A Wary Embrace: From China to Japan by Ship

A gentle kiss and then an embrace – so does a ship touch the shore of a new place. Before that kiss, the ship draws patiently closer. After first sight, it carefully regards its new (or perhaps old) lover, considering best how to approach the shore. But eventually it does so, edging ever close until the first touch, kiss and embrace.

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My first arrival in Japan was by ship, voyaging from Shanghai across the North China Sea to Osaka. Two days it takes, although obtaining the ticket and actually getting on board took some patience and deft footwork. The smiling guard at the terminal simply would not open the gate for me. At a loss, I tapped on the shoulder of the first passer-by to act as a translator. After much discussion, I was directed to shipping company’s office – in a small corner on the floor of a high-rise many blocks away. Here a sour-faced woman was filing her nails and having her hair done by an older woman. With immense reluctance, she rose and summoned a young man, who spoke in a whisper.

Would I like to pay for the ticket now? Do I have enough cash, for they take no credit cards? I answered in the affirmative and followed him into an office. He held his finger up to his lips and pointed. A man was comatose on a stretcher on the floor, wrapped in a sleeping bag. I handed over the cash and he wrote out the ticket for me – in silence. I was to arrive at the terminal tomorrow, at 9.00am. On my way out, I said a few words in Chinese to the sour-faced woman. Her face lit up, and she beamed at me all the way out.


By next morning I was at the terminal early, almost too early. Ticket in hand, my passage was smooth. I boarded amidst crowds of Chinese voyagers, off to see Japan for a few days. Our ship was the Suzhou Hao, a modest ship of uncertain vintage. Boarding involved clambering up steep stairs – more like a ladder. With each step upward, the whole structure creaked and swayed. And the final step onto the ship itself was more like a leap over the abyss, with a narrow plank for guidance. A safety net was slung underneath, in case one of the many grey-heads stumbled and fell.

Already I felt in my element, evoking deep in my bones a love of the sea. Who knows, it may well be that such feelings come from a heritage of Dutch seafarers. I managed to score a rare cabin with a view over the bow and the port side through a couple of windows. For much of the voyage, I would stand or sit before the windows, if I was not on deck. I gloried in the silence and solitude.


Soon enough, the engines rumbled, the deck hands wound in the mooring ropes, and we pushed off from the pier. An announcement came through in Chinese, of which I could understand the odd word, but the gist – I assumed – was that we were now setting off on our voyage. We joined the throng of ships on a tributary of the Chang Jiang (Yangze), only to turn into the main passage. Barges full of all manner of goods passed, larger ships mingling with them. Along the shores, the cranes of port facilities spread in all directions. Ship building yards appeared, constructing oil and gas tankers. Other yards were refurbishing some container ships, with the dust of the work blowing across the river.


At the wide mouth of the river, we left the busiest port in the world. It was like a naval highway, with lines of ships running to the horizon. The yellow, muddy plume of the Chang Jiang pushes far out into the sea, but eventually we slipped into clearer water. The swell became more pronounced, with the ship developing a roll and producing an impressive bow wave. Out at sea again!

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A fancy ship it was not. Already this was clear the moment I stepped on board. In all but a few cabins, space was shared. One could opt for the ‘backpacker’ room, which was no more than an open room with thin mattresses arranged on the floor. To be sure, the women had a raised platform with seaweed matting, but the men simply slept on the floor, lined up next to one another. In second class one at least had bunks. Would first class perhaps be more ‘private’? Not at all: the rooms were still shared, albeit with four in a room and the bonus of a toilet. As with second class, showers were shared in a separate room.

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Intrigued, I set out to explore the ship further, keen to find out where we would have our meals. A passenger ship such as this usually offers a number of options, from snack stations, through cafeteria-style meals, to an à-la-carte restaurant. I searched in vain, for the only place to eat was the canting, the dining hall. As I was soon to find out at meal time, only one menu item was available – take it or leave it. Everyone – barring the Italian and Dutch couple – was perfectly happy with such a fare, assuming this was the norm. Fortunately, the unassuming meals were freshly cooked and palatable – actually, more than palatable. As for our Italian-Dutch friends, they seemed to find it all a bit much, asking for coffee at breakfast, complaining that the cold dishes were, well, cold.

