REMINISCENCES | Ice, isn’t that nice

Icebreaker Murtaja in the port of Helsinki in the 1890s. Murtaja remained in service for 68 years until she was decommissioned and broken up in 1958.

In our Commonwealth liners, we were blue water sailors, accustomed to the odd storm and occasional monsoon, but largely unprepared for anything too extreme. Ice was something you read about in seamanship text books and accounts of the loss of the Titanic. I saw my first iceberg on a voyage into the St. Lawrence, and although it wasn’t a very big one, it was the source of huge excitement, all hands crowding the rails while the Master looked terribly worried, even though it was several miles off.

We then had about a fortnight of freezing misery in the ports downstream of Montreal, with ice forming on the inside of the accommodation, everyone wearing all their clothes day and night, with everyone tumbling about on the slippery decks. In an inhospitable place called Baie Comeau, where we were loading paper, a few days before Christmas, we went ashore to fell a Christmas tree, which, with huge effort, we towed back to the ship and hoisted up the foremast. The dockers, who hated anyone who spoke English, thought we were mad.

On the way out of the river, we were taking spray on deck, which formed thick ice on all the rails, rigging and deck fittings, so all hands were standing by to clear it, lest we be “overset” by its weight on deck. We shouldn’t have worried, as within an hour or two of turning south again, it had all melted. The panic was over. Warm weather seemed unusually welcome that year, as we ran down the American coast towards Panama and the Pacific, although all the needles fell off the tree in about 48 hours, and by Christmas day it resembled a brown brush.

It was some years later that I saw what “real” ice was like on a winter visit to Finland. I travelled across in some style on a ferry from Stockholm, sitting in the forward lounge with a glass of gin, as the ship crunched her way along the broken channel between the frozen islands of the Swedish archipelago, with their deserted holiday houses. I was astonished that the ship was full, in the dead of winter, mostly with elderly ladies, who voyaged back and forth in the winter months rather than pay the bills to heat their homes in frozen Sweden. The ferry company astutely priced their tickets for these passengers, who bought their groceries from the ship’s duty free shops and kept the bar profits ticking over in the dead season. Everyone, you might suggest, was a winner.

After wading through deep snow in Marihamn and marvelling how people could build big ships in sub-zero temperatures in Turku, (they had one of the world’s biggest sheds), I went to see the Finnish Ice Service at work in the Gulf of Bothnia. I was taken by helicopter from the end of a quay in the port of Helsinki, to land on a helipad, which seemed no bigger than a garage door on the stern of the icebreaker, which was assisting ships about twenty miles out to sea. Ice conditions were severe, as heavy southerly winds had been blowing for several days and there were long pressure ridges trebling and quadrupling the thickness of the ice, leaving half a dozen ships stranded.

The icebreaker was using her full power to shatter this stubborn ice, a noisy and alarming business as the big ship crashed into the thick, piled-up white mass, the whole vessel rocking violently as ballast water was pumped from one side to another. The ship’s bow and stern propellers, hugely reinforced, acted like mincing machines leaving a trail of loose ice astern, down which the marooned cargo ships were able to follow. It was a wonderful demonstration of sheer strength and power.

The icebreaker, probably twenty years old, was kept like a yacht, with elegant panelling around her accommodation and saloon, like that of an Edwardian luncheon club. Nowadays the Baltic icebreakers are multi-purpose craft that find something to do all the year round. In those days, the ships were laid up for the summer months, which, the master told me, suited him admirably. In a couple of hours the icebreaker had freed the westbound convoy and crunched over to an eastbound ship to put a pilot aboard, using a cherry picker which was mounted on the bow for the job. It seemed a lot safer than a pilot ladder.

Then with dusk coming on, we were back in the helicopter to patrol to the east, across the featureless grey ice of the gulf, passing fishermen going home in their cars from the holes they had drilled and the occasional ice strengthened ship slowly crunching through the minced channel, with their headlights showing them the way. Then, with the Leningrad fairway buoy just visible, (and this being at the height of the Cold War) we turned for home.

Today, we are terribly blasé about voyages to these extreme freezing places, with elderly passengers going to the Antarctic on cruise ships to photograph penguins, and containerships and gas carriers routinely taking the short cut from the Far East across the top of Russia, in waters that a century ago you would only have found people like Nansen. But given the choice, I still prefer the blue waters where I learned my trade. Ice is nice, but the South Pacific is nicer.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Each week, we will feature new personal experiences from across the globe. Submissions to: [email protected].

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.