Offseason Migration to the North

The Humber really was ruby-coloured, and coldly frothed. Everything else was grey. The border force, two young grandfatherly men, were curious, then amused. The motorway was a flat streak of bleak cutting the country at a new angle – the power stations like space stations, hallucinated alien battleships invading. Brits obeyed the traffic laws, unlike everyone except the Swiss in Switzerland (they ignore them in other countries) as the motorway narrowed and the traffic swelled to a stop. All the roads and railways have congealed while we were away.

 

Via the Foodbank in Rochdale to collect the keys from Jenny. She and legions of small, bright-eyed retireds in name badges have a warehouse full of produce to be sorted, stacked and given, parsimoniously it seemed to me, to only those with vouchers. If you fulfill all criteria you can have up to three boxes in three months. One man had no oven or cooker, only a fire. Is he living in a cave on the moors?

 

Took the last road to the valley, and all the roads taken ended in a no-through, and near the very end was the little terrace. Pulled up. Got out. Chose the worn brass key and – as the door opened there was something like a sigh. As though the house and I breathed together – an exhale of cool held breath to my in-gasp. So. Finally. Here you are.

 

When I worried about it, about her – I think of her now like a small stone ship, still bouyant in the waves of the hills – I worried about the bathroom. So small! I would never be able to sell her on. And yet my favourite room, immediately. The window recess set with mirrors in mosaic, reflecting and rereflecting all the winter gardens, the banks of shrubs, stones and trees wrecked by cold and rain below the wood, and bright with berries, and aburst, here now there, with birds. 

 

The house watched me closely. Not just over my shoulder, but no more than a pace or two behind.  I unpacked plates, and had enough strength to make soup and lug a mattress upstairs, and settle into it and the dark, on the bare boards. The floor boards are broad and smooth as the paint some of them wear. An owl, a male tawny, squealed five times – yikyikyikyikYIK! and silence. Amazing silence. And I did one other thing, too, before I went up. Took the wine, lifted the grate of the hearth and poured some in. Gods all bless us in this house…

 

Lying very still in the dark I felt, heard, the spirits of the house moving around me. As though individual rooms held atmospheres, long stilled, which now shifted and changed – I lay as still as a homeless man in a feast marquee, hoping that if I made no disturbance I might be allowed to stay. The ceilings creaked, walls clicked and snicked, the heating was extraordinarily noisy. I slept beautifully, cushioned by the boards, and was gone to Liverpool before daybreak.

 

The time of to-do lists! On one I have ‘lampshades’, followed by ‘lamps’. Secrets slipped out of the house everywhere I went. The observations of nature and weather, everything from ‘merlin’ to ‘red flood’, pinned on the back of the stair cupboard door. The glass head, which has something of the power of a fetish, in the spring by the back door. The ruby berries of the hawthorn bouncing in reflection around the bathroom window. The gangs of long-tail tits which surge through our trees at intervals. 

 

Being a householder is a striking injection of power and responsibility, though the power is mostly expressed in spending. Calderdale council agreed to send some bins, and a council tax bill, and a parking permit. We can recycle about a tenth of our waste, and have to hang on to refuse like nappies for two weeks – primitive, compared to Italy, or even to Germany in the early 90s. Made friends with the postman and the meter reader, who said my only problem would be tourists.

 

From our valley the road over the moors to Oxenhope was bleak beyond reckoning. Even a singing high summer day would be raw up here. A kind of duned grey darkness stroked into receeding emptiness. A red grouse, a moorcock, flew over the car, landed, and watched me closely as I passed. In a Homebase on the edge of Bingley I spent a hundred and sixteen pounds on lamps, bulbs, a drying rack, a baking dish, a bath mat, and, most resonantly, a lavatory brush. Reaching the age of forty without having owned one is a good feeling. My first is a simple thing which sits in an aquamarine tin tube. It serves as a metonym for a changed life. I fear it came from China, along with everything else in Homebase. Almost bought a chopping board of bamboo parquet construction, which at least seemed an authentic Chinese artifact, until I noticed the smaller ones were more expensive than the larger ones. Sod that.

