Among the ice floes

Issue 3/1985 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Alpo Ruuth

Alpo Ruuth. Photo: Sakari Majantie / Tammi

Alpo Ruuth came across the diary of a member of the Finnish crew of ten men in the Whitbread Round-the-World sailboat race of 1981-1982, and Ruuth, a sailor himself, used that diary as the basis for his novel, 158 vuorokautta (‘158 days’, 1983). It is the story of a great adventure which takes place with the help of ultra-modern equipment and yet involves confrontation with elemental nature, the dangerous power of the southern seas. Ruuth does not use the actual names of the crew, but has taken the view of the fictional crew member who is able to offer ironic comments on what he observes. The book portrays the relationships among the crew under the cramped and difficult conditions of the long voyage. As the extract begins the yacht is in the Southern Ocean, close to the Antarctic coast, making its way towards Auckland, New Zealand.

An extract from 158 vuorokautta (‘158 days’)

Around noon we run into a blizzard. On deck they shout down that a wind has got up. Below, we wake hurriedly from our afternoon naps and start pulling on clothes against the tough weather outside. It’s quite a business in our cramped quarters, and every now and then someone loses his footing and falls as the boat pitches. Cursing is the only medicine for bruises. One by one the boys go up to help change sails; at the bottom of the steps there are excesses of politeness: after you, sir; no no, after you. Up they go, all the same.

My task of sail-mending becomes impossible. The wind is increasing steadily and the boat surfs time and again. Inside the cabin one can feel that the wind’s over twenty metres per second. Sometimes the boat plunges so deeply that the light completely vanishes from the skylets. Ice-cold water streams in through the ventilators and seams. The Chef sways in his harness but seems miraculously to be able to go on preparing food.

When the plunging of the boat puts a stop to my sail-mending, I pull on some clothes, life jacket and safety harness on top, and go up to see if help is needed on deck.

The snow storm hits me as soon as I open the hatch. I can’t see a thing. I go back down to fetch my Balaclava helmet, which covers my face, all but the eyes.

Experience is at the wheel: it’s just possible, through the blizzard, to make out the form of the Wee One. As soon as I reach the hatch one of the others goes below to warm up. A huge load of snow goes with him. The fact that the weather has warmed up means there’s no longer such a danger of frostbite, but the snow has turned sticky and finds its way everywhere. The Padre gets up every now and then to punch the sail with his fist; each time, a load of snow falls into the sea and the cockpit.

All the same, we’re covered in snow for only a second: a wave slaps over the deck and the cockpit and we’re up to our waists in water. The wave takes most of the snow with it. Only our shoulders stay white. We must be a strange-looking bunch. I’m grateful to the boys: in spite of the working conditions, they have managed to change down to smaller sails and we’re on schedule.

Once it’s clear that the boat is under control, the cockpit empties in a second. I crawl over to the wheel to let the Wee One go below and take a rest; a wave almost takes me with it, the harness and lifeline strain. The thought passes through my head that it would be fatal if the lifeline broke now. I make a mental note to inspect it as soon as the weather conditions lift.

I lash myself to the binnacle, and ask the Wee One the course. He tells me and crawls, exhausted, along the line to the hatch. The compass needle is spinning so wildly that I have to steer by instinct; it’s only occasionally that it holds long enough for me to see what course we’re on.

We’ve taken in sail three times and are running the heavy reacher in front, but all the same we’re belting along at a good 13 knots. Some of the time there is whiteness as far as the eye can see, other times grey waves slop over the deck. For the second time now, I wonder what the hell I’m doing here.

The Tuner frees me from the wheel. Good old Tuner. I go below decks and take off my clothes next to the warm air vent. The Sailor tells me to change into dry clothes. It’s not the most useful piece of advice: I don’t have anything dry. Damp clothes hang all around, what isn’t drying is wet and in my bag. If anything was underdesigned when this boat was built, it was the drying press.

The wind goes on rising. The helmsman has to be doubly lashed to the wheel to stop him being washed away by the waves in the hope that he may be able to steer, or at least keep hold of the wheel. However hard he tries to steer through a wave, it always lands on top of him. Again and again he disappears completely under ice-cold water.

You can tell from the boys’ expressions that they don’t consider this a pleasure cruise: they bite their lips, and fall out over the slightest disagreement. Visibility is zero, the wind over 20 metres per second and the boat surfs violently between icebergs. It’s 2000 kilometres to the nearest landfall, so if we run into something we’ll be in trouble. Someone says that our speed has reached 20 knots for the first time, but no one takes any notice of this piece of good news.

