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An Arctic adventure: ice-bound in Spitsbergen

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Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from My Name is Life, as ‘Captain’ Andy Jankowski explores Spitsbergen

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Andrzej Jankowski, better known as Captain Andy, is a one-off. I met him in Warsaw when I was launching a book of my own, translated into Polish. His book’s title, My Name is Life, may sound presumptuous to some, but it soon becomes clear that Captain Andy is more than just a sailor.

As spokesman for the Independent Underground Students’ Union and press officer for the Solidarity Movement, he was actively engaged in the fall of communism, going on to work as Chief of Protocol for Polish President Lech Wałesa.

The early chapters of the book deal with Andy’s perspective on this historic period, then move seamlessly into seafaring, the passion of his life. The peak of this section is Spitsbergen.

He is minding his own business when the phone rings. An old friend, Tom, demands his presence. He’s short of crew and ice-bound in the high Arctic while he waits for a promised ice-breaker. Sniffing adventure, Andy enlists a pal to ride shotgun and hops on an aeroplane. Read on, and come to sea with a man with a strong handle on where we all stand in a changing world.

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My Name is Life, by Captain Andy.

My Name is Life extract

Tom is waiting for us outside the airfield, dressed in a heavy winter coat, knee high quilted boots and a fur hat with earflaps folded down. It is cold out here. Next to him is a second person, dressed the same, though I can’t see his face because he lowered his head, swaying side to side. His feet are close together, the whole of him moving this way and that.

“Hi Andy!” he calls out, “Hi there Rafal, welcome! And this is Bogusz,” Tom points to the swaying guy next to him as if he were an exhibit. He makes no eye or hand contact with us, still rocking side to side.

“Hi, Bogusz!” I call out loud. The man comes to life.

“Eh,” he moans, showing us his young and friendly face, unshaven, front tooth missing. Then the head droops once again and all we look at is the fur cap.

“Actually, there is no Bogusz,” Tom concludes. “He will be with us tomorrow.”

Our fine and brave crew is now complete.

Down at the yacht, the surroundings look unreal. Giant blocks of ice are floating all about it. We go onto the wooden pier. Some guy on a boat with French colours is trying to fight off an iceberg from assaulting his vessel. A sea current is pushing several tons of ice right at him while he tries to repel this mass with a flimsy hook. The wooden handle snaps like a match. Tom does not flinch at the sight, so I assume this is the norm around here.

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Crew get cold weather ready

Boarding our yacht I note the Polish ensign flying proud. Down in the mess we wait for Tom to brief us.

“We can’t leave the marina. The whole of Isfjord is blocked by a belt of massive icebergs six miles wide. No chance of squeezing a kayak through.”

“And the icebreaker?” I ask.

“Unfortunately, we’ve no news there.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Wait for a strong easterly wind. The forecast says it will pick up in a couple of days and move the pack westwards. At least the sun doesn’t set at all so we’ll have daylight throughout the trip.”

Great, so our crew has a plan, or rather a hope. We can only wait for an easterly wind to part the icebergs. Someone described a similar miracle in the Bible. So it’s time to wait.
We review charts published by the British Admiralty. I pay special attention to the depths marked at the exit to the bay and further out to sea. I see an ‘Uncharted area.’ Even the British Admiralty failed to explore this bit of our planet, leaving us to guess. I only hope the ‘bit’ is deep enough and not left uncharted due to shallows. The electronic charts also assure me that all is well. There should be no surprises, but one can never be too careful at sea.

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Icebound in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, at the start of the adventure

We get ourselves and our ship ready for action, checking the sails, rigging, shrouds, stays, sheaves, engine oil and coolant levels.
I check the liferaft painter. It’s all ready.

Time to get dressed for battle. I layer up – thermal undies, a windstopper jacket and trousers, another wind resistant overcoat, and sealskins on top. I secure the neoprene wrist seals, ensuring not a drop of water can get inside. It will, of course. Then I move on to my cap, something I do not usually wear, but considering the conditions, the hood of my jacket alone won’t do. I spread a layer of anti-frostbite cream on my face, then my new balaclava, goggles and winter gloves.

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Then it’s the turn of my feet – I only have a pair of regular sailing moccasins without any insulation. I wear them with two pairs of thermal socks, which will have to do. I never put on heavy galoshes, in case I fall into the water and they turn into killer anchors. There are of course different schools of thought about equipment, but this works for me. I top it off with a Spinlock lifejacket, test my personal EPIRB and stuff my satphone into a waterproof pocket in the sleeve of my jacket. Then a long knife and a mobile chart plotter, independent of the boat’s navigation system. Last of all is a little sachet of sugar which I carry out of habit, just in case. My grab bag is waiting in the cabin, I’m ready to go.

Ice field approach

Tom starts the engine, while the rest of us hoist the sails. I cast off the last mooring line, but Bogusz is in trouble. Pushed by the wind, our 20-ton vessel is drifting away by itself. Bogusz is still shoving off, holding on to the guardrail of a Norwegian vessel moored next to us. Within seconds he is suspended between the two boats, but manages somehow to swing himself back, to land in a heap on deck. Rafal and Bogusz then vanish below, not to reappear until the next day.

