A hero whose time has come

Through the eyepiece of the sextant it is barely possible to see the sun, never mind the horizon, both nearly overwhelmed by the roaring roll of the Southern Ocean. Still, I must try to focus on what I imagine must be the horizon, I must try to catch the sun in my sight because everything depends on this: my life and the lives the four others in the tiny boat, the lives of the 22 men left behind on an otherwise uninhabited island in the middle of a terrible nowhere.

I think I’ve got it: click. But the computer to which my sextant is attached – OK, I’m on dry land in the American Museum of Natural History in New York – tells me I am far off course. It is 800 miles through the worst seas in the world from Elephant Island, a barren rock off Antarctica, to South Georgia, home, in 1916, to a whaling station and not much else. For 16 days Sir Ernest Shackleton, guided by the miraculous navigation of his skipper Frank Worsley, sailed through this treacherous ocean in a 22ft whaleboat, the James Caird.

Worsley caught sight of the sun only four times during those days. It is generally acknowledged to be the most remarkable feat of seamanship accomplished by anyone, anywhere.

This seems to be Shackleton’s hour. The exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, where the James Caird is on show, has been playing to capacity crowds since it opened in April; the accompanying book – The Endurance – by Caroline Alexander, the curator for the event, has sold more than 300,000 copies. There are now plans for the exhibition to tour – the National Maritime Museum is in discussion with the New York museum.

Orion is republishing in hardback Alfred Lansing’s classic, Endurance. There is the first biography of Frank Wild, who travelled with Shackleton and Scott and held the fort at Elephant Island as the James Caird sailed. A film is in the offing, with Wolfgang Petersen mentioned as possible director, Liam Neeson as possible star; Shackleton’s "management style" is being looked to by business leaders as a model for success. Shackleton, long eclipsed by the polar myth that grew out of the death of his rival, Robert Falcon Scott, has finally come into his own.

Shackleton, born in Ireland in 1874, had reached a Farthest South of 88degrees 23minutes in 1908; but Scott had beaten him to the Pole in 1911. That Scott perished on his return journey only made him a greater hero. The last feat left was to make a crossing of the frozen southern continent; this Shackleton set out to do. The Endurance left England four days after war was declared.

Eighty-five miles from Antarctic landfall the ship became trapped in the ice in January, 1916: she drifted north for ten months, the men hacking at the ice in vain attempts to free her. The men exercised the sled dogs they had brought on the ice; they hunted seal; Shackleton’s combination of leadership and whimsy – once he and Worsley danced a stately waltz on the floes – kept morale strong.

When the ship was finally crushed and the ice broke up, the men were forced aboard the whalers salvaged from Endurance: the Dudley Docker, the Stancomb-Wills and the James Caird; they set foot on land for the first time in 500 days at Elephant Island, but knew they would never be rescued there. And so, on April 24, 1916, Shackleton and four of his men set sail again in the James Caird for their epic journey to South Georgia. When they reached the whaling station, after crossing in three days the unmapped, mountainous island, Shackleton – bearded, filthy, unrecognisable – asked the station’s manager: "When was the war over?" The world had become a very different place.

It was four months more before the men on Elephant Island were rescued. But their return to England in the midst of the war was muted rather than triumphant. And Shackleton, after all, had failed. He never, in fact, achieved any of the geographical goals for which he had aimed.

But from disaster he dragged the kind of victory that strikes a chord in all who hear his tale. His granddaughter, the Hon Alexandra Shackleton (president of the James Caird Society, which meets twice a year for a grand supper held in celebration of and in company with the doughty boat) believes "Grandfather (as she calls him, with a capital G and a hint of the proprietary in her voice) fills a need. Nowadays there is a wish for absolutes: it was just you and your men, and you did it or you did not."

One of Caroline Alexander’s proudest achievements in arranging the exhibition was gathering together, for its opening, descendants of the expedition members. Jonathan Shackleton, a cousin of the explorer who has started up a Shackleton website and begun to lecture on his relation, found his visit an extraordinary experience. With relish he told me about meeting the twin daughters of Frank Hurley, now in their eighties, and Thomas McNeish, whose grandfather was the carpenter who made the James Caird able to withstand the Southern Ocean. "It was very moving," he says. "McNeish was a difficult character, and although he was a vital part of the journey, Shackleton didn’t award him the Polar Medal, which almost every other member of the expedition got. So I felt when I met Thomas – not that I was making reparation – but …" his voice drifts away, and it seems to me that he was making reparation of a kind.

It is easy to feel scorn now for what is called the heroic age of exploration. We are suspicious, at the end of the 20th century, of the notions of conquest that were at the time seen as intrinsic to the explorer’s enterprise. But Shackleton’s story is one not of imperial triumph but of human survival. "People understand that this is about character as much as physical endurance," Alexander says. "It is a story where certain values are taken for granted, where a group of men endured a terrible experience and, when it was over, were the same decent men they were before."

When the Endurance was crushed in the ice the men set up camp on floes more than 350 miles from the nearest land, with no one in the world aware of where they might be. Alexander Macklin wrote in his diary of Shackleton: "As always with him what had happened had happened. It was in the past and he looked to the future … Without emotion, melodrama or excitement he said ‘Ship and stores have gone – so now we’ll go home’."