4:25 am, 03/09/14.
Rocks are punching at the hull. They’re hammering hard just below the water line. On a good night, I sleep just below the water line. This is not shaping up to be a good night. I’m definitely not asleep, and I’m beginning to think I could end up below the water line permanently.
We are plying uncharted arctic waters, and an unseen, unnamed shoal is trying to pound its way in to the research vessel Martin Bergmann.
The force of the impact reverberates up from the keel. The wall beside me shudders. I press my bare back against it when I sleep, because the frigid water on the other side keeps it cold, even when the crowded cabin overheats from the warmth generated by eight working men.
The ship smells like diesel fuel and body odour–not necessarily in that order–but two levels below deck is just about the only place in the Arctic that’s dark this time of year. Most nights, the sea rocks us gently to sleep, the icy swell rolling the ship’s bow like a big blue cradle.
But no one’s sleeping anymore.
We don’t know what we’ve hit yet. It could be a shoal or a small, uncharted island. It could be an iceberg; tens of thousands have floated down from the Victoria Strait in recent days. We avoid the ice as best we can, but it’s a moving target.
The Martin Bergmann pitches to its starboard side. Hard. Leading Seaman Brandon Patey is tossed violently across the cabin. He hops on one leg, out of control. One leg half in his pants, the other waving wildly for balance. Somehow, he manages to stay on his feet.
The crashing has stopped, but the panic is just beginning. The ship has tilted from upright to an angle of 75 degrees. Then 60. We worry it could approach 45.
Silence sets in. There is nothing for anyone to do, so there is nothing for anyone to say.
In the bowels of the ship, we have no idea if the water we’re in is deep or shallow, but if it’s deep, and the ship capsizes, it is game over. From our cabin, both exits go up. Water rushing through the ship would trap us inside. At which point you could only hope to drown quickly because the alternative would be suffocation as the trapped air is slowly used up.
Time slows. Then, like a pendulum, the ship swings back so that it’s nearly upright. First we breathe. Then we bolt out of there.
A thundering lilt echoes down from the bridge. It’s the voice of Gerry Chidley, a Bergmann co-captain. The 6 foot 2 inch, 250-pound Newfoundlander has the build of a NHL tough guy, and a boom in his voice to match.
“Are we taking on water?!”
No one knows yet. The crew’s bunks are dry, and the kitchen is little more than damp, but the hull could have punctured in the engine room or the workshop. Petty Officer Yves Bernard rushes down the ladder from the bridge, and drops down in to the workshop with Patey to assess the damage.
The ship is taking on water, but initial panic is quickly quelled when cook Athlyne Etienne -- who as the only woman on board sleeps in a private bunk near the stern of the ship – assures Bernard and Patey that the water on board is normal, and the ship’s bilge pump will handle it.
In the engine room, two of the ship’s deckhands assess the damage.
Deckhand Daniel McIsaac -- a 21-year old Prince Edward Island fisherman working his first trip on a polar research vessel -- had taken over Patey’s watch on the bridge at 4 am. He rushes down two ladders and into the engine room. Clyde Bursey isn’t far behind. The white-mustached Newfoundlander has been working on the north Atlantic for decades, and he alone seems to be unfazed by our current circumstance.
The engine room is undamaged. There is no gash in the hull; there is no water rushing in. Even if there were, the Martin Bergmann wouldn’t sink. Our problem is precisely the opposite – we are on land. But other than being marooned on an unknown shoal in a frigid ocean hundreds of kilometers beyond the middle of nowhere, everything is just peachy.
Ten minutes earlier
The horizon is ringed 360 degrees by a pink and orange glow. Dawn is cracking, but this time of year the aurora borealis can swirl itself into an emerald frenzy to the west, even as twilight lingers all night long to the south. The sky feels bigger here than it does anywhere I’ve been on Earth.
