Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Colour of Ice


Bloody Vikings. That’s what you needed to be to find any pleasure in this God-forsaken corner of the globe. Hell, they must’ve been tough bastards. A horizon of ice, blizzards which stung you every few hours like a hail of tiny white bullets. Steely grey water punctuated by bergs, growlers and floes. And yes, over there, to starboard, there is some terra firma. Who the hell ever gave it that name - ‘Green’ land? Even viewed through binoculars, it appears as anything but green. It looks like the rest of this area; pallid, cadaverously dead, inhospitable.

   I usually enjoyed the 4-8 watch, especially the morning stretch. But there in Baffin Bay, way up off Greenland’s frozen west coast, no matter what watch you kept, there was an insistent mood of melancholy. Yet I blessed the modern research ship, our nomadic platform of hermetically sealed civilisation, able to bang defiantly through the ice as we dreamed of home in warm cabins, enjoyed good food … and even a lowly deckhand like me got paid.
We were collecting seismic data for possible oil fields in an area seaward of Canada’s 12 nautical-mile boundary, beyond the Outer Land Fast Ice Zone to the Greenland border. No exotic ports to waste my wages in. No bars, brothels or loose ladies. Not a bad number for an old hand saving for his retirement.

It was in a murky, way below zero chilling darkness that I came off the wheel at 0500 hours, when, as I went to leave the bridge the Chief Mate, clutching his binoculars, murmured “…what the bloody hell is that …” I paused and peered through the dark greyness at the horizon, as ever, littered with the ghostly, towering icebergs. But between them there was something else, something odd, an indistinct, misty silhouette. We were doing about ten knots and heading in its direction. As the shape clarified in the mounting dawn gloom, we both gave a nervous laugh. It was an old sailing ship. She was a four-master, square-rigged on all except the after mast. The Mate looked at me. He knew I’d been at sea when he was still in his cradle.
   “What d’you think?”
   “Judging by her rig,” I said, “she’s a barque. Pretty old, too.” He handed me the glasses and went into the chart room to check the radar. In the few minutes he was away, I could see the mystery ship more clearly. She had no navigation lights. No lights anywhere, and no sign of life on her decks. Her stiff sails were hanging in hard-frozen tatters. Her rigging was heavily encrusted with ice. This was a dead ship, a drifter. My relief crewman on the wheel, a young lad from Nova Scotia, now spotted it.
   “Hey - maybe that’s one of those new Johnny Depp movies they’re making? Another Pirates of the Caribbean?” The Mate turned on him and sneered.
   “We’re in bleedin’ Baffin Bay, you clown, not the West Indies! I don’t see any palm trees, do you?” Ten minutes later we had a better view. It wasn’t pleasant. There was something very unsettling about this derelict. She was afloat, yet with her timbers clad with heavy ice it was a wonder she hadn’t gone under. Oddly enough, she appeared to be moving in our direction. I hung around on the bridge as the Mate went to rouse the Captain out of his well-earned slumber.

    Captain Thorstein, a heavily bearded middle-aged Norwegian, was not best pleased to be wrenched from his warm bunk. Yawning, he stood there in his bathrobe and slippers. Yet he looked in silence for a long time as the distance between us and this frozen phantom decreased.
   “This is remarkable … very strange.” He rang down to the engine room to stop. We then gave the ancient mariner a blast on our whistle. No visible response.
   “Get the Aldis lamp, chief,” said the Captain, “ask him who the hell he is.”
Signals were flashed. Nothing. The Skipper dashed back to his cabin to get dressed. I could have gone below, but I remained transfixed by this approaching spectre.
   “Did they ever find the other ship from the Franklin expedition?” asked the Mate.
   “I think they found both,” I replied, “but this old tub’s a barque, a different rig, and she’s much older.” I zipped up my parka and went out onto the wing of the bridge for a smoke. It was lighter now and the drifter was just half a mile away. This close it looked even more sinister than ever. The skipper re-appeared and called all hands. The Mate suggested we approach the derelict and secure her alongside us, but I was relieved when the skipper rejected the idea. A decision was made to launch one of our inflatables to take a boarding party over. I was reluctant to be chosen, but with still over two hours of my watch left, and being fairly experienced, I got the dreaded call.
   Bouncing along, six of us, through an ice-infested obstacle course of deadly grey water, we were stunned into a state of disbelieving silence, disturbed only by the splutter of the outboard motor. Soon the ice-encrusted ancient wooden monster towered over us. As we passed under her stern, beneath the frost we could see the gilded, peeling name ‘Satyricon’.
   The Mate addressed his second in command. “You went to a good school, didn’t you, Thompson?”
   “Yes Chief, why?”
   “Satyricon. What’s that , a Greek god or something?”
   “No sir,” replied Thompson, “It was a Roman book by a man called Petronius. He was a big friend of the wicked Emperor Nero.” Our Bosun, Moncrieff, a dour old Shetland islander, puffed frantically on his briar pipe, staring up at the drifter with a wild expression.
   “Och, no … I dinnae like this, lads. Not at all. We should’ae left this ole’tub tae her fate. This is the devil’s work…” I wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. He had a point.
There were various stiff, frozen old ropes hanging over her side, but the Mate thought them too dangerous to use. After several attempts with a grappling iron and heaving lines, we managed to get a block and tackle hooked amidships enabling us to attach a Jacob’s ladder.
One by one we followed the Mate up the ladder, Moncrieff  remaining on the inflatable.
   As the five of us stepped onto that slippery, ice-bound deck a prickly, electric feeling of nauseous dread spread from man to man. The Mate and Second Mate were both equipped with powerful flashlights and walkie talkies. We all stood there for a few seconds, gazing around the deck, then aloft at the stiff, frozen old canvas and brittle rigging. Her hatch and lazarette covers were still in place. There was a blackened, rusting iron chimney astern of the mainmast.
    No-one spoke at first, then the Mate split us into two groups. I was to go with him to the quarterdeck to find what we presumed would be the Captain’s quarters, and the Second Mate would take two men forward to explore the fo’c’sle accommodation. Underneath her coating of ice she still felt reassuringly solid, yet something told us to tread very carefully indeed.