 

As if you could own such huge rocks, and trees, and the spring! Growing up on the mountain taught that land was an endless mystery, someone – something else’s domain, a responsibility, a deep ocean of vegetation, creatures and habitats, infinite and changing momentarily. As a landowner I have very little of it – fifty paces up hill on mossy rocks, passed a channel, a pond, lots of rocks, to a smashed bower, and all of it leaning, bulging, slipping, dripping and overgrown. What an extraordinary feeling to have ‘title’. That is accurate, too, title. It’s no more than that. I feel like the new head warden of a tiny estate, unqualified.

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At the end of the world

Monsters
Sometimes in darkness, sometimes in hail, through mist, rattling rain and footprints of sun, the Pembroke tried conclusions with waves. Short, angry punchers; long heaving monsters; black swells, green roarers and blue-spray breakers flung up clawed hands of spray, sweeping over the containers. And wind, wind, wind. It three storming days of severe gales it rested once, for two hours, to recover its wuther. Fulmars and shearwaters skied through it beside us, dodging explosions, as on and on we pitched and rolled.

Babies
For sixty hours it was too dangerous to go outside. The crew cleaned and mopped in the cold iron confines of the alleys which run below deck. Yesterday morning, when it dropped to force seven, we went out. The tarpaulin covering the tractor in the bows has been blasted to bits of white plastic. Swaddled men like big babies collected up what they could. Volleys of freezing spray funneled down the bucking walkways. Being there was scary. Even taking a pee is entertaining: easier than doing it standing on the back of a horse only because horses don’t come with grab rails…

Hell
In the cargo hold, seven decks down, the mechanic worked on a hatch cover. To get here you descend ladders between the bays. Down, down, holding on tight, your world shrunk to swaying and dripping steel. You reach a cavern at the bottom of the hold. Seven storeys high on either side are container-sized tanks of toxin: sodium methylate solution, liquid acids and organo-phosphates. In near darkness below them is a screaming fountain of sparks from the mechanic’s angle-grinder. The steel floor tilts and washes with foul water and there is nothing to hold on to.

Below Hell
That hatch-cover leads down to a ballast tank, from which the Chief Officer emerged, his work jacket streaked with oil. Even a man accustomed to all this shook his head. “Horrible down there – horrible.” he said. He had been checking the hull. One of those waves left its mark on a plate – a plate designed to take fifteen tonnes of pressure per square metre, easily; it probably dents at double that.

Down to Earth
No one fusses. If you let yourself go that way, my impression is, you will suffer complete collapse – the only alternative is to take it, telling yourself you are lucky to have a job, which of course you are. But all the same – some of the crew will do this for nine months, for 700 dollars a month basic pay, and still ask for contract extensions. “Like nice weather?” one shouted, eyes (possibly) grinning above his balaclava. There have been moments of sublime beauty, both in the height of the storm, and at its end last night – the sky opened to a great blue clear and a new moon. Only two senior officers and your correspondent saw it.

Ice!
We passed the lights of Newfoundland last night and woke to ice this morning. The Gulf of St Lawrence was streaked with it, first, now we drive through crazy paving. The white mosaic smothers large patches of sea, calming it, as if it means to soothe it to death. The snow is horizontal from the north east, it’s drifting on the lee containers. Six men stood gazing from the bridge, just now; one of the crew videoing. “You can see why we love it,” the Captain said. We could barely see the bow of the ship…

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Storms

WIND
We have been watching it build for days, as we twisted to find a way through. The little arrows on the chart are wind direction, each fletch on their tails is ten knots. There’s one there with four fletches. We’re running into it at 17 knots. I am not a mathematician in the sense that a slug is not an eagle, but that would seem to give a relative wind of 57 knots, which is about a hundred and twenty kilometres an hour. It sounds like it, and feels like it if you try to poke your head up over the screen on the bridge wing, but it’s not it, because we’re only in the two and a half fletch arrows at the moment. It is wild, though.

