When a dare is fuelled by the courage of the ‘drunken Dutch’ in a rowdy pub you know there is going to be trouble. On a table nearby, an American passenger wrestled with a Russian sailor to see who could have won the Third World War. It was a stout effort by both parties, concentration intense. Testosterone on either side of the fallen Iron Curtain was abundant, strength for strength. Shot-glass for combustible shot-glass. In the end the Russian won – propelled by enough vodka to float another Orlova. “Nostrovia – long live King George Bush”. “Fuck the monkey”. “Tom, you are on – bet you’ll chicken out though”.
We were steaming to Deception Island, a forsakem place that was once an active volcano. From early in the 19th century the island was a favourite refuge area from Antarctic storms. It is a ring of rock with a sheltered and deep harbour in its centre. In 1906 the Norwegians established Whalers Bay – a base for factory ships and whaling operations.
On 3 February 1944, the British tried to establish a permanent base on Deception Island and occupied it until 5 December 1967 when a volcanic eruption forced their withdrawal. It was used again between December 1968 and February 1969 but it was abandoned after repeated volcanic activity.
Here time has frozen deserted buildings and whalers lie as carcasses – half buried in the black gritty beach. People have died here and rest buried far from comfortable homes in friendly streets. The melancholia of Deception Island is as palpable as innocent and sad faces of the Weddle Seals on the shore.
Time has forsaken Deception and left in its stead a quietude and a reflection. There is no time here. The tick-tick-tick of busy ants scurrying about their business has never been an irritation in this deserted hollow. Time stands still.
And now the dare – I was to make good on the bravado of last night’s drunken folly, strip bare and dive into the icy water. A few others were goaded into madness beyond belief. The Polar Bear Club, a swim in the icy sea. It was the most exhilarating swim of my life, and I learned a few fascinating things too. Yes it is ‘that’ cold, about half-an-inch. But the water is very salty and it is dense. It was like swimming in porridge. I learned that a mixture of vodka, friends and madmen are not as dangerous as all that either.