She reached a hill about fifteen feet high from base to ridge formed by the restless sea ice grinding and forcing the floe upward into what was called a hummock. Most formed an uneven surface, but this one was weathered until its sides were smooth. Falling to her hands and knees, she clawed her way upward, sliding back two feet for every three she gained.
The exertion took what little strength Roxanna had left. Without knowing how, or remembering the struggle, she pulled herself onto the ridge of the hummock half-dead from exhaustion, heart pounding, breath coming in labored gasps. She did not know how long she lay there, but she was thankful to rest her eyes from the ice-plagued wind. After a few minutes, when her heart slowed and her breath began to come evenly, Roxanna cursed herself for the predicament she had foolishly caused. Time had no reference. Without a watch, she had no idea how many hours had passed since she walked from her husband's whaling ship, the Paloverde.
Nearly six months earlier, the ship had become locked in the pack ice, and to endure the boredom she had begun taking daily hikes, keeping within easy view of the ship and its crew, who kept an eye on her. That morning the skies had dawned crystal clear when she left the ship, but they soon turned dark and vanished when the ice storm swept over the ice. Within minutes, the ship had disappeared and Roxanna found herself wandering lost on the ice pack.
Traditionally, most whalers never sailed with women aboard. But many wives refused to sit at home for the three to four years their husbands were gone. Roxanna Mender was not about to spend thousands of lonely hours alone. She was a hardy woman, though petite, barely reaching five feet in height and weighing less than a hundred pounds. With her light brown eyes and ready smile, she was a pretty woman who seldom complained of the hardship and boredom and who rarely became seasick. In her cramped cabin she had already given birth to a baby boy, whom she had named Samuel. And though she had yet to tell her husband, she was about two months pregnant with the next baby. She had found acceptance aboard ship with the crew, taught several to read, written letters home to their wives and families, and acted as nurse whenever there was an injury or sickness on board.
The paloverde was one of the fleet of whalers that sailed from San Francisco on the nation's west coast. She was a stout ship, especially constructed for polar operations during the whaling season. With a length of 132 feet, a beam of 30 feet, and a draft of 17 feet, her tonnage was close to 330. Her dimensions allowed for a large cargo of whale oil and accommodations for a large crew of officers and men for voyages that could last as long as three years. Her pine keel, timbers, and beams were cut from the forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Once they were positioned, the three-inch planking was laid on and fastened by trunnels, a wooden nail usually cut from oak.
She was rigged as a three-masted bark, and her lines were clean, bold, and rakish. Her cabins were neatly furnished and paneled in Washington spruce. The captain's cabin was particularly well appointed because of his wife's insistence that she accompany him on the long voyage. The figurehead was a finely carved image of a paloverde tree, native to the southwest. The ship's name was spread across the stern in carved letters gilded in gold. Also adorning the stern was a spread-winged carving of the California condor.
Instead of sailing north through the Bering Sea toward the Arctic and the more established waters for whale hunting, Roxanna's husband, Captain Bradford Mender, had taken the Paloverde south to the Antarctic. He believed that since the region was overlooked and seldom visited by the hardy whalers from New England, there was a golden opportunity to find virgin whaling grounds.
Soon after arriving near the Antarctic Circle, the crew took six whales as the ship sailed in the open water between the shore, often threading its way through a sea of icebergs. Then, in the last week of March, the Antarctic autumn, the ice built over the sea at incredible speed until it reached a thickness of nearly four feet. The Paloverde might still have escaped to clear water, but a sudden shift of wind became a howling gale that drove the ship back toward shore. With no avenue of escape left open, as the ice charged toward them in chunks larger than the ship itself, the crew of the Paloverde could only stand helpless and watch the cold trap spring shut.
From Atlantis Found by Clive Cussler. (c) October, 1999
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