Bear Island - Alistair MacLean


To even the least sensitive and perceptive beholder the Morning Rose, at this stage of her long and highly chequered career, must have seemed ill-named, for if ever a vessel could fairly have been said to be approaching, if not actually arrived at, the sunset of her days it was this one. Officially designated an Arctic Steam Trawler, the Morning Rose, 560 gross tons, 173 feet in length, 30 in beam and with a draught, unladen but fully provisioned with fuel and water, of 14.3 feet, had, in fact, been launched from the Jarrow slipways as far back as 1926, the year of the General Strike.

The Morning Rose, then, was far gone beyond the superannuation watershed; she was slow, creaking, unstable, and coming apart at the seams. So were Captain Imrie and Mr. Stokes. The Morning Rose consumed a great deal of fuel in relation to the foot-pounds of energy produced. So did Captain Imrie and Mr. Stokes, malt whisky for Captain Imrie, Jamaican rum for Mr. Stokes. And that was what they were doing now, stoking up on their respective fuels with the steadfast dedication of those who haven't attained septuagenarian status through sheer happenstance.

As far as I could see none of the sparse number of diners at the two long fore and aft tables was stoking up very much on anything. There was a reason for this, of course, the same reason that accounted for the poor attendance at dinner that night. It was not because of the food which, while it wouldn't cause any sleepless nights in the kitchens of the Savoy, was adequate enough, nor was it because of any aesthetic objections our cargo of creative artists might have entertained towards the dining saloon's decor which was, by any standards, quite superb: it was a symphony in teak furniture and wine-coloured carpets and curtains, not, admittedly, what one would look to find on the average trawler but, then, the average trawler, when its fishing days are over-as the Morning Rose's were deemed to be in 1956-doesn't have the good fortune to be re-engined and converted to a luxury yacht by, of all people, a shipping millionaire whose enthusiasm for the sea was matched only by his massive ignorance of all things nautical.

The trouble tonight lay elsewhere, not within the ship but without. Three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, where we at the present moment had the debatable fortune to be, the weather conditions can be as beautifully peaceful as any on earth, with mirror-smooth, milky-white seas stretching from horizon to horizon under a canopy of either washed-out blue or stars that are less stars than little chips of frozen fire in a black, black sky. But those days are rare and, usually, to be found only in that brief period that passes for summer in those high latitudes. And whatever summer there had been was long gone. We were deep into late October now, the period of the classical equinoctial gales, and there was a real classical equinoctial beauty blowing up right then. Moxen and Scott, the two stewards, had prudently drawn the dining-saloon curtains so that we couldn't see quite how classical it was.

We didn't have to see it. We could hear it and we could feel it. We could hear the wild threnody of the gale in the rigging, a high-pitched, ululating, atonic sound, as lonely, lost, and eerie as a witch's lament. We could hear, at monotonously regular intervals, the flat explosive clap of sound as the bluff bows of the trawler crashed into the troughs of the steep-sided waves marching steadily eastwards under the goad of that bitter wind born on the immensity of the Greenland icecap, all of seven hundred miles away. We could hear the constantly altering variation in the depth of the engine note as the propellor surged upwards, almost clearing water level, then plunged deep down into the sea again.

And we could feel the storm, a fact that most of those present clearly found a great deal more distressing than just listening to it. One moment, depending upon which side of the fore and aft tables we were sitting, we would be leaning sharply to our left or right as the bows lurched and staggered up the side of a wave: the next, we would be leaning as sharply in the other direction as the stern, in turn, rode high on the crest of the same wave. To compound the steadily increasing level of misery and discomfort