Updated on June 22, 2018
22. ‘Icebreaker’ by Horatio Clare
I bought Horatio Clare’s love letter to sea ice, Icebreaker, after seeing him talk about it at the Hay Festival last month. Actually, I’ve been wanting to read his work for a while, ever since I saw him interview Philip Pullman in Cardiff last year, and saw how impressed Pullman was with Clare’s insightful and unusual questions. It turns out that Clare writes as captivatingly as he speaks, and Icebreaker is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Last year, Horatio Clare was invited by an old friend of his to travel for 10 days on a Finnish government icebreaker ship. Clare leapt at the opportunity, and found himself on the Otso (the ‘Bear’), plying the frozen waters in the Bay of Bothnia, the stretch of the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. The job of a Finnish icebreaker is to, well, literally break the sea ice that forms during the coldest months, and escort cargo ships down the channels they have cleared before they close. The ship is designed to be the perfect shape for this, and it will stay at sea for days at a time, anchoring itself in moving ice, manned by a crew on rotating shifts (six hours on, six hours off). It’s a gruelling, isolating job, but also an extremely satisfying one, as Clare portrays it. To quote the captain of the Otso, Tem: “Things can go wrong, but if they do we fix it!”
For what is a pretty short book (only 224 pages), Horatio Clare packs a lot in. He educates the reader about all the different kinds of sea ice and the various terms (cribbed from several different languages) used to describe them. He also delves into Finnish history, Finnish politics and the Finnish character, as well as providing finely detailed (and often funny) descriptions of his time aboard the ship. There’s an absolutely brilliant section, which Clare read out at the Hay Festival, in which he visits the smoking room on the ship and shares a ‘Finnish silence’ with some of the crew, except that he’s completely incapable of doing it right.
Clare describes his crewmates affectionately, and the surrounding landscape in often breathtaking detail. His writing is poetic but clear (like the ice), and he does a good job of making even complex ideas understandable. But above all this book is warm – not in its subject matter, of course, but in the obvious passion and curiosity Clare has for this adventure. Here is a man who clearly loves what he does. (In fact, his enthusiasm is so contagious that before I was even halfway through Icebreaker I went onto Clare’s Wikipedia bibliography to see what else he’s written, because I want to read it all.)
Of course, this book has a strong ecological message, because the job of the icebreaker is becoming less and less sustainable. There is less ice, of course, and this poses lots of problems for an icebreaker ship that is designed to deal with thick, solid ice. There are also wider implications to losing sea ice: without ice on the surface to reflect the vast majority of sunlight away, the light instead travels through the water to the underwater ice, which is melting at an alarming rate. This underwater ice contains methane which, once released, can be many, many times more effective at warming the atmosphere than CO2. Obviously this is an enormous problem for climate change, and some scientists estimate that we’ll reach the point of no return for underwater sea ice as soon as the 2040s. At the heart of this book, then, is a very important message.
Icebreaker is a really fascinating travel story, written by a master of his craft. It won’t take you long to read, but it will stay with you long afterwards. Definitely read it.
“…you could not help but sense it, a molecular dance, a duel, an effervesence at the edge of perception: the making and melting of ice.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North here.