Memoir

Red heart, red ship

Dreams of land and sea

IN 2012, THE universe gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life. I won the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship and the prize was something no amount of money could buy – a bunk on the Australian Antarctic resupply vessel, Aurora Australis, and a voyage to Casey Station in Antarctica.

An old dream come true.

I was in shock for days after I was given the news. It was the hardest grant I had ever applied for and it took me weeks to finish. I went over every answer ten times or more. I was obsessed. I hardly slept. I wanted it so very badly and that terrified me because the chances of winning were so slim. I tried not to hope, to dream, but the ghost of a ship long sunk was calling out to me: come and find me. Please don’t forget about me. I’m down here all alone in the cold and in the dark.

I said the words over and over in my head.
Nella Dan
Nella Dan
Nella Dan
They made my heart beat out faster.

When I was twelve years old, I was head over heels in love with a little red ship, the Danish polar vessel Nella Dan. She worked for the Australian Antarctic Division for twenty-­six years, and in the 1980s Hobart was her home away from home. Inside, she was all wood and brass – a lady from another time. She smelt like Danish food, like warm butter and pastries and black bread and real coffee. A slice of Scandinavia docked in grey old Hobart. She lit up the whole town.

I decided I would work at sea, sail the Southern Ocean. I’d go with Nella Dan on all her adventures. At night my bed became a ship on the slate-­green water and I would look up at the open sky – the stars pale there, both the moon and the sun shining down at once. It was always light.

But my dream wasn’t to be. On 3 December 1987, Nella Dan hit some rocks at Macquarie Island during a resupply voyage and, after a long and emotional battle to save her, was scuttled in deep water on Christmas Eve. Down, down, down in the darkness, alone and away from the air and the light.

Her crew was heartbroken – many of them still are to this day.

I was, too.

I would think about her lying on the bottom of the ocean, four kilometres down in the dark. It made me feel very cold. I missed seeing her at the wharf – shining bright and smiling. I kept photos of her on my bedroom wall and I promised that I would not forget about her.

But time rolled on. The world continued to spin.

And I grew up.

 

MY FIRST NOVEL, Past the Shallows, was published in 2011, and that changed the direction of my life completely. I went from being a postal worker to a writer almost overnight. But Past the Shallows had taken me five long years and I had no idea how I was going to write another book. In true procrastination mode, I took on the task of cleaning out the spare room. I diligently sorted through all the collected junk, the boxes and boxes of old papers and memories, old dreams.

And there she was, smiling up at me, Nella Dan. The photos of the little red ship that I had Blu-­Tacked to my bedroom wall all those years before.

I felt an energy pulse through me. This was a line to follow, a lead to pick at, something that I had to write about. She was back, and I wanted to remember everything, find out everything. I wanted to bring her to life again.

The writing poured out of me and I began to dream about her almost every night. Her bright-­red hull and rolling swell the size of mountains. Albatross soaring on thermals and a million shades of blue, of white.

Antarctica.

Then came a voice – a character real and alive: a man called Bo Anker Johansen from an island in the Baltic Sea. He was tall and kind and made the best pancakes in the world. He told me about his home, about Nella Dan. He told me about his life as a cook at sea and I listened to every word.

When you wake, you will look out of your porthole. You might see ice. You will think, yes, we have slowed down. We have hit the pack ice, and the white of the light will almost be blinding. You will blink your eyes, get used to the strangeness of this landscape.
You might watch for a time, mesmerised. You might see a Weddell seal, an Adélie penguin, the black, still water between the ice. You will think, okay. Go back to sleep now. It’s 2 am. You need to get up soon. Go back to sleep.
You will lie down on your bunk – your ship steady, vibrating, humming. You will listen to the engines and the hull cutting through the ice. You will never forget that sound. You will remember it for the whole of your life – the clink click clink, the scraping, the sharpness.

Now, I would get to live Bo’s life through my Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship. My own adventure. I was going to see and feel everything my character had told me about. And my trip was edging closer.

But first, a full week of training at the Antarctic Division in Hobart. First aid, frostbite, conflict resolution, fire-­fighting drills, survival-­suit drills, how to urinate into a bottle while wearing a freezer suit. Then, I was fitted for all my gear. Snow boots, freezer suit, thermals, working boots, woollen socks, work pants, snow jacket, special polarised sunglasses, neck fleece, emergency kit bag – the list was long. The training was intense and fascinating – and I was completely terrified. I didn’t get much sleep. The night before departure, I got none.