Our vessel did sport a bar, namely, the beer dispensing machine, and – naturally – a mah-jong room where the old fogeys gathered to play and watch. And the duty-free shop? To say that is was sparsely stocked would be an understatement. The wide selection went all the way from the odd carton of cigarettes to a few bottles of alcohol, with some chocolates making up the middle ground. The browsers and purchasers were as few as the items on the shelves.

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Simplicity – no discoes, expensive ‘duty-free’ shops, elaborate restaurants, spas or open-deck bars were to be found. The main purpose of the ship was to take passengers from China to Japan and then back again. It may have carried a couple of containers, but it did not take cars or trucks. Only passengers. It seemed to me China in microcosm.


That feeling was enhanced by the fact that nearly all the passengers were Chinese, mostly of the doddery and retired variety. A mother with a young child stood out, as did the group of young men skylarking on the deck. All of them were in tour groups of one kind or another. The respective group leaders would hold aloft a distinctive flags, bustle about and shout to keep their flocks together. Some of the groups wore brightly-coloured new caps so as not to get lost, or at least so that the group leader could identify them quickly – unless of course, the caps looked the same, as was the case with some of the groups.

The rest – six of us – were laowai, but none Japanese. A couple from Switzerland had been travelling the Silk Road, taking seven slow months to reach the Pacific. They were living on $30 per day, couch-surfing, staying in cheap hostels, eating simple food. They also travelled in cheaper countries (Japan would be a problem), avoiding those with a reputation for being expensive (Australia was out). Yet they were inescapably European in their outlook, no matter how progressive or even alternative they might have appeared. They dreamed of building a youth hostel in Central America, in Ecuador perhaps. And they operated like any couch-surfer one encounters, passing over contact details and blog addresses, keen to find yet another couch on which to sleep should they be passing through.

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The Italian and Dutch couple looked out of sorts, or at least the Italian male half. He seemed to find all matters Asian disconcerting and distasteful. His eyes longed from home. Both of them tended to keep to themselves, only chatting with us in the last hours before Osaka.

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For me, more intriguing was the sole American on board, a serious mountain climber who was now on his way to Japan to scale some precipitous cliffs. He lived by the adage that it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool, than open it and let them know you are a fool. But he was no fool. Although he initially said that he was still – at 40 – looking for a purpose in life, it turned out he actually did have such a purpose. When the two of us had a chance to talk, he spoke of his desire to achieve the highest global accreditation in mountain climbing.

‘I already have the highest accreditation in the United States’, he said. ‘But global accreditation is another matter entirely’.

‘What does that involve?’ I asked.

‘Exams and climbing’, he said. ‘You have an intense burst of climbing in a remote place for a couple of weeks. Then you study and sit for the exam’.

‘So where have you climbed?’ I said.

‘I’ve ice climbed in the Canadian north, during winter’, he said. ‘I’ve climbed in the tropics during the wet season, dangled off cliffs overhanging the sea or raging torrents in gorges below, clambered up cliffs beneath the earth in massive caves’.

‘Do you have to go to the moon as well to scale precipices there? I asked.

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In the midst of these encounters, the most entrancing was the retired Chinese labourer.

‘Are you a back-traveller?’ he asked me.

‘Yes, I suppose I am’, I said, pointing to my backpack.

‘I’ve been back-travelling for ten years’ he said. ‘I worked in heavy industry and workers like me are allowed to retire at 55. Since then, I learnt some English and have been travelling’.

‘Where have you been?’ I asked.

‘Most continents’, he said, ‘except Antarctica! But I like to travel on my own, staying in back-travelling hostels, searching out new places, and meeting people’.

‘Have you been to Japan before?’ I said.

‘First time’, he said. ‘But this time I have to travel in a group. I don’t like it so much, but the Japanese government does not allow Chines people to travel there on their own’.

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A Difficult Relationship

With that, he raised a host of issues that set me thinking for some time. The ship’s passage may have been quiet enough, with the East China Sea relatively calm. But the passage, from China to Japan, is one fraught with a long and difficult relationship. China may in our time be recovering its traditional sphere of influence, pervading Japan in terms of culture, language and economics. One need only consider the Japanese alphabet, with its obvious dependency on Chinese, or the cultural norms of Confucianism, or indeed the number of container ships stopping by Japan after an extended run up the Chinese coast, to see how this influence works.

