Heads down, we push through the icy wind as fast as we can and make for the tiny beach where the zodiacs are waiting. There is a long line of people already there. The weather is changing so fast and everyone wants to get back to the ship as quickly as possible. It is brutal on the beach with no shelter from the wind. There is a hint of fear in the air and everyone is restless
A zodiac sets off with its load of 12 guests. The wind is slashing across the bay. Sleet is no longer falling, it is hammering across horizontally. Even the waters in this protected inlet are being whipped up into angry waves. We pull the hoods of our parkas down over our face and turn our backs to the wind, waiting for the next zodiac.
Suddenly everyone’s attention is focused on the zodiac that just left. It is only halfway to the ship but has stopped in the middle of the inlet. No one knows why. The wind is pushing it sideways and it is bobbing about alarmingly. The crew on shore are all talking into their walkie talkies in hushed whispers, trying not to look alarmed. The more they try to not look alarmed the more alarmed we all are.
The zodiac turns round and makes its way back to shore.
This cannot be good.
Finally one of the crew tells us that the wind is gusting up to 60 miles an hour out in the bay, and although the zodiacs could get us to the ship, there is no way we could safely climb out of the zodiac onto the tiny loading platform in the hull of the ship. The sea is too rough and the winds are too strong.
This is not good.
The crew says that we should just explore the whaling station for a little longer until the wind dies down. They make it sound perfectly reasonable and nothing to worry about. It must happen all the time.
There are a couple of benches outside the museum and half a dozen people settle down on them as they might on the seafront or in a park at home. The only difference being that they look miserable as hell
Others mill around the zodiac expecting to be able to get going at any moment. Slowly the truth dawns on us all. The wind is not going to suddenly drop. This is the storm the captain has been talking about for two days. The one we were going to miss.
This really isn’t good
After about half an hour the crew suggests we all congregate in the museum where we will be out of the cold. There are a few chairs and we sit
That’s Gordon on the left with his “I’m not happy” look.
More people keep arriving. There are 86 guests who haven’t made it back to the ship plus 16 crew.
I graciously offer my chair to an elderly woman (there is a “pot calling the kettle” joke there somewhere, but I am avoiding it) who clearly needs it more than I do.
An hour later I wish I hadn’t
Meanwhile the few resident employees of the South Georgia Trust are beginning to realise they have a situation on their hands. They spring into action and start dragging in chairs from other buildings. Some of them are pretty dirty and broken down (the chairs not the residents) but all are gratefully received.
The atmosphere gradually changes from an antsy “how long do they expect us to wait here” attitude to an air of acceptance that it might be for a few hours.
Someone even attempts to nod off
Meanwhile the residents are busy boiling kettles of water and making enormous pots of tea (it is an English Trust after all). Where are the bubbles and caviar when we really need them? The small gift store is raided for mugs and someone produces two tins of biscuits that look as if they were a Christmas present. Everyone takes one with the exception of Mary (yes she is here, see the photo below) who takes several.
Harvey, the crew member who has taken charge announces that there is no change in conditions but he will keep in contact with the ship and give us an update every thirty minutes. He says if the wind drops at all they will try and get us back to the ship. What he doesn’t say is much more worrying.
The outside door is left open and we can see the flag on the flagpole whipping about in the wind. It is an unnecessary reminder of what our fate might be.
Brent, the penguin expert on board, is here with us. He is by far the most entertaining of the expedition crew and has a great sense of humour. He arrives with 80 local postcards and 80 stamps and hands one of each out to us. He suggests we all write home and ask the neighbor to feed the cat. It is the first time anyone has laughed for quite some time and that combined with the tea and biscuit has cheered us all up.
The hands of the clock have been moving incredibly slowly but are now showing the time to be 5.30 pm. People are talking in hushed tones about the possibility of spending the night here. We hear Harvey asking the expedition people who are here with us if they could give a lecture or two to keep us entertained during what might be a long wait. One of the residents quietly tells Harvey that they could cook a huge pot of pasta for us. The possibility of spending the night here looks more like a probability. The hushed conversation becomes much louder and a little more desperate.
At the next announcement Harvey tries to calm us down by saying there is plenty of room for us to stay the night. We can sleep in the museum and in the post office. It might not be as comfortable as we are used to (no kidding) but we will be warm and safe.
It doesn’t calm anyone down. We are all thinking of the only two toilets that are a good hundred yards away and wondering what will happen when all of us have to go in the middle of the night. With that in mind I decline a second cup of tea.
Half an hour later huge bundles of blankets are dragged in and dumped unceremoniously on the floor.
There is no longer any attempt at deception. We are beginning to accept the worse case scenario. The blankets look awful. They are made from recycled material, we are told. As if that might make us feel better about it.
The group goes quiet as we all try and imagine sleeping on the floor with nothing but a disgusting looking blanket.
At 6.40 Harvey calls a meeting. The wind has dipped to 45 miles an hour. It is still way stronger than they would like, but they are going to try taking a zodiac to the ship. He asks for 12 volunteers, and adds that they must be fit and healthy. But before he has finished the sentence 86 desperate people rise as one and run for the beach. It is chaos. Harvey calls for calm. He doesn’t get it.
A woman from the expedition crew realises that things are getting out of hand and that Harvey can’t control us. She calmly explains that the first 12 people will be taken to the ship and the rest of us should all wait in the museum until we know if the zodiac has made the trip safely. If it does, there are enough zodiacs to take us all back quickly. She explains that this is only a temporary drop in the wind and we must act quickly but efficiently. The group calms down but anxiety still rules. We try and visualise our lovely comfortable bed on board Seabourn. It’s a lovely thought but doesn’t really help
Fifteen minutes later she announces that the first zodiac has made it safely to the ship. A cheer goes up. She asks us all to hurry on down to the beach.
She doesn’t have to ask twice.
It is a hair raising trip back to the ship. On the small landing platform an army of crew grab us by the arms, shoulders, life jacket and anything else they can get hold of and haul us back on board. I have always dreamed of being grabbed by a group of sailors, but perhaps not quite like this.
Once on board we are given a hero’s welcome. The passengers cheer and clap as we pass through the ship. I have never felt less like a hero but I will take any adulation I can get.
Finally someone thrusts a glass of champagne in my hands
Home at last.
Now where’s the caviar.