Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 39

The Atlantic

There is a saying that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. The lion was still in firm control in Boston. I had never been there before, but had heard a great deal about its historic remnants and cultural amenities. I missed those, but did see a drunken fisherman cursing passers-by in a language, nominally English, which owed a good deal to something else, perhaps Portuguese.

In truth, we were only in Boston for a few hours of one afternoon, and we spent much of that time in fishermen's outfitting stores. Vignis told me that it was unbelievably cold at sea at that time of the year, and that it was almost impossible to wear too many layers. She also added to her own seagoing kit and got us both oilskins. As she said,

"It's awful if you have to stay closed in all the time, and this is the only way you can venture out without getting soaked. It may be drier in a bigger ship, but we're going back on the same one I came on, and there's spray all over the decks."

When she finally pronounced me fit for sea, I was so bundled up in stiff new clothing that I could hardly waddle. Since we were boarding shortly, she advised me to keep it on.

"We have to take a boat out to the ship, and, the way its looking outside, we'll get wet even doing that."

Vignis also got me a sailor's duffel bag, and, after shifting my possessions to it, I wondered out loud what to do with my suitcase. The proprietor said,

"There's a pawn shop just down the street. They'll give you something for it."

We had just stepped outside into the cold wind when a beggar came up and asked for money for a plate of soup. I hadn't been thrilled at the idea of either taking Vignis into a pawn shop or leaving her outside, and I presented my suitcase to the man. He was delighted and headed for the pawn shop while we made our way to T wharf.

By the time that we got there, it had begun to sleet. While aware of looking unnecessarily picturesque, I was already glad to have my oilskins. The coat closed far up on my neck, indeed above my chin, and the hat was strapped down almost to my eyes. The result was that I could be quite comfortable even in the deteriorating weather. I could hardly see anything of Vignis' face, but she said that she thought there was a ferry service at the end of the wharf.

As we walked out along the long wharf, I got my first unimpeded view of the harbor. While well protected against the big seas, there was enough expanse of water to allow the wind to kick up a nasty gray chop flecked everywhere with white-caps. The wind also whipped through the rigging of the big fishing schooners tied up along the wharf, rattling blocks and everything that was at all loose.

I began to realize that this ocean was a very different thing from the one that I had encountered at the seashore as a child. Those vacation trips had been to a well-sheltered bay in the middle of summer, and, while I had learned to swim and row, and even to sail a catboat, it had been all fun and no seriousness. More recently, at Portland, Oregon, I had seen ocean-going ships at the docks, but Portland was many miles up the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. Here, I had no urge whatever to swim or venture out in a small boat. The schooners and steamships ranged around us had salt streaked everywhere, and ice in the rigging. It took little imagination to realize that the North Atlantic in March would provide a violent contrast to those summer outings at the beach.

Even at Portland, I hadn't gotten really close to the ships. As we now walked past one, I noticed the massive size of the ropes, bitts, and chains. The ship also looked as if it might be perennially rusting away. Even now in the gathering darkness and bad weather, men working with lights from a platform were chipping paint, apparently with hammers and chisels. At the stem there were various markings. I was given to understand that these indicated the various depths to which the ship could be loaded, and that the "winter, North Atlantic" mark was the one which allowed the most reserve bouyancy. As Vignis said,

"Nowhere else that merchant ships go are there so many gales. You get an occasional hurricane in the Caribbean, but these waters are much more punishing day in and day out. That's what I've been told, and it certainly seemed like it on the voyage here from Iceland."

The Thor had now completed loading, and was lying out in the harbor. The name delighted me as being properly Norse. I later found out that she had been built in Danzig for the Argentine, where she was known as the Ministro Ezcurra. Lacking iron and steel, the Icelanders bought ships, usually old ones, instead of building them. The only thing that then set them apart from other ships was the practice of placing a swasticka on the point of the bow, not the Nazi swasticka, but the older left-pointing one from Norse antiquity. It was only when we got to the end of the wharf, and found the ferryboat, that I could see the ship in the middle distance.

The Thor was a small tanker, dating from the days when they first built tankers. The bridge structure was forward of amidships, and the engine room and tall straight stack were as far aft as possible. The idea had been not to break up the oil tanks with the engine room in between then, and also to keep possible sources of fire far away from the combustible cargo. I wasn't particularly impressed with the look of the ex-Ministro Ezcurra, a name that seemed to fit the ship better than its new one, but I supposed that she must be seaworthy enough.

