Just North of Nowhere

Surfer - - Contents -

Nine­teen days of surf­ing with pen­guins, avoid­ing land­mines and pi­o­neer­ing waves in the South At­lantic

Sir Ernest Shack­le­ton was a pi­o­neer in what is now called the Heroic Age of Antarc­tic Ex­plo­ration. Un­der­funded and over­am­bi­tious, Shack­le­ton set out to cross the en­tirety of Antarc­tica via the South Pole by land. In 1914, he as­sem­bled a crew of 28 men to tackle the Im­pe­rial Trans-antarc­tic Ex­pe­di­tion aboard the ship, “En­durance”, but af­ter six weeks charg­ing through a thou­sand miles of pack ice on the ship, with a one­day sail left to the start­ing point for their land cross­ing, dis­as­ter struck. The ice be­gan clos­ing in around the “En­durance”, even­tu­ally trap­ping the ship “like an al­mond in the mid­dle of a choco­late bar,” ac­cord­ing to one of the men. The men drifted 1,186 miles in the 281 days they were stuck in the ice. “The noise re­sem­bles the roar of heavy, dis­tant surf,” Shack­le­ton wrote in his log. “Stand­ing on stir­ring ice, one can imag­ine it is dis­turbed by the breath­ing and toss­ing of a mighty gi­ant be­low.”

With no hope of res­cue, the crew took lifeboats on a five-month jour­ney to Ele­phant Is­land. From there, Shack­le­ton took five men and a 22-foot long­boat 800 miles across the stormi­est stretch of ocean in the world. Af­ter 14 days, against all odds, the small crew found South Ge­or­gia Is­land. It took 137 days and sev­eral ice-thwarted at­tempts, but Shack­le­ton even­tu­ally re­turned for his men, and none of the orig­i­nal 28 were lost. “We had reached the naked soul of man,” he al­leged. “Dif­fi­cul­ties are just things to over­come, af­ter all.”

Shack­el­ton’s story is fa­mous for be­ing an ex­am­ple of the power of strong lead­er­ship and the for­ti­tude of the hu­man spirit. For me, how­ever, the story is just as in­ter­est­ing for its al­lu­sions to the South At­lantic’s raw ocean en­ergy and the surf it surely gen­er­ates. Shack­le­ton de­scribed sail­ing through waves “50 feet from tip to trough,” dur­ing his jour­ney to South Ge­or­gia Is­land. I won­dered if ride­able waves ex­isted along the coasts of these for­saken south­ern isles, and if there were qual­ity waves, were they even reach­able? I wasn’t the only one won­der­ing.

(Pre­vi­ous spread) The au­thor of this piece, Nate Zoller, and Parker Cof­fin split the peak at a never-be­fore-surfed wave on an iso­lated is­land. (Clock­wise from be­low) LJ O’leary, draw­ing some of the first lines ever made at this ob­scure South At­lantic slab.With this is­land chain’s his­tory of war and the re­main­ing land­mines, it be­hooves vis­i­tors to read signs—and not jump any fences.Ben Wei­land and the crew search­ing for points and bends in the coast to best re­ceive an in­com­ing swell.This beach break on the main is­land sees far more pen­guins in the lineup than it does surfers.

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