In an elegant blend of ‘polemic, industrial history, nautical writing, elegy and ecology’, The Two-Headed Whale charts the tragic history of the post-war whaling industry alongside the author’s thrilling memoir of sailing the Antarctic.
In this extract we join Sandy Winterbottom as she embarks on the epic six-week tall-ship voyage from Uruguay to Antarctica.
Peter and I shared a taxi to the port. The dockside felt noisy and hazardous, full of multi-coloured containers stacked like Lego. Forklifts beeped and zipped between them. We found Europa hidden among the colossal ships and fishing factories; she seemed out of time and place in this industrial setting. Compared to the rusting hulks around her, she was sleek, beautiful, hand-built – and tiny. The top of her tall masts barely reached deck level of the ships around her.
We bundled aboard, and overstuffed bags disappeared through hatches and down steep steps to the cabins below. I was pleased to see I’d be sharing with Kate. She gave me a tour of the small wood-panelled cabin, the clever nooks and crannies where we could stow our things: varnished lockers and drawers with flush brass handles. The bunks, extra-long for the Dutch, could be made private by drawing a navy-blue cotton curtain across them. Survival suits hung on straps above each bunk. I felt more settled seeing my space for the next six weeks.
On the morning of the November full moon, we sailed from Montevideo. As we left port, the so-called Cemetery of Ships flanked our starboard side like an upturned box of toys.
Tilted close-knit wrecks lay abandoned by dint of debts or liens, some just plain rusted and forgotten, though many of the vessels in port were barely more seaworthy. Far out on the wide Río de la Plata estuary, fleets of anchored reefer ships – refrigerated vessels – peeked their cranes and bridges over the horizon, their decks hidden behind the curvature of the Earth.
The seas off Uruguay are rich in life and attract unreg- ulated fishing boats from across Asia and Europe. Catches are offloaded to reefer ships at sea, and when the fish arrives in Montevideo, though the captains declare its origins, checks are virtually impossible.
The wind veered in our favour, and the crew loosened Europa’s sails to the breeze. The silty estuarine hue turned sharp lapis blue, and our phones lost signal. We would see no more land nor ships for 12 days. It felt odd but liberating to disconnect from the rest of the world, to sail away and leave it all behind.
For three days, we slogged against a heavy swell, the sails raised, lowered and raised again, trying to make the best of the fickle wind.
Deep within the ship that first night, I sensed the swirl of movement around me: the gush of water, the sound of bubbles streaking the underside of our hull, people, footsteps, ropes dropping onto the deck above. My berth lay right at the heart of the ship, at the root of the main mast. We slept below the waterline, our porthole a pale blue washing machine rinsing through our dreams.
I felt the rise and fall of the ocean, lulled on my giant waterbed. I let go, lost the boundaries of myself to the ship, and my breath slowed to the rhythm of the long ocean swell. I stirred only when I felt a shift in the wind tugging through our sails, pulling me forward in my sleep.
On board, 20 permanent crew and forty guests packed the tiny cabins. I wandered a little aimless on the first day, not yet attuned to the daily cadence of the ship. I recognised the same lost look in my crew-mate Heikki, a droll and raspy Dutchman. Whenever I found a quiet spot, he would be there already or soon follow behind. We’d both signed on for the wild solitude of the Antarctic but had perhaps overlooked the fact that we’d be on board a small ship with 59 other people.
The wood-panelled deckhouse was our hub for company or something to do. ‘Who wants a job?’ Emma the bosun would shout, striding in with weathered wooden blocks from the rigging and a pile of sandpaper. The cook heaved in huge basins of potatoes for us to peel. On deck, a vast web of ropes furled and unfurled the sails, raised the yards and braced them to the wind.
The crew drilled us in easing, sweating, coiling, heaving, making fast and belaying – the language of tall ships trawled from my memory as my hands roughened to the thick hemp ropes. We learned the sheets, bunts, clews, gaskets and halyards. We had crib sheets naming all twenty- four sails and the ropes attached to them: around 225 in total, all neatly coiled onto wooden pin rails running the length of the ship.
‘Okay, listen up. Here’s the rota for Red Watch,’ said Heikki, nominated to take charge of our watch. He slipped a printed spreadsheet under the clear sticky laminate covering of the deckhouse tables. It detailed our every move over the next three days. Heikki was an engineer.
On watch, we rotated a cycle of lookout on the bow, steering at the helm and handling sails when called for, though the lookout and helm jobs, given the on-board radar and auto- pilot, were mostly to make us feel useful. We soon adjusted to the regular rhythm of our shifts: four hours on, eight off. At night, each watch was to wake the next. Kate’s preceded mine, and she was a master of the gentle rouse.
‘It’s the most gorgeous night, so many stars,’ she would whisper into the dark of my bunk, or, ‘You must come and see the phosphorescence in the ship’s wake – it’s incredible.’ Days and nights ceased to matter. Our lefts and rights too, replaced by port and starboard, our bodies now a part of this ship as she creaked and groaned her way south.
For three days, we slogged against a heavy swell, the sails raised, lowered and raised again, trying to make the best of the fickle wind. Mostly, we headed south under engine as the ship wallowed in sloppy seas. Meals meant one hand on our plates and one on our forks, plus a foot braced against something fixed and solid.
Showering, when we bothered, in the small cubicle off our cabin, felt like being in a gift-wrapped box rattled by a curious kid. Under sail, though, the ship was at her most glorious: six creamy broad swathes of mottled and patched canvas stacked into the sky on the main mast, the triangular jibs stretched from the bowsprit, honey-tinted in the evening sun.
It felt good to be back at sea again. No responsibility, no distractions, no emails or Internet, no meals to plan, no housework, no commuting and no job to do other than hard physical graft. I could feel my shoulders beginning to drop from around my ears.
As we sailed south, the air turned cooler, the days lengthened and the midday sun burned to the north. We learned to ride the rise and fall of the deck in the stilted wide-legged walk of sailors. The night watches became my favourite, the stars unfamiliar except those on the inky horizon. Orion the Hunter breech-birthed into the pitch-black sky, his head dangling into the sea. Venus slung a long streak of light across our dark disk of ocean.
‘You can steer by the Southern Cross tonight,’ our captain Klaas said as Heikki and I took our place at the helm. ‘We’re heading due south. There she is. Line the foremast up with her.’
Steering meant constant adjustment of the ship’s wheel in time to the rhythm of the swell. The foremast rose and fell like a fiddler’s bow against the backdrop of the Southern Cross.
‘This is the life, is it not?’ Heikki filled his lungs, and we stood taking it all in. The spectacle of the night got the better of us, though, and we veered in the wrong direction. Klaas, sea-scarred, wild-haired and bearded, popped up like a prairie dog from the wheelhouse where he’d been monitoring our progress to ask in his gravelly voice, ‘Remind me what heading we are meant to be on?’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sandy Winterbottom spent most of her career as an academic, teaching and researching in the Environmental Sciences at Stirling University. In 2010, she left to work in the renewables industry but following a life-changing trip to South Georgia and the Antarctic in 2016, she returned to study and completed the Creative Writing Masters Programme at Stirling University, tutored by Kathleen Jamie. She lives near Muckhart in Central Scotland. This is her first book.