Fear vanishes as soon as I take my place at the wheel again. There’s no time to think of anything but staying on course. You have to steer according to the waves coming from behind, to dodge the ones that rear up and break over the boat. Often you’re successful, but not always, and then it feels as if someone has dropped a wardrobe on top of you, it takes your breath away. It’s a great feeling when, after all, we emerge from the mass of water. Surfing is much easier in these circumstances. Riding along the wall of the wave, it’s almost as though you’re running away from it; it’s only when you get to the trough that it catches up with you. And if you succeed in steering so that it doesn’t break over you, you feel you’ve cheated the sea.

By the time I’m due to go below, wind and icebergs no longer hold any terror for me. The Prince sits in the cockpit waiting for his ordeal at the wheel. I push past him and very nearly collapse. I change my soaking wet clothes for slightly drier ones; after so many ice-cold baths almost anything seems warm and dry. It’s only because of the way your underclothes stick to your skin that you notice how damp your underclothes are. My shirt rips. With these creature comforts I fall into my bunk.

I wake feeling I’m about to fall out of bed. An extraordinary uproar meets my ears. Things are flying along the cabin walls; luckily no one is hit. From somewhere, over the din, I hear a heartfelt ‘Oh bloody hell’, and from the upper bunk the Prince informs me that we’ve gone into a Chinese broach. That goes without saying: the boat has slewed over eighty degrees. Time stands still. A few individual items roll over the cabin wall, which is now horizontal.

At last the boat starts to right itself; there is a gusty sigh of relief from somewhere. At the same time the Skipper steams past. He crashes into the cabin wall and the bunk, but nothing will stop him. Like the rest of us, he has only one thought: what’s broken? In every broach lies the unspoken question of the mast. The Skipper makes for the hatch, but changes his mind and comes back. He says the Wee One’s at the wheel – though in a blizzard it really doesn’t matter how skilful the helmsman is, if you’re going into a broach nothing can stop you. The Skipper says no harm’s done, we’ve got a good strong boat under us; things have gone much worse for some of the other boats in the race. One crew member has broken a finger, another lost some teeth, and Liquor has a broken mast. She has withdrawn from the race and is limping towards the Tasmanian port of Hobart.

The Tuner and I have an hour’s watch in the morning. The Skipper wakes us; we can tell by his face that he hasn’t slept. I wedge myself between my bunk and the corridor wall and start getting dressed. Things are still strewn all over the floor, tidying them has been left until morning. It’s strange how your strength deserts you in the night, you can’t do any more than what’s absolutely necessary.

At the hatch the wind hits my face like a mallet. The snowstorm has worsened and the waves must be close to fifteen metres. In such conditions, and in the pitchy darkness, it would be almost impossible to change course even if an iceberg as big as a bus were to appear right in front of us. The Tuner takes the Sailor’s place at the wheel. The Padre makes for the hatch; you can tell from his eyes that all he’s thinking about is his bed – or, to be exact, the bunk we share.

We sail on through the black night lashed to the boat, hoping we won’t go into another broach – not a Chinese one, at least. Whenever we hear lumps of ice crashing against the hull we catch each other’s eye. I don’t know how long our nerves would stand this blind sailing if it weren’t for the fact that the cold concentrate the mind wonderfully. The rest of the body has some kind of shelter from the wind, but despite Balaclava helmets a narrow strip of forehead is always left exposed to the weather.

The reaction to exhaustion and to the rearing and plunging of the boat is, eventually, indifference. All you can think about is going below decks, the Padre’s eyes spoke the truth. In the cabin, at least, it’s relatively warm, and the snow doesn’t hit you in the face- those parts of it you haven’t managed to cover up – like a sledgehammer.

The Skipper and the Grandfather arrive to put us out of our misery. I detach myself from the binnacle and crawl along the line towards the world of light, the cabin (which, it has to be admitted, seems fairly dim at other times). When I discover that the Chef is awake and has boiled some water, I feel as if I’ve won the pools. I put some coffee granules in a cup and pour hot water over them. A cigarette, and my joy would know no bounds; but we have an agreement that no one smokes below decks. The Chef leans on his elbows and measures the sailing chart with a pair of dividers. The Tuner asks him if he is still of the opinion that we should already have turned northwards. The Chef says he’s more and more convinced. This course is beginning to seem crazy.

Every day the Chef has grown more concerned about our course: he is deeply convinced that we are going badly wrong. And he does not restrain himself from telling us so, continuously and vociferously.

At the start we had only one tactics department. Now you could say that we had three. There’s the tactics department proper: the Skipper, the Sailor and the Tuner. Then there is the tactics subcommittee, in which alternatives are put forward by the Padre and TT. Finally, there are the critics, headed by the Chef, supported by me.

The Chef announces that if we go on this way we shall finish up by approaching Auckland from the south, and that’s something we should avoid at all costs.

