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The heart of winter

SamIce means a change of plan for Sam Llewellyn.

The weather was freezing, so the plan was to go for a river cruise, looking for something like the heart of winter. The problem, though, was ice. An inch of ice does not sound like much. But when the bow of your boat crunches into the edge of a sheet of the stuff thirty yards long and an inch thick, you are effectively trying to hammer your way through ice thirty yards thick. It stops you dead, and there is very little you can do about it.

Fresh water freezes at 0ºC. Seawater freezes at about -2ºC. The air temperature was somewhere around zero. So it looked like the sea or nothing - not big sea, with the spray turning solid as it whistles across the deck, rime in the cockpit and sheets iced rigid, but little sea, studded with islands which would provide a bit of a lee and somewhere to thaw out the feet by walking. One night would be enough.

So we towed the open boat down to the harbour, and launched it off a slipway, and loaded a huge bundle of sleeping bags and sausages and wine. The sky was blue, with a frosty haze at the edges. The water was grey as cement, but at least it was liquid. We pulled up some sails and let the faint northerly breeze waft us between the trots of empty mooring buoys away from the land.

Pinkish glow

It was quiet out there. We hoisted the cruising chute, which is red, and covered the boat with a pinkish glow that gave the illusion of warmth. The island rose out of the sea ahead. On its south side, out of the wind, the water was like a sheet of glass. We took down the sails, pulled out some oars and rowed.

We jumped on to the sand, moving stiffly in layers of thermals, flannel shirts, sweaters, fleeces, down jackets and breathable wet gear, and wedged the anchor into the sand with a big stone, and walked into the trees. It was quiet in the woods, and cold, with a still, flat cold quite unlike the cutting breeze on the water. It drove us back to the sea.

As we pushed off the beach the sun was a thin pink glow behind the trees. We paddled into the bay, wrestled the tent into position, hauled the sleeping bags out of their watertight barrels and lit the Coleman lamp and the gas cooker for warmth. As the night came down we talked about Scott of the Antarctic, whose sleeping bag was made of reindeer skin, which froze, so to get into it he had to soften it by chewing. We played cards, only our noses and fingers sticking out of the sleeping bags, and agreed that this was probably the heart of winter.

Diamond arch of stars

When I crawled on deck later, the sky was ink-black, the Milky Way a diamond arch of stars. From the dark trees on the shore came the hooting of owls telling each other it was very cold. Back in the sleeping bag it was not, frankly, a splendid night’s sleep. But next day there was a faint, thin breeze, and we sailed out to the Race, and were bucketed about a bit for warmth.

By the time we were back in the harbour the sky was greying over, and the cold had a dampness to it, promising rain. As we went alongside the quay to unload, a purposeful straggle of geese came flying out of the harbour, heading north. We stood there and watched them, blowing on our bluish fingers. Winter had done its stuff. Spring, it seemed, was on the way.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly

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