There seem to be stones arranged atop a ridge on a nearby island. They may be a caribou blind erected last year by an Inuit hunter, or remnants of a tent ring left by the Thule culture – predecessors of the Inuit -- and virtually untouched for more than a thousand years. There are no other signs of life, human or otherwise.
The Martin Bergmann is completely alone here, working through the night at the centre of a scene populated only by itself, tracing lines back and forth on a grid plotted upon satellite images of the Arctic Archipelago in an office down south.
The underwater archaeologists are hoping that somewhere out here, there is a clue that will solve the mystery of what happened to the Franklin Expedition’s ships. If it’s out here, the crew won’t be finding it tonight.
Bernard is manning the sonar screens, watching a live feed of gravel and sand roll past on a pair of 9x11 monitors with poorly calibrated colour. The sea floor of the Queen Maud Gulf is virtually featureless and apparently infinite. It is an endless stream of digital noise interrupted only by scars left on the ocean floor when the ice pack grew so thick that it consumed every ounce of water. It is that cold here; the ocean doesn’t just freeze, it freezes solid.
His task is exactly as dull as it sounds, but the naval officer is a night owl; the graveyard shift suits him just fine. Every night between midnight and 6 am, Bernard takes his turn at the sonar screen as his archaeologist colleagues from Parks Canada rest up for their shift at the screens. When weather and light permit, the search carries on 24 hours a day.
Littered with shoals and unmapped islands, this part of the Queen Maud Gulf is largely uncharted. It has proven a hazard-strewn gauntlet. All week long, Bernard has been watching shoals creep up on the ship’s depth finder, sounding warnings to the ship’s helmsmen, who have ably avoided them. So far.
The ocean floor is creeping higher now. 15 metres…10 metres…8…6… Bernard shouts. Chidley spins the wheel. It doesn’t even give a reading of 5 before they hit bottom.
Bernard compares it to a wall standing straight up on the ocean floor. By the time they see it, the ship is already skidding across the rocks.
The bridge is a ship’s nerve centre, and it’s the captain’s duty to take control during a crisis. Key instruments are here. Video cameras help identify problems in other areas of the boat. An internal speaker system makes crisis communications possible. The ship’s internet, satellite phone and VHF radio make this the only place you can communicate with the outside world, if there’s anyone out there to take your call.
The ship’s crew has leapt into action. Less than two minutes since we’ve struck the shoal, the ship’s condition has been assessed. Everyone on board begins to gather on deck, just outside the bridge.
Co-captains Chidley and Curly confer. They take stock of tides, winds and the depth of nearby waters. A plan is cobbled together.
Two skiffs that are kept on board for archaeological surveying are to be removed using the ship’s crane. The Wild Bill and the Dolphin will each need a crew of two. The three Navy men and the younger McIsaac are the first to volunteer.
Lifting the two skiffs will take some weight off the boat, making it more buoyant. They’ll tow from a railing on the ship’s bow, with the Bergmann’s 485 horsepower engine pitching in for good measure. If that’s not enough, they’ll set the anchor and add its torque in a last ditch hope to wiggle free in to deeper water.
The plan is the best one we’ve got.
The skiffs splash down. Crew piles in. Captain Chidley rushes to the bow to throw them a line. Everything is moving a mile a minute now. Except for Clyde. Clyde is casually sauntering up and down ladders on to the Bergmann’s bow as if nothing at all has happened, but with his moustache coolly leading the way, he gets where he’s going with time to spare, throwing the Dolphin a line, securing the skiff to the bow and not for a single moment changing the expression on his face.
On the bridge, Captain Curly has radioed the Coast Guard’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier ice breaker to ask them about the tides in the area, only mentioning that we happen to be stuck on a shoal in the middle of nowhere when asked why he wanted to know the tide schedule.
Both the Dolphin and the Wild Bill are now tied tight to the bow. McIsaac and Bernard are piloting the little boats, and they throw the throttle wide open. The screaming of Yamaha engines fills the Arctic’s sonic void. The Bergmann’s big engine rumbles to life a few octaves below.
