Ice and fog: the cold night watch

Easter Sunday at 0100 was a dark night with thick fog everywhere and not a chink of starlight. The wind was bashing at us, growling and pushing angry gusts. It was still five-layer cold as I sat on the bow watch, but becoming perceptibly warmer than the Weddell Sea. The ice-lights on the bowsprit cast two cones of light which speared down to illuminate a patch of sea, a patch which seemed big until you looked to the vastness beyond.

The black sea was the same colour as the black sky. There was no horizon. The water was flecked and spread with bright white spume, curling foam that shattered under the bruising wind and the speed of our passage.  A bird flew through the light, shimmered for a second, unidentifiable. Amid the foam and the birds, we were still watching for ice.

The view was a dramatic, monochrome battle. Europa surged forward, plunging through the swell as her sails worked overhead. Her wooden rails showed grey the white paintwork standing out. The safety ropes strung across the decks were invisible but a great comfort in the gloves' grasp when the waves pitched us hard.

On the bowdeck, I found it all too easy to get lost in the drama. I pondered the next blog post, plot points for stories, the talk I might give on women at sea. Each time I found myself only looking but not seeing,  I pulled myself up with a jerk, forcing my focus back to the white stuff. Watch for the wave which doesn’t break back to black, the bird which hovers low in one spot, the quick flash of unmoving moonlight. Any of those might be a lurking growler, a spear to hit our rushing hull.

By 0215 the fog had cleared to reveal a bright moon and stars everywhere. The swell was knocking us around but we were making good speed on a heading of 055 degrees. The moon was shining two points to port of the main top sail yard, an eyes watching down on us and the waves and the birds and the whales and the ice, and darkening the mysterious stars in its quarter of the sky.

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