Until now the ship has made a whoosh sound as it’s passed through the ice, like a straw being swirled in the bottom of a Slurpee. This ice is different. It’s multi-year ice, and with each passing season, its own weight pushes trapped air out. What’s left becomes denser. This ice has snow on top of it that melted and then refroze. It’s covered with rigid bumps & pits, that shove the ship this way and that. Breaking through it feels like we’re skating on an ice-rink with a broken zamboni. The boat trembles and shudders. The hull shakes and shimmies with the wracking stresses. It sounds as if this shell – the only thing between the Antarctic Ocean and us – will rend and sink.
The ship rams the ice at about five knots, or roughly three miles per hour. We back up to gain clearance to butt into it, breaking it into enormous shards that we then glide through. The ice gets thicker and we strike the new edge, stopping dead when the ice is stronger than the force we use to hit it. The mate on watch shifts the engines astern and then plows back into it, again and again, breaking it down slowly. It’s a violent juxtaposition to the beautiful place we inhabit. If we can, we back up a ship’s length or more, then go full ahead to gain speed, hoping to rise on top of the ice and let the 7,000 tons of steel break through it from above. If we’re successful, it’s unsettling. We glide, as if we’re in a semi truck that suddenly hits the brakes on a frozen freeway. It feels like we’re losing control. In reality, we are. But there’s nothing to hit out here, except the same thing we’re trying to break – ice.
The ship glides, then tilts heavily to the side, and we ride for a bit, our port side dipping back into the water, the starboard remaining on top of the ice, listing hard over. My body leans to the starboard to maintain balance, and I run my assigned escape routine through my brain: Shut down galley ranges and all heat sources; make sure galley and mess deck are empty and secured; knock on all doors on the oh-two deck, then open them to make sure all personnel are mustering; run to quarters on the oh-four deck; grab survival gear; muster on the oh-two deck for instructions.
We break through. This motion reminds me of traveling on a train. The steel surface below me jiggles and rattles and bumps, throwing me off balance. I sway jaggedly from one counter to another, grabbing at edges for balance. There’s no predicting where the next heave will shove me.
Now I feel like I’m in the middle of a gang of old-time New Yorkers, jostling for position during the first moments of Macy’s annual white sale. One person shoves me and I hit someone else who isn’t going to budge an inch. I carom off of her into another who just about drop kicks me into yet another gray haired bargain hunter.
I take my break right there in the galley. I look around to see if anyone is coming, then draw my butt up onto the counter alongside my favorite porthole to sightsee and dream. My legs dangle over the edge of the counter, and I strain my middle to turn and look out. The porthole is set into the innermost bulkhead, with a tunnel about six inches deep that I look through. It gives the impression that what I’m seeing isn’t real, like I’m watching a shifting vista on a postcard, or looking at a television screen, wanting to see what’s outside the camera’s limited view. I smash my face up against the glass to see the most I can.
I take my shoes off and bring my feet right up on the counter in a fit of vengeful independence. I scooch over to the porthole and sit, sidled up to the bulkhead. I face the stern so I can see what I might have missed. Icebergs are everywhere, but none really stand out as particularly interesting or beautiful, so I turn to see ahead. I fall into wonder at the immensity of this planet, and consider my small place in it.