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Not so long ago, it was another story. By the turn of the twentieth century, Japan had ‘modernised’ – a euphemism for shifting from feudalism to an aggressive capitalism. Its armed forces deployed the latest advances, enabling it to thrash Russia in the 1904-5 War, leading to the abdication of the last tsar. Japanese armies overran the Korean peninsula, seized the eastern reaches of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and occupied large parts of north-eastern China. In the end, the Japanese did the communists a great favour, for they enabled them to develop effective modes of guerrilla warfare against the Japanese themselves and thereby gain immense credentials with the bulk of the Chinese population. In turn, this contributed to the success of the communists against Chang Kai-Shek and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, it was Chinese communists, along with the Russian Red Army and the Korean communists who forced Japan into surrender at the end of the Second World War.

But not before a series of atrocities were committed that run deep in Chinese (and indeed Korean) memory: summary beheadings, ‘comfort women’, the rape of Nanjing – the list is long. The fact that Japan continues to drag its feet on admitting and apologising for such acts only adds to Chinese anger. Today, the Japanese government engages in little provocations from time to time, with senior government figures paying visits to the shrine commemorating war dead, among them convicted war criminals.

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As a result, both sides view each other with a mixture of wariness and respect. The Chinese often look to Japan in admiration for its achievements. For instance, only recently has China surpassed Japan as the second largest economy on the globe. Japanese learning and culture too are admired. As more than one Chinese person has said to me, ‘China is so big and Japan is so small, so how can Japan have become so powerful!’ Yet, the Chinese constantly watch for signs of Japanese aggression, for that militant streak that always lies just below the surface of an impossibly polite culture. On the Japanese side, they are caught, with the old protagonists of China, Russia and Korea on one side, and the more recent protagonist of the United States on the other. Faced with this unenviable choice, they have opted for the time being to side with the United States. One can only wonder how long such a situation will last, especially in light of the decline of the American Empire. Japan may continue to assert itself in small ways – such as unilateral claims to small islands belonging to China or Russia – but in the end it will have to decide which alliances enable its survival.

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Our approach to the Japanese shore, then, felt warier than usual. We passed by a nosy aircraft carrier from the United States on our way between the southern islands. Our Chinese ship perused the Japanese coast with extra caution. But eventually we would touch, with the lightest kiss on the cheek. The embrace was made more out of politeness than affection. I cannot help wondering if such a kiss and embrace will one day be a little warmer.

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Knots and Knots

What does one do on a long voyage, not on one of those cruise ships that try to make you forget you are on your own at sea, but on a container ship? I was on a voyage half way around the world, from Melbourne to Tilbury (on the Thames), via Panama. For more than a month we crossed two great oceans and five seas. For the whole time the only source of entertainment was my own imagination. So, at those moments when I was not on the bridge, sneaking up to the bow, reading, writing, destroying the weight machine or playing table-tennis table, I practised … knots.

Beside the map of the world, on which I traced our route with strips of white paper, I found a chart with knots. And so, as the ship belted along at twenty knots, I learnt to make knots. A couple of old pieces of rope and I had entertainment for hours, practicing something I had wanted to do as a child when I first learnt how to tie a reef knot (that’s as far as I got then).

I began with a simple noose or slip knot – the sort you make by mistake when trying to find a knot that won’t slip. I progressed to the figure of eight knot, double eight noose, before realising there was a theme here: the nooses are among the easiest and most common knots. And the most effective. The heaving line knot is your classic hangman’s noose from the movies – a loop with half a dozen neat curls that look like a neat pile of rope. Easy to make; efficiently tightened. Time to move on, nervously.

The carrick knot is a skilful bit of ropemanship, as is the carrick rope ladder: it reminded me of a sly, fast-talking Irishman – some superficial good looks and impress-a-woman kind of thing, or perhaps an elaborate pastry, rather than anything eminently useful. The double-eight noose fell into the same category, as did the surgeon’s knot (unless it was for tying up veins after an amputation), and even the French bowline and bowline on the bight (see below).

Others are fancy names for the sort of knot you would tie instinctively and roughly, saying ‘I don’t know the first thing about knots’. Now I can say, ‘I reckon two half hitches should do it’ and do exactly the same thing. Sure to impress.

Some drove me nuts at first, like the manharness knot or lighterman’s hitch or rolling hitch, which are basically ways of hanging something securely from a pole. They look like an extraordinarily complex thing until you get the hang of it, and then the beauty of their simplicity shows through. It did not help that I was figuring out how to tie these knots from a completed display with mini-ropes on a wall hanging. Some simply had to be pried loose and examined closely before being returned to their place, sagging a little. The display is not quite what it used to be.

