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.

La Tour 343 (29 07)a

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

Thirty-eighth and last day of the voyage; English channel to the Thames estuary. End of the voyage.

The English channel is like a ship highway – massive container ships, tankers, ferries, sailing boats, para-surfers, wind-surfers, swimmers and dog-paddlers. I feel a resistance to the crowds – of people and tasks – and a longing for the solitary stretches of the Pacific. Above all, I feel like a traveller from strange and distant lands, much more ancient than here, lands to which I long to return.

Achievements of the voyage:

We crossed two oceans and four seas.

Christina 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.

Christina read 22 novels.

Christina 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.

Christina 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.

But how to write of the end of a voyage? How to be on land again in the midst of myriad people in a summer frenzy, desperately trying to get home, crowding into trains in a way that make the Chinese feel envious, feeling a strange disconnect with the world of the land and its ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To stand on a bridge and silently watch an Atlantic dawn over the port bow is an experience impossible to express.

The first European birds join us, to spend a night or two on the ship as we head landward. The last part of a journey always has the curious pleasure of what comes to an end and beings, the knowledge that what you have is passing and the anticipation of what is to come. Much slower on a ship; on a train, for instance, it is the last few hours of a long haul, but on a ship it gradually builds over the last few days. The assistant cook, however, was hopping about the dining room today. Bounding out and beaming, he flourished his airline ticket home to the Philippines, talked of nine months and ten days at sea, his family – he couldn’t keep still.

A simple comment from the second mate has stayed with me. We were 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 said: 83 Filipino sailors are being held on ships right now by the Somali pirates, some for months. When it was a French or American captain and crew (on a Maersk ship), they rescued them immediately.

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

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

For a brief moment or two, the Atlantic glittered in the sun as I made my way about the deck. Unusual for the Atlantic, said the captain, even in summer. He spoke of storms, the sea rising up to two metres during them, of the mere half dozen captains who would take ships on the northern route through the North Atlantic, for most could not sleep on the winter roll, of how I too would find that problematic even if the actual conditions did not bother me.

And then before we knew it, the fog and rain came in …

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

Thirty-fourth day of the voyage: fourth day of the Atlantic crossing.

The strange triggers of memory: passing along the Carolina coast, outside the string of islands that once hid pirates but now conceal ships from the biggest navy in the world (also pirates), I recalled the brief trip with an ex-wife and two daughters to the coast along here in 2004. I was teaching at Duke for a short while. A moment of rebuilding, a different reconciliation. And then, as we slipped by south of Cape Cod and touched the tip of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, I went back two decades to Montreal and journeys to the Cape and then the long summer trek out through Quebec, the Maritimes and fascinating, rocky Newfoundland. Only three children then, the third a new baby in nappies.

A different time but not another life (unlike other moments) for these are memories of profoundly formative times – and entirely unexpected on this voyage.