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Around The Fleet

'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.

Salt spray smashed into us on the foc'sle of the sailing cutter and soaked us to the skin despite our foul weather gear. I was so cold that my shaking fingers could barely close around the small metal ring but finally I got the snap shackle through and shouted completion to my crewmates. They heaved around and the reef was in, buying us a few hours of respite as the jaunty craft transited from South Georgia to the Falkland Islands. We made our way back to sit in a huddled miserable mass within the relative shelter of the cockpit. One of our number brought up hot tea from the saloon below and we sipped the restorative brew in the moonlight. "How did I get here?" I asked myself...

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.
This is a collage of photos from Antarctica Exercise 2016.

Being chosen for the final team was a moment which I will never forget. I was in a McDonalds in Dijon, France when it happened. My mobile chirped that I'd received an email and when I read it I was so overcome with emotion that speech was barely possible. My wife looked at me and didn't even need to ask what happened. The answer was written in the ear-to-ear grin on my face; I was going to Antarctica! Of course training, personal abilities, and character played the pivotal role in selection, but it was seizing the opportunity presented by PEP assignment which gave me the chance to apply.

No journey of this magnitude is bereft of hardships and our expedition was no exception. My own personal challenges involved career milestones and progression. No Surface Warfare Officer is ignorant of the fact that PERS-41 leans heavily upon us to reach Department Head School no later than the 7.5 year mark of our service. The timeline of AE16 required me not only to miss that marker but also meant that I had to extend in the PEP assignment several months past my rotation date. Through early and detailed engagement with my detailer I was able to make that extension happen and to learn a valuable lesson; nothing in the Navy is set in stone. If you have a desire or an opportunity, just ask. Don't assume that the answer will be negative.

The team as a whole had to overcome more elaborate challenges. Remember that our original group consisted of 50 applicants, each active duty service members of both the Navy and the Marines. Many had upcoming deployments, exercises, career milestones, etc. which took them away from the expedition. Unfortunately some commitments could not be changed and brought about a large amount of natural selection as members had to withdraw due to competing priorities.

Other challenges consisted of equipment and flights. The Royal Air Force provided our transportation to the Falklands, the beginning of our expedition. Regulations were such that each member of the team was only able to bring 45lbs of equipment! I will never forget staring at the diminutive pile of foul weather and mountaineering gear thinking "that's all I get to survive in the harshest environment in the world?!"

Another challenge was reaching the starting line. First a scheduling error occurred which bumped us from the flight. An aircraft defect forced the cancellation of our rescheduled flight. A third error caused a reallocation of resources resulting in us being removed from the we were waiting in the airport lounge. Ever flexible, we took our recently arrived equipment (foul weather gear and mountaineering kit), stowed it in our cars, and proceeded to the next village for a late dinner, ending a rather disappointing day.

While we sat at a cafe with two of the team members, I received a text message from a fourth stating that the RAF had 'found' space for us. Thinking that this was a practical joke, I responded sarcastically. Chuckling over my clever wit, I answered a frantic phone call from a fifth team member demanding we return as the flight was taking off in half an hour! We threw the money for our tab at the startled cashier and proceeded to shame Andretti's speed record in our dash to return to the airport. Sadly, we also realized that the new equipment which we had just received from our sponsors that day was still in plastic wrappers in the back of the car. Therefore, the gallant explorers were required to repack in the dark with less than 10 minutes to spare! Imagine if you will the Yank and the good doctor, Surgeon Lt Cdr Donald Angus, buried to the waist in equipment, medical supplies, clothing... The ridiculous nature of the situation nearly overwhelmed us and I am certain that we cut rather undignified figures but managed to repack our bags and check in for our 18 hour trip.

Another potential challenge which had to be addressed was that of personality conflicts. The reader might easily imagine that such individuals who would voluntarily visit such a desolate location as Antarctica would be possessed of rather strong and outgoing personalities. We were all strong leaders, ready to seek out and overcome any difficulty. Such dominant personalities could easily have come into conflict within the confines of a sailboat. We knew that risk when we volunteered and to mitigate it and further the cause of our team dynamics study, each member underwent thorough conflict resolution training prior to the offset.

Our arrival at Mount Pleasant, the Falkland Islands heralded a whirlwind of preparation. There was a yacht to victual, equipment to load aboard, and a crew to shake loose. The yacht Xplore was a steel hulled sailing cutter, built with added strength for open ocean sailing in the most difficult of circumstances. Particular care must be taken by the mariner to ensure that the ever changing and extreme weather is understood and taken into account in any plan. Our wait took several days before we were able to commence our journey. Eventually, though, we took in lines and set sail.

Drake's Passage proved its fearsome reputation as AE16 transited storm tossed waters and mists so thick they evoked images of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We anchored at the South Shetland Islands for a time before continuing on to the Weddell Sea and Antarctica. Entrance into the Weddell is a feat for only the most experienced mariners; Sir Ernest met tragedy in the Weddell with the loss of the Endurance and the events which set his team upon their incredible journey. It was late in the evening when we began the transit. The sun slipped below the craggy peaks and glaciers of the Tabarin Peninsula and a twilight of color descended upon us. The seas laid flat and turned to molten gold; purples and oranges abounded and the darkening skies highlighted the frigid blue of the icebergs floating around us. True night never came, though, as we were sailing through the land of the midnight sun

Antarctica is a place of wonder and one of the last unexplored frontiers in the world. The team's excitement was palpable as the morning came to go ashore. Stepping onto the rocks of Antarctica marked the culmination of our efforts. Spirits were high, hands were shaken and congratulations exchanged. Each member of the team handled the experience and emotions in a different way; some quietly stared over Hope Bay, some laughed and joked, others gave into the temptation to throw snowballs. All were amused at the antics of the penguins and after the obligatory photo shoot we set out to practice mountaineering and glacier movements on the ice before heading to the next stage of our adventure.

