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'Cruising on Ice'

Sam Llewellyn concludes that as far as winter cruising is concerned ice belongs firmly in a glass.

We were sitting on the boat the other lunchtime, eating sausages, watching the curlews prodding the chilly mud and thinking about the romance of winter.

In our heads was not the sheet Icy Water of Channel beyond our anchorage, slate-grey and frosted with grim little whitecaps. We were seeing ice. Big, beautiful fields of ice, glittering white under a sky of startling blue. Cathedral-sized bergs grounded in the bays of Arctic islands, the light striking emerald and sapphire in their glassy cliffs.

We could hear the clash of narwhals duelling with their tusks, smell the horrible breath of walruses (though this turned out to be a mackerel left over from September). North! cried every romantic fibre of our beings.

Reality check, please

Hold on a minute, murmured the few fibres with any common sense. Reality check, please. The weather, when it's icy, is not like that. It tends to be grey and foggy, and more often than not it is blowing a gale that grinds the floes together like the stones of an enormous mill.

And if you survive that, you will probably be what is known as beset, frozen in from the Arctic autumn in August to the Arctic spring in late June, cooking from a book of recipes that can be used either on seals or cabin boys, both of them notoriously indigestible.

And once you are beset, your judgement goes. Take the great Fritjhof Nansen. Locked into the icepack in his ship Fram, he was attempting to drift to the North Pole.

Progress was slow, so Nansen and a companion set off on foot, got lost, and arrived sixteen months later at Franz Josef Land, where, through mere luck, they were rescued by a party of British explorers.

No, no. A frostbite picnic on the South Coast is tough enough. Sixteen months? The reality check continues.

Bringing the boat home

One of the delights of cruising is to bring the boat as close to home as possible at the end of the season. 

In my case, this involved sailing one December from the west of Wales, up the Bristol Channel and into the River Severn. It was a bracing excursion, with Force four breezes from the southwest and a flight of RAF Hawk jets that waggled their wings at the little boat alone on the wide grey sea. Quite pleasant, really.

Until we got into the river. Here the approaches to the locks were largely frozen. There was only an inch of ice, but it was a hard, unforgiving inch. We rammed it. It bounced us back. We prodded it with boathooks.

The ice was only an inch thick

It popped up and smacked us on the knuckles. We swore at it. It paid no attention. And so the long days wore on. The ice might have been only an inch thick. But endways on, in the plane in which it was resisting the boat's progress, it was as thick as the distance from the boat to the lock. In some cases this was 150 feet.

If this was what it was like on the outskirts of Gloucester, what would it be like in Svalbard?

The Russian yacht Peter the First pulled in to St Petersburg recently, having circumnavigated the globe north of the continents.

'When we first saw the ice, we were pointing fingers at it – "Look, it's ice!"' said the skipper. He shook his head gloomily. 'And then we had three or four weeks when there were no signs of water around us up to the horizon.' You can see his point.

Romantically speaking, ice is overrated. It is fine in the mind or in a glass. But as far as winter cruising is concerned, that is where it belongs.

Sam Llewellyn is a novelist, columnist, and Editor of The Marine Quarterly,

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