● A boat amplifies internal and external sound. This boat is like a steel drum, playing the pulse of its engine, the hauling of sails, the clank of anchor chain and the irregular slap of water through the night.
● When ice hits the bow, the sound of cracking, crushing and scraping fills the cabins. At midnight, this sound hauls you up out of sleep with half a word in your throat: ‘Titan-‘. The hull judders in the dark, pushes the ice aside, and goes on.
● Laughter and fragments of conversation flow through a boat, and along its passageways; through hatches to the deck, aft to bow. Nick says a gurgling pump beside his cabin makes him feel he’s lying in the belly of the boat. The Noorderlicht creaks and shouts and sighs and does its captain Ted’s bidding.
● Except when drift ice closes in behind and ahead, and brings the boat to a shuddering halt in Murchison Fjord. The boat shoulders flat white slabs apart, but they gather again on the strong current, pressed into a frozen whole; a sliding jigsaw puzzle that holds the Noorderlicht tight. And so we sit, and listen to ice on steel, ice on ice, engine bursting with effort until the sails go up to draw us forward inch by inch, and then nowhere.
● A stuck boat is like an instrument that plays upon the curiosity and hunger of polar bears, and one comes now, drawn by the strange intrusion into its stepping-stone white world. It treads carefully, deliberately, purposefully from the distant blue ice towards the boat, testing the air, listening, tasting our strangeness, before lying down on the ice 20 meters from the boat, head on its giant paws, sleepy in the late afternoon. And now another bear and her cub, further away, waiting on ice. Three bears, one boat, a lot of ice.
● A stuck boat is like an amplifier full of human heat and excitement and anxiety, as the captain radios Longyearbyen to tell them of our plight. It’s not the bears, it’s not the ice; it’s the rocks the ice is drawing us helplessly towards in this broad, shallow bay, that are the greatest danger. If we strike the rocks, then the ice and the bears come into their own. We’re sent to our cabins to pack our passports and put on our warmest clothes: a helicopter is flying half the length of Spitsbergen to assess the situation and, if necessary, lift us off. Sonia, crew member and miraculous cook, shrugs and tips tonight’s dinner into a single bowl to be airlifted off the boat if necessary.
● It isn’t necessary. The ice begins to shift and give way before the boat, which forces through, leaving bloody red paint smears for the polar bears to contemplate. We reach clear dark water and turn south as the helicopter appears in the distance and flies low over the boat. It’s a welcome and blessed sight, and a vivid reminder of our vulnerability here, where technology and experience have to work by the rules of wind and water currents and the might of moving ice.
● And now, flushed, elated, relieved and overdressed, we sit down for Sonia’s dinner and then the boat fills with sound again: the achingly sad and beautiful accordion songs of Cynthia Hopkins, who perches above the galley stairs and sings her father’s sea shanties and makes her own maps, and in the songs we look down on ourselves from the sign of the Bear, and we’re glad to be alive, here, and now.BACK TO TOP