The time had come for the crossing of South Georgia, from King Haakon Bay to the Stromness whaling station. Sir Ernest Shackleton had completed the crossing in 1916 and in honor of his exploits AE16 chose to do the same route. Shackleton Crossing is attempted by only the hardiest explorers. In fact, only about five teams a year begin the journey and usually only one will finish. On some occasions no one will complete it. My research has turned up no other USN officer to make the crossing.
This is a collage of photos from Antarctica Exercise 2016.

Xplore anchored amongst the drifting ice of King Haakon Bay the night before we began, settling down at 0200. The watch was dismissed below to make final preparations and we were relayed ashore at 0500. The ascent to the snowfield was commenced under a blue sky but shortly the weather shifted and a whiteout set in. Periodically the snow would lift enough for us to take a few bearings on landmarks. After hours of trudging through the snow in howling winds and blasting ice shelter was needed. Thus, we dug into the snow, building walls around our tents and climbing in to wait out the blizzard. It was whilst resting and enjoying a meal of reconstituted reindeer stew that I observed to Maj William "Molly" Macpherson (RM) that I'd never spent more time on the snow than was necessary to walk the dog...this idea amused him to the point that he was still chuckling about it weeks later.

Our target had been the Trident ridgeline. Up and over we went, crossing to Crean Glacier in the afternoon. It was there that tragedy befell us. Molly leapt across a crevasse and had the snow bridge upon which he landed give out. The stress on his leg tore the calf muscle! First aid for this injury is difficult in such a situation and thus he had no choice but to complete the journey on foot. Remember that Molly is a 36-year veteran, a Royal Marine Commando; he never wavered.

Our final hurdle came the last evening. We had been exhausted when we reached the far side of the glacier. We had to hike much farther than originally intended that day, completing what we sarcastically referred to as the 'death march' late into the night and finally reaching shelter, which we'd hacked out of the snow and ice near the crest of the Cornish Hills, just after midnight. The sleep of the dead awaited and with the sun the tired adventurers drug themselves forth from the tents. Upon crossing the Hills, the bowl shaped valley of Fortuna Glacier lay before us. Surprisingly enough the biggest problem in Fortuna was the heat! The sun had cleared into a beautiful sapphire sky and the sun beat down upon the team, a white hot orb. It was a sweaty hike to the mountain pass on the far side but finishing the ascent marked the final hurdle.

Sir Ernest recounts the crossing of Breakwind Ridge with much less dramatic prose, the dry British mannerisms of that era being manifest in his writing. For a flat lander such as me, it was one of the most incredible, dangerous, and inspiring events. The path downward was an expert level descent and even the Marines amongst the team looked dubious. We dug the points of our crampons into the ice, buried our ice axes, and went down. "Step, step, axe, hand", this was the mantra for descending the icy slopes. Over the crest we went down a near vertical cliff-face. "Step, step, axe, hand", my heart nearly stopped as an ice step gave out, causing me to slide down the snow. "Step, step, axe, hand" had become a prayer, an insane mantra, invoking the Almighty to see me safely to the bottom. A respite from the numb calves and aching shoulders awaited us at the top of a cliff; the team had to be belayed down the frozen rocks and then upon regrouping, to 'Billy Big Step' our way down the remainder of the mountain. This method of descent was like skiing...just without the skis. We slipped and slid in barely controlled mayhem completing a 2,000ft descent, over half of which was on the front points of our crampons.

The shores of Stromness harbor were cold and dreary. As I sat there the magnitude of what we had accomplished settled upon me. We had stepped forth into the frozen wastes and returned stronger and with a better appreciation for what Sir Ernest and his men endured. The experience changed each of us; our perspective on what is 'tough' or 'difficult' will never be the same.

The reader may ask 'so, why do I care?" To find an answer, one must look no farther than the history of the US Navy. The USN has a proud tradition of exploration, of individuals who demanded to know what was over the horizon. They cruised to the ends of the earth and brought back the lessons they had learned. Individuals such as Robert Peary and Richard Byrd; Admiral Byrd (USN) was the first person in history to overfly both the North and the South Poles! Perhaps the world is smaller today and the value of exploration not easily seen; however, the ideals that drove these individuals are timeless. Those values of honor, courage, and commitment (our own modern core values) are so easily seen in such situations.

Service in the military grants members unique experiences if individuals only look for them. Such was my experience with AE16; I saw a tiny 2" x 2" advertisement in the back of the RN's Navy News and thought to apply. The worst I could be told was "no", right? So, what was there to lose? Thus I was able to join in on an experience which will shape the rest of my life.

The AE16 team may count amongst our laurels completing a 3,000NM journey through some of the most unforgiving seas and terrain in the world. As Sir Ernest himself said, "Through endurance we conquer."

For more stories about the Navy's Personnel Exchange Program click on the image.
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