WAVES
The weather map lays out the low pressure zones in contours, with waves instead of heights. We had three metres plus today: it may not sound much but they were great pyramids of iron grey. Whenever we dived into one the ship seemed to stop, throwing out wings of lucent blue spray. We have six metres tomorrow, and ten – ten – waiting at the mouth of the Cabot Strait, south of Newfoundland. Two low pressure systems are converging, apparently. Our course will curve over Flemmish Cap, then hook up under Newfoundland, the ice just to the north and the beast to the south. “I have calcualted the vessel can stand six metres,” says the Captain. He carries on humming “Famous Blue Raincoat”. She can certainly stand more, of course, but we are on a deadline. We do not want to slow down and ride it.

EYE
The graph of barometric pressure dropped as we ran into the first storm, then flattened as we crossed its eye. The eye is amazing; eerie blue light and waves rising up from nothing like strange ideas. (Earlier they came on like the first guests at a party, singly, some sliding by. Then they put their arms around each other’s shoulders and were rather harder to miss.) Suddenly the horizon fell back a dozen miles and there was nothing, nothing but the ocean, pearly painted clouds and a darkly loping calm. We are crossing the mid of the mid Atlantic; right through the ‘L’ on the chart.

WAY-AYE
We are secured for heavy weather: chairs are roped to tables; the bins have sprouted cords. I scrounged a sticky mat to keep this laptop on my desk. John, the second mate, loves storms, but then he can sleep in them. He was in one ship which stood on its tail – they thought they were going to go backwards. I don’t think he even counts this as rough. Ah, Geordies. We sat in the pilots’ chairs on the bridge, hanging on, my eyes glued to the black -crested monsters (you can see the big ones coming a way off) while John listed the key errors in Towering Inferno and Diamonds are Foever, and assured me that there is one millisecond of Dead Calm in which you can see that Nicole Kidman’s behind.

OW
Doors slam, containers make dreadful noises, the engine shakes the floor. When they went into a stopper of a wave in the old sailing ships the timbers did indeed shiver. You shut your eyes and lie down but the plunging seems deeper and you wait for the bang as she digs in. The bookshelves in the library are rattling and wrenching as though they mean to jump off the wall and avalanche someone with Ken Follets.

Zzz?
Mark the steward claims fatigue is the key to sleeping; it’s no problem, he says. John says he was in one where the trick was to lock your hands together behind you, under your mattress, no less, and sleep like that – otherwise you would fly forward. “What a way to make a living,” he says, fondly, as we skid down into another trough.

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Soul Ship to Montreal

Watch It

She’s a real worker, scarred and battered, tear-streaked with rust; her bow is stripped of paint and her bridge wings, I note with incredulity, are open to the elements. The Maersk Pembroke, formerly the P&O Nedlloyd Sydney, earns her keep in the North Atlantic. She blows a raspberry at sceptics: a blast of smelly spray from a pipe makes the little crowd of stevedores on the quay curse and duck. It catches me squarely. From this moment on I like her. She is not quite what I was expecting – she’s even better.

Soul Ship

She’s all tight corridors, iron ladders and stairwells that whistle and moan. Sometimes she helps you open a door, sometimes she makes you put your shoulder into it. On the bridge the slightest wind sets her to chirrup or howl: “She does talk a lot,” grins her Master, Captain Koop. There is a wonderful bar, from the great days of sociable sea-going, which now serves water. She was built in eastern Germany in 1998. A mark, a guilder and a pound were laid under her keel for luck. The open bridge-wings made sense in those days, when she used to work in the warm. There are photographs of her in pomp: lovely lines, red and black hull, shining white superstructure. The Sydney Opera House, in the background, complements her nicely.

Lobster, cheese and poison please

Shipowners do not tell crews what the containers carry, but that does not mean they have no idea. “We take a lot of cheese to Canada – and we bring a lot of different cheese back!” says Captain Koop. “Same going east – you take Philips and you come back with Sony.” A world built on the exchange of brands. “At Halifax we get live shelfish. Lobster. Very expensive. The crew have to check the reefers every four hours to make sure they’re ok…” The dangerous cargo manifest is a poisoner’s fantasy.

Power

Driving rain swirls around the towers of the Deurganck nuclear power station as we curve out of our berth into the Schelde river, Antwerp. The map says the reactors stand just on the Belgian side of the border with Holland. Captain Koop, who is Dutch, finds this bleakly amusing. You rarely see a less inviting scene than the industrial reaches of the Schelde in a February dusk. The big ships come and go past chemical works, through water the colour of congealed fat which laps at bruise-green flats.

