THEY'VE been cold and wet, sleepless and seasick, and stinking of sweat and fear. For two weeks they've sailed their tiny timber boat through soundless fogs and seven-metre seas, and now, finally, the six-man crew of the Alexandra Shackleton is closing in on the rocky shores of King Haakon Bay, South Georgia.
''I haven't seen my skin for a while,'' the Shackleton Epic leader, Tim Jarvis, says. ''I'm damp, itchy, cramped. But knowing we have completed the sea journey is enough to keep us going.''
Dressed in gabardine coats and navigating with a compass, sextant and the stars, Jarvis and his men are attempting to become the first to re-enact authentically Ernest Shackleton's legendary voyage of survival across the Southern Ocean from Antarctica almost a century ago. Caned by 50-knot winds and waves the height of office blocks (''the whole boat shudders when they hit,'' Jarvis says), the crew have slept below decks on their 6.9-metre ketch - an exact replica of Shackleton's vessel - packed one upon the other, bolstered by the occasional shot of Mackinlay's scotch whisky, Shackleton's favourite.
Thanks in part to their initial seasickness, the men - two Australians and four Britons - have only been eating one meal a day, a mix of lard with beef bullion, followed by nougat, a bit of chocolate, tea and powdered milk. Their vintage-style equipment has also taken its toll: not only is it colder than modern thermal clothing but the interior doesn't ''wick away'' perspiration, meaning their skin is constantly slicked with sweat and seawater.
''We attempted to 'waterproof' the outer layers with dubbin wax,'' Jarvis says, ''but all it did was trap the wetness into the gear, making it impossible to dry out.''
And as in Shackleton's journey, the reindeer-skin sleeping bags are now moulting, shedding fibres throughout the cabin and into their food.
And yet the crew appears to have made good time: Jarvis is expecting to make landfall on Monday night, just 11 days after leaving Elephant Island. Shackleton spent 14 days at sea.
After resting for a day to dry out their gear and recover their strength, the men will trek for an estimated two days across South Georgia's mountainous interior.
Shackleton's 1916 voyage marked the end of the era of heroic exploration, his journey completed, against the odds, to secure rescue for the crew of Endurance, which had become stranded in pack ice. Jarvis's journey began somewhat differently: he was challenged by Shackleton's granddaughter*, Alexandra Shackleton, to re-enact the voyage. It was an irresistible offer.
*An earlier version of this story said Alexandra Shackleton was Ernest's great-granddaughter. She is in fact his granddaughter.