Now that's what you call ICEOLATION!

Now that’s what you call ICEOLATION! Thought your lockdown was tough? William Barents and his crew were stranded in the arctic for nine agonising months with barely any food and the mercy of polar bears

  • Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World is by author Andrea Pitzer 
  • It follows the story of William Barents’ journey to the Arctic Seas with his crew
  • The story features two accounts from crewmen on Barents’ third voyage  


Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World

By Andrea Pitzer (Simon & Schuster £20, 320pp)

The name of William Barents isn’t that familiar to us these days beyond perhaps a line of type on your atlas, marking a patch of blue north of Norway and Russia — the Barents Sea.

But this enthralling, elemental and (literally) spine-chilling epic of courage and endurance should change all that. It certainly deserves to.

Barents was an energetic businessman and seafarer in the early days of the new-born Dutch republic at the end of the 16th century, a tiny country that would soon become the world’s leading economic and naval power.

It was an age of adventure and exploration, of burgeoning science and medicine, and of great art — Vermeer and Rembrandt would be along soon. It was also an age of limitless promise, as the undiscovered parts of the world opened up their treasures.

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World is by the author Andrea Pitzer and tells the story of explorer William Barents journey to the Arctic Seas with his crew. Pictured is a still from the film Nova Zembla about the Dutch voyage

Barents was the outstanding navigator of his age, and when the traders and merchants of the thriving port city of Amsterdam saw the chance to make a pile of money in the new world to the east, it was to him that they turned.

Barents hatched a plan to sail north to Nova Zembla (‘New Land’ in Dutch), an unmapped and infinitely desolate finger of rock and ice stretching hundreds of miles into the Arctic seas north of Russia.

If his little fleet could round that finger of rock, then maybe he could confirm the long-held (and very mistaken) view that there was a warm sea at the North Pole.

Reaching China would then be infinitely faster, and safer, than across the southern oceans and so bring untold wealth to the prosperous burghers of the fledgling Dutch republic.

It was, as they didn’t say then, a no-brainer, and in William Barents, then in his 40s, the investors had just the man. An inveterate explorer, he had sailed all the shores of Western Europe and pioneered map-making in the region. This voyage was a chance to remake the geography of the world. It was too good to resist.

The heart of this magnificent story — using two contemporary accounts from crewmen — is Barents’s third voyage, after a couple of early recces.

Besides the weather, their main enemy was the countless polar bears which were far from the lovable creatures in the Greenpeace ads

His ship was 60-odd feet long, about the length of a cricket pitch, and the crew numbered just 17.

In August 1597, they rounded the tip of Nova Zembla hoping to reach open seas, but they found themselves surrounded by icebergs — vast frozen cliffs moving dangerously around the boat, while the winds grew stronger and the currents drove them into shore.

The icebergs began to tilt the vessel backwards and smashed parts of the stern. As the huge ice floes surged and withdrew like the tide, Barents realised the ship was finished and they would have to winter on dry land until the spring

What an extraordinary decision it was: these bold, resourceful Dutchmen towed the contents of the ship by sled across the ice on to Nova Zembla, where they used driftwood to build a log cabin.

As blizzards raged and the temperature dipped to -30c, it wasn’t just the devastating cold the men had to contend with. Food from the ship was limited so they hunted and cooked the marauding foxes. These were luckily a limited source of Vitamin C, but still the men fell ill with scurvy, which wrecked their bodies and loosened their teeth.

Pictured is a drawing of William Barents’ ship among the Arctic ice in the years 1594-1597

William Barents’s expedition to the North Pole where the crew gathered wood to combat the Polar winter in the 16th Century

Besides the weather, their main enemy was the countless polar bears which were far from the lovable creatures in the Greenpeace ads.

We might think of them floating, anxious and hungry, on a passing ice floe; for Barents and his men they were vast, cunning and savage enemies always ready to attack.

They were also a source of fuel: that is, if the sailors could kill the bears before they were killed themselves.

For the long winter, it was a matter of survival, with life on the very edge of mortality. These infinitely courageous Dutchmen did, however, find a way to celebrate Twelfth Night in January 1597, with the last of the wine from the boat, fox meat and ship’s biscuit. The blubber from a slaughtered polar bear fuelled their lights as they caroused.

When, after nine months imprisoned in their makeshift hut, the weather changed, the crew set sail in the little boats they had saved from the ship.

Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World By Andrea Pitzer (Simon & Schuster £20, 320pp)

They went south in an epic of physical stamina, battling ice and foul weather before being rescued by Dutch traders near the Russian coast. On the way, even Barents’s endurance gave out and he could last no longer. His body may have been left to float away on a piece of ice, before he finally slipped below the freezing oceans that he had tried to conquer.

Back in Amsterdam, the crew’s exploits were wildly celebrated and chronicles of their ordeal were translated all over Europe. The voyage became a symbol of suffering: Shakespeare, writing about another Twelfth Night, has Sir Andrew Aguecheek dismissed thus: ‘You are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard.’

More than 400 years later, the remains of Barents’s little hut that kept his men alive through the long, frozen days can still be seen on Nova Zembla, as Ms Pitzer, a Washington-based journalist and historian who sailed Barents’ route, describes in a moving epilogue.

In exploration today, more or less every step of the journey becomes part of a daily Twitter blog or an Instagram update. But then there was nothing; and after a while Barents and his band were to all intents and purposes presumed dead.

As Ms Pitzer writes, he set the scale for a new kind of hero, based on knowledge, immense skill and endless endurance.

Barents may have been wrong about the warm Polar Sea, and his dream of an open trading route across the roof of the world wouldn’t arrive for centuries, but his heroism and the endurance of his small band of sailors became a shining example then. Perhaps it should be even now, especially at a time when many people are bellyaching about not being able to go to the pub.

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