The thermometer on the bridge wing registered -10°F (-22°C) as the ship sailed through the dark waters of the Baltic Sea bound for St Petersburg, Leningrad as it was then, carrying a cargo of oil drilling equipment, including Snow Cats for the USSR.
We had been warned that the sea ice extended from the Russian mainland and crossed the Gulf of Finland to the west of Helsinki and soon, as we rounded the Estonian islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa to enter the Gulf of Finland near Tallinn, we encountered the beginnings of it. Small rounded floes crunched against the bow as the ship sped along at 19 knots (about 23 mph).
Then, on the horizon, we saw the tell tale whiteness of solid sea ice reflecting into the sky. It stretched across the horizon ahead of us, and, although the ship was ice strengthened, the engines were put on stand-by and we slowed down. To hit solid ice at speed was almost suicidal.
At relatively slow speed the ship entered the ice which growled along the ship’s side, a sound that was going to be heard until we left the confines of the Baltic Sea. The growling noise soon became a roaring as the ice cascaded from the bow and fell back onto solid sea to scour the paint and rust from the hull. The temperature dropped another five degrees.
We were instructed to anchor in the vicinity of the long, narrow island of Gogland, Normally, we would proceed south of this island and continue another 40 miles to the pilot station, which itself was 40 miles from the port. But we had to await a convoy sailing, accompanied by an ice breaker from Leningrad. And there we waited for three days until we heard that the convoy had sailed from the port. It was another 24 hours before we saw the icebreaker appear round the southern end of the island, followed by a long line of some twenty ships.
I ventured out to the bridge wing clad in multiple layers of clothing and a fur hat to find the temperature could not be read; the mercury had gone below the minimum graduation which was -25°F!
We followed the icebreaker into the port, needing some 18 hours to traverse the 80 miles through the broken track of the outgoing convoy, a distance which should, in normal conditions, have taken only five hours.
On going ashore through the port I was amazed to see a truck driver stoking a fire under the fuel tank of the truck. The diesel, he told us, had frozen.
‘It’s very cold this time,’ I said when we arrived in the warmth of the Seaman’s Club
‘Not so,’ was the reply, ‘last week was cold. It was -40 degrees.’ This is, incidentally, the only temperature at which the Centigrade and Fahrenheit scales meet!
Two weeks later we sailed. The ice had extended its grip on the Baltic Sea all the way through the Kattegat. We did not reach clear water until we passed into the North Sea.
by Terry Took © 2012
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.