The roll-on roll-off passenger car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized in the approaches to the Belgian port of Zeebrugger as she sailed to Dover at 7.05pm local time on March 6, 1987.
153 passengers and 38 crew lost their lives, most inside the ship from hypothermia in the freezing water.
On the night of Sunday, April 14, RMS Titanic sank. The temperature had dropped to near freezing and the ocean was completely calm. Of a total of 2,223 people, only 706 survived; 1,517 perished. The majority of deaths were caused by victims succumbing to hypothermia in the 8 °F (−2 °C) water.
I was fascinated by the Titanic when I was wee. My gran had been alive when the great ship went down. She was 11. In Ireland at that time, storytellers, wandering musicians and poets wandered the countryside and often this was the way people heard news. Gran’s mum and dad owned a farm at the time and played host to a poet after the sinking. He had composed a poem he was selling around the Irish countryside. Gran was from deepest Monaghan, parts of which are still wild Ireland.
She learned the poem off by heart and nearly seventy years later, wrote it out for me in her shakey hand.
75 years after the sinking of the Titanic I sat at my office table in the factory I worked in. I couldn’t get the news out of my head – nearly 200 people dead in a shipping disaster that happened near to the shore. I was 21 years old.
How could so many people die because of cold water?
I’m afraid I am someone who has learned most of what I know through trial and error. I am the kid who has to touch the fire. That’s why I’m involved in politics on the street and in my writing and everyday life. I have to immerse myself in something to learn about it.
My thoughts must have went something like this. Water is water. If it is frozen it must be ice. The salt in the water must keep it from freezing. Fish don’t freeze. I’ve swam in the Irish Sea, which must be bloody cold, and I haven’t died. I’m bored sitting at this desk thinking of the world outside.
So after work, on that March Friday evening, I called round to a couple of mates houses and told them to bring their swimming trunks and a towel.
We drove to Warrenpoint and on round the coast through the village of Rostrevor and along the shadow of the Mournes, standing sentinel like, staring across to the proud Cooleys, daring them to traverse Carlingford Lough. This coast is one of my favourite parts of my world. Picturesque irish towns cradled in the arms of the protective mountains. It also summed up my rebelliousness – this Lough, traversing the false border keeping Irish Minds apart. This is were rebel groups crossed over and took potshots at the establishment.
I had chosen Cranfield for our experiment. It is a holiday place made up of holiday homes, caravans and caravanettes. My thoughts were that no-one will be there at this time of year.
Joyce was a “sample chaser”. She used to come into the office to get “sample tickets” or sample specifications from me. My job was to make out instructions for the factory for each shoe that was produced by Lotus Shoes Ltd. Joyce was cheery and jokey – everyone in the office got on with her. One day she came into the office and named everyone except me and said, “I know all about youse, but Neil, here is a dark horse. What do you do, Neil? What do you do at the weekends? What’re your interests? You’re very quiet!”
We called in to an off license in Rostrevor and bought a slab of beer for after our experiement.
We arrived at Cranfield. There is something quite sad about holiday places in winter-time. They are not designed for drizzle and cold and no people. I guess the question does a falling tree in a forest make a noise if no-one is there to hear it could be rephrased to ask is a holiday village a holiday village if no-one is there?
The road travels along the sea front, so I parked and we changed into our swimming trunks. Alex had tore into the booze already.
I had the heat on in the car, so when I opened the door, the cold hit me with a jolt. Everything shrunk. Hugh said, “No way, man! I’m not going!”
I wasn’t here for a ‘who is the bravest type’ boys evening out. This was an experiment and there was no question of whether or not I was going.
I stepped out onto the kerb and walked down the prickly grass embankment and gritted my teeth as I walked determinedly across the beech to the sea. The wind blasting across the Lough from the Cooleys was stinging.
Alex and Hugh came staggering down after me. We reached the sea together. All three of us stood against the wind; translucent white and goose-pimpled in the grey, insipid evening cloud covered sun.
I feel the same foolhardiness is what drives me to experimenting with my life. This foolhardiness drove me to walk out on jobs; report wrongdoing in jobs even though I knew I would be sacked; come to Scotland on my own 17 years ago to start a University and a course I knew nothing about; jump of my mates garage roof when I was 10; travel Europe on my own; jump out of planes; skateboard down very steep hills; walk out of exams; jump over my mates on a bicycle; shout in the face of Chancellor of the Exchequer (now Prime Minister) live on TV; give up drinking for a year. It is all experimenting. All for a reason.
We stepped in. The water was absolutely freezing. The cold swept up my body. I thought the wind was cold, but the water was absolutely blue. Minus blue. Beyond white cold.
Alex yelled. Hugh laughed nervously. I trod on. Alex ran out, “I’m going back to the car!”
Hugh shouted, “Woose!”
We waded further in. My genitals recoiled even further as the water went above my waist. I had never felt anything so cold. I was already shivering uncontrollably.
I said, “Go under!”
Hugh said, “No way!” and followed Alex out of the water.
I thought, “Should I?”
I looked up at the Mournes. They were almost black, but I could still see their outline against the sky. The Cooleys on the other side of the water were beckoning me.
I dolphin dived towards the shore. The cold froze my face. I opened my eyes – I could see nothing but greyness. I pulled the water at my sides. One pull, two pulls. I felt the energy drain from me. I wanted to go further. I knew I was safe. I knew Alex and Hugh would fish me out. I kicked my legs. I started to float to the surface. I pulled myself down again. Two more pulls on the water. My knee scraped the bottom. One more pull. Both knees hit the bottom. I pushed myself up.
It was difficult standing up. I couldn’t see at first.
“You’re a fuckin’ looney!” Hugh was in tears laughing!
I looked at my body. I was shaking uncontrollably. I was completely blue.
I hauled myself out of the water and walked stiffly up the beach. I was cold to the core.
“So this is what you do at the weekends, young Neil!” Joyce, linked arm in arm to her husband, was standing beside my car dressed in coat, scarf and woolley hat. Her husband was laughing.
I couldn’t say anything, I was so cold. I just grinned, waved and climbed into the car, blasted the heat and cracked open a beer.
I knew why people died of hypothermia.