‘It’s not our fault that we ran into a storm. It’s that that’s pushing us south,’ mutters the Tuner. ‘It’s not as if there isn’t water to the south of Auckland, too.’

‘And a constant headwind,’ says the Chef. ‘We’ll have a great time tacking for two solid weeks. Let’s just hope we get there in time for the next start.’

To judge from the Tuner’s expression, there’s a lot more he could say on the subject, but he leaves his thoughts unspoken. I go to the lavatory for my morning crap. Before I can start, the loo has to be cleaned. Because of the storm the boys haven’t been able to use the bucket, and have come inside to pee. The lavatory, bowl is a disaster, too low; the liquids slop around unpleasantly inside it.

Using the shower, I wash the bowl and the lower part of the wall. I dry the seat with toilet paper, and flush it out before letting a little water into the bowl. No sooner have I sat down and got a good grip on the safety handles than the boat keels over to one side. I stay put, but the water doesn’t: it gushes between my legs and onto the floor. Just my luck, I think as I start to wash myself, and then the lavatory floor.

I emerge as the Skipper and Grandfather are coming off their watch, so heavily covered in snow that it would be difficult to tell them apart if it weren’t for the fact that one is tall and thin, the other shorter and more thick-set. The Skipper makes for his coffee cup, his hands shaking with cold, and says that we should think about changing course northwards. The Chef’s face begins to relax into a grin, until the Skipper adds that we’ll do it after the storm. No one knows when that will be; in these latitudes the wind can stay in the same quarter for weeks. The Chef begins to put his case to the Skipper, and I see it as my duty to support him. It might be the beginning of a good argument, but the boat turns suddenly as if it were about to break in two. We grab hold of whatever we can and, sure enough, we’re in a broach.

The frank and free exchange of views between the tactics department and its critics is over for the time being. When the boat rights itself, the Chef has to busy himself with sorting out the mess.

At last the wind has dropped, and turned to a more favourable direction, and we point the bows towards Auckland. That also means we’re headed towards a warmer climate. In the morning the Prince, who is sitting next to the navigation table writing a letter home, starts as if he’s seen a ghost.

‘The water temperature’s risen.’

‘It can’t have!’ exclaims the Chef.

‘It definitely has.’

We gather round to look. The Prince is right. You could say it was a dramatic change; during the night the temperature was still on the wrong side of zero.

‘There’s something wrong with the gauge, the temperature shouldn’t rise like this,’ ponders TT.

‘Maybe we’re in a warm-water current,’ says the Prince.

‘It’s not marked on the chart.’

‘You reckon the chart shows all the currents?’

‘It should have the sea currents, they’re bigger than any river.’ Consideration of the problem is interrupted by a shout from above. We fall over each other to reach the hatch.

‘It looks as if we’re about to solve the mystery,’ says the Prince.

‘How? Do you think there are palm-fringed beaches out there?’

Anything but. The boys have called us out to see the biggest iceberg of the Journey.

‘That just can’t be true,’ says the Prince aloud. There it is, nonetheless, and, as the Chef remarks, it’s no mirage. TT immediately starts theorizing about how it can come about that the water temperature can rise so close to an iceberg. I go back downstairs; I don’t give a damn for theories, all I care about is that we’re on our way out of this area. The iceberg, if nothing else, shows that the thermometer’s of no use at all. But I could be wrong: we’ve located sea currents with it in the past, like the one off Portugal that we used to better our placing in the race. Maybe it hasn’t been completely pointless to have the thermometer hanging there all this time.

It’s time for our watch. The iceberg is still in sight, it’s so huge that we’ll be able to see it for some time. The slackening of the wind means we have to leave our philosophising and get on with some work. We change sails diligently. From time to time TT tells us when to tighten, when to slacken. But it’s for psychological reasons only: when you’re used to belting along the way we’ve been doing, the slightest lessening of speed feels like standing still.

We’re so engrossed in trimming the sails that some time goes by without anyone keeping a lookout. Then there’s a thumping sound. My heart stands still. I leap across to the rail to inspect the bows. The block of ice is bigger than average, but luckily it’s grey and soft, so the boat does it more damage than it does the boat. The Skipper puts his head round the hatch and asks what happened.

‘It was a block of ice,’ says TT, grinning.

‘Is anyone keeping watch around here?’

‘All of us. All the time.’

I go to the cockpit and point out to the Skipper that you don’t always see these blocks of ice, particularly when they’re under the surface. The Skipper nods and goes back down below. For our part, we try to remember to keep a lookout.

By mealtime the wind has dropped completely, and cursing is heard from more than one part of the boat. But the Tuner smiles sweetly as he stuffs his stew into his mouth and urges us to have patience. ‘We’re between two low-pressure areas at the moment, but it won’t last long.’