But the Bergmann won’t budge.
The voice of Bill Noon, captain of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, crackles over the VHF channel 82 and onto the bridge. Scheduled to be steaming north to search for Franklin’s ships at the point of abandonment – off of King William Island, over a hundred kilometers north – the Laurier hasn’t left yet. The ship is just over 20 nautical miles away, and they’re already lowering high-powered search and rescue vessels into the water to help free the Bergmann.
Word of the Coast Guard’s impending arrival spreads quickly across deck, then down on to the skiffs in the water. It doesn’t pacify the crew; it ignites them.
“COAST GUARD IS ON THE WAY?!” It’s Bernard, yelling himself hoarse from behind the wheel of the Wild Bill. “WE NEED TO SHAKE THIS THING FREE NOW!!!”
Clyde and Captain Chidley lower the anchor, but it’s as heavy as a small cannon. Too heavy for either of the men on the bobbing, inflatable Wild Bill to handle solo. Milmore jumps onto the Bill. He will guide the anchor on to the boat’s inflatable bow with Patey.
Lowered slowly from the Bergmann, the 80-kilogram anchor is guided onto the bow of the Wild Bill. Under the direction of Captain Chidley they take the anchor to a spot roughly 50 metres off. They tip it into the water, and as it goes, Milmore goes with it.
Man overboard. The panic is back.
Milmore is the sort of man who takes a pride in his potbelly. But if the anchor pins him down, even the added buoyancy provided by his considerable paunch won’t keep him afloat.
The 80-kilogram anchor probably weighs more than he does. With its thick, 30-metre chain attached, it would drown the Leading Seaman if it pinned him. If the crew tried to winch it off, it would break his bones.
But Patey is on the situation instantly. As the Wild Bill tips under the weight of the moving anchor, he reaches for Milmore’s lapels, setting his feet for the inevitable task of hauling him back on board. At almost the very moment that Milmore hits the water, he is back out again. His ears don’t even get wet.
The Wild Bill returns to the mother ship, dropping Milmore off for a change of clothing. Captain Chidley rushes to take his place on the Bill.
The anchor is pulled in and the scenario plays out again, this time with the burly Chidley’s hands gripping the anchor. The execution is flawless. All systems are go. The anchor is set. The winch is creaking from the strain. The Yamahas are screaming. The Bergmann is roaring.
We hold our collective breath.
Is it moving? It’s moving.
“We’re floating!!! Holy s---, boys, we’re floating!!!”
It’s Captain Curly’s PEI lilt crackling out over every speaker on the ship.
Before the Coast Guard arrived. Barely. Both the ship and the crew’s pride are still in tact.
Cheers erupt on the bridge. Patey pumps his fists on the Wild Bill. Bernard lets out a primal scream that almost overpowers the rest of the cacophony. Both captains just look relieved. Clyde continues to look unfazed. Well, he might have cracked a smile. It’s hard to tell with the moustache.
The beer at the Elks Club in Cambridge Bay tastes almost exactly like the cans it comes from. But in the fifth largest settlement in Nunavut, the Elks is the place to be on a Friday night. It’s the closest thing Cambridge Bay has to a pub, but the parallels are limited. The windowless grey building has a capacity of 70, and we crowd around a wobbly grey plastic table in a dimly lit corner of the room. It quickly fills with empties. We are sailors on shore for 24 hours as our ship resupplies and checks for damage. And we act like it.
When the Elks shuts down at 11, we stop by the suite the crew keeps in town to toast each other with a glass of Scotch.
Some of the crew slam their whiskey, and some of them sip it, but ice rattles around in every glass. The men wanted their whiskey as they’d had their ship. On the rocks.
That Friday night, the crew of the Martin Bergmann stumbled through the muddy streets of Cambridge Bay and back to their bunks aboard the Martin Bergmann. The next day, a diver examined the ship, and having confirmed there was no substantial damage, the crew returned to sea to continue searching for the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition. On Sunday, one of those ships was found.