Saturday, February 28th Rockall, North Atlantic

Just standing on the bridge of HMS Courageous at dawn was usually enough to put Commodore Sir John Wellingsly in a good mood and fill his breast with pride. The Courageous was a magnificent light cruiser--sleek, fast, and modern, the peer of any ship in any navy in the world.
     But today was different. As Sir John surveyed the nautical traffic around the miserable pinpoint of rock rising from the depths of the North Atlantic, he knew that he was about to lose an embarrassing naval engagement to Iceland, a country that didn't even have a navy. The Icelanders would win because they had done what the British cabinet and its experts from the Admiralty had not thought possible--they had sailed their small, fast, coastal fishing boats to Rockall, crossing at least 230 miles of the most treacherous expanse of the North Atlantic.
     A thousand years before, Icelandic Vikings had crossed the North Atlantic in forty-foot open boats and had ravaged the British coast for fun and profit. For the people who had colonized Greenland in the tenth century and North America four hundred years before the birth of Columbus, the trip to Rockall in a modern forty-foot fishing boat was child's play, nothing more than a delightful sea excursion.
     Now the small boats of the Icelandic coastal fishing fleet were there in front of Sir John, clearly visible from the bridge as they prepared for action against the strung nets of the large British fishing trawlers he had been assigned to protect. It was the maneuverability of the small boats, not the speed and the firepower of the Courageous , that would decide the day. Sir John knew how it would go because, as a young lieutenant, he had served on the frigate HMS Manchester during the last Cod War in 1975.
     Then, as now, fishing was Iceland's primary industry. The waters around Iceland, where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Arctic Current, were the richest fishing grounds in the world, with catches of cod, haddock, salmon, redfish, shrimp, scallops, Norway lobster, and herring constituting three-quarters of the country's export income. However, in the early seventies there had been a worldwide technological revolution in commercial fishing, with the fleets of the maritime nations employing bottom scanners and sonar to locate the schools and then haul them in using improved lightweight nylon nets.
     In Iceland, the catches had plummeted and the country had been thrown into crisis. The Icelanders had claimed that the stocks of marine life off their shores were being depleted due to zealous overfishing by foreign fishing fleets, mostly British. The Icelandic government had reacted by unilaterally claiming authority over their coastal waters for a distance two hundred miles from their shores, the first country to do so. The robust crews of Iceland's small, economically threatened fishing boats had responded with vigor, cutting the very expensive nets of every British trawler found operating within the new limit.
     The British fishermen had protested to the British government and the British government had protested to the Icelandic government, but the Norsemen hadn't been prepared to listen. Armed with complaints of net-cutting and righteous indignation, the British ambassador to Iceland had camped out at Government House in Reykjavík. He had been politely ignored until he threatened action by the Royal Navy. The Icelanders had considered the threat to be an undiplomatic breach of protocol and reacted by expelling the ambassador and breaking off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, thereby setting the stage for the fourth Cod War in twenty years between the two nations.
     Backed into a corner, the British government had sent in the Royal Navy, as promised. It had been a laughable show, with members of the world press covering the incident outnumbering the "combatants" on both sides. The imposing presence of the British fleet off their shores hadn't slowed the Icelandic fishermen in the slightest. The fishermen simply placed their wives and children on the decks of their boats as they went about their merry net-cutting mission under the guns of the British fleet.
     The Royal Navy had reacted by sending a warning shot across the bow of any Icelandic fishing boat approaching the strung nets of a British trawler, an action which sent the Icelanders into convulsions of laughter on the decks of their boats as they threw their life jackets overboard for the benefit of the reporters above. Then they had driven in behind the British trawlers and cut the nets anyway, usually giving the honors to the youngest person on board capable of handling the clippers.
     The British admirals had been able to do little more than watch and smile benignly for the cameras overhead. Their smiles had become even more forced when the feisty captains of the Icelandic fishing boats, their day's work done, had given the Royal Navy a treat just to show that there were no hard feelings. The admirals were forced to look down over their guns at the Icelanders, standing with their families on the decks of their fishing boats as they regaled the British sailors with a chorus of gospel hymns in the ancient Icelandic language, giving thanks to God for transforming the British navy into, in effect, the much-improved Icelandic Coast Guard.
     Beaten and chastened, the British government had seen no way out but to declare their own two hundred mile fishing limit around the British Isles, prompting a similar reciprocal action by every maritime nation in the world. Owing to Iceland's stand, the two hundred mile fishing limit quickly became a respected canon of international law.
     By four o'clock, Commodore Sir John Wellingsly was experiencing an unwanted bout of déjà vu as he stared down at the singing families of Icelanders in their fishing boats off his starboard bow. It had been a long day and a complete disaster. Six miles behind the Courageous was Rockall, so tiny that it wasn't even visible from the bridge. Visible instead were many Icelandic boats, five British trawlers steaming in circles as they tried to retrieve their nets from the bottom, and four news helicopters overhead nearly colliding with each other in their efforts to capture the scene.
     Sir John allowed himself a moment of reflection as he pondered the imminent end of his long and otherwise distinguished military career. In the good old Cold War days he had steamed by Rockall many times before while searching for Soviet submarines operating in the North Atlantic, but he had never bothered asking himself who owned the half-acre island. If anything, he had considered Rockall as nothing more than a hindrance to navigation because it had always been surrounded by large fishing trawlers from nations around the world, including Iceland.
     "I wonder which idiot in Whitehall decided Rockall was part of the British Isles?" Sir John asked no one in particular, so softly that he didn't realize that he had given voice to his thoughts until he saw the helmsman staring at him.
     "Sir?" the helmsman responded.
     "Nothing. As you were," Sir John ordered, embarrassed at his out-of-character slip and hoping that the helmsman hadn't heard.
     But the helmsman had heard. The entire crew had been embarrassed by the events of the day and he couldn't hold his tongue. "Begging your pardon, sir, but I hear that the idiot who put us in this mess was the foreign secretary. I hear it was Sir Ian Smythe-Douglass himself."

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