Life on Board

Antigua in the iceI did not grow up around boats or water. I have never lived on a ship. But I have read a lot of narratives of ship life, of exploration. No matter how much I have read, I was not ready for the round porthole that opened onto my top bunk bed, letting in the relentless northern sun. I could not have anticipated the sense that living on a ship must be like joining a cult, all of us koolaided out on the vast and incomprehensible landscape. I could not have hoped for cake—cake!—every day at four to go with the constant cups of tea and coffee.

This trip on the Barkentine ship Antigua with The Arctic Circle was not exactly a cruise, and not exactly an expedition, and not exactly an artist’s residency. It was a bunch of creative people—sculptors and painters and writers and sound artists—put on ship to sail north along the coast of Spitsbergen and create something: a painting, some music, a moment on the ice, an essay. We were sort of spoiled and often yelled at (who didn’t sign back in after going on shore? Who wore sandy shoes on deck? Who left their life vest on deck?).

I loved my traveling companions for all they showed me. I saw the land differently through the photos of the sun taken by Irish physicist Tom McCormack, or the sewn images of the Arctic Skua made by Australian artist Suzi Lyon, or the sound recordings of Donald Fortescue. In the evenings I read the comic books of Ursula Murray Husted and had conversations about sadness and shyness with the performance sculptor, Jess Perlitz. Of course I was focused on birds, and enjoyed the moment of separating out the Iceland from the Glaucous Gull with David Heymann, the architect from Texas who had designed George Bush’s house. This was all far from the experiences of my polar explorers.

Fram in the Fram museum, OsloI had moody Nansen in mind throughout this trip. I know some of the things he worried about: his men getting scurvy, the cold, and always what would be the extent of the ice and would they make it north as planned. None of these were my concern. What I wondered about: would life be claustrophobic (at times it was—there were over thirty of us on board and only one open room in which to live, work, play). Would I be seasick? (yes, on the first day). Would I miss email and the internet? (nope). Would I be able to walk on shore? (yes, but in a very limited way).

My companions and I all complained about the rules and made jokes about the daily pudding. But it all felt a bit indulgent as I thought of Nansen making it through his third polar winter subsisting only on polar bear and walrus. He would have loved that mayo drenched “salad.”  And, of course, the daily cake.

Nansen becomes fond of his ship, the Fram: “for, to say the truth, we all of us dearly love the ship, as much as it is possible to love any impersonal thing. And why should we not love her? No mother can give her young more warmth and safety under her wings that she affords to us. She is indeed like a home to us.” Nansen devotes an entire chapter of his book Farthest North to the construction of the ship, which was the first built for Arctic travel: “the whole craft should be able to slip like an eel out of the embraces of the ice.” It was insulated and solid, and the name means “onward”—what more could you ask of a ship? I visited the Fram in Oslo, the boat sitting protected in a museum. It was Nansen’s boat, but Amundsen used it as well to travel to Antarctica. Stepping on board, I lost my legs, had to sit down for the thrill of walking the same wooden planks as these brave and obsessive men.

Life on board. Count the number of laptops.Through the course of the trip I asked people who or what they left at home. We were 20 women and 7 men, ranging in age from 23 to 67. Many are married, four in same-sex relationships but it was mostly dogs and cats and one rabbit left behind. A few had children, yet only two had children at home (and one claimed to have half a child since she had sold her eggs to come on this trip). We were largely solitary folks, skeptics, wanderers. On board, we celebrated two birthdays, and while I sold a house, another bought a house, and one grandmother fell gravely ill. Life goes on but we were cut off (except for the World Cup results—the German captain posted this daily, perhaps gloating in the German victory over the U.S.). It was but two weeks, yet in a world where we are used to constant contact people felt the void. When we docked in the research town of Ny Alesund, some stood in line for the phone, making surprise calls home. There was no one for me to call, and I found this a freedom. I was not pulled home or to a future reunion. I was simply there, looking at a glacier, talking in the galley, dreaming only, perhaps of a time in the future when I would eat a fresh salad.  

Arctic Circlers 2014These two weeks were nothing compared to my explorers who headed out for years at a time, safe return not assured. Nansen’s men (all men) left behind a total of 22 children. When Nansen heads out he’s 32 years old and had been married four years. His second autumn on the ice he celebrates his birthday on October 10th. “Exactly 33 years old, then. There is nothing to be said to that, except that life is moving, and will never turn back.”  The explorer, so experienced yet still so young, knew not to look backward; he and his ship: onward. 

Reader Comments (3)

Lovely, as usual. I am just catching up on your posts.
But"there was no one for me to call..."? Ahem. If you are looking for people to contact during your exotic wanderings, you can put me on your list. :-)

July 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJody Melander

i want to be added to the list too! but I also totally get the freedom--and lack of awkward reentries to anticipate.

July 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPolly Munts Talen

gorgeous boat by the way and great ti so great to glimpse your temporary home both through photos and your words. I can't think of a good adjective for your words: succulent, clever, expansive, rich, full-bodied, hearty, heart-filled? I think all of the above.

July 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPolly Munts Talen

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