Travels with Miriam

COMING UP – A RADIO SERIES (Gone to Earth, presented by Horatio Clare and produced by Jeremy Grange, is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday July 9th at 11am, with episode two on Wednesday 16th at the same time)- IN THIS UPDATE – FOOTBALL AND BOYS – GEOFF DYER ON AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER – CUMBERBATCH ON PAPER – CHRIS PARRY ON THE FUTURE – SOLDIERS ON MOUNTAINS – JAY GRIFFITHS ON FRIDA KAHLO – AND.. TURKMENISTAN – PAST OR FUTURE?

Travels with Miriam Allott

Part of the great privilege of being the Miriam Allott Fellow in Creative Writing is taking her name to places I hope would have interested the celebrated Liverpool scholar.

Recent travels between the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan, the Wiltshire garden of a retired SAS Major General, a number of tents in Hay on Wye, the route of the Brecon Beacons Fan Dance (a notoriously tough training run) and a primary school in Rochdale would have entertained her, I suspect.

For the last few weeks the call of the road has been imperative: I have been promoting a book, teaching, reporting and making a radio series. Even by the standards of an itinerant career it has been vividly busy.  Here are some field notes.

Boys’ Stories – Primary School, Rochdale.

You have two groups of thirty 10 year-olds who must produce a piece of creative writing by the end of the day. Everyone takes a turn talking about what interests them, from food to film to … football. First lines, character, plot – anyone book-bitten can teach these. The real challenge is the eleventh boy who says his main interest – or the only one will admit in front of his mates – is the dreaded sphere. He won’t be coaxed away from it (quite right, really): but how many ways are there of turning an interest in football into an individual narrative? Is there a limit to the number of ‘Wonderboy selected for Man City’ stories the world should have to bear?

We experiment with writing from the ball’s point of view (no one wants to do the ref’s). One genius crosses a kidnap saga with a football trial, creating a world in which clubs abduct the talented. And so they do, and in much greater numbers they take the time and preoccupation and passion of the otherwise talented, of millions of normal extraordinary boys, you realise – so many, hooding all their idiosyncracies in the strip-wearing crowd. Football clubs are abduction machines, those boys suggested. The World Cup may be a fine thing, but World No Football Day should have a chance, too.

Machines and Men – Hay

Promoting a book about seafaring has meant a maritime year, mostly far from water. Your own event at the Hay Festival is a nervy moment until you take the stage: they’ve turned out! The festival attracts a wonderfully interested and generous crowd. Next I interview Geoff Dyer about spending two weeks on a US Aircraft Carrier. His book ‘Another Great Day At Sea’ recounts a compelling mismatch between Dyer – skinny, pernickity, atheist solipsist – and the driven, faith-filled war world of the US military. By the end of the story Dyer is praying for them.

Benedict Cumberbatch is in the audience in disguise, a beanie and big glasses serving to distinguish rather than blend him in. He signs a magnificent autograph for Robin, 13; a gentle, unassuming superstar.

Rear Admiral Chris Parry, strategic forecaster, is up next. One of his friends, a Chinese Admiral, told him, ‘We are the East India Company, in reverse!’ With growing trading fleets and  sea power the admiral implies that China is moving towards doing business with the world on her own terms. Parry is full of admiration for the effectiveness of Chinese naval strategy  (force projection into the South China sea and beyond) but he sees Dyer’s US aircraft carrier as an anachronism. In the age of the drone and the coming robot swarms (this is all true), carriers will be too valuable to risk. America’s prospective resignation from ruling the waves worries him. “The map of the future will have the Pacific date line in the middle, and Britain in the far top left corner,” he warns.

Women and Power – Mexico
It is a position some would relish, certainly the amazing Jay Griffiths, whom I interview about her new book, ‘Love Letter to a Stray Moon’. Jay Griffiths is a specialist on the wild, on children, on time, and, now, on Frida Khalo. Searching for a way to write about personal pain in a way that might be valuable to others, she came upon Kahlo’s life, finding there visual languages of trauma, nature, resitance, love and destruction. In an extraordinary ventriloquism, Kahlo speaks for both of them in Griffiths’ first person prose poem. Students taking Creative Writing (Prose) next semester may have the chance to try the same trick.

Mountains and the Mind – Breconshire
The Brecon Beacons, lovely ice-cut crests and rolling saddles of Old Devonian sandstone, have been made associates in the creation of pain. For Radio 4 I am exploring the relationship between the landscape of my childhood and the generations of soldiers who have been trained and selected here, many for elite regiments. All became intimate with a particularly heartbreaking route march, the Fan Dance, which goes over the biggest peaks twice. “I very rarely failed anybody,” said Major General Tony Jeapes, over lunch in his splendidly English garden, miles away from wars he can summon up instantly, as if seeing the enemy at end of the lawn.

