Ship’s Log: Day Thirty Seven (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Thirty-seventh day of the voyage; seventh day of the Atlantic crossing.

The captain is not one to forget things, for yesterday he mentioned ‘the passageway’, asking whether I would still like to be initiated. I had mentioned it once, on our first day, a long month ago. The next morning (today) the chief officer turned up early – boilersuit, helmet, boots, gloves and torch. I was impressed and grabbed my helmet. The English might call it the ‘Burma Road’, but for the normal people in the world it is simply the ‘passageway’. What is it?

Having cleared the alarms on the bridge, the chief undid the massive latches on an air-tight and water-tight door – ‘for fire’, he said – and plunged down a stairway. More like a ladder, really, slippery with oil on the steel steps. ‘It’s easier to go down backwards’, he said, skipping down the stairs as if they were a garden path. The bottom was the bottom, the bowels of the ship, beneath almost 30,000 tonnes of containers, let alone the ship itself. Between me and the sea floor – about 5 km below – was nothing but a sheet of 10mm steel.

‘This way’, he said, ducking under the first of scores of scalping devices. Actually, they were part of the infrastructure of the ship, its bones, and we were climbing through them. An oval cut into the steel allowed us to pass along, ducking, slipping, echoing, with the sound of water and creaking containers all about us. We were on our way to the bow, which soon announces its imminent presence by the curve of the hull. Tighter and tighter became the spaces, and I soon became well aware that tall people of vague European extraction are not even on the drawing board when it came to this type of construction.

I may as well be caving, I thought to myself. But at last we reached our goal: the bow and its thruster – a small engine used to get the bow over in tight spots in port. The thruster itself was down a surprisingly cavernous space, a couple of ladders slick with the obligatory oil. I felt as though I had happened upon a treasure cave, deep within the earth – except of course that we were deep in the ship and the ocean, the lowest point, in fact, that we could go. But the treasure was the not the thruster – no matter what any male might think – but the thrill of standing behind that massive knob at the bow of a ship, the one below the water-line, a little like a battering ram to part the water and protect the ship should it run into the odd whale, log, or debris of another ship. And the crashing noise was the water itself, like a perpetual surf created by the ship itself.

Sadly, we couldn’t stay there forever, since the chief was busy with the duties of four ports (Tilbury, Dunkirque, Le Havre and Rotterdam). So I set off the way we had come. ‘No, this way’, said the chief, ‘there’s more’. We had come up the port side; on the starboard side the passageway wound its way back to the start. Torch on, ducking, stretching, small steps to avoid slipping in the oil and then, like a horse sniffing the stable, I was off for the escape hatch. ‘Not so fast’, said the chief. He pulled me over, placed a hand on my shoulder and whispered: ‘do you want to see the cargo hold?’ I was awed, for now the deepest secret of the ship was about the ship was about to be revealed.

He banged open the levers – alarmed as well – and hauled back the airtight door, beckoning me inside. I was a little worried that he didn’t follow me in, imagining him banging the door shut with a wicked chuckle, holding me there for ransom or perhaps as a sex slave for the crew. It was not to be … but the space looked like it could well be used for exactly such purposes: in between the deepest container, with reefer outlets and dirt scattered about, a talented artist had painted a woman wearing nothing but a wicked grin, her legs spread wide in invitation. ‘Do not enter here’, someone had scribbled, as if to state the obvious on a ship full of men.

We stood there in reverend silence for a few moments. ‘Time to go’, said the chief. After climbing the ladder from the depths and stumbling out of the hatch, daylight felt strangely different.

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