The ferry, a small motor boat, pitched and rolled and smashed its bow into the oncoming waves. We took lots of spray, but no solid waves over the bow, and I found it somewhat exhilarating. When we finally got to the Thor, there were hardly any lights showing, and, bouncing uncomfortably up and down almost under the stern, we couldn't raise anyone with our shouts. However, there was a rope ladder dangling, and, as we banged alongside, Vignis grabbed it and went up with agility. I went up with somewhat less agility with a light line tied around my waist. The purpose of this line was not, I discovered, to keep me from drowning, but to allow us to hoist up our kit.

There was still no one visible when we had finished hauling our duffel bags up and landing them on deck, but Vignis yanked on an iron door handle and we entered the after deck house. There were some men playing cards in a small lounge, one of whom nodded to her, and a dark passage leading aft. Vignis put her bag in the same cabin she had had before, and then found me a cabin by the simple expedient of opening doors until she found an empty one. She said to me,

"The captain and crew all live in the forward deck house, and we never see them. There's a steward who looks after the passengers, but he may still be ashore."

Since there were few regular passenger vessels calling at Iceland, practically every Icelandic ship carried passengers. In this case, as in many, the crew had been crowded together, the passengers occupying what would otherwise be the quarters for the stokers and engine room personnel. Our only sight of them would be when they came along the deck to change shifts in the engine room below us. The stokers, particularly, were culled from the human flotsam that washes up in the seaports of the world. Neither they nor the passengers had much inclination to even nod to one another.

The steward appeared at nine in the evening, a little tipsy, and made tea and sandwiches. The half dozen passengers beside ourselves, all male, spoke Icelandic. It was a funny language, obviously Scandinavian, but without the yodelling sounds of Swedish. Vignis told me that it was close to Old Norse, and that the sagas were written in a language that could still be understood. She herself spoke the language with what seemed to me native fluency, but claimed that she could understand only about half what was said to her. In any case, a couple of the others spoke good English, with the result was that there was some communication among us.

What immediately struck me was that, while none of the men looked like Vignis, and only two were blonde, they didn't react as did other men on encountering her. She was, for them, not an extraordinary phenomenon, but an example of a type that they knew well.

I had a sense that one of the older men knew the type only too well, and wasn't thrilled at the thought of spending nine days in close proximity to Vignis. Then, before anything else was said, they inquired as to her relations. When she replied, they nodded sagely and settled, in their terms, exactly who she was. I couldn't be sure, but it seemed that their opinion of her mother and her family was much more favorable than that of her father and his family.

Vignis asked some questions herself, but later explained to me that she didn't know Iceland well enough to be able to infer anything about the characters of our companions from their answers.

On the other hand, only Vignis had been on the ship on its voyage to Boston. The others knew Icelandic ships in general, but were curious about the arrangements on this one, most particularly as they concerned the food. They also wanted to know whether the steward would be drunk the whole way. She reassured them on that point in a mixture of English and Icelandic.

One of the passengers who spoke English, a comfortable- looking middle-aged man named Egil, was in shipping, and we traded some information about ships and locomotives. The Thor, he said, was one of the small tankers which loaded oil wherever it could be had cheaply, and then transported it to Iceland, which had no oil.

"Boston isn't an oil port, but you can never tell where there may be a supply to fill a ship this size. These ships are scavengers. If a big tanker or barge goes ashore, one of our ships will turn up and take off part of the cargo. Or, if an oil tank on shore gets contaminated, we'll take that. We aren't fussy in Iceland."

The Thor, according to Egil, was about twenty six hundred tons, and her triple expansion steam engine was good for only about seven hundred horsepower. I was amazed and replied,

"Then she's about ten times the weight of one or our big locomotives with only a tenth of the power."

"Ships don't have to go up grades. With only a very little power you can eventually get the mass moving through the water, and then it takes even less power to keep it moving. This ship will probably do about eight knots, which is close to the natural speed for the hull design. She wouldn't go much faster even if you tripled the power."

"But a great deal more coal would be consumed."

"Yes. Everything in Iceland is done on the margin. You buy an old ship that no one else wants, and man it with boys from Iceland and cast-offs from other merchant marines. You then eke out the coal, and hope to sell the cargo for a little more than you paid for it."

We set sail after ten. Vignis and I went out on deck for the occasion in our new gear. Steam had been up for some time, and we could hear the hot breath of the boilers as smoke poured out of the tall stack. That much was like a locomotive. From up forward we heard unpleasant loud scraping noises of metal against metal, and I realized that it must be the anchor chain being winched through the hawse hole. We then felt a throbbing vibration that seemed to go through the whole ship, and, looking down at the black water, we saw the wash from the propellor surging out from under the counter.

