Sunday, April 25, 2010

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"

For the men below, it was discomfort, danger and desperate physical illness: for the bare handful of men above, the officers and ratings on the bridge, it was pure undiluted hell. But a hell not of our latter-day imagining, a strictly Eastern and Biblical conception, but the hell of our ancient North-European ancestors, of the Vikings, the Danes, the Jutes, of Beowulf and the monster-haunted meres-the hell of eternal cold.
True, the temperature registered a mere 10° below zero, 42° of frost. Men have been known to live, even to work in the open, at far lower temperatures. What is not so well known, what is barely realised at all, is that when freezing point has been passed, every extra mile per hour of wind is equivalent, in terms of pure cold as it reacts on a human being, to a 1° drop in temperature. Not once, but several times that night, before it had finally raced itself to destruction, the anemometer had recorded gusts of over 125 m.p.h., wave-flattening gusts that sundered stays and all but tore the funnels off. For minutes on end, the shrieking, screaming wind held steady at 100 m.p.h. and above, the total equivalent, for these numbed, paralysed creatures on the bridge, of something well below a 100° below zero. Five minutes at a time was enough for any man on the bridge, then he had to retire to the Captain's shelter. Not that manning the bridge was more than a gesture anyway, it was impossible to look into that terrible wind: the cold would have seared the eyeballs blind, the ice would have gouged them out. And it was impossible even to see through the Kent Clear-view windscreens. They still spun at high speed, but uselessly: the ice-laden storm, a gigantic sand-blaster, had starred and abraded the plate glass until it was completely opaque. It was not a dark night. It was possible to see above, abeam and astern. Above, patches of night-blue sky and handfuls of stars could be seen at fleeting intervals, obscured as soon as seen by the scudding, shredded cloud-wrack. Abeam and astern, the sea was an inky black, laced with boiling white. Gone now were the serried ranks of yesterday, gone, too, the decorative white-caps: here now were only massive mountains of water, broken and confused, breaking this way and that, but always tending south. Some of these moving ranges of water-by no stretch of the imagination, only by proxy, could they be called waves-were small, insignificant-in size of a suburban house: others held a million tons of water, towered seventy to eighty feet, looming terrifyingly against the horizon, big enough to drown a cathedral...

From Alistair MacLean's HMS Ulysses about the North Atlantic convoys.

My late father was on more than one of those Murmansk convoys as a Merchant Seaman and witnessed the sinking of his brother's anti-submarine trawler not one half mile away in such Arctic weather. Lost with all hands whilst the all-important convoy steamed on. Never did talk much about his war, but if asked, would talk quietly about the vile weather and iced up ships.

1 comment:

Murray said...

My father was more than pleased when we stopped using open bridges.