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Approaching Hornsund Bay, a Polish polar station

Tom and I sail towards the ice field, all too visible on the horizon. From a distance, the first bergs didn’t look all that imposing, but now I realise why we call them ‘ice mountains’. Tower block-sized blocks of ice bob around us like giant corks. The crystal clear water allows us to see how far below the surface they extend. Our ship passes them slowly. Tom keeps scanning the seas, the gaps between icebergs becoming ever tighter, smaller blocks of ice appearing up ahead. Small, but we don’t want to hit them even at our crawling speed.

Another hour goes by and the waters ahead are becoming ever more crowded. Ice behind us, ice up ahead, to port, to starboard. Wind pushes us forward, but the same is true of the icebergs, which keep following us. We still can’t spot open sea.

More hours go by. Tom calls out, pointing to starboard. A giant brown skinned arctic walrus is resting on an icy platform close to the water’s edge. He looks up, then lays back down to rest, not seeing us as any sort of threat.

We reduce speed, barely able to squeeze through the gaps up ahead. For the time being the hull is clearing all obstructions, but things are not promising. More icebergs emerge ahead, lining up to make our passage ever more difficult. I steer her easy to starboard, spotting a slight gap. Sailing on, we hope for more such good luck, but navigating this ice field is never easy.

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Captain Andy at the helm

I look up ahead, spotting a dark object far off on the horizon. “Tom, you see that?” I ask.

“Yes, must be our icebreaker, watching our progress!”

“Obviously, waiting for us to clear a path for him,” I quip, even though things are far from funny. Hours pass by. The icebergs finally become more widely spaced. Our sailing is becoming almost pleasant. More and more stretches of open water up ahead, but we have to be careful, making sure this is not a temporary break. The sun sneaks out from behind a heavy cloud and illuminates the landscape. Mountains to our right, open sea ahead, a giant ship now visible on the horizon.

An hour later we are clear of the iceberg field and sail on to some fabulous open seas. Sails up, the yacht flies along at eight knots. What a feeling… gliding through the Arctic Ocean. Spitsbergen to the east, Greenland somewhere westwards far beyond the horizon, Europe and the northern reaches of Norway to the south. We are hundreds of miles from our goal. Our vessel is making majestic progress, free of shore lines and ice barriers, carrying me, equally free, upon its beautiful deck.

We are sailing down the chart, from 79° to 78° North. These sorts of coordinates make me happy. The lack of autopilot means I cannot leave the helm, but who would go below deck when the views are this astounding. The water has a strange, oily appearance, the endless Arctic day allowing me to get my fill of visual delights without fear of the sun setting. Still, I must focus on steering us safely between the occasional ice floes and mini-icebergs. 78°, six, decimal three minutes North, five minutes, three minutes… one… Hours go by at the helm, the ship eating up miles without a hitch.

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Shotgun is essential to scare off polar bears

Crossing the 78th parallel

I cannot believe that I will soon cross the 78th parallel of northern latitude, from the North no less. And there was me wondering if I should fly out here. I am so close to the Holy Grail of sailing life, to complete fulfilment. This is what this latitude means for us sailors. My onboard display shows a seven, an eight, and then nothing but zeros. It’s only an imaginary line invented by human beings, but the emotions which come with crossing it are very real. The heart thumps, my face beams, I am happy.

We approach the entrance to Hornsund Bay. The wind drives us on, past a massive ice mountain floating there. But this one is not the usual white-blue, but a transparent oceanic diamond weighing hundreds of tons. Its interior filters the light to make it glow like a sapphire. We get close to shore. I check the chart, which has thus far not let us down. The coordinates are good.

The rest of our crew emerges from below deck, and then to my right, I see something I have been looking for since I arrived here: two massive mountains, their sharp peaks stabbing at the sky, that I had seen before in an old whaling painting. I feel shivers down my spine. I see the same steep, sharply angled rocks, one of the most unspoilt and unexplored regions of our planet.

The peaks themselves are buried deep in the thick cloud cover. Human foot has never touched these slopes. The waters around here are only ever visited by a handful of vessels. A German yacht moored here last year ended in tragedy for the crew. They anchored too close to an iceberg and a massive chunk of ice dropped into the sea causing a local tsunami that capsized the ship.

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Activist and sailor Andrzej Jankowski enjoying calm after a storm

We sail deep into the fjord, stopping a safe distance from a glacier. It looks 100m tall. Majestic, gigantic and eternal, breathing and watching us. It is resting now, watching our temporary human efforts, which it will destroy with its strength in the next tens of thousands of years. I stare at it, unable to believe its mighty beauty. The scientists tell us that the top layer is only some tens of thousands of years old. The base layer of ice has been under great pressure for millions. It is so compressed that its structure resembles a sapphire or a diamond.

The glacier only reveals its true nature when one stands face to face with its massive visage. It doesn’t feel lifeless, it is very much alive. The impression is further reinforced by the constant cracking of the inner ice, air bubbles hundreds of thousands of years old popping.

The Earth formed around 4.5 billion years ago. How short is the history of the human race! This gigantic glacier reminds us that even we who dominate today can still go the way of the dinosaurs and vanish just like that.

As we exit Hornsund, I can’t shake off the sense that these sights and adventures belong between the covers of some ancient book of legends. Then an emergency VHF radio call comes through. An American expedition spent the previous night sleeping on the glacier. A polar bear attacked them. One person is dead and two are injured, and as we set course for the comparative safety of Norway, we realise how wild and dangerous this place still is.

Buy My Name is Life now from Amazon


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