   Forcing open the quarterdeck door took some heavy physical force. I was praying it would stay shut, but ice creaked against ice as the dark interior was revealed. I followed the Mate in. Then the horror truly commenced. To starboard an open cabin door revealed a grim tableau. A frozen man, a corpse in an 18th century greatcoat was crouched cross-legged on the deck, his head swathed in torn strips of old blanket. In his blue-green sticks of fingers he held a flint and a silver tinder box. Before him on the planks a small heap of partly burned wood shavings. The Mate shone the powerful torch beam and we shuddered at further revelations.

We disturbed a rigid blanket in a bunk, and as it cracked into shards, beneath it we discovered the frozen cadaver of a young woman, eyes still open and staring, her bared teeth set in a rictus of agonized death. Yet it was the pyramid-shaped canvas, an enshrouded heap on the deck close by which caused us to gasp and tremble. As we lifted the canvas, beneath knelt the brittle body of a small boy, his tiny hands welded together in an attitude of prayer. In this small cabin we were looking at the final tragic, miserable demise of what appeared to be a family. We jumped as the Mate’s walkie talkie crackled into life. The second mate’s voice burst into the frigid air.
   “Oh, Jesus H wept, Chief! We can’t stay here! You’re not gonna believe this - over!”
   “I know, Thompson. Whatever you’re seeing we can match it. But stick with it.”
‘Stick with it’? Was this some new maritime masochism? I wanted to be out of there and down that ladder, pronto.
We left this chamber of horrors and found ourselves in the larger Captain’s cabin. Sure enough, there was the ill-fated Master, sat like a pale marble statue at his desk, his inflexible blackened digits still clutching a quill pen. Before him, lying open, was the log book of the Satyricon. We huddled by him, reading the pages over the dead skipper’s bony shoulders. In those few minutes, which seemed like a grim eternity, we discovered that this ship had left Portsmouth on a long trip to China in 1759. The last entry he had been writing as the ice crushed the life from his veins told us that he and his crew had met their fate on or around November 21, 1773. Where had they been for 13 painful years!? And what the hell were they doing off the west coast of Greenland? Scarier still, how had this utterly refrigerated vessel been lurking in this remote region for 242 years without being spotted? We stood in horrified reverence for a few seconds, until the Mate said
   “Christ. D’you realise what this means? They must have found the North West Passage three years before even the Admiralty sent Cook out to look for it. This guy’s a hero!”
   “No, Chief,” I spluttered, “he’s a bloody corpse, and this ship’s a creepy graveyard. I don’t want any more of this.” The Mate looked at me and I could see he agreed. He took out his mobile phone and began taking pictures. He tried to pick up the crumbling log book but it fell to pieces. All nautical discipline left me. “For Christ’s sake, Chief - leave it! Let’s go!”
We left the quarterdeck and made our way forward. Thompson and his two startled, white-faced accomplices were staggering from the fo’c’sle.
   “Don’t go in there, Chief - don’t!”
   But we pushed past them and entered what was now a darkly sinister mariner’s mausoleum. Rigid corpses in bunks, skeletal remains in rotten hammocks, and the ultimate horror. A large cooking pot suspended by a chain over a pile of charcoal. It contained bones; human bones. The Chief snapped more pictures, but I flipped. I ran. Within seconds we were all scrambling down that ladder, almost capsizing the inflatable in our desperation to escape.
   Back on board our safe, warm, 21st century refuge, we assembled in the saloon to report to Captain Thorstein. Rum was passed around. We needed it. The skipper found our tale hard to believe. But the Chief took out his phone. This would convince the Captain. Yet the little screen simply displayed six milky, opaque rectangles … the colour of ice. When we all went out on deck, the Satyricon had vanished.

After we were paid off in Glasgow, I never went to sea again. In disturbed dreams on dark winter nights, I still see that tiny figure, hands frozen in prayer, and I wonder where he is now. And that cooking pot … those bones.

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