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

I was following the same route that my mother’s family had taken when immigrating to Australia in 1957. Except I was voyaging in reverse, sailing from Australia to Europe via two oceans, five seas and the Panama Canal. Six weeks it took them on an immigration ship; five weeks it took us, on a container ship from Melbourne.

Passing through the canal, I thought of my maternal grandparents, enticed to immigrate for a host of reasons – a country still recovering from war, Oma keen for a better climate for her health, Opa focused on overcoming thwarted ambition and impatience with his career. They were a couple of years younger than me at the time, with a family of seven children ranging from 18 to about 3. How did they manage six weeks on a crowded immigration ship (bunk beds) on the ocean? What dreams and expectations did they have? How much was based on propaganda and sheer lies? What did they think of the home they had left, to return only once many years later?

As we passed into the Caribbean, I looked up some photographs. Someone had taken some shots with a simple Box Brownie camera, a gift perhaps on departure, like a digital camera these days. Shots of the farewell at Rotterdam, a stop in the Dutch possession of Curacao, the passage through Panama, crossing the equator, a Pacific Island. I wondered what was going through their minds, what feelings of loss and regret, what hopes and anticipations. In one photo, my mother and her brother stand at the railing as the ship was about to leave Rotterdam:

She was 18, he 17, with deep roots already in the Netherlands. A last look to catch a face or two in the crowd on the dock, full of promises to keep in touch, the confidence of young people setting out on the journey of a lifetime, their best winter clothes on for departure. Following Roland Barthes’s advice to identify the punctum of the image, I cannot help notice the contrast between their smiles and the faces beside them. These reflective faces, not without trepidation, know it will not be possible to return easily, that years, not months would mark the absence.

My grandparents, in the middle of this picture, have similar faces:

As land creatures, we tend to take photographs of times at port or on shore, or at least when land is in sight. Although this photograph of the Panama Canal passage brought home a very different time, feeling more like something out of Joseph Conrad:

Birthdays pass on board, people try to find space on a crowded immigration vessel, families are crammed into tight cabins, especially since the Australian government was paying for passage:

My eye is drawn first to my uncle’s face and his birthday cake, but then quickly to the portholes and the sea, the small shelf in tight space, the chipped paint on a no-nonsense working ship, a book (a Bible?) in the corner. What possessions do you take with on a voyage half-way around the world in order to start again in a land about which you know relatively little?

Yet two photographs still strike me, one taken just before departure, the other after a year or more in Australia.

With money to pay for a professional photographer, good clothes and with photo faces on, they cannot help give the impression of anticipation and promise. Of course, the Australian government loved these images for propaganda purposes, a large white family coming to shift the fabric of a small Australia away from its closed English heritage. However, after a year or two in Australia:

The image is grainy, taken with a Box Brownie, only a couple smile, the rest grimace and look a little glum. The reality had turned out to be grimmer than the propaganda given to potential immigrants. Unlike many immigrants, my grandfather actually found work – a coal mine – but accommodation was basic, in a garage for a while, and money was scarce. Thoughts had turned to returning to the Netherlands, but my grandmother’s health was better in the Australian climate and my uncles and aunt had already made friends, my mother had met and married my father.

And I had been born – held in my grandmother’s arms.

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

Twenty fifth day of the Voyage; second day of the Caribbean crossing

Kingston, Jamaica, 1000 to 1400.

A hope dashed: the seven hour stop at Kingston, Jamaica, became less than four – not enough time to go ashore, in the opinion of the captain, especially if the ship is ready to go earlier.

Earlier, a small drama, overcome by the sheer force of personality on behalf of the pilot. We had arrived early in Kingston and were told to drift until 10 am for the pilot, Then, when we told to go, we went; then, when we were at full steam, to wait and go on behind the other ship, the Vega]

The captain is absolutely furious and makes the ship do the equivalent of an ocean burnout: 40,000 tons at port 20 and full steam.

A foul mood ensues on the bridge, until the calypso pilot comes on board and overcomes the mood by sheer force of personality. 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 less than two minutes.

Pilots: 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 or midships. But one never offered them any cartons of cigarettes, which we were to see soon enough. As with the Panmanians, who expected them en masse. We had five pilots in all for the canal and Montezillo and they were all given to pilot versions of machismo. A little disdain for the crew, ignoring passengers, barely acknowledging the captain’s authority and never saying a thankyou for a command carried out. By contrast, Jamaicans simply charmed the pants off you (there was but one woman present): smiles, jokes, stories, laughter, a constant chatter that made you feel like you were sitting at a pub with the best of friends. All the while, the commands were passed on in between the long narratives, calmly and in plenty of control. Only when the ship had to dock in a tight corner did he stop for a few moments, although now chattering into the walkie-talkie. He smiled widely indeed when the cartons of smokes appeared from out of the captain’s stash. As for the Americans on the east coast, they were (surprisingly) happy to accept the smokes, but they were garrulous and friendly to a superficial fault and usually full of crap – at least whenever they opened their mouths, which was almost all the time.

Later, I asked the captain about the cigarettes.

‘If their opinion is important’, he said, ‘it makes things easier. The inspector at Panama, who checked the worthiness of the ship before entering the canal, was vital. Without his OK, the pilots don’t board and we don’t proceed. And I give them, one or two cartons, if the pilot has been helpful, like the Jamaicans’.

‘What about New Zealand?’ I said. ‘No smokes there’.

‘No’, said the captain. ‘They told 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 noticed a carton slipped to one American pilot, the captain simply observed, ‘It is the way it has always been done, a way to build relationships’.

Kingston pilot sequence (note the carton in his belt):

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

Twenty fourth day of the voyage; first day of the Caribbean crossing.

What do you do on a long voyage, at those moments when you are not on the bridge, writing, climbing the stairs, sneaking up the bow, destroying the weight machine or table-tennis table? Practice knots. In the meeting room – the one used for dealing with customs and immigration and sundry port officials – I found a chart with 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 fancy 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 a fucking complex thing until you get the hang of it, and then the beauty of its simplicity shows through. It didn’t help that I was figuring out how to tie these knots from a completed display with mini-ropes on a wall display. 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 ropesmanship, 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.