of Bark Europa.

Nearly two months, disconnected from the world, navigating through endless ice shelves, superb shades of turquoise blue shimmering within the hollows and crevices of the glaciers, and the most extraordinary wildlife inhabiting these lands: this remote, cold, white continent of the South is simply breathtaking: seals, elephant seals, colonies of king penguins, gentoos, chinstrap and macarons, petrels, dung beetles, cormorants, skinks and the magnificent albatrosses.

ernest shackleton
King Penguin Colony in Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

A surreal experience that fills you with excitement, inspiration and inner calm, encouraging you to enjoy life to the fullest.

Bark Europa crossing Drake Passage with 8-meter waves. Photos by Jordi Plana Morales

Under the leadership of Captain Janke, a Dutch woman who had spent the last 10 of her 40 years at sea, I had joined the crew along with 20 other people. Men and women of all ages, from all parts of the world: sailors, photographers, researchers, simple sea lovers, everyone had their own reason for being there. We had one thing in common: a desire to push our boundaries and respond to man’s innate passion to explore.

Panorama of Stromness Bay, South Georgia. Photos by Jordi Plana Morales

Escaping the certainties of a “comfortable” life

I had left Milan, my family, a job in marketing in a large company, and a life of certainty, because the only thing I was really sure of was that I did not want to live trapped in conventions and look back one day thinking back on Mark Twain’s words, “Twenty years from now you will be more sorry for the things you didn’t do than for the things you did do.”

Niccolo’ Banfi at the helm of Bark Europa, in the background Tristan Da Cunha

And so I had decided to loosen my moorings and sail away from the safe harbor following my passion for the Ocean and sailing. For years the South Atlantic crossing and the Antarctic expedition had been my dream, and I knew by heart the epic story of Shackleton, the British explorer who wanted to make the crossing of the Antarctic continent. The plan was to land in the Weddell Sea and cross the continent back to the ocean through the Ross Sea. The ship that would accompany them on this risky venture was the famous Endurance.

Icebergs in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica.

After a few days we were part of the crew, taking turns at the helm and lookout. We had learned to eat, wash, walk with the boat constantly tilted at 45 degrees. We would spend the evenings reminiscing about the rich history of the explorers who had come to those lands before us and faced dangers and fears while passing through Drake Strait and the South Seas. Adventurers of the past, and we followed their routes.

The Myth of Ernest Shackleton

As we crossed the Weddell Sea aboard Bark Europa, we often told each other the stories of the members of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Twenty-eight brave men who had responded to this famous ad, “Men wanted for risky journey. Low pay, freezing cold, long hours of complete darkness. Uncertainty and return uncertain. Honors and recognition in case of success.”

Ernest Shackleton

The crew of the Endurance arrived in the vicinity of the Weddell Sea on Dec. 7, 1914, one of the most remote and unforgiving environments on the globe, littered with icebergs and swept by extremely strong surface winds. Shackleton called it “the worst sea in the world.” After trying to advance through the huge compact blocks of ice, the ship became stuck in the pack on Jan. 19, 1915, and after several months of agony, it had to be completely abandoned by the crew on Oct. 27. It finally sank on November 21, 1915, a full 281 days after running aground.

But the story of the Endurance did not end with the sinking of the ship. Shackleton’s journey across the Weddell Sea in search of help for his remaining men waiting for him would become one of the most famous stories of exploration and survival.

On April 4, 1916, Shackleton left his crew on Elephant Island and departed with only five men on a modified Endurance lifeboat toward South Georgia. They traveled 800 nautical miles (about 1,500 km) of adventurous crossing in the Antarctic seas until they reached the island of South Georgia, from where they had departed 522 days earlier, to call for rescue, allowing the entire crew to be saved.

While Shackleton’s name entered legend, for more than a century the 44-meter-long ship Endurance had been lost in the icy waters of the Weddell Sea, which covers an area of more than 2.6 million square kilometers.

We were there when they found the Endurance

The Endurance was a three-masted schooner, 144 feet (about 44 meters) long, specially built for polar waters, and had a solid oak hull 76 cm thick. Bark Europa had been built only a year before the Endurance (1912).

Ernest Shackleton
Remains of the whaling station at Grytviken, South Georgia

And our journey involved retracing Shackleton’s steps: we had set sail on February 17, 2022, from Ushuaia, and reached Antarctica by crossing the Drake Passage, the stormiest stretch of sea on the planet. Once we arrived at the White Continent, we had set course for the South Shetland Islands, the Weddell Sea and Elephant Island. From there, sailing northeast, we crossed the Scotia Sea to arrive in South Georgia after 7 days of sailing.

Shackleton's Endurance
The wreck of the Endurance

It was March 9, 2022, when it was announced that the Endurance had been found in the Weddell Sea, and well that day we were only a few dozen miles from the location of the wreck and the South African research vessel Agulhas II. It was Jordie, our expedition leader, who alerted us during the daily update with the entire crew. It was a huge thrill and a surprise for all of us. We had been cut off from the world for weeks (I communicated with my family and girlfriend a couple of minutes a week through a satellite phone), yet that news had come to us immediately.

Endurance Shackleton
The wreck of the Endurance

The wreck was found 3,000 meters underwater, in remarkably good condition, with the whole timber and name still clearly visible on the stern.

Having passed through the discovery area a few days earlier was already extraordinary, but it was incredible when we were told that we were about to arrive in Grytviken, South Georgia, on the very day that the Agulhas II with its entire crew would also be there, including the search team led by Mensun Bound, the famous underwater archaeologist who had coordinated the search for the Endurance discovery.

Niccolo’ Banfi pays tribute at Shackleton’s grave in Grytviken, South Georgia

So in fact it was. The whole team was there to pay tribute to Shackleton and celebrate the find in front of his grave. It was an unforgettable experience as well as a historic moment.

I wouldn’t have known Mensun Bound then. When we arrived in Grytviken, as always I had gotten off the boat before the others with my camera. I saw the man alone reading his speech. He was definitely part of the crew of the Agulhas II (there were no others besides us and them in Grytviken), and I would have liked to approach him and talk to him, but he was so focused and engrossed in his thoughts that I did not want to disturb him.

I took the picture, then went to Shackleton’s grave for a whiskey to pay my respects with my Bark Europa comrades. We sailed shortly thereafter to resume our journey in the direction of Tristan Da Cunha, before setting course for Cape Town.

Bust of Luis Pardo (the captain who rescued the Endurance castaways) at Elephant Island, Antarctica.

More days at sea without ever seeing land, thousands of miles, millions of photos, meetings, experiences, thoughts. When we arrived in South Africa, Agulhas II was waiting for us docked at Cape Town harbor. A sign, yet another. It was perhaps this series of coincidences that – once back home in Italy – prompted me to take courage and write an email to Mensun Bound. I sent him the photos I had taken of him and told him how my path had met his. I didn’t expect him to respond to me, least of all that that email would be the beginning of the most extraordinary friendship I would make in my life.

Niccolò Banfi

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