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The Wreck Of The Erebus

Sometime in September 1846, the relentless Arctic ice pack closed around Sir John Franklin and the remainder of his 129-man crew as they searched for the long-sought Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Their ships, the HMS Erebus and its sister HMS Terror, were trapped in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, near King William Island. Since then, historians have tried to piece together the fate that befell Franklin and his crew.

Now, after over a century and a half, researchers have found the wreck of the Erebus itself, shedding new light on the tragedy.

Yet even before this major find, other scraps of evidence have told us the broad outlines of what happened to those unfortunate men. For two years, they awaited a rescue that never came. The remains of the crew have turned up, here and there, more or less ever since. A note found in a mound of stones said that the 105 members of the crew who were still alive in 1848 abandoned ship; Franklin had already died by then. (His remains are still missing, though the wreck of the Erebus has not yet been fully explored.)

Not one of the explorers survived the ordeal in the Arctic. Among the possible causes of death are exposure, scurvy, lead poisoning from canned provisions or hunger. There have been suggestions that some of the desperate men turned to cannibalism.

I would never fault anybody for what they did under such extreme conditions. The now-infamous Donner Party set off in the same year the Franklin expedition was stranded in ice. The human drive to survive can force those in terrible situations to make equally terrible choices.

But unlike the Donner Party, none of Franklin’s crew managed to hold on until they could find help or rescue. This raises the question: Did they all have to die?

It is about 700 miles, nearly all over land, from King William Island to Churchill, Manitoba, which was then a relatively small settlement and fur trading post. Churchill is nearly at the tree line, meaning most of the trek would have been across a harsh, barren landscape. But if any of the Franklin expedition could have made it that far, they might have survived, or even arranged a rescue party to go back for any other crew members who could have held out long enough. It is hard not to think that they might have had a chance, had they not used two years’ worth of supplies waiting vainly for rescue.

Did the Erebus’ crew consider attempting such a trip? If not, why not? Were their supplies insufficient or did some other factor hold them back? For the time being, no one knows. We may never be sure, though perhaps the newly discovered ship may hold some clues.

But contrast the fate of the Erebus’ crew with that of the now-famous Shackleton Antarctic expedition of 1914-16. Shackleton was determined from the outset that none of the 27-man crew of his ship, Endurance, would die. Endurance was caught in the ice pack and eventually crushed; Shackleton led his men through five months camping on ice floes and a hazardous journey to Elephant Island in open lifeboats. When Elephant Island proved too remote to offer any true hope of rescue, Shackleton and five other men sailed 800 miles in a small lifeboat to South Georgia Island, where they crossed 26 miles of uninhabited, hostile terrain to reach a whaling station, from which they sent rescuers back for the crewmembers they had left behind.

The story of Endurance’s crew is remarkable. Their survival depended on many factors, not all of which were within their control. But crucially, Shackleton and his men never turned on each other, determined to live or die together. They took their fate into their own hands in a way evidence suggests the Erebus crew did not or could not, at least not before it was too late.

In any dangerous venture, survival is often a function of what you prepared ahead of time. Whether you return may come down to what you brought that you can use or repurpose; recall the Apollo 13 crew’s successful use of their lunar module as a lifeboat. But pure determination should not be discounted. Consider Slavomir Rawicz’s book “The Long Walk,” which recounted the escape from a Stalin-era gulag of a group of prisoners who crossed 4,000 miles to reach British India. While some have questioned the authenticity of Rawicz’s story, many who have investigated believe the trek occurred, whether or not Rawicz himself participated. Other escape narratives from the period also feature long treks over unforgiving conditions.

Now that the Erebus has been found, we may get a better picture of why those men stayed put for so long in a place from which, in theory at least, they could have tried to walk to safety. They spent at least one full summer stuck in place. What kept them where they were?

Passivity in the absence of knowing exactly how it can help is rarely the best option. If you are on a plane that crashes and you have an emergency locator beacon, staying put is probably your best hope of rescue. But if you wander off a mountain path in deep snow and don’t take steps to get to a place where people can find you, you will almost certainly die in the mountains, undiscovered until the roads reopen in spring.

Sometimes humans are simply overcome by nature, but the best chances are often available to those who try to help themselves. Tragically, the crew of the Erebus may have just hung on, waiting, until they could hold on no longer.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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