(This blog is in an unconventional format: The dates displayed are actual trip dates - not post dates.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Neptune's Blessing

January 26, 2010
66°33"S, 66°30"W

We'd staggered back to our cabin sometime shortly after midnight, the sun long disappeared from above the horizon, but not before its colour had seeped completely from the sky. With calm seas at the end of a long day, sleep came easily, and it was well into the morning when I awoke. Our inner cabin was all to complicit in allowing a sleep-in, completely dark at all hours save the thin line of light slipping under the door and through the cabin door's peep hole. Without an alarm set to remind you of the risen sun, you'd never otherwise know. I flipped the light on and brought up the view through the camera watching over the foredeck and ahead over the water.

A little before 10am, a crowd of people where gathering on those very same foredeck, and I arrived to assess the situation, equipped with a belly full of warm buffet breakfast. The skies were clear, and an icy breeze pushed back against the Fram as it cruised into Crystal Sound, wind-chill bringing the temperature slightly below zero.

The Sound is littered with glacial wreckage, floating haphazardly away from the approaching mountains. Each has its own special sculpture; coloured from powdery white to the richest of blue. They disappear into the distances until they're just shadows on the horizon, a silent army of ghosts watching us pass. Large flocks of cape petrels wheel and turn around the back and sides of the ship as it glides in a general direction while making multitudes of small adjustments to find a clear path.

Ominously, the centre of the deck held a small table with a large silver stock-pot sitting atop, filled almost to the brim with ice-cubes and melt-water. Before this alter was a kneeling cushion, and a long ladle sat idly in the cauldron. Maybe more ominously was the way the passengers stood in a loose circle around it, keeping a small distance clear.

A little after 10am, King Neptune arrived on the crowded foredeck, moving leisurely with his procession as the crowd pealed back to form a path to the alter - and by King Neptune, I mean a member of the crew (i.e. no stranger to donning silly costumes) wearing a dressing gown, fake beard, gum boots, and a pair of knock-off ray-bans, sporting a matching plastic trident and crown. The look is surprisingly effective. He takes position behind the stock-pot and stands silently, waiting. There is little noise but for the headwind and a lone South Polar Skua circling overhead.

At 10:30am, the Fram's horn blasts, signifying that we've crossed into the Antarctic Circle - Sixty-six Thirty-Three South; the line at which the sun does not set for a whole day on the summer solstice, and does not rise for a whole day on the winter solstice. A cheer rose up around the deck - and now Neptune would bestow his blessings. A small majority of the waiting crowd jostled to kneel before him. Everyone else, armed with a camera and too much sensibility for fun, jostled for spectating position.

It didn't take a detective to figure out what was coming, or that I would be as close to the head of that queue that a few well-placed elbows could offer. I found myself kneeling before the stock-pot, my warm clothes loosen around the back of my neck. Neptune gently pressing my head down against the table that cradled the stockpot - the intention is clear: I'm not meant to see whats coming. I can hear a ladle clanging on the side of the pot, the movement of ice and the gushing of water. The crowd breaths in and holds. And then fiery ice and water gushes down my back, catching in my shirt and jeans pockets. My back arches in response - it's possible that I've never received such a cold shock before in my life. Neptune gives my jacket a good shake to make sure that the blessing is complete and total. It is. I stand up and water and ice runs down through my jeans, and ice falls out of my shirt. The cold wind wakes me up. I step away and one of the crew hands me a shot of whiskey.

Lyndall is right behind in the queue, and quickly hands over the tourist's tools of trade. She (and everybody else) is completely unaware that as the first woman to receive the day's blessing, that she will qualify for a special double blessing. Now, let me explain something to you: Lyndall is the kind of woman you find wearing two jumpers and warming their hands by the fire on a humid, topical, mid-summer day. Thus, the first blessing almost knocks her rotten, while a second ladle of ice cold blessing almost completely incapacitates her. A compulsive sipper of any liquid in a shot glass, her whiskey is taken in an uncharacteristic single drop.

It's not long before the wind and blessing combine to make the foredeck a very uncomfortable place to be, so we soon opt to skip the remaining blessings of the few young-at-heart types on the manifest. There are few times that heated bath tiles and a warm shower would be so grandly appreciated.

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