I didn’t really need to get on a ship and sail on the Southern Ocean, right? Maybe I could just stay here, on land. Maybe I could just write the book without going anywhere? Who needs to go all the way to Antarctica to write? How would I handle the isolation? How would I manage to get along with all these new people? What if I freaked out halfway there, had a panic attack, made a fool of myself? The doubts ran on and on and I knew that once I was on board, there would be no way out. I could not just change my mind and go home. I would be stuck.

But then the twelve-­year-­old kid in me kicked in; she was not going to let me back out. I was going; she knew that. I was going to step onto that orange ship, Aurora Australis, watch Hobart grow smaller and smaller until the Derwent River became the sea and the land became a smudge on the horizon; watch the mobile reception go down bar by bar until my phone was just a useless digital clock.

There would be just me. A bunk. A cabin. A ship on the Southern Ocean.

It would be simple. All I needed.

You make it home. It’s all there is, all that exists.
A bunk – your bunk against the bulkhead. A down doona, a pillow. A small desk, a chair, a porthole. A cupboard with little wooden coat hangers inside. A home.
You will be warm, you will be snug. You will sleep like a baby. You will be tired and sleep, the sound of the engine loud but constant and warm.
Constant.

 

WE PULLED AWAY from Hobart with the sun going down, and I felt completely out of my body with fear. I made last calls from my mobile. I cried to my husband, to my brother. I made my bed and sat on my bunk. I closed the blinds of the porthole so that I didn’t have to look at land, at Tasmania, getting further away. I climbed in under my doona, snuggled in as tight as I could. I closed my eyes and shut everything down. I fell into a deep sleep.

When I woke, I opened the blinds and outside my porthole there was nothing but water. A bolt of energy ran through me: I jumped up and got dressed – thermals, pants, socks, boots, snow jacket – and left my cabin. I ran along passageways and up two flights of stairs until I found the heavy and cold metal door to outside.

Outside.

The crisp glory of the Southern Ocean hit with full force. I was here. There was no way back now, no one to call. I was so incredibly happy in that moment; I knew I would not be frightened again and I would not think of home.

I would love every single second of the journey.

 

AND SO WE sailed together, my character Bo and I, and I was never lonely and I was never bored. I was exactly where I was meant to be. For that whole trip, I was part me and part a young Danish man, excited to be at sea, and eager and working long days. I watched the world outside the galley porthole as I did the dishes after breakfast, lunch and dinner. I swabbed the inside decks in the early morning – 5 am. I folded laundry, went on safety rounds, kept watch at the bunker door.

I was a sailor.

I loved it absolutely.

A time of no real darkness, a month to rise and fall with the great Southern Ocean.

Snow petrels, cape petrels, light-­mantled sooty albatross.

And the Nella Dan was with me all the way, cheering me on. Showing me her ocean, her place, all the wonder and power and majesty. I was content every moment of every day. I was at home.

Home.
You will think, good ship. Good girl, you can do it. You will rest your hand against the bulkhead, her body carrying your body. You will feel safe. You will be warm. You will fall asleep listening to the engine, thinking this is home, the only home I need, and I don’t ever want to leave.

 

I STILL THINK about Nella Dan. Not as often as I did when I was writing that next book, When the Night Comes, but she is still there in my soul, in my heart.

And there are others who carry her with them wherever they go. Her crew.

I got to know many of them well while I was writing, researching, trying to get into the heads of those who had sailed with her. Many became lifelong friends. Another great gift from Nella Dan.

There is a man called Finn from Denmark. When he was nineteen years old, he was on his first trip with Nella Dan, bright-­eyed and eager for adventure. He was the first crew member to reach out and talk to me when I was researching the novel – he happened to be in Melbourne for a work trip, and he agreed to meet me for a coffee.

I was so relieved to get this response – I’d searched for leads, posted on the Nella Dan Facebook pages, private messaged every single member. But there’d been no replies until Finn.

I had 100 questions.

I thanked him for meeting me and he told me that everyone back in Denmark wondered why this woman on the other side of the world was asking about Nella.

I laughed, and Finn must have spread the word that I was genuine and passionate because after our meeting so many firsthand stories about sailing with Nella Dan started to come through.

Incredibly kind, warm and funny, Finn shared stories about Nella and he had tears in his eyes when he talked about her. Later, in Denmark, I would see this again and again. Her Danish crew members still cry when they think of her: it is something very moving to witness.