I wondered why I couldn't hear the engine, and I then remembered that this was a marine steam engine. The high pressure cylinder, instead of exhausting up the stack, exhausted into the intermediate pressure cylinder, which then exhausted into the low pressure cylinder. That exhausted into the condenser, and, since the whole thing was down under two decks, it was no wonder that we heard so little.

Some minutes later, it appeared that we had hardly moved. Vignis and I lined up the lights of a tall building with other lights, but it was still hard to tell if we were making any progress. Meanwhile, the east wind was slowly blowing our bow off toward the city.

Since the ship didn't have steerage way, the rudder was useless. It looked for a time that we might have to anchor again on pain of crashing into the docks, but then, very slowly, a noticeable wake formed as our bow swung to the wind. As it was, we passed uncomfortably close to a moored ship.

Our little engine having gotten the ship moving, we slowly passed the islands in the harbor. One, easily recognized by the smell, was used as a garbage dump. Another was covered by the grim buildings of a prison. Then, before long, we were clear and headed into the long ocean waves.

Ever so slightly at first, and then more perceptibly, the bow would rise to the waves, at which point there began a regular pendulum motion which I hadn't experienced in small boats. The wind had also increased to the point that we were cold even bundled up as we were. Vignis suggested that we go inside, and I followed her.

The card game was going again, and, an hour or so later in an interval between hands, it was agreed that we were heading into a rising easterly gale. Special precautions were taken to secure the whiskey bottle, and, as he was waiting for the cards to be dealt, Egil remarked to me,

"It's too bad it's from the east. We're probably making only six knots now, and that could drop to four or less. A sou'wester would help us get where we're going."

Everyone else seemed to be much more interested in the cards than the weather, and it was only when a glass slid to the rail at the edge of the table and tipped over that they were distracted. They then noticed me, and the other man who spoke English said to me,

"This is luxury. We're warm and dry. When I was a fisherman in winter, I'd often be cold and wet for a week straight."

Egil suggested that a fisherman could be cold and wet for a good deal longer than that, and they then returned to their game. Vignis said to me,

"It was the same coming over. The trouble is that it's hard to find a position where you don't have to brace yourself."

For my part, I wasn't sure what to think. It seemed to be agreed on all sides that we were in no danger. Nor did I feel the least seasick. Thus, with nothing to be concerned about, I attempted to conceive of our state as it would seem to an outside and objective observer.

The image I derived was that of an eggshell, very strong for its weight and able to resist powerful forces of certain sorts. It was bobbing over the waves in a bathtub, and was being propelled by a thin stream of water projected from a tiny hole in the shell. The difference between that situation and ours was mainly one of scale.

On considering the matter further, I compared the sea to my touchstone, the railway. In contrast to the violence of railways, with steel against steel and explosive exhausts direct from the cylinders, sea travel was quite gentle and so silent as to be almost miraculous. The eggshell conformed exactly to the motion of the waves, and the little squirtum that slowly propelled it was so insignificant as to hardly be noticeable.

In order to test this hypothesis, I suggested to Vignis that we go out on deck for a look. It was now after midnight, but she agreed readily. As we struggled into our things, the others looked at us as if we were crazy. Egil called over,

"No need to put on your oilskins. You'll be back inside in ten seconds or so."

When we did force open the door and get out on deck, I almost abandoned my hypothesis on the spot. The wind, fierce and cold, flapped our oilskins as if they had been made of light cotton.

It was only after I had grabbed one of the stanchions and adjusted my hat that I could take in anything at all. I then saw long parallel combers, showing white all the way across in the sparse moonlight, as they raced down on us and buffeted the ship on the starboard bow. Sheets of spray were flung all along the side, hitting me hard enough to sting my face. The ship would rise forward and roll to port to receive the blow from each wave, and then roll to starboard as it swept away under us. It was easy to think that the sea was treating us very violently indeed. But perhaps it wasn't really hostile. We were simply persisting in going the way it didn't want us to go.

When I looked at Vignis, her wet face was as I had never seen it. It was impossible not to kiss her, and I did so. She kissed back enthusiastically, and then hugged me, as if to say that special allowances were to be made under the circumstances. I understood perfectly, and we remained there until we were almost frozen in place.

When we finally came back in, dripping water everywhere, Egil and the others only shook their heads in disbelief at our foolishness.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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