How best to travel from Australia to Europe? Most do not think twice about boarding one of those compact silver cigars that double as enforced movie marathons. I prefer ships. 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.
Even though our ship is a smooth, clean and fast (built in 2000), and even though it carries the basic, tangible stuff of capitalism, it engages in an ancient practice: mediating between two elements, water and land. Gently it does so, but the touch may also be treacherous – reefs, sandbars, hidden rocks, bewildering currents.
Hence the pilots: possibly one of the most fascinating features of a voyage like this and often the main human contact between sea and land. Personality types may have something to do with differences between the taciturn and the garrulous, the sourpusses and the charmers, the obnoxiously rude and the gratefully polite. But each port also has its own pilot cultures. English pilots are overly officious, uniformed and officious. Australians and kiwis tend to be quiet and focused, sipping a coffee, uttering commands quietly and often saying a calm thankyou when the reply comes. They seem to prefer compass points – 231 or 067 or … – rather than the more usual ‘port 10’, ‘starboard 20’, ‘midships’ and so on. The Panamanians are something else, all of them – and there are many – given to pilot versions of machismo. Disdain for the crew, ignoring passengers, barely acknowledging the captain’s authority, never saying a thankyou for a command carried out and gold chains on hairy chests. By contrast, Jamaicans simply charm the pants off you (there is but one woman present): smiles, jokes, stories, laughter, a constant chatter that made you feel like you are sitting at a pub with the best of friends. All the while, the commands are passed on in between the long narratives, calmly and in plenty of control. Only when the ship has to dock in a tight corner does he stop for a few moments, although now chattering into the walkie-talkie. As for the Americans on the east coast, they are garrulous and friendly to a superficial fault and usually full of crap – at least whenever they open their mouths, which is almost all the time.
But what does the pilot do? Vital for the very functioning of the world’s shipping networks, pilots specialise in access to ports for large ships. They may be canal pilots, guiding ships through the Panama or Suez, river pilots for long hauls up navigable rivers such as the Savannah or Delaware, or harbour pilots, specialising in the intricate knowledge required to escort ships in and out of the world’s harbours. In each case, they require intimate and specialist knowledge – of shoals, rocks, sandbanks, currents, tides, quirks and tricks – in order to navigate those massive ships in the tightest of spaces.
Even though I have encountered pilots often enough to be familiar with their roles, they never cease to amaze me. Some use computer mapping, GPS and whatever the latest gizmos might be, while some rely purely on years of experience, along with sight and sound. But they carry out their tasks with uncanny precision. Let me give three very different examples, one from Australia as we depart Melbourne, another in Jamaica and the third in the run up to Savannah.
In Melbourne, the pilot guides the ship out of the tight heads on a dark and stormy night, after the long, four-hour passage through Port Philip Bay. The echoed calls on the bridge are enough to thrill any lover of the sea: port 10, port 10; midships, midships; 222, 222 …. But the most astonishing of all is, when out past the heads and in a heavy swell, he goes down to the side more protected from the swell, climbs down the side of the massive container ship on a swaying rope ladder and leaps – in the dark – onto a tiny orange pilot boat bobbing in the waves. As he speeds off to join another ship, now heading into port, we turn to New Zealand and are off.
The second moment comes from Kingston, Jamaica, where a tense and furious situation is overcome by the sheer force of personality on behalf of the pilot. We arrive early, are told to wait for a berth in port, then told to ‘go, go’, and then, when we are at full steam, to wait once again. The captain is absolutely furious and gives the ship the equivalent of an ocean burnout: 40,000 tonnes hard to port at full steam. A foul mood ensues on the bridge, until the calypso pilot comes on board and eases the mood within minutes. A smile, a joke, a declaration that the harbourmaster is responsible for the stuff-up and therefore an idiot – he has the captain laughing in no time.
And then Savannah, with its quiet river pilot and garrulous harbour pilot: here the pilots are willing to talk with me rather than the captain and mate on duty, although I suspect they are immediately drawn to me since I am the only ‘native’ English speaker on the ship. In the dog-watch hours the river pilot boards, preparing to guide the ship for about four hours up the Savannah River to the city of the same name. Intrigued with long-distance travellers when his job keeps him to the end of the voyage, we talks of the sea and home, of destinations and plans – as one does at sea, I suppose.
As river pilot, his task is to protect the river itself, ensuring that the ship does not do anything too outrageous. Not so the ageing harbour pilot, who comes on with the tug and guides the ship into its berth. In about fifteen minutes I have his life story, his politics, and his view of the world. He has done it all – tug captain, salvage captain, NY pilot, for 40 years – and takes no shit, whether that is homeland security (‘what do you think, that I’m a terrorist?’), or the feeling that Japanese ‘fishing boats’ have far too much surveillance equipment upon them, or that container screening is pointless, since if you actually get caught smuggling you are really, really stupid.
The Way It Has Always Been Done
But I also learn that American pilots occasionally accept cartons of cigarettes as gifts. Australians and Kiwis do not accept them – or rather, they are never offered – whereas everyone else seems more than happy for a carton or two. Never a word is said, the pilot expresses feigned surprise and gratefulness when the carton appears, even though he has perhaps placed a cigarette packet in an obvious place to indicate a preferred brand – a ritual of practised exchange.
Intrigued, I later ask the captain about the cigarettes.
‘If their opinion is important’, he says, ‘it makes things easier. The inspector at Panama, who checks the worthiness of the ship before entering the canal, is vital. Without his OK, the pilots won’t board and we won’t proceed. That’s why he gets two cartons. The others, if they have been helpful, one each’.
‘What about New Zealand?’ I say. ‘No smokes there’.
‘No’, says the captain. ‘They tell me they could take them, but it would create far too many problems with customs if caught. Actually, I prefer the Jamaicans and Panamanians. It is easier to get things done; no masses of paperwork; no small-minded officials who will find something if they look hard enough. You know, in Australia or the USA, a blinkered petty bureaucrat will look over all the paperwork in minute detail, looking for a slip. Waste of time’.
But after I notice a carton slipped to one American pilot, the captain simply observes, ‘It is the way it has always been done, a way to build relationships’.