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

Twenty-first day of the voyage; fourteenth day of the Pacific crossing.

At last, the first hint of land after two weeks. It came via land-based birds, and their effect on a sailor is clearly noticeable: four appeared today, from the legendary Galapagos Islands (what a thrill to be so close the islands at the heart of evolutionary theory),

They dove for the flying fish, following the ship, settling on it for the night. Hovering, with wingtips curled, they would flip over, pull their wings in and dive bomb into the ocean before flapping up again with their catch.

When they first turned up, they made me realise that there are no insects out on the ocean – no mosquitoes, flies, beetles – and the only birds are the ocean-going ones, the albatrosses and mollymooks further south, who love the wind and storms, or perhaps migratory birds, high above and at the right season. The intriguing flying-fish don’t count, really; little black things that look like swallows, flapping along just above a wave for thirty or forty metres after being disturbed by the ship.

But land birds signal hope, an anticipation for creatures hard-wired to walk on terra-firma.

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

Twentieth of the voyage; thirteenth day of the Pacific crossing

At last the Pacific lives up to its name, although yesterday I did see my first flying fish in the last of the serious waves. By day 13 of the Pacific crossing, past halfway in the total voyage, I have thought much 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 crews as the first Europeans emerging for 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 were 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.

Ship’s Log: Day Sixteen (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Sixteenth day of the voyage; ninth day of the Pacific crossing.

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 or perhaps 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.

Ship’s Log: Day Fourteen (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Fourteenth day of the voyage; seventh day of the Pacific crossing.

Once you get into the Pacific, they said, it will be smooth, especially in the tropics. Before the tropics, just out of New Zealand, we had 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. Last night a tropical storm hit: rain belted down, leaked through the portholes; the ship’s gentle up-and-down motion, running directly into the swell, gained a sideways judder and roll. Some slept less well than they might, although I slept in rocking comfort.

Today the wind and swell strengthened, so that I am not permitted my daily walk to the bow. For now we hit the waves hard, creating massive bow waves and the occasional wall of spray that is whipped away by the wind.

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 last night’s 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 almost 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, the tiny quivers, shudders, the gentle lift and drop, the tilt on the floor, reminds you it is not at rest. One word struggles to capture the feel: fluidity.

Watching the ship flex: in these heavy, front-on seas I was watching for the massive bow wave. Slightly out of focus, peering into another world, I noticed the ship shake itself. No, it was more like a slow, rubberised wave that ran through the ship’s hull. You could 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 …

Ship’s Log: Day Thirteen (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Thirteenth day of the voyage; sixth day of the Pacific crossing.

This is now the sixth day without sighting land, belting along at full steam, 20 knots. We have ten days to go, so we are only a third of the way across the Pacific (from New Zealand). The Pacific is a fucking big ocean, even with a reasonably fast, modern ship. To experience it in this physical sense, day after day with the horizon only the circle of the sea, brings home that sense of vastness as nothing else can. Spare a thought for those who do so in a small vessel under sail …

The map, which I consult often, tells me that we are now in French Polynesia, in that new category of maritime colonisation called the EEZ, or ‘exclusive economic zone’. Tahiti, a stop on the ship’s inward journey to Australia, lies a couple of days to the north, while Pitcairn Island, in the middle of the English EEZ, lies about the same distance due east.

As we neared the Tropic of Capricorn (crossed early this morning), it felt as though we were experiencing an early spring. Forget the abrupt jolt of deplaning in another hemisphere, smack bang in the middle of the opposite season. Here spring emerges day by day, a gentle shift that delivers not a jolt but triggers all those bodily associations of spring: the light becomes stronger, the day lengthens, the temperatures rise and the clothes come off of their own accord. Sap rises …

Ship’s Log: Day Eleven (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Eleventh day of the voyage; fourth day of the Pacific crossing.

