February 6 2012. Just got over to sleep in my berth. Got used to the throb of the engines. Very warm and snug - hard to believe it's minus 37 degrees C outside.
Awoke with a start. Ceased to be a nervous traveller a while ago, but felt a pang of curiousity at a definate 'clang' against the hull of the ship, followed by a prolonged scrape. The sinking of the cruise ship off Italy wasn't so long ago. I raised myself to the port-hole over the small table with my birthday cards. No sign of the waves and their white-tops to which I bade goodnight earlier. Nothing, in fact, but a flat white scene.
We were cutting through solid ice. This was new to me. The scraping along the hull continued. Nothing but thick white sea ice as far as I could see. I lay back down in the berth. It was half past midnight. We were due in port at 0915.
All night I dozed on and off. The ship had slowed a little but was making steady progress. I comforted myself with the fact that for the crew and most of the passengers this is routine. The ship does this trip regularly. Week in, week out, all year round. The scraping and occasional clang became routine for this night.
0715 and two hours to go. Still dark. A luminescence from the ice. Have to remind myself of the scraping down the hull at the waterline beneath us. We have slowed down and stopped. We pass slowly through a harbour wall in a frozen waste, lights marking the safe passage. The engines build up their speed and the scraping begins again. Eight hours through ice. We are now further north and east. I rest back down on the pillow and let the routine of the engines and the ice become a feeling of security that lulls me to sleep.
0830 and the vibration of the propellers in reverse wakes me again. Still dark, but there is a silver light to the darkness now. More than just luminescence. Dawn is building. A flat grey and white dawn without sun, without warmth. I see an old tug dragging a coaster through the ice, heading out from the port to open sea. Slowly. Painstakingly. Both vessels are growing frost like thick white body hair. The coaster is old. Shaped like a ship, like the way children's trains all look like Thomas the Tank Engine. But this is no game. This is hardship. I try, but I cannot put myself in the lives of the crew of those vessels, whose navigation lights barely register in the cold grey frozen air. I feel I have been given a privileged glimpse into a life that we in our stuffy offices cannot with any honesty imagine.
It is time to pack away birthday cards, shower, pack and ready ourselves for the serious business of entering a strange border and fending off minus 20 degrees or less.