Gripping the handrail, about to climb the outside stairs to the bridge, a movement catches my eye: less than ten metres away, a massive grey-black back, slick with sea-water, breaks the surface and rolls in a leisurely fashion on the surface for a moment before plunging again into the deep. A dolphin? No, too small and not out here. A whale? It must be.
Upstairs on the bridge I ask the mate on duty. It was a whale, he assures me. Until now we had sighted a few spouts in the distance, viewable only through binoculars, but this one had come right by the ship. Did it come to have a look, I wonder, attracted by the thundering noise of its engine and propellers thrashing away in the water? Or was it as surprised as I was, thinking that it had a whole ocean in which to surface, only to find a ship at the tip of its left fin?
But what am I doing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, the Pacific Ocean no less? I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats the worst form of transport ever invented by human beings (flying) I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by the French company, CMA-CGM, supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.
Once out at sea, you immediately become aware of how tiny the ship is – even this relatively modern and fast one – and how vast the sea is. Beyond the boundaries of the ship is the ever-present reminder that Earth is a water planet; that land and land-based creatures are in the minority. No wonder ancient mythologies, such as those of Mesopotamia, depict the sea as a chaotic threat to the order of land. But our presence on the sea embodies another paradox: the sea is both danger and support, both threat and succour, potentially threatening to sink us any moment and yet providing the only means of bulk, long-distance transport that we know. Ultimately, the sea holds the power of death and life.
Needless to say, I find it absolutely fascinating, spending long hours on the bridge or on deck, watching and experiencing its constantly changing nature. From the Tasman, through the Pacific, the Gulf of Panama, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and finally to the English Channel, we are crossing half the world by sea.
After the four simple days of crossing the ditch known as the Tasman, our next challenge is the Pacific itself. It is a big fucking ocean. Even with our ship, belting along at 20 knots, it takes us 16 days from New Zealand to Panama. On this crossing we pass from one hemisphere to another (on the tenth day at 400 in the dark of early morning), water in the toilet and plug holes begins rotating in the other direction; the southern cross disappears and the pole star appears – the great navigational device of timid Euro sailors who feared to pass out of their comfort zone. To experience the Pacific in this physical sense, day after day with the horizon only the circle of the sea, brings home the sense of vastness as nothing else can.
And that vastness is ever-changing. With my eyes compensating for the lack of distinction between sea and sky, I watch the ocean change from pitch black to the first glow of dawn and then hiss at the end of the day as the sun set. Over the length of the voyage, the sea’s colour shifts from metallic blue under late cloud, to deep aqua on a sparkling morning as we slip into port, to white capped black beneath the heavy clouds, to translucent light blue in the full glare of a winter sun, to light grey in a moment’s diffused light, to silver when the sun shines through a hole in the clouds directly in our path, to a deep clean glassy blue under a tropical sun, to what is perhaps the most disconcerting of all: the feel of the surf at home. At other times I would experience an astonishing moment that can only happen at sea: the clouds open for a few minutes and a full moon throws a couple of patches of glistening light directly before the bow of the ship.
Once you get into the Pacific, they had said, it will be smooth, especially in the tropics. But the first two days of the crossing have a heavy roll, with the south-westerly swell (from the Southern Ocean), lifting us from the starboard rear and rolling through to port. And then the swell turns to ENE, precisely our direction, gradually gaining strength. A tropical storm hits us: rain belts down, leaks through the portholes; the ship’s gentle up-and-down motion, running directly into the swell, gains a sideways judder and roll. We began to hit the waves hard, creating massive bow waves and the occasional wall of spray that is whipped away by the wind. Some sleep less well than they might, although I sleep in rocking comfort.
Eventually we steam through the wintry southern Pacific and into an early summer. Yet being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has a curious estrangement effect. The seasons arrive in a hurry, skipping along in a way that suggests the earth’s orbit has sped up: hour by hour the light becomes stronger, the day lengthens, temperatures rise and the clothes come off of their own accord. Sap rises, as does lust … Soon summer arrives. The water looks inviting, and given that at home I swim at the beach for nine months of the year – all of summer and most of spring, summer and autumn – the urge to go for a swim comes mightily upon me. But then I know that as a MOB in the middle of the Pacific I would have little chance of survival, given the difficulty of keeping one’s eye on a face bobbing in the water, the speed of the ship and its slow turn.
Sitting on the bridge I think often of sailors in small boats navigating the Pacific: Islander sailors so many centuries ago setting off for distant and most likely unknown shores on rafts and canoes; Magellan and his crew as the first Europeans who were promptly becalmed and spent months on the ocean; Bligh and the open boat that he navigated all the way to Batavia, but above all lone sailors, especially at night in heavy seas, having to rely on the boat-builder’s skill and a good deal of luck, particularly when the stars are obscured, the moon is on strike and the night pitch-black. For the captain, to take on an ocean like this as a solo sailor (we are talking about 16-year Jessica Watson) is pure madness, the risk of accident at night – a log, a whale, whatever – far too high. And it certainly wouldn’t be pleasurable.
Perhaps the greatest surprise is the animals. This time I know what to expect, but I am still astonished at how much animal life can be found out on the ocean. Of course, the kilometres of ocean depth beneath the surface team with life, but I can see only what goes on above the water, far, far from land. In the Tasman and the southern reaches of the Pacific we meet the mollymooks, spending like their larger relatives – the royal albatross – years at sea after they learn to fly, using the wind to bank, turn and fish, snoozing on the rolling swells of the south.
Later, in the tropical zones, we would meet the flying fish. I first spot one skimming the top of a wave, disturbed by the ship’s passing. I think it is a small black bird like a swallow … but then realise: in the middle of the Pacific? And then there are those strange seabirds from the legendary Galapagos Islands (what a thrill to be so close the islands at the heart of evolutionary theory), with their webbed feet, long beaks and big black and white craps. They bring home the effect of land-based birds on a sailor: four appear initially, hovering, with wingtips curled, waiting for the flying fish to appear. As soon as one is spotted, they flip over, pull in their wings and dive bomb into the ocean before flapping up again with their catch. They join our ship for a few days, sleeping on the foremast at night, or even resting there and drying out during the day. But land birds signal hope for sailors; an anticipation for creatures hard-wired to walk on terra-firma.
The grey Atlantic! At last. The Pacific might have myriad moods, colours and facets, but the Atlantic is – primarily – grey. For a brief moment or two, the Atlantic may glitter in the sun as I make my way about the deck. But the captain says that sun on the Atlantic is unusual, even in summer. He speaks of storms, the sea rising up to two metres during a fierce one, of the mere half dozen captains who take ships in winter on the northern Atlantic route, for most cannot sleep on the winter roll, of how I too would find be troubled by such storms even if rough weather doesn’t bother me. As the captain speaks, the fog and rain return … But the Atlantic is a signal that the end of the voyage is in sight – about nine days away.
All too soon am I standing on the bridge and silently watching a final Atlantic dawn over the port bow. I realise two things: this is an experience impossible to express and it is to be one of the last mornings at sea, for the voyage is drawing to a close. Already I feel a resistance to the crowds – of people and tasks – and a longing for the solitary stretches of the oceans. I wonder what it would be like to be on land again in the midst of myriad people in summer frenzy, desperately trying to get home, crowding into trains. I feel a strange disconnect with the world of the land and its ways.