At first the invitation went to my travel companion (who had already been to an earlier party) and then eventually to me: the third engineer would have his birthday tonight, so we should come along. By the time we arrived, the massive whisky bottle had already been broached, the karaoke machine cranked up. We entered when the festivities were slowly under way. A middle-aged man, the loquacious second mate, sang a slow love song in a high-pitched, soprano voice.

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

‘I can dance’, I said.

‘No you won’t’, said my travel companion.

Glasses on, I studied the massive list of songs: titles from the 1930s to the 1990s, hymns, folk songs, national anthems, and a good chunk of songs I had simply never heard of before.

The drink flowed; cigarettes were passed around; delicious Filipino food concoctions massed on the tables; I sang.

‘Down Under’ by Men and Work was a moderate success. I bellowed, missed the words, was off key. ‘Not bad’ said the machine.

‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ was much better, after I learned not to bellow and how to read the damn machine. But after that I faded a little, with few songs to choose apart from Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon’, which came through rich and fruity.

My travel companion stunned them, however, soon settling into a groove that scored her 90+. The catch was that her voice was lower than some of the men, who kept choosing those slow love songs, crooning and squinting with up-turned faces, the massive microphone jammed in their mouths.

Some sang very well, all sang sensuously, which prompted thoughts about friendship and bonds and sex on long voyages by sea (more later). But more importantly, I realised that I had experienced something limited to a very few: feeling like a complete tool, singing karaoke (my first time) with a Filipino crew in the middle of the Pacific.

Ship’s Log: Day Ten (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Tenth day of the voyage; third day of the Pacific crossing.

The rhythm of one’s day while at sea. It turns around the meals and what one does 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 was a talker (he had gone in Napier!) or the captain felt like a chat, as he did today, the meal usually took half an hour. The great excitement was reading the menu for the day (apart from breakfast, it was always new) or the news print-out – the 2010 World Cup results, or Tour-de-France, or, for some reason that was beyond me since there was no-one on the ship from that part of the world, ‘Britain today’. Between meals, the times in the morning and afternoon were roughly the same, give or take half an hour, and I made an effort to get up well before breakfast and spend a quiet half hour on the bridge, pondering the ocean over a cup of tea. The four-hour stretches were spent writing, putting together a book in morning, writing an article in the afternoon, photo processing, working on myDanish and reading in the evening. The only other piece of the day was the hour in the crew gym: I used the rowing machine and simple but effective weight machine, inventing ever new exercises to amuse myself, as well as a game of table tennis on a rolling ship after a big meal.

A quiet captain opens up over lunch, even though we sit at different tables. Surprisingly … shipping is the topic. I discover that he has a university degree from the Maritime University in Montenegro – a four year course that one must take to become a master – although it also requires experience, for he has been at sea for well over a decade. But there are even maritime high-schools (also four years) for those who wish to follow the tradition. His own father is a professor at such a high school after having been a master himself. And the Russians, I ask? Yes, they come there to train, as do Ukrainians and Romanians and Turks and so on. What about work in the economic downturn? No problems, he says, since CMA-CGM has kept up its routes. In fact, there is a severe shortage of officers worldwide, in the vicinity of 1500. So the push is to reduce the requirements to become an officer. And also to reduce the pay – hence the Filipino officers.

He also made the point that they all fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest but that is hardly possible in port). 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. As also with the smaller feeder ships (from small ports to large), which at times do not have harbour pilots coming on board, or have skeleton crews of four or five. Even on this ship 14 is the minimum – they will lose a cook in Rotterdam – although new requirements push the number up (such as the need to have someone on security watch the whole time in port). Everywhere they can cut costs they do: food allocation was recently dropped from $9.00 per person per day to $7.50, so he has to be very careful where and what he requisitions.

Crew combinations? I mentioned Kiribati crews, Chinese crews, Papuan crews, Koreans – the ones I had encountered. He had worked also with Indonesian, Japanese and Indian crews. Some combinations work; some don’t, but it is a matter for anthropological study. CMA-CGM 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.