Finn told me that after Nella was scuttled, he went back to Denmark heartbroken and enrolled in maritime college to study ship design because he didn’t want to sail with another ship. He is now the head of KNUD E HANSEN, a highly successful company in Denmark that designs ships and ferries to sail all around the globe.

‘I couldn’t save Nella Dan,’ he told me, ‘but I can build a new ship in her honour.’

Finn had held this dream in his heart for decades. To design a new Nella Dan, a polar vessel ahead of her time. This dream was strong. This dream was good. But it needed a great deal of luck, not just skill. It needed a huge wish to be granted by the universe and for all of the cards to land right.

Just like my dream of sailing south.

 

IN 2015, THE Australian Antarctic Division and Australian Government announced a tender for a new polar vessel to service Australia’s Antarctic bases and conduct much-­needed marine science. This would be the single biggest investment in the history of Australia’s Antarctic program: a $1.9 billion package to cover a ship’s design and construction as well as thirty years of operational costs and maintenance.

Aurora Australis, a wonder and a beloved ship, was now herself getting old. She was never meant to work as a resupply vessel for thirty-­one years. She was too small now to meet the needs of ever-­changing resupply. She could not hold enough diesel for the bases, or enough cargo, and fundamental marine science wasn’t getting done. I was sad for her because she had carried me safely across the Southern Ocean, but I knew that it was time.

The tender was a complicated and arduous process, but in the end, I am ecstatic to say that Finn got to live out his dream. The design by Danish concept designers KNUD E HANSEN was chosen. Nella Dan 2 would be built by Damen Shipyards, with input from the Australian Antarctic Division. Her mission would include the resupply of Antarctic stations and research campaigns, scientific research, icebreaking, transport, disaster relief, evacuation and patrol duties.

Once built, this new vessel would be the most advanced polar research ship in the world, just as Nella Dan had been when she was built in 1961. And this new ship would be red, too.

Now she just needed a name.

 

I WAS HONOURED to be was asked to be one of the six judges for ‘Name our Icebreaker’, an Australia-­wide competition for primary and secondary schools that asked each school to come up with one entry. The competition was designed to engage Australian students and expand their understanding of Antarctica: its environment, climate and history and Australia’s role there.

Reading through the entries before the judging meeting, I was blown away by the fact that over 70 per cent were Australian Indigenous names. What a radical change from the days of my schooling; what a welcome and long overdue shift. It was elating that this new and brilliant ship would not end up being called Endeavour, or Spirit of Australia, or Southern Voyager.

This name had to be special.

The judging was not quite straightforward: there was robust debate, and we all had a very different names on our shortlists. The Australian Antarctic Division’s head librarian spent hours sharing helpful resources. She showed us video of Tasmanian elders talking about past accounts of icebergs seen off the south coast and elephant seals on the beaches; of the southern lights and of the First Nations’ knowledge of the land to the south, Antarctica.

She had already talked with some of the elders about a palawa kani name being used for the ship; this language is now the only extant Aboriginal language in Tasmania. All indications were that the idea would be very welcome indeed.

Which helped us form a consensus. Clear and sparkling.

And so the winner was RSV Nuyina. Nuyina, meaning southern lights in palawa kani, was suggested by students at both St Virgil’s College in Hobart and at Secret Harbour Primary School near Perth in Western Australia. The name recognises the long connection that Tasmanian Aboriginal people have with the southern lights – and it pays respects to Aurora Australis, the ship that came before her. There was even an N in there for Nella Dan!

My Danish friends were very pleased.

 

I HAVE ALWAYS been a daydreamer, something that used to get me in trouble both at school and at home. It was always implied that daydreaming was a useless and harmful pastime, something that would lead me down the wrong path. I always wondered what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t stop daydreaming and just concentrate.

I now know that daydreaming is one of my greatest gifts. Daydreaming helped me become a writer and has truly manifested wishes and dreams that I never thought would come true.

Daydreaming resurrected Nella Dan from the grave and sailed me across the Southern Ocean to Antarctica.

Daydreaming is the key ingredient to my creativity and, perhaps, in these very strange and unnerving times we all need to daydream a little more.

Lately, I have been dreaming about the ocean again, about the albatross that come out of the endless grey sky, about a red hull cutting through the bright white ice. But is it Nella Dan, or RSV Nuyina that I’m imagining?

I have to wait and see.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review