My favourites? The bowline, mainly for its name but also the way it seems to come naturally. A small loop, large loop paid out and a quick twist and fold-back through the first. Beautiful piece of work, although the variations seem to me unnecessarily elaborate when the simple one does the job perfectly well: the French bowline (an extra loop) and the bowline on the bight (great name, but …). The sheet bend is a delight (single better than double), a simple way to tie two ropes together securely so that one is an anchor and the other can pay out two lines from there. But the one that seduced me is the sheepshank: a simple twist, curl, loop, fold-back and tie-off, it produces an impressive and very functional knot. Its purpose: I actually don’t know, but I suspect it may be for tying sheep’s rear legs together …

Yet the Everest of knots is the Spanish bowline, the second last knot I taught myself (the last was the rope ladder, a variation on the heaving line knot). Gradually ascending the scale of difficulty, I moved through the stage of the bowline, the French bowline, the bowline on the bight and then … the Spanish is a beautifully symmetrical piece of ropemanship, looking a little like a pair of testicles. Two loops hang down, topped matching twists and curls above the loops before the two ends of the rope, having magically turned inside out and then outside in, line up together at the top. A tug on the loops and the ends and the Spanish bowline announces itself.

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Yangtze Angel

Day One

The tree branches drift slowly to the bottom of my glass. Or rather, they seem like branches, since I am used to minuscule tea leaves. That is, if I can get them, for most tea at home comes in tea bags. Here, that simply means it’s crap tea, needing to be pulverised and bagged to prevent one noticing the mould and bugs and leaf-rot. Back to my glass of tea: one by one the whole leaves and twigs sink from their gathering at the top of the glass to the bottom, gradually reforming as a dense forest while the water cools sufficiently to drink.

I am sitting in a tea-house, awaiting the check-in and boarding of the Yangtze Angel, a boat that would take me down the Chang Jiang (aka the Yangtze or Yellow River). More of that soon enough. I had arrived in Chongqing, towards the south of central China and at the beginning of the navigable section of the river. That section is long enough, taking seven days to the sea at Shanghai. But I was to sail for three days, for I had to disembark at Yichang, near Wuhan.

For a mid-October day, Chongqing is warm enough. The city is well enough out of the Beijing-Shanghai corridor to be in transition, between older patterns of life and the rush to a modern China. So I opt for the metro, meander up tumble-down stairs and alleyways, get lost and find my way out again. I ponder stalls that hug all manner of corners (often, they are just an individual sitting before an open sack), farmers with shoulder sticks laden on either side with heavy baskets of fresh food, and a pile of mouth-watering stinky tofu. It reminds me of the hole in my stomach, so I order three lots. And then, footsore and sweaty, I am into the tea-house – not some madly overpriced affair as you will find in a tourist trap like Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai (RMB 600-700), but a local one, serving just glasses of tea at a reasonable rate (RMB 20).

Soon enough, it is time to board, although that requires a cable car to descend to the Chaotianmen pier. One of the guards, chest out and bellowing, blusters me through – through the line crowding the pier, through the cable car to the front, through the various checkpoints – until I ask him to stop. Those bananas look pretty good, so I acquire some from a stall run by a man with a face used to the sun, some light stubble in the sparse way managed by Chinese men. So also I get hold of some standard travel food hereabouts – two-minute noodles and some water. Just in case, really. Late in the evening, we chug out of the lights of Chongqing.

Day Two

The river is indeed yellow, laden with the runoff from countless streams in the mountains we continue to pass. It is source of food, water and income; avenue of transport; place to relax; offering hidden grottos for a tryst or shady deal; locus of stories and myths; but a place only for biodegradable waste, for it is remarkably clean with so much use. We pass barges carrying sand, coal, containers, cars, food, garbage … you name it, it is carried. Often, the barges have sections for passenger transport, since the river is still a major thoroughfare.

But I am most intrigued by the villages of the river people we pass. A cluster of houses, within walking distance of the next one, terraces to the river’s edge and up the more accessible sides of the steep slopes. Sometimes they straggle up a mountain side, at others they negotiate a gentler slope closer to the river – always out of reach of the varying river level. Typically built up to three stories in construction, many sport the beloved blue glass. And they all face the river, given its ambivalent mixture of magnificent succour and dire threat.

