Just North of Nowhere
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.