Speed

The tide is falling, the wind hard from the south west and the Schelde is serpentine with bends. The first is notorious for cargo ship groundings: we take it slow, then increase; by the time we reach Flushing Roads the dusky land slides rapidly. More speed, more steerage; it’s slalom for levithans. As the estuary gapes wide and dark we come down to dead slow, turn hard a port, then starboard with engine stopped, so the ship’s side covers the approach of the pilot boat. The river pilot departs and the sea pilot arrives. He has a five-star beard and he blows into it, vigourously: it’s a filthy night.

Company

Two hours later we’re out to sea, passing Zeebrugge and the Wandelaar anchorage. There’s a gaggle of ships at anchor there, delayed by the pilots’ strike. They light up the sea in orange and white as they swing on their chains. Stars appear and we head for the Dover Strait. Dover Coastguard is the voice of England. It sounds tired but the questions are well-informed, precise and polite. At the end of each exchange the voice wishes everyone good watch and safe passage to their next destination. “Thank you sir, same to you,” answer Russians, Indians, Swedes, Chinese…

Light paper and stand well back

Who knows what is at sea tonight, under Orion’s great bow? Recently there was a cargo labelled ‘fireworks’ which would have made quite a display: authorities in Kotka, Finland, discovered the Thor Liberty was actually carrying 69 Patriot surface-to-air missiles to South Korea, second-hand from Germany. Just a paperwork error arising from a confusion of the words ‘rocket’ and ‘missile’, it is now agreed. After two weeks the ship was allowed to proceed. We must assume’second-hand’ does not mean ‘used’.

Night and Day

By dawn we are south of St Catherine’s point on the Isle of Wight. A pale morning becomes a springy day, which becomes a blue Sunday afternoon. We pass fishing boats, some with red mizzen sails, and gannets circle the ship. We listen to a warship in Lyme Bay cordially asking people to alter their course, “As we are about to start gunnery firing.” A whole seafaring history of Britain unscrolls as we head west, passing Salcombe, Dartmouth, Falmouth, the Lizard and Land’s End.  At one point we have England clear on our right and the tip of the Brest Penisular, hazy, to the left.

Ghosts

As we tread towards the sunset there are ghost stories on the bridge. Men crushed, men stabbed, ships wrecked, ships foundering and broken. The charts sound dire warnings of bad seas; they are stippled with little doted circles denonting wrecks. The swells come up as the sun goes down. Piano music plays, ghostly, from the crew mess. A man sings in the stairwell. Captain Koop strides vigourously up and down the bridge, “Doing my exercise, you see.”

Stand Down

There is that ship-smell of heavy fuel below, mixing with sweet cooking. Our cook, Annabelle, is the first woman many of the crew have sailed with and the best chef, too. Sunday night is supper at the bar; miraculous how merely sitting on a stool and proping an elbow transforms an atmosphere. Out come the stories. There was this one captain who bought his crew a drum kit and a keyboard. The problem was… The electrician has two eyes tatooed on his bum because.. The strangest thing the second mate ever saw was… The Chief Engineer picked up 60 Vietnamese boat people back in the seventies, when he was a cadet. One of them, who was a child at the time, wrote to him recently asking if… Did you know Filipino Seafarers have the right to a karaoke machine? When we go up the St Lawrence you will hear a particularly eerie sound…

Jones Bank

Later the swells increas and we start a Great Circle to the north. Not the most direct route to Montreal, but there are two or three days of heavy weather to come and we are aiming to pick our way through. We must make all possible speed, as the pilot strike ate our buffer time. Time is playing its own tricks too: the clocks are going back an hour a day at the moment. There are fishing boats over Jones Banks, just two lights in an oil-black ocean. The last we saw of of Europe was the towering lighthouse on Wolf Rock, then the Scillies, hovering, heather-coloured behind us. Bishop Rock light blinked farewell.

