Under a leaden sky and with the snow lashing the deck of the Polish ferry Wawel, I had sailed from Ystad in southern Sweden the previous night to the ice-filled Polish port of Swinoujscie.
The Wawel made the voyage back to Poland with a sadly depleted crew. ''They have been jumping ship like rabbits,'' said the woman in the ship's reception office.
I asked the obvious question: ''Why not you?'' I got the obvious answer: ''I have my family to consider.''
''Would you if you could?''
''I'd rather not answer that question.''
In the cold, sparsely furnished lounge a young mother gestured sadly at the carrier bags surrounding her table. They contained food, medicine, and all the mundane things we in the West take for granted: detergent, diapers, socks, shoes , chocolate. . . .
Her brown eyes were infinitely sad as she said: ''It is impossible to buy such things in my country.'' She almost spat out the last two words and her eyes flashed angrily.
She had planned to spend six weeks with her sister in northern Norway, a holiday of a lifetime planned long in advance and paid for out of savings that had meant sacrifices on top of the sacrifices that are commonplace in Poland. She stayed in Norway just 24 hours.
''I have two small children in Poland, . . . my husband, . . . my family. . . .'' She trembled as she spoke. Her husband and father were leading members of Solidarity in Zielona Gora, she said.
''I have no idea what has happened to them. I have to find out. One half of me wanted to stay. The other half said I couldn't. For a brief moment I knew what life could be like in a free country. Now that moment has gone forever.
''I don't know what will happen in Poland. I just hope it will all be over soon.''
The passengers slumped in chairs, red-eyed, ashen-faced, waiting for the dawn. I have never seen a more despairing homecoming.
The Wawel then put out to sea, the radio telephone was cut, and the ship bobbed listlessly amid the ice floes as a thick sea mist closed in.
There was no sign of air or naval activity, just the silence broken only by muted pop and martial music from Radio Warsaw relayed over the ferry's loudspeakers. After 10 hours the Wawel put in to the ferry terminal again.
A new crew of 48 men from Gdansk came aboard, followed by a handful of passengers. These included Terje Johansen, a Norwegian photographer from Stavanger who described bloody scenes in Warsaw on Dec. 15 when police and militia ended a student occupation at the university.
''Students were clubbed to the ground by militiamen. It was very ugly,'' he said.
Other passengers included a Norwegian who had driven food to various towns in Poland. He said he had seen trucks carrying arrested workers to concentration camps that had been set up because Poland's prisons were full to overflowing.
Two men believed to be members of the Polish secret police boarded the ferry, and crew members feared they were there to stop defections when the boat arrived in Ystad.
As it turned out they were pretty incompetent. Seven men deserted, one of them a young officer, Tomaz Moljewsly, who led me to a cabin for a meeting with four of the men intending to jump ship.
In the confused meeting that followed they described the bloody scenes at the storming of the Lenin shipyard Dec. 15 and were at great pains to disabuse me of the notion now being fostered by Polish communists abroad that Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski will permit reforms once order has been reestablished in Poland.
Conversation was a confused blur of broken English and Swedish plus much gesticulation but the gist of the exercise was that Jaruzelski equals Soviet Union. ''He trained in Soviet. . . . Bad man. . . . He want crush Solidarity. . . . No good . . . you tell them that in West. . . .''
cl11 I asked Moljewsly how the West could help without the ultimate confrontation that could escalate into a third world war. He just gestured helplessly and shook his head. ''That's right,'' he said with tears in his eyes. ''It is impossible, utterly impossible.''
One man said hotels in Gdansk had to be converted into makeshift hospitals to accommodate all the wounded. He said hundreds of militiamen were injured but the number of strikers needing treatment was ''much, much higher.''
''Many died,'' one of the men told me.
The general consensus was that the Army had been less brutal than the police and militia in putting down demonstrations.
A crewman who would not give me his name for fear of reprisals against his family in Gdansk said all main intersections in the city were patrolled by soldiers, and shop windows in the center had been smashed in an orgy of destruction by angry workers demonstrating on Thursday against the military takeover.
He said hundreds of people had been injured in the clashes in Gdansk, ''many more than they say on the radio. I have not heard how many dead,'' he said. ''But many have died.''
He said Jaruzelski had tried to bribe the Lenin shipyard workers to stay at home by offering them a week's paid holiday.
Moljewsly said he lived in the same block as Lech Walesa. He said as far as he knew Walesa's wife and children were in good health and still free.
He said the Lenin shipyard was at a complete standstill and that much equipment had been smashed irreparably.