The infamous threats of flood have passed with the building of the Three Gorges Dam, although that has had the effect of wiping out lower villages and submerging the most fertile land. With sparser soil, people supplement their livelihoods in all manner of ways – fishing, tourism, hawking local artefacts, gathering wild fruits from highest slopes, an adeptness at extracting RMB from overloaded foreigners. But I sense that the locals have always been creative in such ways.

On board, the ship has been partially refitted over an old hull. So the metal floor buckles and pops as I walk over it, the outside decks have multiple patches, the stairs out the back are resplendent in their old and rusty glory, the life-rafts are faded and popping seams with cracked wooden paddles scattered about, the fire equipment consists of metal buckets of water, and the engines chug along with the same sound as the ancient barges and river boats that pass us.

I have not entirely escaped the overweight and know-it-all foreign retirees, diligently spending the kids’ inheritance (SKIing). They have the same battered look as the boat beneath its facelift. A few bewildered ones stagger about, tutting or rolling their eyes at the local barbarians. At least they don’t seem to drink so much, since the bar upstairs seems remarkably empty whenever I stroll on deck. A few backpackers too, who seem pissed off that it is just a little too touristy for their liking – rueing the chance to take the really serious rust bucket which was moored beside us during the morning’s pause for yet another tour on shore. But above all, the boat is full locals on a holiday, making the trip for the sake of getting downstream, a chance to relax and party. They have slipped their own grog on board, given their perpetual jollity and loudness.

Often we stop, for an onshore visit: the ghost town, the red pagoda cut into the rock, the white imperial city, the Three Gorges Dam. Most depart, whether foreigners or locals. Keen for quiet space and rest, I forego the chance to mix with them and the half-dozen other boats plying the route. The advantages are immense. On my small balcony, I soak up some October sun and watch the river boats pass. One of the staff drops a simple line in the water, hoping for a catch. He is joined by a colleague or two for a smoke and chat. Smoke fans from small fires on the hillsides as farmers do some burning-off.

Day Three

The river people; or is that the mountain people? Now I meet some of the local minority group, stocky of build, round of face, agile on mountain sides and on the treacherous surfaces of multiple moving decks. They staff our boat, act as tour guides, try to sell you small jumping river creatures at every turn, either fresh (aka alive) or cooked into weird and wonderful shapes that remind me uncannily of fried body parts. The river people are a small enough minority to be able to have three or four children (unlike larger minorities that can have two), and they tend to stick to the area.

Never seeing a flat surface wider than that of a room, they are at home with impossibly steep mountains, cliffs and overhangs. They clamber up to pick the choice wild tea that grows above 2,500 metres (and sells at RMB 1500 per kilo). They build dwellings and huts in places that should – strictly speaking – be accessible only the white eagles that sail above the cliffs. They scale thousands of stairs as a matter of course. They even leave for dead the monkeys who live hereabouts – one I spotted close by the water, keeping the sighting to myself.

But I see them mostly on the water. With narrow river boats powered by a simple two-stroke engine with a fan-belt, they use the river as the main thoroughfare. Downstream a new road may be in evidence, with spectacular bridges spanning the gorges. But upstream, the river offers the only quick transport. Mostly there are two in a boat, one steering when in motion, but both at work on whatever task when at rest. Earlier in the day, they were chugging here and there at a leisurely pace, but by late afternoon, nearly everyone is checking their nets. And now I notice the endless collections of net-buoys – a piece of styrofoam, an old life-jacket, a float, so that one may pass over in a boat and neither destroy the makeshift buoys or damage one’s boat.

At one point I see one of the floats moving. A closer inspection reveals a bobbing head. Man overboard? No, a swimmer, setting out for a long stretch in amongst the boats and fishing nets. And then more, perhaps dozens. The orange float is as much a life-saving device as to warn passing vessels – whether a chugging river boat, a careening speedboat, a barge or a multi-decked tourist vessel. No for me, although I can imagine the thrill of achievement at having avoided the challenges both above and below the water – snags, river refuse, water creatures, river currents and ever-present traffic.

All of this takes place beneath some of the most stunning gorges one will encounter. Sheer rock walls plunge from great heights into the water, plants cling impossibly to whatever small outcrop may afford a root-hold, occasional fresh rock indicates a recent fall. Beneath the water – so I am told – the bottom may lie 80 to 100 metres down.