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By popular demand, here is The Tale of the Hat. Not for the faint-hatted…

THE TALE OF THE HAT

Going to sea in winter? Must have a hat. The hatman offers two. Blue or orange? Orange is good, orange is Dutch – we are in Rotterdam – and the orange one is tangibly thicker, feels warmer.  “This is nice hat,” says the hatman, doubtfully. But six is a lot of euro these days. You want to be absolutely sure…

ORANGE?

They will see you better if you fall off the ship wearing this, you think. This hat could save your life.  “Good hat,” says the hatman, with a degree of consolation but more impatience. He needs to get back to his other job, behind the bar.

BLUE.

“Ye-es, no – the blue one please.” I will look and feel an idiot in the orange hat. A truncated conehead. A nit. I’m here to entertain, sure, but my shipmates will think I’m strange enough without this beaon on my head.

LABEL

“US BASIC” says the blue hat, when I get it back to my room and interrogate it. It’s no millinery miracle, that’s sure. “100% ACRYLIC” “MADE IN CHINA” admits the hat, unnecessarily. Of course it is. It came here on a ship, like pretty well everything else.

 

TRAVELS OF THE HAT

This hat shipped from Ningbo or Shanghai. It most likely took the southern route and travelled the South China Sea, traversed the Singapore strait, crossed the Indian Ocean, dodged the pirates in the Red Sea, came up through Suez, crossed the Med, beaten the Biscay and made it into port, possibly even here in Rotterdam. And no one, so far as I can tell, has even worn it yet.

ONE HAT, MANY HEADS

It left its factory in one of those containers, the steel building blocks of our world. A Chinese truck-driver positioned it under a crane, at the very second the crane was ready for it. The crane operator loaded it according to a scheme designed by the cargo planner. Chinese stevedores lashed the container into position. There is a good chance it was a European captain who took the ship to sea, perhaps my very own Captain Larsen of the Gerd Maersk, or perhaps a Chinese, on a COSCO ship. Five weeks later he brought the ship alongside in northern Europe, his crew (thank you, Filipinos seafarers) having worked round the clock to keep that hat afloat.

SINO-US RELATIONS, MY HAT

“US BASIC” basically means A) It basically looks like it could have been made in the US or B) In the US people need basic hats that basically keep their heads warm – voila. Or C) People around the world basically prefer US clothing to Chinese, and will plump for this hat if they only read large print.

DANGER HAT?

But what’s this? Suddenly the hat starts blurting out unsolicited information, like a suspect pulled in for forgery confessing to more serious crimes – like poisoning. “AZO FREE” the hat announces. Oh really?

AZO ‘FREE’?

Azos are nitrogen-based dyes (azo from azote, French for nitrogen) used in a variety of clothing. They are the most common dyes of all – you are wearing azos now, unless you have the new iPad for reading in the bath. Some of these dyes were found to be carcinogens, particularly associated with bladder cancer. Some orange azo compounds (azos are particularly good at vivid reds and oranges) are mutagenic. I knew that orange hat was weird.

MENDACIOUS HAT?

You are lying to me, hat. When you say “AZO FREE” you are presumably referring to those murderous azos that were banned in Europe twenty years ago – aren’t you? Because you’re not “AZO FREE” at all: you are blue because of your azos. Now why would you say a thing like that, hat? I hope you’re not protesting too much, and hinting that some of these banned azos might be back in use. What do you have to say for yourself?

“CADMIUM FREE”

says the hat, in full confession now. Cadmium pigments are highly toxic. I get all my toxins, including cadmium, from smoking. I need no additionals. Most Cadmium pigments have been replaced by azos, but because they are especially good at orange, yellow and red, every now and then someone uses too many and there are product recalls. (Viz 2 million “Shrek Forever After 3D Collectable Drinking Glasses” which fell rather short of their ambitions, being issued and hastily regathered by good old Ronald McDonald in 2010). Cadmium exposure is related to cancer of the kidneys. Definitely glad I left the orange one where it was – no offence, hat.

WITH MY INVESTOR’S HAT ON

You can own one of these intriguing hats for £1.79, a definite saving on 6 Euro, if you order 250 of them. You might well order them via Alibaba.com, which saw a gap for a website for fast shipments from small manufacturers, intra-China and abroad. This proved to be such a wide gap that when Alibaba made its IPO it was the second largest tech offering ever, after a website called Google. Alibaba tags our friends with “Competitive price, fashionable, excellent hand feel,” – then in a burst of frankness refers to them as ‘”These popular-looking hats…” Indeed.

