It all began on Christmas Eve, somewhere in the South Atlantic. It was a dark and stormy night …
Actually, it wasn’t that dark, as there are very few hours of night in summer, at this latitude (more than 60 degrees south). You can stand on deck at 10, even 11, at night under a pallid grey ceiling. Then the sky is washed with inky blue pricked with brilliant stars, or screened with milky clouds, for a few brief hours, before the muted pastel lights of dawn push through. But anyway, it was certainly stormy. The winds whistled and growled their way up to 30-40 knots, whipping up swells of 6m , until eventually we were in a Force 9 storm. The Beaufort Scale goes from 1-12, with 12 being a hurricane, so it was quite an experience. The ship rolled up to about 38 degrees and I heard reports that at 45 the ship would roll too.
Our ship, the Orlova showed me the true meaning of the phrase ‘ship shape’: everything had clips and clasps to hold it in place. Nevertheless, the top drawer of our bedside table flew out and the bottom fell off, under a shower of debris (my motley collection of possessions). By this time I’d succumbed to seasickness and was lying prone on my bunk; I felt fine as long as I stayed there, I just couldn’t stand up without vomiting. So Claudia repaired the damaged drawer, knocking the base back on with the sole of my hiking boot, while I bossily suggested she’d be better off using the heel. Claudia was my crazy cabin mate, a beguilingly mad, incredibly loud, extrovert, insomniac forklift truck driver from San Francisco. I quickly nicknamed her Rowdier Claudia, which she loved, and in return, she dubbed me Dizzy Lizzy. I loved her energy and her craziness; she said she liked my sense of humour.
Despite being bolted down, the force of the storm had dislodged a fridge in the galley, which had played havoc with dinner preparations, and in any case, most passengers – those who weren’t seasick – were having difficulty staying upright. One unfortunate Dutch woman, Caroline, had been hurled against the bar in the forward lounge, breaking several ribs and putting an end to any landings for most of the rest of the trip, as Danny, the ship’s doctor, was worried any sudden movements in the Zodiac boats could puncture her lung. Following the fridge episode (Randi Beers, who ran the bar – yes, really! – showed me pictures of the chaos of broken crockery and spilled food and it was a mess) the crew staunchly served us a pared-down dinner in our cabins: lamb casserole for Claudia, a plate of dry crackers for me.
As we ate (my dinner was fated to be merely a temporary resident in my stomach), I self-pityingly bemoaned the fact that I was confined to bed on a traditional night of festivity. Claudia kindly popped in and out to keep me entertained between bouts of vomiting and fevered napping. At one point, she told me how much she admired the fish-patterned shower curtain in The Dutch Boys’ cabin. The Dutch Boys were Mario and Rutger, unfeasibly tall and full of youthful energy and fun. They’d also brought even more bottles of booze on board than me, which I found impressive. Less chocolate though. When Claudia revealed they were in the bar, I suggested she go round to their cabin (there were no external locks) and swap it for ours, also sprigged with marine life, but not quite up to Claudia’s standards. She was very house proud and during her many wakeful hours during the nights, she would tidy out her drawers and shelves and rearrange our washing, which hung almost constantly from the various hooks, shelves and the two unoccupied bunks in our cabin. And after my daring Polar Plunge on Deception Island, when I trailed black volcanic sand into the carpet, and heedlessly left it there to jump into a hot shower, Claudia somehow found a vacuum cleaner and hoovered it up.
On the night of the storm, she rapidly put my silly plan into action and we howled with laughter as she proudly displayed the latest addition to the interior design of our little home at sea. Of course, the boys didn’t notice the switch, though over the next few days, as various people dropped round – being on the Orlova was like being a student again, with people visiting you in your room in the halls of residence – it amused us immensely that so many people commented, unprompted, on the design of our shower curtain: it transpired that most cabins had plain white ones. We didn’t tell The Dutch Boys for a long time, and even then not until we’d sat them down with much preamble and prevarication about needing to have a ‘serious talk’ with them, relishing the puzzled, then increasingly worried looks on their faces before we revealed our theft.
Shower Curtain Gate became more widely known – news and trivia travel fast in the closed environment of a ship and you also need to remember that we had several ‘sea days’ when people were hungry for even the mildest form of ‘entertainment’. At one point, we were robbed ourselves, when Kiwi Richard, a quirky Brit who now owns a sheep farm outside Christchurch, New Zealand and with whom I enjoyed many quiet hikes on our various landings, staged a counter-attack. He crept down to our cabin one lunchtime and exchanged our prize possession for his own, plain white, inferior curtain. We soon discovered the discrepancy and were aghast and for a moment, nonplussed. Then we spotted a cabin number written on to the curtain’s hem and raced up to deck 4 to reclaim our trophy. There was no sign of Richard, the guilty party, but Arthur, his cabin mate was in his bunk, suffering from sea sickness. I hesitated in the corridor, but Claudia had no such scruples and marched straight in to reclaim what wasn’t rightfully ours.
What began as a diversion to take my mind off my sea sickness continued long after I’d regained my sea legs and became an ongoing joke for the girls of cabin 310. The shower curtain silliness culminated during our landing on Half Moon Island, a mystically beautiful place of hauntingly white snow lying in smooth folds across the coast. In between viewing the dewy-eyed Weddell seals and the penguin rookery, Claudia and I trekked up to the Argentinian base at the crest of a small hill. This post was being guarded by Shane, who was the on-board historian, die-hard Shackleton fan and unfortunate resident of the neighbouring cabin, to make sure we didn’t stray onto any ecologically sensitive land. I pulled the fishy shower curtain from my backpack and we prevailed upon poor Shane to take photo after photo as Claudia and I posed with the ‘the flag of cabin 310’ in front of the Argentinian flag in our own grotesque parody of a polar trek. I couldn’t decide if Shane was secretly enjoying our antics or if he couldn’t wait to see the back of us as we rolled our way back down the slope, the curtain folded in sharp creases to suit Claudia and stowed safely away from harm’s way in my backpack. For our part, we’d derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from the entire escapade, from the dark and stormy night to the triumphant flag flying. I blame it on the latitude.
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