Day Four

Nothing quite beats sleeping on water. No matter whether it the open sea, in the equatorial doldrums or in a force 11 gale, or on a river like this, with eddies, passing boats, and the ever-present shore line. The problem is that I manage little sleep on this night, for we enter the river docks in the new and largest hydro-electric scheme in the world. Fascinated, unable to control the itch to guide the ship through, I am up on deck before anyone else, an hour or so before midnight.

Announced by the series of flashing lights that funnel the boat towards the entry point, we edge forward. Now two cargo boats are before us, awaiting the filling of the first dock. We wait, edge forward, wait and finally squeeze in. The gates close while the massive dam blinks yellow in the near distance. The water level drops but eight metres. Is that all? I wonder. Ah no, it is the first of five docks, the others dropping up to 21 metres, before we arrive at the bottom some 80 metres below. And more dams are to come further downstream.

But we will not pass through them this time, for our port of call is the small river dock of Yichang. A country town, at least for the locals. No traffic jams, cheap housing, a quieter pace of life. How many people, I ask? Oh, only four million!

I am bound for the train to Wuhan, but I look longingly at the rest of the Chang Jiang, all the way to Shanghai. Four more days it takes, giving one a voyage of a week. I’ll be back to do the whole route.

The Hansa Run

The heavy Russian syllables tumbled out one after another as the guard at the gate pointed down the road of the container shipping terminal. All I managed to decipher was ‘Ro-Ro’ and ‘three kilometres’. The rest was a complete mystery. But set off I did in the direction of his outstretched arm, pondering all the while whether he had said, ‘turn left, left again, right, do a u-turn and swim across the harbour’.

Thankfully it was not to be, for the rough road led me on, past trucks, containers, railway carriages, piles of ice, cranes, dirty puddles and tumbling warehouses. Most terminals simply won’t allow idiots to meander around a busy site. Instead, you need to wait for a shuttle bus or an official car to take you to the ship. Thankfully, the Russians are more relaxed and creative concerning such matters.

Eventually I reached the ‘ТЕРМИНАЛ РО-РО’. Shouldering my way through tough Russian sailors, enjoying the company of a beaming port official who invited me to watch the end of a football game (St Petersburg defeated Moscow, much to his pleasure) before he would process my papers, I boarded a Finnlines ship, the Finntrader, that would take me over the next three days from Russia to Germany.

With no passenger gangway or signs, I wandered around aimlessly on the container deck, trying to figure out how to get to the cabins. Eventually, a young man working the deck asked me if he could help. ‘We don’t get many passengers’, he said. ‘So it’s strange to see someone walking on the ship’. He pointed me up some stairs and then towards my cabin. Gloriously spacious it was, with a bathroom, living area with easy chairs and coffee-table, desk, and then a sleeping corner with that clean white linen the Scandinavians know how to produce.

If one expected the passengers to be svelte Swedish women with long blond hair and time to kill, or perhaps sleek Russian women in impossible high-heals and tight jeans, then one was to be bitterly disappointed. Fortunately, I came with no expectations. This was, after all, a working ship, plying an ancient trade route across the Baltic. Its cargo may have varied from rubber duckies to industrial waste, from dildos to nuclear fuel, but they were all carried by containers, mostly on the trailers of trucks. And to drive those trucks one needs drivers.

On departure from St. Petersburg, about twenty burly Russian truckies were on board. Now was the time to relax, pass the time, drink, tell jokes – which they did incessantly and to uproarious laughter. But the emphasis was clearly on burly and I was soon to find out why. The Swedes may be good at producing all manner of fresh, crisp food, along with beautifully prepared seafood. But these truckies shunned such food as fit only for poofters (what did they think of me? I pondered). They preferred the long, heavy sausages, the massive chunks of dead animal, vast sloshes of gravy and sauce, huge piles of ice cream, bottles of sweet flavouring atop the ice cream, and, at afternoon tea, mountains of sweet pies and cream.

No wonder their chests were so full, their guts so extensive and low-hanging, their jowls so thick. But I also came to appreciate another distinctive feature of my voyaging comrades only after a further hundred or so joined us at Ventspils: they all sported bushy moustaches. There sat I in the dining room, thin and clean-shaven. There sat they filling the caverns of their guts and bristling with 120 moustaches.

By contrast, the crew I met were all Swedish women, all smokers, all full of smiles. For some reason, Swedish women are not so taken with burly Russian truck-drivers nursing their charges through the passage. So soon enough I had more than the usual personal attention from the crew. One sought me out when the meal was ready; another noticed my food choices and offered to arrange for vegetarian options; another was full of chit-chat when I ordered a couple of drinks.

