An Arctic adventure: ice-bound in Spitsbergen

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

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.

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.

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.

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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