It was a dramatic, exhausting journey: a crew of writers, artists and scientists, sailing into the Arctic ice to examine the effects of climate change. Braving treacherous melting floes, the photographer Nick Cobbing documented what they found.
They made up the most motley of crews. Oceanographers, four gnarled old sea dogs from Holland, a handful of artists culled from the more extreme GPS points of the contemporary scene, a comedian, a photographer and the celebrated novelist Vikram Seth (sailing experience: a couple of days off Torquay 20 years ago). Was their 115ft-long, 100year old schooner, the Noorderlicht, big enough to accommodate them all - and their egos?
Their mission was to see for themselves the reality of global warming, specifically the catastrophic effects of melting ice floes. This epic journey would take them from Spitsbergen, in the far north of Norway, along the 78th parallel to the east coast of Greenland, and on to Iceland - and then tell the world about it. Ironically, a few years ago such a journey would have been impossible. Only climate change with its effects on the ice floes has made the parallel passable by boat.
The project, Cape Farewell, began four years ago.
This was its most ambitious journey so far, taking its participants over a three week sea journey to the very front line of climate change. The idea was that all participants would observe, record and create an account of the all too obvious warning signs facing those of us who care about the planet and, perhaps more importantly, those who do not. This year's trip, which cost ?50,000, was financed by the charitable trust behind the project.
The photographer Nick Cobbing has been involved since the inception of Cape Farewell. This is his third trip, by far the most challenging. The ravages of the elements proved to be the undoing of many of the participants, he says. "The passage was much rougher than we expected. Although the boat coped admirably with the seas and gales up to force nine, it pitched and rolled violently. We all ended up being a little worse for wear. The seasickness was so bad that many of us retired to our beds for days."
Vikram Seth had come prepared. The author of the epic A Suitable Boy said that although his father had been "immune" to seasickness, he elected to bring precautions including "mounds of ginger, acupressure patches and seasickness pills. None did any good, so I just had to put up with it". As did his hapless cabin mate, the artist David Buckland, who conceived the Cape Farewell project in the first place.
Seth - like Ian McEwan, who had joined the previous expedition - is a literary novelist unaccustomed to the peculiar camaraderie of life aboard a ship. Yet the 78th parallel is no place for individuals, and Seth had to play his part. He took his turn on the two hour watch rota, anxiously surveying the floes for the icebergs that could bring a premature end to the expedition - and his own literary career. Apart from the seasickness, the crew also had to brave the cold. Throughout the journey the oceanographers on board from Southampton University would drop a line into the Arctic waters to establish temperature and salinity, both key indicators of the effect and extent of climate change. At one point the temperature of the water dropped to as low as -1.5C; had it reached -2C, the sea would have frozen around the boat, trapping its 20 strong crew.
"You could only keep watch for a maximum of two hours, simply because of the extreme cold," says Vikram Seth. "Someone had to be on watch all the time. It was imperative that the crew steering the boat under sail avoided the ice."
After 71/2 gruelling days at sea, the Noorderlicht landed in the wilderness of east Greenland. They were alone; no cruise ships or motor yachts here (they stick to the more hospitable west side), only bears and remote expanses of ice and rock. As Seth put it, "If you shout for help, no one will hear you."
Gingerly, the crew, accompanied by a guide with a rifle, made their way onto the ice. Making the most of the lunar landscape, the group gathered together their raw material - photographs, drawings, jottings - for exhibitions and publicity events. It had been a long and demanding journey but one that its participants feel will be worth it in the long run. "I'm not sure I'd do it again," says Seth. "But I feel that we have done our bit to make people aware.
It is absolutely critical that we act now. The situation is desperate, more desperate than even the most pessimistic of observers might have imagined."
The comedian Marcus Brigstocke also drew some unlikely inspiration from the trip. "The environment is frankly dull, boring and worthy - not always a great source of comedy. But the time I spent on the expedition was useful, there was a palpable achievement in that people were able to laugh along with it all.
The problem is that a lot of people say that it's not worth our while fighting for the environment simply because the Chinese don't get it. But they haven't got democracy, human rights and cheddar either." ( Times )