‘Is English OK?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, thank God’, she replied as we talked of Australia, sun, beaches, and why in the world I was up here in the ice and cold.


Eventually we said farewell to … Leningrad! As we slid past the final piers of the famous port, I spied a vast sign welcoming ships to and farewelling them from ЛЕНИНГРАД. I said my own farewell with a smile. Soon enough we passed the formidable naval fortress of Kronstadt, where the radical garrison was a crucial element in the success of the communist revolution of October 1917.

Without a commercial passenger liner’s ‘entertainment’, without internet or phone, the time was my own. The day quickly settled into a rhythm of breakfast, lunch and dinner, served in a dining room and included in the cost of the ticket. In between I explored the ship, wrote, let my thoughts tumble and explored the ship again.

We sailed along one half of the major Hanseatic route, from St. Petersburg, stopping at Ventspils in Latvia and eventually berthing at Lübeck, in the Schleswig-Holstein area in what is now northern Germany. Known as the ‘queen of the Hansa’, Lübeck was the point where raw materials from the Baltic regions and Russia – timber, flax, honey, furs, resin (or tar), rye and wheat – would transfer to the overland route to Hamburg, there to be loaded on other ships and sent down the European coast line. In the reverse direction would go cloth and other manufactured goods.

Lübeck first came to prominence after it was rebuilt in 1159 by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. Granted the status of ‘free imperial city’ in 1227, it became the key to the whole ‘hansa’ or ‘league’ of like-minded towns in northern Europe interested in developing early trade (and making a profit). The league itself was officially established in 1356 with the first Diet of the Hansa (Hansetag) in Lübeck. But the groundwork had already been laid the century before, not merely in terms of trade routes, but also through Lübeck’s pre-eminence as a ship-building centre, the spread of German colonists along the Baltic and into Russia (Veliky Novgorod), and the powerful alliance between Hamburg and Cologne. At its peak in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Hansa League included between 70 to 170 towns – if one includes the many places with kontore and hanseatic merchants and warehouses – such as Ventspils, Riga, Tallinn (Reval), Gdansk (Danzig), Bergen (Brygge), Antwerp, Lüneberg and even London and Berlin.

Loose in structure, meeting irregularly in Lübeck, the towns either followed German ‘town law’ (based on that of Lübeck and with right of appeal to that town council) or had citizens who had been born of German parents – although that ‘German’ was Plattdeutch, the low middle German still spoken in those regions. Each town owed a military levy, needed for the frequent conflicts undertaken to protect Hansa interests from those who would and eventually did outstrip them, such as Holland, Denmark and Sweden. Operating for half a millennium (thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries), the Hanseatic towns developed the first pockets of what would come to be called the bourgeoisie.

But one merely needs to sail these parts to realise that the Baltic is an excellent sea on which to establish such a league. Or perhaps one could say that the Baltic itself produced the Hansa towns. Small ships with limited navigational equipment need a relatively small body of water on which to sail. The sea is small, land is always nearby, and although storms can whip up and cause a ship some grief, it is more often than not reasonably calm. More – such as the Atlantic or Pacific oceans – would have been far too much for their tiny vessels.


Our vessel was a container ship of the ‘Ro-Ro’ standard (roll-on roll off), although as I watched a massive crane lifting a few items on board I wondered whether it was also a ‘Lo-Lo” ship (load on, load off). Who is to quibble? But it was a far cry from the early ships they used for running between the Hanseatic towns. Initially they used the European cog, which was an enlarged Viking ship with a deeper hull, large sail in the middle, but no oars. By the fourteenth century it had a stern rudder added, which was copied from the southern Mediterranean and allowed one to sail into the wind. The basic design became a pointed bow, square stern and castles at both ends for shelter, cargo, people, and armaments – particularly important for the Hansa trade since nation-states did not yet have the structures for such protection. From here there were two variations on the cog, which took place through a mingling of northern European and Mediterranean styles. From the fifteenth century onwards, the carrack and caravel were widely used. The former added to the single square sail of the cog a lateen sail or two, borrowed from the Mediterranean. The latter had a slender hull and up to six lateen sails.

And to navigate those tiny ships, the methods were somewhat basic. Determining latitude was quite easy: focus on the North Star (Polaris) or sun, determine their angles in relation to the horizon, and then use that to determine distance from the equator. All manner of approaches were used, such as fingers, cross-staff, quadrant, astrolabe, and then the reliable sextant. But longitude was a different kettle of fish. The key was to measure how much time had passed from the last known landmark. But this needs an accurate timepiece and until 1761 none were available. At the time the Hanseatic League emerged, sailors were trying various approaches, such as guesswork, watching weed or flotsam floating past, turning an hour-glass at regular intervals, throwing a piece of wood over board and then timing it as it passed the stern, or a rope tied to the wood with knots at regular intervals (hence ‘knots’). The trick was to estimate speed, measure it several times a day and then calculate the distance travelled. All were variations on ‘dead reckoning’ – observing the ship’s movement and estimating its location as best as possible. It left much room for error. Yet with all these ‘modern’ inventions, sailors still relied on ‘capping’ or ‘kenning’, essentially guiding a ship from cape to cape by means of a lookout on the crows-nest, who would know (‘ken’) whether the next cape was in view and where reefs or sandbars were.

Of course, our ship made use of the latest equipment, including computers, satellite phones and screens for communication, electronic depth measuring devices, GPS devices (one for our current location, the other for waypoints), the latest radar with data provided on each ship passing, electronic charts, and duplicate controls on either fly-bridge. Yet it did not dispense with those age-old methods – the use of ears and eyes, assisted by binoculars.

On our first night, eyes were wide and ears intent, for as we passed out through the Gulf of Finland, a snow storm blew hard against the ship and a wind from Siberia cut to your bone. Through it all came another sound. Crunch, jolt, shake, crunch, jolt, shake – the Gulf had frozen over in what everyone was calling a ‘return to winter’. Word had it that a few ships had been frozen in on the previous night. Ours at least seemed to have the engine power to plough through it, burning that thick, black, barely refined fuel that goes by the euphemism of ‘diesel’ (it requires, I am told, heating up before use on a freezing day). Ice broke up, sheets slid over one another, a network of cracks faded away into the darkness.

Through my porthole, I noticed two search-lights beaming from the bridge. They were using their eyes, glued to binoculars, to scan the ice ahead in order to watch for a larger chunk that may cause the ship some problems. As for me, I looked at the caches of life jackets and wondered what a swim in the Gulf would be like in this weather.


Apart from the ice, snow storm and then driving rain from grey skies, the passage was peaceful enough. But soon enough, too soon it seemed, the low shoreline of the old Hanseatic queen, Lübeck, emerged from the line between sea and sky. This ancient mode of arriving in a place still gives me a thrill, the caress of the shoreline, the gentle negotiation of tight spaces to berth the ship.

Full of romance, thoughts of ancient sailors eagerly coming ashore, I was ready to leap off the ship and put my feet on not-so-dry land. But I was brought abruptly to a halt:

‘Passports and documents need to be checked first’, I was told.

‘How long?’ I asked.

‘About two hours’, she said. ‘And you will need a shuttle bus in the port, before you clear customs’.

It was a far cry from the relaxed Russian approach.

Keeping Watch

On the bridge of a modern ship one finds three levels of keeping watch.

The first is the most recent high-tech: computers for data analysis, plotting wind direction, the ship’s course and monitoring every aspect of the ship, satellite phones and screens for communication, electronic depth measuring devices (fore and aft), two different GPS devices, one for our current location, the other for waypoints, the latest radar (doubled) with information of each ship passing, electronic charts (doubled), duplicate controls on either fly-bridge, as well as the slightly older phones and walkie-talkies. All the lights, ballast control, heeling panel, Suez canal panel, alarms and fuses are on another massive counter. And this ship is nine years old, so some of this equipment is ageing.

The second level may have been reduced somewhat since the onslaught of all the gear above, but it has not been dispensed with; clinometer, dials for wind speed and direction, a clock or two, a speed dial, and tow dials, one on each side of the bridge and copied outside on the fly bridge, for engine revs (full is up to 91 rpm, but usually we sit on 81). My favourite is the old style barometer, non-electric, hanging in a corner.

But then, despite all the equipment, new and old, nothing quite replaces ears and eyes – assisted by binoculars. I prefer this last and oldest group, especially on long voyages such as the passage from Australia to Europe via five seas, two oceans and Panama Canal.

Greasing Palms: Pilots and Gifts on the Pacific Crossing

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’.