HATS OFF

My hat was made by someone who works for Tonglu Kenai Knitting Company in Zhejiang, China. The manufacturer calls it a ‘basic acrylic beanie hat’ – now we’re talking. Tonglu, a private company, says it employs up to 200 people who are capable of turning out up to 500 000 dozen products a year – six million beanies, if there’s a sudden run on popular-looking hats. Whoever made my hat was working very, very hard. Judging by Tonglu’s website, she was probably a woman in the knitting workshop. To meet that production target, even with a full complement of colleagues, she would have to make 30,000 units a year.

LEGEND OF THE HAT

There are photographs of the factory, which specialises in gloves and scarves as well as you-know-whats. Prominence is given to safety: here are two fire extinguishers. Here is a first aid kit, here is one fire alarm, and here a small suggestions box. In the background of some of the thumbnail pictures you can see the blurred shapes of the workers… I wonder what share of my six euro they paid you. I would like to thank you for the hat. It is a fine hat, all in all, perfectly warm. We are off  to sea tomorrow, heading for the big blue between Land’s End and Labrador: this hat is voyaging again! I think I’ll take better care of it than I might have done,  now that I’ve read the label…

 

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Ship on the Horizon

DIAMONDS

Welcome to Antwerp, one of the world’s busier ports. Diamonds everywhere. The station is packed with them: window after window of sparklers. There is nothing else, really: you expect to see pigeons pecking hopefully at diamonds in the gutter. The stones seem entirely pointless, allure cancelled by tatty profusion, a vision from a De Beers nightmare. Romance non. Sweat, tears and mining, oui. Blood diamonds too, no doubt, winking like all the rest.

 

GEEZERS

On the bright side, there are lots of men in excellent hats, men with hats with hats, in fact – the hats themselves wear plastic bags to protect them from the rain.  Antwerp has a large population of orthodox Jews. Their smart black coats give the wet streets a slightly funereal air, until the wind inflates the plastic hat hats. That cheers things up.

 

TRUCKS

If there is a less inviting road in Europe than Luithagen Haven you wouldn’t want to walk it. Only a pathologically dedicated container-spotter could love it. Miles of spray and trucks, buildings like bad Lego, a couple of magpies speaking Flemmish, and containers, containers everywhere, and not a ship to carry them.

 

SHIP?

Did someone say ship? Oh yes, sorry, the ship. The ship to Montreal across the deep Atlantic stream! The peril and romance of the high seas, the majesty of deepwater trade, the courage and skill of men versus the wide and furious ocean! Well, the ship’s just there, out to sea, going round in circles – or rather, performing a series of question-mark-shaped manoeuvres. 

 

STRIKE!

 

The Port of Antwerp is in chaos. The harbour pilots are on strike. No pilots, no ships. It is costing a million euro an hour, according to the port authorities, who are furious. “Why should we have two years added on to our working lives?” say the pilots. “Because everyone else in Belgium is facing the same thing,” the authorities answer, “It’s called Pension Reform. And your current average retirement age is 62…” “Sod that,” say the pilots. “We’ll have an exemption.” “No,” says the Government, “Sod you…” So we wait. 

 

SYMPATHY

Obviously one might wish that they had not chosen this week to stage their first strike since 1950, and 62 does not make one old so much as fully mature. But even with a lifetime’s practice at it, would you want to be climbing a ladder up the side of a ship in a gale, late at night, with the wild sea bouncing below you, hungry for a slip – at 64? 

 

STRIKE BREAK?

 

One imagines some of the language being used on those ships right now would strip the blubber off a whale. A captain who has visited a port a few times, never mind a great many times, would have no problem bringing his ship into most of them. A good pilot is a wonderful thing, of course, but a bad one is a horror. Not long before we reached Vung Tao, Vietnam, two pilots contrived to run a ship aground – they got their bouys mixed up. Watching a captain dealing with a dodgy pilot is quite a sight. 

