The Southern Ocean

JeanauthorKindly contributed by Jean McNeil, author of Ice Diaries: an Antarctic Memoir, published by ECW Press. Ice Diaries is the winner of the Adventure Travel category as well as the Grand Prize at the 2016 Banff Mountain Film Festival and Book Competition.


I have written substantial parts of my last two books at sea, much of them while clinging to the desk with one hand while looking out the cabin window to determine which stage we were in the great oceanic washing machine cycle. If the porthole was submerged, it was bad. If I suddenly found myself horizontal when I thought I had been standing, or vice versa, then it was bad. If we only had Uruguayan beer and ran out of fizzy water somewhere over the mid Atlantic Ridge, well…this actually happened, and it was very bad indeed.

I have had a number of writing residencies which have taken me to spend long periods on ships. I have sailed (a misnomer in these days of Marine Gas Oil, or ship diesel fuel, but we still use it) from the Falkland Islands to Antarctica and back, from the Falkland Islands to Vigo, Spain, from Falmouth, UK to western Greenland and up and down Baffin Bay, and lastly I have travelled up the coast of Norway from Bergen to Kirkenes in northern Norway, only a few kilometres from the Russian border. ANT417

Much of this time was spent aboard one vessel: The RRS (Royal Research Ship) James Clark Ross, which is operated by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council. Ships are good places to write, by and large. What interests me about being at sea, especially in the middle of the ocean or in the Arctic and Antarctic where rescue is logistically difficult or impossible, is the self-reliance and the simultaneous vulnerability we all feel on the ship. But you are also never alone. There are regular meals, someone to talk to, always––in the bar, in the Duty Mess, on the bridge. Or even creatures: ships are almost always accompanied by birds and porpoises, whether the supreme winged Cessna of the southern ocean skies, the Wandering Albatross, or errant boobies and gannets which sometimes hitched a ride on our ship across the Atlantic.

These trips were often long. It once took us three weeks to reach the British Antarctic Survey base, Rothera, from the Falkland Islands––normally a five-day journey if you steam it straight. On the way down we were tasked with cargoing in a number of bases before being beset by pack ice only forty kilometres short of our destination. It took us four days to find a way out of the ice. Our journey from the Falkland Islands to Vigo seemed to happen in slow motion––Brazil is a very, very big country. The ship’s maximum speed of sixteen knots is the same as that of a fairly brisk bicycle ride. The equivalence impressed itself on me: I often thought of us as bicycling to the Antarctic, or to Greenland. It was always hard to leave the ship and set foot on the static entity called land. My time at sea taught me that I write best while moving.