'Through Endurance We Conquer'
An American officer's journey with the Royal Navy
The waves crashed and the wind howled, freezing the crew and filling the air with a roaring din which drowned out our shouts and commands. I clung to the mast with one arm whilst standing on the winch drum, pulling down the mainsail.
How did a USN Lieutenant find himself in the Southern Ocean bound from South Georgia and serving in the Royal Navy, the first USN officer to take a sailing vessel to Antarctica in modern times? The answer to that question begins with the Personnel Exchange Program (PEP). PEP allows officers and enlisted sailors to participate in exchanges with 20 countries, to include Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. PEP typically involves two year orders and service by the selected individual as a fully integrated member of the host nation. It was through PEP that I was on exchange to the Royal Navy and thus eligible to submit an application to the whirlwind opportunity presented in expedition Antarctic Endurance 2016 (AE16).
AE16 came under the UK's Joint Services Adventure Training program. Adventure Training (AT) is an initiative conducted by the British military which places service members in challenging situations well outside of their comfort zones. AT can consist of a myriad of activities, each designed to force the individual to cope with risk and perform under pressure whilst in situations that are dangerous or uncomfortable. These activities, taken under the supervision of trained experts and with controlled safety measures in place, are aimed at exposing the service members to risk and thus increasing their confidence and capabilities after completion. The results are stronger and grittier service members who are not adverse to risk and are competent operating outside of their comfort zones. Obviously, this has direct relations to conducting real-world operations where members are exposed to unpredictable or dangerous situations. AE16 served as a capstone to the AT program; it was a two year research program into team dynamics and leadership under harsh and inhospitable circumstances. It sought to determine if individuals who participated in AT emerged as stronger more capable leaders and to quantify that data through testing and evaluation. Could a high performance team capable of enduring hardship and risk be assembled and then perform in the real world? AE16 would seek to answer that question. The study into team dynamics culminated with a six week expedition to Antarctica.
Amongst the goals of the team was a desire to inspire a sense of adventure in the next generation of service members, to cause them to seek out challenges. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines enjoy a storied history, ripe with the accomplishments of heroes and explorers alike. One such paragon was Sir Ernest Shackleton, the 20th Century explorer. AE16 sought to commemorate his achievements upon the centenary of his incredible recovery from the Weddell Sea in 1916, and to celebrate the raw grit and determination of the modern Sailor and Marine. We sought to educate the Ministry of Defense and the Navy on leadership and team dynamics, lessons which apply across the full spectrum of military operations.
The training for our journey was long and exacting. We began with basic sailing aboard 34' yachts in the Solent and English Channel. A lucky few of the more experienced sailors, myself included, were able to take the yacht through the Channel Islands, navigating through some demanding conditions. We conducted mountaineering exercises in Wales and snow training in Scotland. A second round of sailing took place again in the Channel, but this time aboard a Challenge 67, the same sort of reinforced sailing cutter that AE16 would take to the Southern Ocean. The final round of training was glacier traversing and crevasse rescue, held in the Austrian Alps. Throughout the entirety of the training the team completed in-depth evaluations in order to gather data on leadership fatigue, team dynamics, and personal growth.
Within the training cycle was the selection process. AE16's leadership, CDR Tim Winter (RN) and Maj Tony Lancashire (RM) desired to take a broad spectrum of skillsets down south. Their idea was to build a team consisting of experts, both sailing and mountaineering, but also to contrast that expertise with novices. Thus, upon completion of the expedition, we would have not only once-in-a-lifetime experiences but also an entire new portfolio of skillsets. The down-select would occur throughout the eighteen months of training and after key events, such as the major sailing portion and the glacier familiarization. About 50 applicants were chosen to begin the training together. The team was to comprise of 11 total with two of those number being already reserved for the Expedition Leader and Deputy Leader.