 

PILOTLESS NO DRONE

I was invited to the bridge of the Stena Hollandica out of Harwich. Ferry captains are allowed to do without pilots – they are licensed to bring a particular ship in and out of their two regualr ports. We zigzagged through the channels like a giant steel eel. The bridge being at the front of a ferry (rather than the stern or centre, as on big container carriers) gives you a magnficient view: a whole glass wall of the sea at night. The moon’s ghostly track, the winking bouys and near-silence, but for the officers joking about the big Danish ship in the way.

 

MAERSK?

“You want to tell your Danish friends to hurry up?” asks the Dutch captain. “It’s the Maersk Enfield. She is a big ship.” 

A huge dark shape, huge even by the standards of huge ships, hovers near the quay ahead of us.

Maersk Enfield,” says the radio, “Could you come closer to the Felixstowe side, please?”

Maersk Enfield thinks about it. Then: “If I do that I’ll be aground,” she says, evenly. 

“..Um, as close as you can then, please.”

 

 

SHALL WE DANCE?

“The way you drive a ship is you dance with her,” says the captain. We are standing on the bridge wing. “Main engine, bow thruster, rudder control. You don’t look at them, you look out there. Every ship I ever had I could dance with them easily. This ship…” he grins, “This ship is interesting… Some night’s you’re really [seafaring expression denoting a degree of tension and concentration]…”

She is still a new vessel, only a couple of years old, beautifully appointed from a passenger perspective, Swedish-owned and run with Dutch efficiency.

One a good night the ship has a thousand cabins occupied down below. The Stena Hollandica has 8000 square metres of wind area – she’s a giant metal sail. The winds around Felixstowe, driving off the sea or rushing over the flatlands of Suffolk .. 

“Force six you need a tug. Force seven, two tugs. Force eight – you can’t get her off the quay.”

 

OH, THE ENGLISH

“There’s a an old sailors’ pub down there,” says the captain, as we pass the quay of Harwich town. “There are pictures on the wall of the port in the nineteenth century – and it hasn’t changed! In Holland we put concrete in the sea, you know, and dredging, but here – it’s still a river. Two rivers. Beautiful.”  

 

AN OFFICER’S STORY

“My father did not want me to go to sea. He was a powerful man. When I was 18 he got me a job on a dredger – he thought that would be the end of it. They taught me to drink beer; it was paradise. Then I worked on salvage tugs, ocean-going tugs – pulling tankers off the Moroccan coast – great!”

 

GOLDEN GIRL

“There was one woman when I was at college [Marine Engineering], she was two years ahead of me, you know, she was just – [throws himself back in his chair, tongue hanging out, arms wide; a man who has been shot or dropped from a height] – unbelievably beautiful! She didn’t even look at us – she was the only woman and she was seriously good sailor. She qualified, I think she got a pilot license. I don’t know what she’s doing now.

 

COLOURFUL CHAP

“I worked for an Italian guy. He was mafia alright, real mafia. He wanted us to go to this place in Nigeria. We said no way, no one can go there. He said: my ship can. What you do, you go to this place, the Wallia river – no one even heard of it, there weren’t any charts – you go there and you hoist two flags, G, and B, and then…”

 

STRIKE LATEST

… And I’ll tell you the rest some other time. Master Koop, Captain of the Maersk Pembroke, informs me that we have plenty of buffer time, so will make Montreal on schedule, so not to worry. Enjoy Antwerp, he says, which is generous from a man holding his vessel on Steenbank Roads, dealing with wind, tide and other ships, for a day and a night, who probably doesn’t feel quite as happy on a boat going nowhere as writer might. You get the impression he would happily swap. Fingers crossed, the word is tomorrow morning. Making up our buffer time should be interesting, too… They call it hard-driving..       

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Fingers Crossed for the Cruel Sea…

Attention All Shipping (fans):

It looks as though my most fervent wish of recent times – to travel the North Atlantic in cold winter and hard weather – may be about to be granted. We wait on the Captain’s approval for a voyage from Rotterdam to Montreal, leaving this weekend.

With any luck I will shortly be able to bring you the shipping news from the northern quadrants of the ocean that seafarers say is always angry.

Fingers crossed…

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