This story has languished for a while, but now that I am back in Australia I can give it some attention. The voyage was from Melbourne to Tilbury in 2010, via two oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal – in short, half-way around the world.
Today we began the Tasman crossing.
The human dynamics of the ship soon became apparent as we encountered the familiar roll of a wintry, windy and wet Tasman Sea – sufficiently foul for a cautious captain to dampen my enthusiasm for the daily circumnavigation of the deck and vertigo-inducing climb up all the stairs … for now at least. A complex mix of ethnic, linguistic and political lines seem to designate the tribal arrangements on board. The ex-Yugoslavs – a Montenegrin captain and Croatian engineers and electrician eat together in the officers dining room, talking amongst one another in what are supposed to be separate languages (for political reasons) but which they all know is the same language. And the Filipino crew draws to its own dining room the officers who are also Filipino: the three mates, who are perfectly entitled to eat in the officers’ mess, opt for the noisy and crowded one at the other end of Deck B. They certainly seem to have most of the fun, for this evening the beer fridge was opened, the smokes passed around and the computer with the lingerie-clad porn-star on the desktop fired up for a karaoke night. The only woman on board (Christina) was soon ushered in, given pride of place and a wine glass. ‘You either sing or dance’, she was told with a laugh. Since there was no way in hell she would dance, she opted for ‘Love is in the Air’. Her voice was lower than many of the choir-boy voices of the crew.
The passengers formed the third tribe, three from New Zealand, one Australian and one Danish. Clearly marked by the meal tables, the tensions among the three kiwis who had come all the way from Europe soon showed up: the loquacious Bill and the reticent Joe were friends with experience on previous ships, but the former seaman, Abel, kept to himself, driven up the wall by Bill, knowing full well that his own experience of the sea was far deeper than Bill’s would ever be.
But the highlight of the day was the floatation suit. The overly keen third officer had given us a ‘familiarisation tour’, allowing us to peek into the lifeboat before plonking us down in front of a computer screen to watch a riveting presentation on lifeboat procedures. I was transfixed by the floatation suits, barely noticing the questionnaires signed and the Yellow Fever certificates passed over. Back in the cabin I struggled into the snug suit. Made of the same neoprene as wetsuits, albeit in a bright orange that clung tightly to my body, it had a triple effect: I began sweating profusely, looked like a Telly Tubby and produced the most unflattering photograph I have ever witnessed.