The Tuner is right, the wind freshens and we find ourselves having to tack just as though we were back in Barösund. This should really be good practice, curses notwithstanding, as we’ve been sailing before the wind for weeks. And, after all, tacking is a perfectly natural part of sailing.

Towards evening the wind dies down again, but the barometer drops quickly and all of a sudden we’re in the middle of a miniature blizzard. The cursing grows to unbelievable proportions. Fresh in our memory is the last snowstorm, which lasted for three punishing days and nights.

Nevertheless, during the night the wind dies down and turns to our favour, so our watch is an easy one. We trust that the wind is going to stay steady, and hoist the spinnaker. At the wheel, TT remarks that you never know what the sea’s going to do next, that’s the best part of it. I don’t know about the sea; as far as I’m concerned the main thing is that TT is up and about again.

The weather brightens and we sail on under the northern lights. They are among the best we’ve seen, and it’s almost as though we’re sailing through the Finnish archipelago. The icebergs take the place of rocks and islands; they’re just black lumps sticking up out of the sea, and they don’t look so very different from islands. But it’s better not to think about how far these particular rocks shelve out under the water’s surface.

The exuberance of the watch is cut short by going to bed. The bunk needs bailing out again. The Pastor’s backside must be made of steel, or we must have sailed amazingly smoothly, or he wouldn’t have got any sleep at all. I have to go though the same old ritual: mattress off, boards out, and so on. It’s too much when you’re tired. And before I can lie down I have to gather together as much padding as I can to take the place of the mattress. If anything is certain in this world, it’s that a completely watertight boat doesn’t exist. Once a wooden boat enthusiast told me that he would never understand boats. It was dead easy to get them watertight below water level, but impossible to do the same for the decks. Only once I’m in bed do I remember the sails in the backcabin, which would have made the best bunk of all, and that spoils the rest of the night, too.

In the morning I sleep in and wander into the lounge cabin. From the direction of the open lavatory door comes the sound of the Chef’s mumbling. A much-thumbed copy of Playboy magazine comes flying through the air.

‘What are you muttering about, old man?’ I ask.

‘I’m just saying that it’s a sure sign you’ve been at sea too long when you find Playboy in the loo,’ he grins.

‘You’re just worried the pictures’ll get wet.’

‘Piss off.’

I make myself a cup of coffee and ask what the strategy is. The Chef glares at me and tells me to ask the Skipper. The Chef has become a real navigator; he spends so much time close to the gauges that he hasn’t been able to help taking an interest in them. And because he sleeps in the Skipper’s cabin, he hears all the radio communications, too. The Chef has the best vantage point in the whole boat.

My skin is getting itchier and itchier. Washing in cold water for weeks on end has had its effect, as has the constantly damp clothing. The Chef grins as he watches me scratch; it’s all very well for him, he has the hide of a rhinoceros. This time even scratching brings no relief, and I am forced to go to the lavatory to wash. The cold water will numb my skin, if nothing else. As I pour water over myself, it seems a little warmer than usual. A sure sign that we’re headed northwards, I say to myself with a smile.

Someone rattles on the door. I tell him to wait and carry on with what I’m I doing, but from behind the door the Prince says that if I don’t open up soon, he won’t need the loo any more. I tell him to use the bucket, although I know he won’t. Out of all of us, the Prince is the only one who doesn’t use the bucket, he comes below every time, on even the smallest business. The Prince rattles the door harder. We desperately need the other loo. When the boat’s eventually sold, it won’t even occur to the buyer that space could be a problem. Though who knows, perhaps they too will end up using the back lavatory for storing food. I stop before I’ve finished washing, as it begins to sound as though the Prince is about to break the door down. I unlock the door and he practically lays me flat. I glance at the thermometer: the water temperature is only one degree above zero, so the fact that it felt warmer is just wishful thinking.

The Padre comes down from the deck and starts gathering together his belongings. I ask him what’s up.

‘I’m moving bunks, you can kip down with the Tuner,’ says the Padre, his arms full of gear. It looks as if he’s moving in with the Economist, because he stops at the door of the bunk cabin and asks what the smell is.

‘What d’you think?’ asks the Chef. ‘You never know, he could be keeping fresh fish in there… It’s the bosses that are making the smell, that pile of clothes of theirs in the corner, it looks more like a compost heap than clothes.’

A couple of days earlier when we talked about the problem, someone suggested that we radio Auckland and order some doors. If we had doors we might be able to keep at least one of the compartments a little fresher.

In the evening we hold a pre-Christmas party. We’re all in a good mood: the storm has died down to a brisk wind, and we’re in complete control of the boat once more.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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