In this slim travel book Horatio Clare voyages as a guest on the Finnish icebreaker Otso (Bear), ‘mostly in darkness, certainly in snow’. The ship breaks ice to create shipping channels, known as fairways, so that trade can continue through the long winter. Most of its business is with bulk carriers, ore carriers, colliers and chemical tankers; each ship pays about €20,000 a day for her icebreaking escort.
A youngish Yorkshire-based writer, Clare’s previous books include Down to the Sea in Ships, in which he travelled in a container vessel as a kind of writer-in-maritime-residence — so he has form in this department. He boards at Oulu, at the northern end of Finland’s west coast on the shore of the Bay of Bothnia (every ship crossing the bay needs an icebreaker ahead of it). At one point, the whole bay is frozen. Journey’s end is the ‘heroically bleak’ port of Kokkola.
The ice details are fun: one crew member tells Clare that at minus 20 ‘you can actually see the water freeze, really fast, just — skoosh’. I’ve spent a bit of time on icebreakers and I recognised many of Clare’s experiences: it’s a unique form of travel. I enjoyed the pages about going for a walk on solid ocean. In thick ice, Orso gets through 100 tonnes of fuel in 24 hours. Often, she must drift. ‘If you put the anchor down’, explains the captain, ‘the ice won’t give it back! We just park in the ice.’
Clare reports conversations with the crew, allowing them to speak for themselves with lots of robust direct speech. He picks up vocabulary, including the handy kalsarikännit, ‘to get drunk at home in your underwear, with no intention of doing anything else’. And he recognises the key Finnish trait sisu, which ‘denotes a gritty, courageous and robust refusal to be beaten’. (Could this be the next hygge?) Clare also learns to deconstruct ‘the different grades’ of Finnish silence, and reckons that nation’s reserve ‘out-reserves even the British version’.
There is talk of accidents, and fear. Filipino crew say ‘the best view of a ship is in the back window of your taxi as you are driving away’. Clare conjures the whiff of diesel, and the ‘blunt smell of steel’.
Icebreaker is salted with excellent topographical descriptions:
In sheened black water ice floats in shattered fragments. The only motion outside is three hooded crows, heading in a straggle for an island through huge stillness. You can see silence here.
Elsewhere, a sea eagle glides, ‘intent as an assassin’. Clare has an ear and an eye for words. ‘Maritime language,’ he writes, ‘has a lovely way of writing place and approximate position on featureless water, making the sea’s face legible.’ I love the way the map of sea ice changes every year. It’s a mutableuniverse in the polar regions.
Clare has a light touch with the science, explaining the role of solar radiation reflecting off the snow:
It is estimated that the loss of summer sea ice and its albedo [solar energy refracted back into space] in the last 40 years has raised global temperatures as much as if humans had emitted 25 per cent more carbon dioxide in that time.
This process, called fast feedback, creates warm air over water where before there was cold air over ice, so snowlines along Arctic coasts retreat, leaving bare tundra.
It was only a ten-day trip. Clare is therefore short on material. He seems to be in the habit of sketchy volumes; his Orison for a Curlew was only 100 pages. Both that book and this are pleasant but thin. He tries to metastasise the actual journey into an inner one: ‘Perhaps it is really a story about gulfs inside, about inner uproar contained in silence… You meet yourself at sea in ships, and your ghosts too.’
I never believed in that motif. Large type and double-spaced pages recount experiences in Helsinki, prior to launch, that have nothing to do with the central themes of the book. There is an awful lot of filler here. Not enough happens. Clare acknowledges this, writing at one point: ‘I am looking for someone, anyone, who is doing something interesting.’ The second half of the book is better than the first.
That said, one can’t have enough of the big white. Towards the end, Clare writes:
As the sun loses its grip on the heights, the snow begins to glow in spectrums of blue. Leads in our wake take on the pale azure of the sky; low dunes of snow are white kraken backs… a pellucid starkness, an absence, clear and still.