Iceberg alert on the good ship Earth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 December, 2003, 12:00am

Cruise ship Earth is sailing into another year on seas as unsettled as ever. The promise of an unspoiled desert island is forever over the next horizon, but the map seems pockmarked with as many 'Monsters Be Here' warnings as ever.

Some suggest it is because of the weather. Others blame the captain, or the chief engineer or maybe the communications officer. The senior officers cannot agree on which course to take.

At first, the captain was interested only in making sure his part of the ship was fully operational. But the iceberg that struck the bow on September 11, 2001, changed the way he saw the seven seas.

Vowing that such a disaster would never happen again, he determined to rid the oceans of icebergs. He ordered the ship's best crew into lifeboats and told them to seek out and destroy all icy threats.

At first, all aboard agreed. They were happy with the captain's decisions and that he was able to use his crews' technological skills and training to make the voyage safe. But some in the third class cabins were sceptical.

The first iceberg was quickly destroyed and expectations were high. Yet within a year, morale was devastated by smaller chunks of ice slicing into the bow.

The order went out from the captain's cabin to obliterate the Dark Iceberg, far off, yet long perceived as a navigational hazard. This time, not everyone on Earth agreed.

Many, including the chief engineer, objected. Radar, satellite images and reconnaissance missions had failed to determine that the Dark Iceberg was a hazard to the ship.

That did not matter to the captain, now understanding his strengths and unwilling to accept his weaknesses. Not since the end of the so-called Cold War, when icebergs floated freely and menacingly, had there been such divisions. Tempers flared and the passengers in the second and third-class cabins threatened mutiny.

But the captain was adamant that he had acted in everybody's best interests. The communications officer announced frequently that there were icebergs everywhere and that the Dark Iceberg was the source of the threat. In a matter of weeks, the iceberg was brought crashing down. In a speech to the passengers on the main deck, the captain said the rest of the voyage would be, as he put it, 'plain sailing'.

Shortly afterwards, the captain and his closest officers announced a plan to exploit the ice and fresh water they claimed they now controlled. They froze out the officers who had refused to help, and set up a company with their own team of managers.

Warnings were issued that other icebergs, no matter where in the world they floated, would be next. Even those who had objected seemed resigned to the inevitable - that the captain would have his way.

Seafarers who traverse icy waters know icebergs are not what they seem. Because ice is slightly less dense than water, just one-ninth of it projects above the surface of the ocean. Despite the expertise of his advisers, this fact escaped the captain.

His oversight quickly became apparent. The Dark Iceberg broke apart and soon hundreds of dangerous chunks of ice were floating menacingly. Rival groups emerged to claim their share, and the crew's victories were just as often punctuated by setbacks.

Remnants of the iceberg that had earlier been destroyed also surfaced, and a similar fight began. There is no foreseeable end to either struggle, despite the captain's pledges and the tens of billions of dollars he had set aside for the effort.

Icebergs identified almost two years ago as similarly threatening have not diminished in size. They remain afloat much as they did before the captain took the helm, looming as formidable and threatening as ever.

Cruise ship Earth is as divided as it was nine months ago. The captain has done his best to heal the rifts among his staff and the passengers, but despite his chosen profession, he does not enjoy travelling.

He flits among the officers, spending a short while here and a little less there, winning face-to-face support but no firm promises. The first-class passengers are mostly supportive, but those on the lower decks remain largely sceptical.

Some believe only good will come from the captain's efforts, although it will be years in coming. The pessimistic believe the paradise everyone is searching for has been lost forever. Others predict that the captain, like his sea-faring father, will not have his contract renewed.

Those on iceberg watch fear the worst.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor