Ship Tales: From Australia to Europe

‘We have a rule in the Philippines’, growls the man to my left. ‘If you don’t sing, you dance’.

I seriously ponder dancing for a moment, but the prospect of gyrating before a dozen drunken Filipino sailors who are singing sensuous love songs, full of feeling and soprano tones, becomes less and less attractive. One sailor sticks the microphone in my face, another scrolls through the songs on screen and before I know it I am singing ‘Down Under’ – badly, very badly. I bellow, miss the words, am off key. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ is much better, after I learn not to bellow and how to read the damn machine.

Meanwhile the drink flows; cigarettes are passed around; delicious Filipino concoctions mass on the tables; I breathe a sigh of relief, having done my duty.

But what am I doing singing karaoke with drunken Filipino sailors? Is this a seedy bar in the Philippines? No, I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a container ship. I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats flying any day – for flying is one of the worst forms of transport invented by human beings – 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 CMA-CGM, the French company supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.

On board we have 23 officers and crew: the captain and engineers are from the Balkans, from Montenegro and Croatia, while the crew and the three mates are Filipinos – hard-working and competent sailors who are not confrontational, preferring quite means of addressing problems when they arise. Over the next long month I would get to know many of them very well, sharing stories and drinks, singing karaoke, celebrating an equatorial barbeque, gaining an insight into the sailor’s life, pondering sex on the high seas …

Local: A Waterborne Village in Motion

What is life like on a working ship, especially for crews who live for nine months at a time on board? A container ship cares less for its passengers than its cargo, its arrival and departure moments to which you must adapt rather than expect it to bow to your own schedule. So also with La Tour (named after a French painter and not a bowdlerised form of ‘the tour’): I soon lose count of the changes in ETA and ETD for each of our half dozen calls at ports. It all depends on when a dock is available, how fast the containers can be unloaded and loaded, and directives from the central office in Paris. So when we have the chance for shore leave, doubt lingers as to whether the ship will suddenly up anchor and depart without us – so we always make sure we are back a few hours before the ETD.

Chinese built in 2000, La Tour is a smooth, clean, relatively modern and fast ship. Our cabin is anything but compact, reserved for spare voyagers – the ‘owner’ perhaps, company executives, repair crews for engine overhauls, and passengers. A bedroom, bathroom and living space with a couple of portholes, plus access to the communal lounge, small gym downstairs – and pretty much anywhere else on the ship. Yet we are contained by that absolute boundary of the ship itself, the edge of the constantly quivering deck and a sea that plunges to unknown depths a step away.

The ship is constantly alive, full of myriad inter-lapping movements. The quiver and surge of the engines at full steam ahead is the constant backdrop, but as I write (after a storm), we ride the oncoming waves like a slow and sensuous fuck: a gentle push, withdraw, push, with the occasional rush of blood. At other times, with a cross wind and diagonal swell from the stern, it begins rocking, heavily and deeply. At one moment you run down the hall, small steps acting as brakes; at the other moment you are climbing a steep mountain. But the roll is never consistent: a quiet half dozen may suddenly be followed by a massive lurch, the horizon now at what appears to be 45% to where it should be, chairs sliding, cups falling off tables, a roll onto your other side in sleep even if you didn’t want to. Turn the swell to the front of the ship, but at a good angle and the ship adds a juddering crunch to the roll, for the nose dives into the wave, the tail goes in the air, and then the ship shakes itself like a drenched dog, all the while rolling heavily either to port or starboard. But even on the quietest sea, the proverbial pond or Pacific doldrums, the tiny quivers, shudders, the gentle lift and drop, the tilt on the floor, remind you it is not at rest.

One word struggles to capture the feel: fluidity. I mean not the standard feel of a ship on a fluid surface, but the actual ship itself. What does that mean? It flexes, bends and wobbles! I first notice this flexing when standing on the bridge, watching for the massive bow wave in heavy seas. Slightly out of focus, peering into another world, I notice what seems to be the ship shaking itself. No, it is more like a slow, rubberised wave that runs through the ship’s hull. You can see the containers and crane at the bow move to a different rhythm than those closest. I had of course heard of flexible steel hulls, but to experience it: a massively reinforced steel hull, carrying engines, equipment and over 20,000 tonnes of freight, rippling, flexing, wobbling.

A ship alive; so also with the human beings on board. The human dynamics of the ship soon become apparent as we encounter the familiar roll of a wintry, windy and wet Tasman Sea – our first leg. It is a complex mix of tribal arrangements, following ethnic, linguistic and political lines. 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 crew mess at the other end of Deck B.

Yet these are not ad hoc arrangements, as I find in a later conversation with the captain, for they are the result not merely of financial considerations but also of a reasonable amount of sociological study – some combinations work well; others don’t. On earlier voyages I had encountered Kiribati crews, Chinese crews, Papuan crews, Koreans. And he had worked with Indonesian, Japanese and Indian crews. The company finds that a few senior European officers work well with Filipino crews, but that Indian and Filipino do not (caste systems from India), or that European and Indonesian is not a good mix. So they are careful about organising crews, since they spend a long time together in restricted conditions.

The third tribe – apart from the ex-Yugoslavs and the Filipinos – is made up of the passengers, who have their own table in the mess. We – a Dane and Australian – meet three other passengers from New Zealand. They had come from Europe and are on the last leg of their voyage, from Melbourne to Napier. Obviously they have been too long together, driving each other up the wall: the logorrhoeic John, the retired minor bureaucrat with all the superficiality of an autodidact’s universal knowledge coupled with a mania for collecting things, the reticent and happy-to-follow Greg, friend of John and small businessman (radio transmitters etc), and the former seaman Les, bedecked with gold chains and bracelets, a sweep of white hair and the desperate air of one who had spent too many days at sea listening to John’s drivel. Les smiles broadly every time I cracked a mild joke at John’s expense or simply shock him. Napier could not come too soon, for otherwise one passenger would have been testing his swimming skills in the Tasman. After that we are the only two passengers.

On this flexing, quivering ship with its tribes, the rhythm of one’s day becomes very simple. Without ‘entertainment’ that serves only to remind you of boredom, the day’s simplicity becomes a pleasure: it turns around the meals and what you do with the time in between: breakfast 7:30 to 8:30, lunch 12:00 to 13:00, dinner 18:00 to 19:00. Unless there is a talker (but he had gone in Napier!) or the captain feels like a chat, the meal usually takes half an hour. The great excitement is reading the menu for the day (apart from breakfast, it is always ‘new’) or the news print-out – during our voyage, the World Cup results, or Tour-de-France, or, for some reason that is entirely beyond me, ‘Britain today’. Between meals: a quiet hour on the bridge before breakfast pondering the sea over a cup of tea, and then writing, some Danish language practice (don’t ask me why) and reading during the 4-5 hour stretches in between meals. Exercise? One might climb the endless stairs, inside and outside, up ten floors to the bridge and down again, or join a sweaty sailor or three in the simple but effective gym – for the weight machine, rowing machine and the surreptitious comparison of muscled bodies.

Eating, sleeping, writing, reading, being ogled by sweaty sailors … the other pastime is talk – as much or as little as you want. At meal times, an on-deck barbeque, during a safety drill, a pause on the deck, in the engine room or deep in the bowels of the ship, but above all on the bridge, mouths open, questions are asked, answers given, opinions shared, glimpses of other worlds and lives shared. But talk also takes wing beyond the outer limits of the ship, over seas and oceans to other places (often home) and other voyages. So let us stay on the ship a little longer.

Of Floatation Suits, Karaoke, Sex and the Mysterious ‘Passageway’

Calmly churning our way through ocean after ocean, peacefully reading and writing, wandering the deck … Not quite, for the ship is full of quirks and hidden corners, whispered secrets and the plain weird.

Take the floatation suit, for example. The overly keen third officer has 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. But I am soon transfixed by the floatation suits, barely noticing the questionnaires signed and the Yellow Fever certificates passed over. Back in the cabin I cannot wait to struggle into the snug floatation suit, stored neatly in the cupboard for that unwanted emergency which would require us to abandon ship. Made of the same neoprene as wetsuits, albeit in a bright orange that clings tightly to my body, it has a triple effect: I began sweating profusely, looked like a Telly Tubby and produced the most unflattering photograph I have ever witnessed.

Or Groundhog Day: on the first of July, the mate on duty announces that tomorrow we repeat the same day, since we are to cross that strange human invention, the International Date Line. And so, the next morning I wake with some excitement, for it is 1 July all over again. Will exactly the same events happen today, the same meal in the mess (probably, but it is the same no matter which day), the same acts, conversations, same stretch of ocean covered, same readings from the instruments that measured our voyage, same latitude and longitude, same markings on the sea chart? Groundhog Day? Sadly, it is not to be.

Or almost being strafed by a US Marine helicopter gunship: we are sailing along the east coast of the USA, past the Carolinas and up to Virginia. I am reading quietly earlier in the afternoon, only to look up at the hint of noise and see, through the porthole, close by and in great detail the massive, camouflaged helicopter gunship on our bow. It sweeps across our bow and then turns to pass up our starboard side, directly overhead. Holy shit, I think, running to the deck in time to see the second pass. Up on the bridge I mention it to the captain and chief engineer. ‘Americans!’ shrugs the captain. ‘Only in the US would they do that’, meaning … ‘weirdest people on earth’.

Or drunken sailors: at an outdoor barbeque. Crossing the equator, in the Pacific doldrums (a curse for sailing ships, a blessing for ships with engines), still calls for a celebration. Soon enough the music is blaring and the fire raging in a half 44 gallon drum fire, which is piled high with all manner of recognisable and unrecognisable meats. The deck is full of very drunken Filipino – or ‘Pilipino’ as most of them say – sailors and even more drunken Croatian engineers. As they toss bones, cans and cigarette butts in the water, occasionally pissing over the side, they lean alarmingly over the railing in the midst of the Pacific. Amazingly, the count of sore heads in the morning is the same as the night before. The Bosun speaks endlessly about praying, missing church on board, Muslim neighbours, his seasickness. The third engineer, a man married three times and with an impossibly white shirt and winning smile, chats up my partner, asking whether she has a twin sister he could hook up with. And the habit for photographs is not some stiff pose with a photo smile – the smile that you put on when you think what a smile might be – nor even a pose by a monument, but a moment of extravagant mockery: everyone piles together, arms outstretched, drinks held aloft, heads kinked, frozen in time … The best approach to photos I have seen for quite a while.

Or sex on the high seas? Is it restricted to porn and five finger fantasies? Or do the younger horny men, with testosterone pumping through their systems, form bonds at sea, bonds that are regarded as either normal for sailors while at sea (but not at home)? Or is all this kept in a classic closet? Or is there one who is the ‘tart’, who is sexually available for a bit of massage, fellatio or buggery for anyone who is interested? Is the strict hierarchy of the ship also maintained in ship sex? I do remember a passenger on a previous ship, who liked to invite the young men into his cabin for massages and lessons in English … and possibly some French and Greek. Perhaps the old saying from the navy still applies: on shore it might be wine, women and song, but at sea it is rum, bum and fiddle.

Which brings me to the ‘passageway’: the captain is not one to forget things, for on the second last day of the voyage he mentions ‘the passageway’, asking whether I would still like to be initiated. I had mentioned it once, on our first day, a long month ago. Today the chief officer turns up early – boilersuit, helmet, boots, gloves and torch. I am impressed and grab 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? Let us see.

Having cleared the alarms on the bridge, the chief undoes the massive latches on an air-tight and water-tight door – ‘for fire’, he says – and plunges down a stairway. More like a ladder, really, slippery with oil on the steel steps. ‘It’s easier to go down backwards’, he says, skipping down the stairs as if they are a garden path. The bottom is exactly that, 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 – is nothing but the ocean and a sheet of 10mm iron.

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

I may as well be caving, I think to myself. But at last we reach our goal: the bow and its thruster – a small engine used to get the bow over in tight spots in port. The thruster itself is down a surprisingly cavernous space, a couple of ladders slick with the obligatory oil. I feel as though I have happened upon a treasure cave, deep within the earth – except of course that we are deep in the ship and the ocean, the lowest point, in fact, that we can go. But the treasure is 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 is the water, like perpetual surf created by the ship itself.

Sadly, we cannot stay there forever, since the chief is busy with the duties of four imminent ports (Tilbury, Dunkirque, Le Havre and Rotterdam). So I set off the way we had come. ‘No, this way’, says the chief, ‘there’s more’. We had come up the port side; on the starboard side the passageway winds 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 am off for the escape hatch. ‘Not so fast’, says the chief. He pulls me over, places a hand on my shoulder and whispers: ‘Do you want to see the cargo hold?’ I am awed, for now the deepest secret of the ship is about to be revealed. He bangs open the levers – alarmed as well – and hauls back the airtight door, beckoning me inside. I am a little worried that he doesn’t follow me in, imagining him slamming the door shut with a wicked chuckle, holding me there for ransom or perhaps as a sex slave for the crew. It is not to be … but the space looks 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.

Outside the cargo hold, we stand in reverend silence for a few moments. ‘Time to go’, says the chief. After climbing the ladder from the depths and stumbling out of the hatch, daylight feels strangely different.

The Sea

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, depicted 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.

Pacific

After the Tasman, our next challenge is the Pacific itself. It is a big fucking ocean. Even with a reasonably fast, modern ship, 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, for I feel on those days like putting on my board shorts, walking down the stairs to the beach and going for a swim on a stinking hot day. At others moments 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.

Squalls of rain pass, especially on the Tasman Sea. Whipped across by the winds blowing from the Southern Ocean, cumulus and stratus and altus and cirrus and nimbus clouds (and their myriad combinations) skid by on the horizon or blow down upon us. Once you get into the Pacific, they say, 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 turned 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.

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 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, especially 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.

Animals

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, smaller cousins of the albatross, 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 their wings in 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.

Alongside the birds, strange insects might join us in Panama or Georgia and then perish as we change latitudes, fish might flit about and myriad wriggly things would swim out of sight beneath the ship, but the highlight for me is the brief sighting of a whale. 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: a whale, he assures me. Until now we have sighted a few spouts in the distance, viewable only through binoculars, but this one has 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 is it as surprised as I am, thinking that it had a whole ocean in which to surface, only to find a ship at the tip of its left fin?

Atlantic

The grey Atlantic! 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.

Global: The Look to Land

We may be a waterborne village in motion, the far-reaching sea may be the natural boundary for that village, yet thoughts always pass beyond the sea to land. I may be talking with a quiet captain on the bridge at dusk, with a bosun in the bow, a wary first mate or a keen (and newly-capped) third mate, but each of them would inevitably bend the discussion to home.

The bosun is happiest to talk in two of his elements: his natural home on the open deck or after a drink at the Equator barbeque. I first find him in the open space of the bow. Past the pilot access points, the stages and stacks of containers, ropes, grease pots, ladders, storage and safety cubicles, the bow is a peaceful spot, away from the noise of the engines – assuming you are not crashing through mountainous seas. Here he is, along with his mate, AB Lorenzo of the pock-marked face and deft table-tennis hand. The bosun sports a bandana, whiskers and twinkling eyes; I am not sure whether the resemblance to a pirate is conscious or not. He tells me of his home in the south of the Philippines, in amongst the Muslim separatists who are working towards their own state. Does that create tensions? I ask. No, we Christians and Muslims just live amongst each other … and my brother is a senior officer in the army. No trouble. He told me of the dislike of Spanish due to its colonial associations, of the way kids want to learn English, of Tagalog, the Philippines’ own language. And all this before a drink: at the Equator barbeque he tells me of his faith, of missing church, of women and children …

The captain’s personality usually defines a ship. I have experienced a loud-mouthed racist with whom everyone feels comfortable, since he was direct and clear; in contrast to a mercurial brooder who scared the daylights out of the crew since they never knew what he would say or do next. On La Tour the ship runs quietly and of its own accord, again a direct effect of the captain. This one leaves what needs to be done to those who did it best, never raises his voice, never loses his temper, retreats when needed for time to himself (fully confident that the officers can do their jobs) and the emerges to speak when he feels the need. The crew confides that they much prefer his approach, since Filipino culture is generally non-confrontational.

At dusk or in the early dawn the captain is happiest to talk. From Kotor in Montenegro, a walled city that once had its own fleet like Dubrovnik a little to the north, he comes from a long line of seafarers. So strong is the tradition that sailors from elsewhere in Eastern Europe (he mentions Russia) come to Montenegro to study and train. Kotor is like Dubrovnik, he tells me, a walled port that dates back to Roman and even pre-Roman times, with a long and proud maritime history. Once, Greek and Roman triremes docked, as did the ships of the crusaders, Arabs and medieval traders, each leaving their mark. But with a wife and two small children he finds it difficult to be away for up to five months at a time.

I mentions that he would have been born in the former (or ‘ex-’ as he called it) Yugoslavia and ask about languages. Now Montenegro claims, he tells me, to have a separate language, at least since independence after 2008. But they all know it is the same language – Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin – with regional variations within and across countries. I also ask what he thinks about the breakup of Yugoslavia: everyone wants his own little kingdom, he says. And the possibility of centripetal forces bringing Yugoslavia together once again? We are beginning, he says, to realise that small independent states are quite weak against the multinational companies and powerful states around us, so there are some moves to cooperate and present a united front.

But his comment about the Balkan war strikes me. He too feels that Yugoslavia had worked well as a socialist country. And he had witnessed its destruction, the NATO attacks, had served for a year in the army, although a senior officer had given him a non-combat role since he was so young and at the maritime college.

I ask, ‘what was the war like?’

After a pause, he says: ‘We didn’t know what was going on’.

Next down in the chain of command is the first mate, or ‘chief’. Should anything happen to the captain – a two-day rest after the murderous string of ports, or accident, illness, abdication, dismissal – he is in charge. The chief is a wary man, suspicious of officialdom (especially at port), deferential to power. But on a dark bridge he fires back a question at me after I had assumed our brief opening exchange is over. He wonders whether we are bored, how much we pay for the passage (a lot for him!), why we choose to go by sea. We talk more openly of the ship’s cook – I think he is pretty good, but the mate says they always complain about the cook. He laughs at the invitation we had received to the third engineer’s birthday party, especially when I say I have never sung Karaoke before. Sometimes we have a band on board, he says, since many play instruments.

Soon enough our conversation turns to work on board and, of course, home. He had gone to sea out of tradition and for the money, for the pay is much better than at home. But he comes from an island in the north of the Philippines, where people still manage largely on their own, something he much prefers – fishing villages, vegetables and animals, no big cities at all. His girlfriend too is from there. But I ask about contracts and work, especially in light of the many captains and officers who cannot get work during the ongoing Great Recession.

‘We are paid less than them’, he says simply, ‘but it is big money at home, so we don’t mind. We have work’.

‘What do you do with the money?’ I ask.

‘According to the contract’, he says, ‘80% has to go home, although what you do with it after that is your own business’.

‘Like the many other Filipinos working overseas …’ I say. ‘But do you like working as a mate?’

‘I’m not bored!’ He assures me, for it is hard work. “But I do find myself caught between company and crew, each making demands one way or the other’.

Yet in all these conversations, a simple comment from the second mate stays with me. We are talking about pirates and their extent – from Port Said and the Suez to Indonesia and the South China Sea, from Madagascar to the West African coast. And then he says: ‘83 Filipino sailors are being held on ships right now by the Somali pirates, and have been for some for months. If it is a French or American captain and crew (as on a recent Maersk ship), they rescue them immediately’.

Land: Signs, Ports and Pilots

Talk and thoughts may constantly turn to our preferred firmament, especially that section of it called home, but the signs of land are a sailor’s delight. Eagerly anticipated, warily assessed (reefs and rocks and so forth), the signs of land are inescapably part of being at sea.

Signs

And the most telltale signs are the birds; not the seabirds which spend years in the deep ocean, not the land birds who crap themselves at the smell of a sea-breeze, but the coastal dwellers who don’t mind heading out to sea for a day or two. So the cormorants arrive. I make my way to a quiet bow to make closer acquaintance. About fifteen pairs of webbed feet cling onto the white steel of the foremast, wings out to be cleaned, bums dropping massive blobs of white and black shit. A dozen or so today join their four friends, who had been with us since yesterday. But as we draw nearer to land, they are off to find another ship further out to sea where it would conveniently disturb the flying fish so they could snap up one or two.

And the birds do their trick, for as I am out perusing them and avoiding their shits, I sight land for the first time in over two weeks: this time the mist-covered and mountainous coast of Panama. While thinking of Spanish invaders first viewing the Pacific, indigenous people responding, the accident-prone first efforts to build the canal, I realise once again that this gentle approach to a new land, which suddenly emerges from beneath the mist, is – paradoxically – both a privilege restricted now to a few and the way most people have done it for centuries, if not millennia.

Ports

Ports, ports, ports: the meeting point, for a ship of our size, between two elements, water and land. Half a dozen ports for our voyage half-way around the world: Napier, Tauranga, Manzanillo, Kingston, Savannah, Philadelphia, and then at last Tilbury. They involve tight schedules, mad rushes to unload and load containers, chronic lack of sleep, quick visits to town for all manner of necessities (food, gadgets, sex, internet, telephone calls), and of course the age-old excitement of a port town.

Napier might represent the myth of merrie olde England to its myriad English immigrants, Manzanillo might be far too dangerous to visit at night, shore leave at Kingston might be forbidden due to a very brief stop, and Savannah and Philadelphia might manifest that increasingly strange American phenomenon: internal heritage tourism that reinforces their extraordinarily insular view of the world. But two moments in port stand out for me: the Panama Canal and the port of Philadelphia.

The Panama Canal: legendary, anticipated, thoroughly engrossing and tiring. We are booked in as soon as we arrive – at 1.30am. So, short of sleep, we stagger onto the bridge to watch the passage: by Panama City, into the Pacific entrance and the Monteflores locks; tight fit, up one, two, three locks and into the dammed up channel (almost a lake in parts) that is fed by fresh water streams. We arrive early at the Atlantic end, so after lying at anchor for four hours, we enter the three locks to drop to sea level once again.

Of what do you think when passing the canal for the first time? I ponder the stories of its construction, already told to me at primary school, especially about the mosquitoes and yellow fever that killed so many of the French workers on the first effort. They had arrived here after a triumphant construction of the modern Suez Canal, only to come to grief with disease, landslides (due to an effort to cut a sea-level canal) and bankruptcy. Only then did the Yankees put together a consortium, construct it in the 1910s and 1920s and promptly arrange for as lengthy a lease as possible – so much so that Panama did not get control of the thing until a few years ago. The Yankee concern about losing control to those lazy Panamanians has become an embarrassment, for the new owners have done more development and upgrading than the Yankees ever did.

Of course, the canal and its myriad derivative industries probably provide the primary source of employment in Panama. With a fee of half a million dollars for each passage, it functions much like the Danish ‘sound tax’ on the Øresund, or the similar Dutch tax for passage through Amsterdam. Thousands of ships pass through month by month, year by year, providing employment in maintenance, renovation, new construction, drivers of the land tugs, and the endless pilots. We have five pilots: two to share the initial passage, one to get us out through the Atlantic locks, another through the breakwater and a fifth to get us into Manzanillo.

More of those pilots in a moment, for the other signal experience at port is Philadelphia, after the eight-hour run up the Delaware River. It is pushing midnight and I cannot sleep. By the port window are too many lights, too much excitement for the little boy within. So I kneel on my bed and look out the porthole, which has a view directly over the container deck. I watch the last container loader scurrying to get the job done, for he is late. The massive machine moves smoothly back and forth, pulling out container after container and then slipping in their replacements. Fifty meters above ground, with a glass floor to see what he is doing, the driver deftly lines up the massive container latch, dangling on the end of cables that can easily tangle, clamps it shut over a container and hauls it out or in. If out, it is gently lowered onto a waiting truck – those curious semi-trailers used only in ports – while men scurry about beneath (with a death-defying confidence beneath those 40 tonne containers); if in, he picks one up from the truck and lowers it into the grooves designed for it on the ship. First containers go deep into the ship, out of sight for me; later the final layers are laid. Midway, the massive metal separating plate – the deck, really – is raised and dropped carefully into place. The containers below are now sealed, the ones above still to come. As the containers swung out and in, I notice figures on the deck, wharfies and seamen, ducking out of the way when a 40 tonne container comes in, jumping out as soon as it settles into place to secure it with the braces and connect the cords – if a reefer. Mesmerising stuff.

Almost before the last container is in place and before the ship’s crane is swung back and nestled back into its nest (the seaman has been waiting in the cockpit, cigarette glowing), the engines rumble and I am on the bridge. Half an hour it takes for a 200 metre ship to manage a turn in a river that seems 201 metres wide. Tugs puffing and churning, bow-thruster pushing, rudder hard to port, engine astern, walkie talkies crackling, pilot and captain hanging out over the fly bridge. Bow down the river and the tugs are gone, along with the harbour pilot. Now it is the quiet river pilot and the eight-hour run back to the ocean.

Pilots and Cigarettes

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 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 quite 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 keps 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.

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 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’.

Economics: Sailors, Ships and Profits

It may have been a waterborne village in motion, surrounded by the dominant element on this water planet, and those on board may have enjoyed the simple solitude while bending their thoughts homeward, but the main reason the ship plies these routes is economic. Beneath the patriotic French-flag-waving and chest-beating claims to being the third largest shipping company in the world, CMA-CGM is in the business of making a profit. And they do so by generating surplus value – trying not to pay the workers what they are worth and charging more than they should for the goods shipped. In short, cost-cutting here; over-pricing there. This economic reality influences every moment of one’s day on a container ship.

Everyday Life

So let us begin with the seemingly small moments of everyday life and then work our way to the big picture. Initially, the major events of the world seem very distant from our day-to-day reality, appearing only as printouts on the back of used paper from the captain – the World Cup, Tour de France, Gulf of Mexico oil spill … More interesting and important for our daily lives is the new menu at breakfast. The first meal of the day may be largely the same (four different versions of egg on toast; four types of ‘breakfast meat’, should you want them; some more toast), but after that everyone reads the menu for lunch and dinner with great interest.

Why the great interest? Are we starved for news, seizing on the smallest piece of information like hungry lions? Not at all, for precisely with the food does capitalism on the high seas influence our lives. From the deckhand to the captain, all talk of the dropping food budget – from USD $12 to $9 to $7.25 per person per day – and the consequent pressures on the cooks and what can and cannot be requisitioned. Even more, the company has decided that the second cook is to go in Rotterdam, leaving them with but one cook.

As these complaints roll on, I find a shopping list for 23 sailors and passengers, from the back of a news print-out:

Bonded stores:

Beer                                                         8 Cases

Cigarettes                                79 CTN      15800 Stick

Whisky:

Johnny Walkers Red, 700 ml,     4 Btl           2.80 Litres

Johnny Walkers Red, 1 Ltr        7 Btl           7.00 Litres

Liquor:

Bacardi Rum, white, 1L            2 Btl           2.00 Litres

Ricard Aperatif, 1L                  7 Btl           7.00 Litres

Wine:

Sparkling wine Seaviw Brut (75cl) 9 Btl                  6.75 Litres

Assorted red/white wine (75cl)   65 Btl          48.75 Litres

Cask wine red/white, $L & 5L each 17 Cask  76.00 Litres

Engine:

Fuel oil                                                     196 MT

Diesel oil                                                  146.0 MT

Lube oil                                                    51,560.0 Litres

Fresh water                                               500.0 MT

General:

Detergent & soap                                       40 kgs

Grease                                                     550 kgs

Paint                                                        1,815 Ltrs

Thinner                                                    274 Ltrs

Kerosene and solvent                                 nil

Steward:

Cereal & pasta                                           35.0 Kgs

Coffee ground & instant                             5.8 Kgs

Tea (in bag @ 2 gr.)                                   8.0 Box

Sugar                                                       21.0 Kgs

Salt                                                          8.0 Kgs

Fresh meat                                                511.0 Kgs

Fresh fish                                                 155.0 Kgs

All canned food                                         310.0 Kgs

Eggs                                                         900.0 Pcs

Fruit, fish                                                  53.0 Kgs

Vegetable, fresh                                         114.0 Kgs

Butter                                                      8.0 Kgs

Margarine                                                 nil

Cheese                                                     33.0 Kgs

Milk                                                         96.0 Ltrs

Bread                                                       30.0 Lvs

Flour                                                        75.0 Kgs

Spices                                                       5.0 Kgs

An extraordinary insight into what makes a ship tick. Yet, while the dwindling amount of food is the major focus, everywhere one looks, miniscule cost-cutting is in place – all ‘justified’ by the ongoing economic crisis that began in 2008. For example, the first mate feels that he is caught between the crew and the company, with the latter making demands for stringency and the crew complaining. He knows full well that as a Filipino chief officer, he earns far less than someone from, say Europe or the USA, but it is still big money at home and he has more work than he can take on. The chief engineer (from Rijeka) finds it ridiculous that he should be questioned about every request for spare parts and maintenance. ‘We used to have four engineers’, he says, ‘but they want to cut us down to two’. The catch is that then they have to pay for extra personnel while in port for maintenance work. The captain talks of the communications equipment, which was replaced recently with a much cheaper version, which also happens to be far less effective. Now he can wait for up to two hours for a satellite connection in order to carry on the necessary business of a container ship.

Marx’s old point is still perfectly valid: in order to increase profits and market share, companies seek to cut costs in terms of personnel and equipment, shaving wherever possible, flogging people to work harder for less. Of course, the excuse for such cuts is hard economic times, a recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. But do they increase expenditure again when business improves?

Sailors (Workers)

The brunt of these perpetual efforts to squeeze out extra surplus falls on the sailors themselves. Seeing them at work, calling the deck of the ship their home for nine months at a time, you soon realise that it is hard, physical labour. Part of the international working class, they toil with heavy machinery, with all its dangers and concerns with safety, much like train drivers and truck drivers, miners and farmers. And it is their labour that keeps capitalism running. Obvious enough, but their work is usually (and conveniently) hidden on passenger vessels; here you simply can’t miss it.

The crew is Filipino, a common enough feature of international freighter shipping. They may be Korean, or Kiribati, or Chinese, but the reason is the same: they are a cheap labour source that keeps costs down. Or rather, they enable a greater profit margin for the companies who employ them and ship all that crap around the world. The perversity of the situation is that at this time and place, the current arrangements suit this Filipino crew. How? Again and again, I ask them – able seamen, bosun, steward, cook, perhaps a third or first mate – why they went to sea. Some say it is tradition, but all say it is money. Even at their reduced wages, it is more than they could earn at home. Better still, as Lindo the steward tells me, they are paid in US dollars – worth even more at home.

Inevitably, they send money home to support families, as do the ‘maids’ and cleaners who work in hotels in Copenhagen, wealthy homes in Hong Kong … wherever Filipino maids are wanted. It is a whole economy that relies on a large slab of its able workforce going overseas to send money home. Although it counts as a rational response in a deeply irrational situation, attempting to extract a morsel or two from a feast that is largely denied them, in the end it suits the owners of capital far more than underpaid Filipino workers.

But are they competent? Jim Stanaway, a captain on the Hansa Flensburg in 2008, once opined: pay peanuts and you get monkeys. And the news reports of shipwrecks (such as the Pasha Bulker in Newcastle in 2007) will always make the point that the crew is Filipino, or Korean or what have you. The implication: incompetence is a national trait. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, since I encounter capable, hard-working seaman, welding, painting, greasing, operating a neat and tidy ship. Ideal if you are a shipping company: they work hard and competently and accept far lower pay packets.

Perhaps crews like this one may have the last laugh. With their quantitative increase in skills, crews and officers may eventually lead to qualitative change: Filipino, Kiribati, or even Montenegrin or Russian, may well bring about a quiet mutiny at the heart of capitalist trade. One can only hope so.

Officers

What about the officers whom these mutineers would overthrow? Do they share the perspective of the crew? Or are they a distinct on-board ruling class? The answer is yes to both questions. On board the ship itself, they do seem to function like a ruling class. Often the shipping companies attempt to reinforce the difference by clearly demarcating the in-board ruling class from the crew by ensuring the officers are from a different linguistic, ethnic and national background. But once we move beyond the confines of the ship, the officers too are subject to the real owners of capital. For example, like the crew, the officers fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest); everyone knows it happens, the authorities keep checking paperwork to pretend it doesn’t. On the Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama), Korea (Pusan), China (Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Hong Kong etc) run, it is perhaps two hours between ports, so in a week you may get one or two hours sleep a night. Then accidents happen. However, at other times the shipping company blurs the difference between officers and crew, training some crew to become officers. While this might be an old policy to divide and conquer the working class, it is also due to a shortage of officers worldwide – in the vicinity of 1500. So pressure is on to reduce the requirements to become an officer. And also to reduce the pay – hence the Filipino officers. Less and less common will be the degrees from maritime universities such as the one on Kotor, with its four-year degrees and strict requirements for experience.

Ship

Ultimately, both crew and officers serve the ship and its contents. Or rather, while they serve the company and generate its profits, the way they do so is to focus all their energies on the ship and its ‘vital’ contents. The ship itself is a product of the Chinese shipyards, about ten years old. A cheap Chinese ship? In some quarters it is fashionable to think so. But as the chief engineer points out, the Chinese know perfectly well how to build prohibitively expensive state-of-the-art ships; it all depends on how much the client is willing to spend and in most cases those buyers want cheaper ships. Why? Firstly, for the buyer an expensive ship that will last thirty years or more is no good, since by the time you have paid it off it will be hopelessly obsolete. So you order a cheaper one without all the fancy gear, which will be paid off in a few years and can then turn a handsome profit for a few more before it is sold – at the moment when problems begin showing up. Secondly, for the manufacturer a ship of lesser quality has a built-in obsolescence, since it will need to be replaced sooner. As with washing machines and computers and mobile phones, so also with ships.

After all, as a buyer you need to reserve funds to run the thing and buy fuel. Halfway between diesel and oil, that fuel is so thick it needs to be warmed in colder climes before it can be used. And given the volumes, they speak not of litres but of tonnes. At about the 80 revs a minute needed to sustain a speedier vessel like this one at 20 knots, the engine burns about 100 tonnes a day. A quick calculation: with about three days’ stoppage for six ports in a 37 day voyage, that is 3400 tonnes for our voyage. All of which does not include diesel for the four generators and fuel oil heater. It takes little imagination to see that with Peak Oil, the shipping industry is severely fucked unless it finds an alternative mode of propulsion – the only viable option left is sail.

Nonetheless, the ship’s purpose is to carry cargo. So while we are engaged in calculations, let me offer a few more. The maximum load for this ship is 28,000 tonnes, made up of no more than 1100 containers, some full, some empty. According to Marisec (http://www.marisec.org/shippingfacts/worldtrade/number-of-ships.php), as of October 2010, the world has about 44,000 ships that carry freight (and 6600 passenger ships). Given that this is a medium-sized ship, we can multiply the amount this ship carries with the number of ships and come up with a reasonable idea of the amount of material goods shipped around the world with each voyage: 1,232,000,000 tonnes. Mind you, that is not per year, but per voyage.

If we want to find a rough calculation of how much freight is moved per year, we may take the number of containers in the world (which ship 90% of all cargo), take their average capacity at 27,500 kg (not including the 4000 kg of the container itself) and multiply by the number of trips made each year for each container. These figures come from 2005.

Number of containers:     18,000,000

Average capacity:            27,500 kg

Subtotal:                        495, 000,000 tonnes

Number of trips per year: 200,000,000

Total:                                     99,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year

Increase to 100% (from 90%):  110,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year.

As the engineer says: people shift a lot of crap.

All of these thoughts – whiling away the time on a long voyage – lead me to another point that first struck me in the middle of the Pacific: what of the much-vaunted volatilisation of the market? This is supposedly the generation of wealth out of speculation on finances and the money markets, the removal of any material base in the old sense for the generation of surplus value (which winds up being profit most of the time). One has only to travel on a medium-sized freighter like this one, or perhaps a tanker, in order to see the hard, physical reality of the stuff unloaded and loaded at each port, the sheer volume that this one ship can hold. Multiply by hundreds and thousands of ships like this, as well as the oil tankers and gas tankers and coal bunkers and, plying the world’s trade routes … they are as concrete as ever and those who work on them and for them are as exploited as ever.

End of the voyage

Standing on a bridge and silently watching an 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. The last part of a journey always has the mixed pleasure of endings and beginnings, the knowledge that what you have is passing and the anticipation of what is to come. That sensation is much slower on a ship, for it builds up over the last few days.

One way to deal with that imminent end is to list the achievements of the voyage:

We have crossed two oceans and four seas.

My partner lost 15 cm from her waist through rigorous exercise.

Roland gained 15 cm on his chest and about 30cm on his shoulders from the weight machine.

My partner read 22 novels.

My partner read a 600 page commentary on the book of Acts by none other than the riveting Dick Pervo.

Roland learnt how to tie 18 different types of knots.

We ate 106 meals at the officers’ mess and four on land.

Our table tennis game has become very mean and sharp.

My partner elicited winks from the captain.

… was told by the third engineer it was just as well she hadn’t had children, since they would have ruined her beeeyuuuuutifullll body.

… was smoothly told upon disembarking by the first oiler that he would meet her in his dreams.

On Day 38 we pass from the English Channel to the Thames estuary, eventually taking on the harbour pilot for Tilbury. However, even in the channel the crowds are evident. For the English Channel is like a ship highway – massive container ships, tankers, ferries, sailing boats, para-surfers, wind-surfers, swimmers and dog-paddlers. Already I feel a resistance to the crowds – of people and tasks – and a longing for the solitary stretches of the Pacific. 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. Above all, I feel like a traveller from strange and distant lands, much more ancient than here, lands to which I long to return.

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Sailing the Seven Seas: How to Travel by Container Ship

When most people think of a sea voyage, they think: cruise ship, wealthy and obnoxious retirees, bars, shops, discos … But another, far more satisfying way of sailing the seven seas exists: containers ships, or, as Americans call them, freighter ships. The problem is that if you walk into any travel agent and say, ‘I’d like to arrange a voyage by container ship’, you will get a blank stare in response. So here are a few tips to get on board.

What destinations? Each year 44,000 container ships ply the world’s major trade routes. Some of those ships take passengers and they will take you to most destinations on the globe. You can go around the world in 84 days or belt your way from Sydney to South Korea in 10 days. It is up to you, but the common destinations are on both sides of the Atlantic, along the trade route from Europe through the Suez Canal and the Far East via Singapore, and across the Pacific between North America and Asia. It is easy to sail from Australia and New Zealand to Europe, North America and Asia. Since the ships typically spend 12 hours or more in port, you can usually get a shore pass for a few hours. But make sure you are back a couple of hours earlier than advised, since ETDs vary.

How frequently do they sail? Two examples: four times a week a passenger-bearing ship leaves Bristol (UK) for North America; twice a month a CMA-CGM ship leaves Sydney for Europe via the Panama Canal. In other words, more frequently than you would expect! Remember, the purpose of such ships is to move freight: passengers must fit in with that. So you need to be prepared to board a day or two earlier or later from the initial date given. Flexibility is the key.

Is the accommodation comfortable? Forget compact cabins and bunk beds; on a container ship you will be given one of three officer cabins. Bathroom, shower, comfortable beds in a separate bedroom, living space, desk, plenty of portholes – all make for a very comfortable voyage. Plus you have access to the recreation room with spacious lounges, TV and DVD player, large desks.

How many passengers? Up to six, since the rules change beyond that number. Often there is less.

How old do you need to be? Between 6 and 80, although at the upper end you usually need a medical certificate to clear you for travel.

What is life on board like? They are working ships, so you fit in with that. 20 to 25 crew are on the ship, including officers and engineers. The crew are mostly Filipino, Korean, Kiribati and so on, and the officers often but not necessarily European. Above all, life is quiet, relaxing and simple. Unlike a passenger ship, you are allowed anywhere on the ship. The bridge is a favourite haunt, where you can talk with the officer on duty or enjoy the peace and quiet. The deck and engine room are also yours to explore, although the officer on duty likes to be told where you plan to go and – for the engine room – the engineer needs to give you the nod.

What do you do? Ponder the sea: out on the ocean you have the million different moods and shades of the sea to keep you mesmerised. Talk with people: at meal times, on the bridge, on deck, at the equator barbeque, over a drink at a party – everyone loves to talk at some time. Read: there is usually a library. Exercise: run up and down the hundreds of stairs or use the small gym. Write: about the voyage. Snooze: whenever you want. In short, you learn to entertain yourself and enjoy your own company.

What is the food like? You eat what the officers and crew eat, made by the cook. The quality varies from cook to cook, but is usually excellent. French ships (like CMA-CGM) often include wine with lunch and dinner.

How much does it cost? If you think of a container voyage as a means to get from A to B, it is more expensive than most flying. If you think of it in terms of travel, good food and accommodation for anywhere between 10 and 90 days, then it is relatively cheap. For example, on a recent voyage of 37 days from Melbourne to Tilbury (the port on the Thames), I paid $AUD 4500. That’s about $AUD 120 a day, or EURO 90 per day. You can find cheaper and more expensive fares, ranging from $85 to $180 per day.

Who do you ask? A few travel agents deal specifically with container travel, such as The Cruise People in the UK, A La Carte Freighter Travel in Canada, Freighter World Cruises in the USA, or Freighter Expeditions in Australia. However, by far the best is Hamish Jamieson’s Freighter Travel NZ – www.freightertravel.co.nz. He is able to get you on a ship earlier than most, especially to and from Australia-New Zealand.

Not long ago (the 1950s) a sea voyage used to be the way most people travelled ‘overseas’. Who knows, maybe it may soon be so again.

Ten tips for singing karaoke with a Filipino crew

Should you ever take a voyage on a container ship with a (very likely) Filipino crew, should you ever be invited to one of the crew’s parties, remember the following:

1. Never turn down an invitation to a crew party. The ship is small, rumour is like lightning and a snub means you will never get to see the most interesting parts of the ship or get to know the crew.

2. Don’t keep a tally of the number of times the glass of wine you have is miraculously refilled, the beer you have never seems to empty. The grog will loosen your vocal chords, so much so that you will experience that moment of all singing students: when you first take such lessons, you sing worse than you did before.

3. When the old able seaman grunts, ‘In the Philippines, we have a custom: either you sing or you dance’, opt to sing. Gyrating before twenty Filipino seamen is far less graceful than singing.

4. Let them set the example and be amazed at their high voices and sensuous song choices.

5. When it is your turn, do not choose hymns (they usually have them).

6. Do not choose national anthems, since they have a knack of spoiling the party mood.

7. Choose an old faithful, either a pop or folk song.

8. Do not bellow into the massive phallic knob of a karaoke microphone and don’t prance around as though you were in front of your own mirror.

9. Put down your smoke and beer while singing.

10. Remember: it is highly unlikely that anyone you know will have experienced this crucial seafaring moment.

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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Voyage

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Simplicity

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.

Encounters

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.

Passage

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.

Ship

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.

Arrival

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.