You're in it

A storm at sea

The captain and expedition leader suggested we stay in our rooms and read, the storm due to last for a couple of days. Up until that point we’d had uncannily good weather, sunny days and mild winds, perfect for watching albatross and petrels glide over the waves. Now it seemed we had crossed over some invisible barrier into another sea. We turned southeast, away from Campbell Island and into the abyss of the Southern Ocean. Even a hundred foot ship is no match for a storm in the subantarctic and the only way to keep upright is to go with it, riding the swells and the wind.

On the second day, after breakfast and lunch were served and eaten, my book finished and my legs starting to twitch, I decided to go up to the bridge and see if anyone was around to talk to. A mate was leaning over a chart with a cup of coffee, chatting to a crew member. I pointed to the door that led outside. The crew member shrugged. I pushed open the heavy steel door that led outside and was immediately assaulted by the wind, the door yanking my arm as it slammed shut behind me. It was cold, bitterly cold and I was glad of the gumboots and thick socks I had brought with me.

Rolling and pitching with the lurch of each swell, I made sure to have one hand on the rail and my feet spread wide. I was surprised to see that the ladder to the very top deck wasn’t roped off and it seemed harmless enough to head up there for a few seconds and grab a photo or two.

The rolling action was amplified even more at the highest point. I wedged myself between a communications mast and a liferaft and watched the spray wash across the aft deck as we rolled from side to side. In the deep troughs the swells seemed to rise up to almost to eye level, before the ship slowly lifted and we were suddenly on top of the wave, ready for the next one.

I came back through that heavy door in a daze. I had discovered the storm’s power to hypnotise. Whatever thoughts that skitter through your head while inside are quickly whisked away in a hard wind. Your eyes dry out, cheeks numb and hair whips about your face. You’re in it, you’re alive and it won’t let you think about anything else. The Southern Ocean also has the added dimension of complete loneliness. As far as the eye all I could see were only mountains of water and streaks of white foam. Even the seabirds seemed to disappear.

A day later the storm had passed and we went back to the relative calm of regular Southern Ocean wind and waves. The ship turned back on course having had to miss only one scheduled stop. We resumed what we were there for, visiting the islands and the wildlife. But despite all those amazing sites, I couldn’t get the exhilaration of that storm out of my mind.

When I got back to New Zealand I rushed through the photos looking for the ones of the storm only to find the waves smaller than I remembered, no sense of thunderous lurching and rolling. And there was nothing in there to show the endless expanse, the feeling that we would be in that storm forever.