Lewis: Ice Bird

February 25, 2011

Ice Bird
David Lewis (Sheridan House, 2002)
223 p. [1975]

In 1972 David Lewis set out to sail, alone in a small, one-man yacht, to Antarctica and back again. Doing so involved sailing (twice) through the Antarctic circumpolar current at a band of latitude infamous for its fierce storms and massive waves. In those latitudes there is no land at any longitude, and wind and waves simply circle the globe without interruption, building in strength and size. It is a dangerous trip for any ship, much less a small boat.

He departed Sydney late in 1972. His little boat, a steel, 32-foot yacht called Ice Bird, was well-stocked with provisions, and equipped with a below-deck cabin where he could sleep and stay warm. Compared to Shackleton’s small-boat voyage in the James Caird, David Lewis was practically in the lap of luxury. He even had a fancy rigging that would automatically adjust the sails to steer the boat in a specified direction.

All of that changed after six weeks at sea when, in a huge storm, the Ice Bird was thrown belly-up by a massive wave, snapping the mast. Lewis rigged a temporary substitute but made slow progress, and two weeks later in a gale the Ice Bird again capsized. From that point on he faced almost hopeless odds, but David Lewis was a resourceful man, and he managed to build, using only what he had on board, a new, strong mast with a makeshift rigging, and it was enough to get him safely through, frostbitten and dehydrated, to Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. The first half of his journey was complete. It had taken almost 15 weeks.

The Ice Bird was so badly damaged that Lewis was obliged to postpone the second half of his journey until the next year, after the boat could be repaired. He was temporarily beset by ice early in his voyage, but soon hit open water and made it safely to a small port in the South Orkney Islands. Once he had set out, he dodged massive glaciers, endured fierce storms, sailed through wet fog that coated his rigging and deck in ice, and generally had a bad time of things. At one point his self-steering system was destroyed, obliging him to spend 12 or 14 hours a day at the tiller, and to risk a dangerous drift when he slept. Six weeks out a hurricane hit and again flipped the boat over, again breaking the mast. He limped into Cape Town three weeks later with a makeshift rigging that drew plenty of curious looks, but that mattered little: he was alive.

What drives a man to attempt something as fraught with danger as this? In his journals Scott had rejoiced at the sight of the open sea, a respite from “this dreadfully civilized world”. Shackleton had said that the danger and the elemental realities he and his crew encountered had allowed them to “touch the naked soul of man”. Words like these bespeak a desire to get beneath the cushion of custom and comfort to something more basic, perhaps to face death and test one’s mettle, perhaps to feel the thrill of setting one’s foot down where no-one had set foot before. In my mind Antarctica sometimes serves as a geographical analogy of the metaphysical Absolute, and the southward journey as a pilgrimage toward the Inaccessible, a flight of the alone to the Alone.

For his part, Lewis professed a motive along these lines:

In confronting Antarctica alone, I should learn to know myself as I really was, for I would be deprived of all outside support; there would be nobody to lean upon. I would find out what manner of man remained after the familiar supports of society has been stripped away — would there be a worthwhile man there at all.

At the time he set sail he had two small children, and of course he risked his future with them when he risked his life at sea. Was it indulgent of him to “face himself” in such a radical and dangerous way under those circumstances? It seems so to me. In any case, he had trouble living up to his initial ambitions, for when the silence descended and the uninterrupted solitude became total so that the still, small voice could be heard, he seems to have faltered at the challenge it proposed:

Realizing that I was beginning to brood over-pessimistically — about the little girls, our lack of a permanent home and the mess I had made of life generally — I made a conscious effort to ban all disturbing thoughts. I kept my mind in blinkers, either ‘switched off’ in the world of light books, or concentrated on the technicalities of the job at hand.

It is not my wish to condemn; I think I understand both Lewis’ desire to test himself and his desire to escape the test. I raise the point here only because as good as this book is, and as much as I enjoyed it, my appreciation would have been even greater if the exterior odyssey had been the occasion for an interior one as well.

Ice Bird (the book) is well-written, though its tonal palette is a bit drab. There is a good deal of jargon throughout about sails, rigging, and boat parts that might be an occasional impediment to land-lubbers — as it was to me. On the positive side, the book contains a good number of spectacular color photographs taken during the journey; they are a delight to the eye and the imagination.

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