A man who fought in Malaya, Dhofar and many other places has an undimmed vision of what he was fighting for and how things should be done. He ran SAS selection in the Beacons in 1960s. “You didn’t have to fail them. Most of them failed themselves.” At one point he clapped his hands and thumped his chest, making the crack-thump of a bullet passing close to you. “More strawberries, more cream?”

“Pain is weakness leaving the body,” says Steve Rees a former Marine, who straps me into a fifty pound pack and takes me for a run, with predictable results. On the recording I sound like a sheep being sick.

Walking the hills with Brigadier who led British Forces in Afghanistan and the Lieutenant Colonel who commanded the 2nd Parachute regiment there, they talk about the way this patch of Wales prepared their soldiers for Helmand.

“In Sangin in 2009 we were being fired on every time we left the base,” says the Brigadier, “You had a one in four chance of being hit. I saw 17 year-olds shaking and being sick with fear before they went out of the gate. Not one of them ever refused to go.”

That was the culmination of a process of selecting, training and welding young men into a family-like units begun in Breconshire. Once you take this road you are changed forever, the soldiers explained, quietly.

You cannot be fully open with civilians because you feel “tainted and stained” by what you have done, said a former Marine. “When you talk to other soldiers you know they won’t judge you, and they won’t offer solutions,” he said. How telling a take on the world of ‘civvies’ that is.
I am struck by the vocabulary, too, and by the way these soldiers do not always distinguish between public distaste for the wars they fought and their – our – feelings for the men and women who fought them.

The Desert of Misfortune
  You would have to be slightly mad to want to holiday in Turkmenistan, but the retired policeman, the librarian, the pharamcist, the paedeatrician and the podiatrist could not seem more English or more normal, until you hear their recent vacation spots.
  Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Congo… Now they are going to Turkmenistan, a boiling desert floating on hydrocarbon reserves, ruled until recently by a lunatic dicator and still subject to a totalitarian personality cult Stalin would have admired.
  Ashgabat, the capital, is a Ballardian insanity – a white marble fantasy of one man’s devising. The inhabitants are scared of foreigners, or rather the threat we might represent. “You don’t say anything in front of anyone,” a man tells me, “Not even your friends!” Neither he nor anyone else can be quoted for fear of regime reprisal.
  The country is mostly a desert, the Kara (black) Kum (sand), only ‘black’ has a metaphorical value as ‘unlucky’ in Turkmen, so ‘Desert of Misfortune’ is about right. Scattered around it are the remains of extraordinary endeavours. A Bronze-age walled and templed complex at Gonur Depe had an astronomy tower (they think – Turkmen archaeology is distinguished by great sandy acres of unexcavated humps and dips with towers like skulls, mausolea like palaces, and invigorating factual uncertainty).
  Konye Urgench near the northern border was one of the legendary Silk Road cities: it is now acres of bones, some them petrified remnants of massacres ordered by Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane. Ancient Merv, once known as the Queen of the World, was a capital of trade, cultural exchange and Islamic scholarship, a city which was born and reborn through three adjacent ground plans, astounding travellers for two thousand years. Fluted palaces and ice houses like ceramic beehives remain. Having seen how rivers shift, oases shrink, deserts expand and dictators build, you begin to comprehend the lunacy of Ashgabat.
  When time is understood in millennia – one of the villages we visited had been there for a thousand years, and its herders and traders live more or less the same way now – the point of tomorrow is only marginally less important than the point of a thousand years hence. Ashgabat is a kind of loopy Las Vegas now, unpeopled, but in ten centuries time it might be rather spectacular.

 The full account of an extraordinary journey in this strangest of countries will appear in the Financial Times.

Gone to Earth, presented by Horatio Clare and produced by Jeremy Grange is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday July 9th at 11am, and episode two on Wednesday 16th at the same time.

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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

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.

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…

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.

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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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…


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.


“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.


“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.



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.


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.


“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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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, 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.


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.


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


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.



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.



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.



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. 




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. 



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? 




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. 



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.



“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.”




“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.”



“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.”  



“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!”



“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.



“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…”



… 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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Through sand on water


Drop it

We anchor off Port Said in heavy dry heat and a crowd of ships. The anchor weighs twenty tonnes – I am trying to record the process of lowering it but as the mighty chain runs off the winch it causes a vibration in the hull, a deafening high steel singing, as if a giant is circling his finger around the rim of a volcano-sized glass. The record levels go off the scale.

Sing it

As we swing around into the current a strangely peaceful atmosphere fills the ship. There are eight pairs of flip-flops outside the saloon, and soulful singing coming through the door. The Filippino crew are doing karaoke, serenading their true loves.

Fix it

In the engine control room the chief engineer is under the desk fiddling with the back of the second engineer’s computer. “What are you doing, chief?”

“He couldn’t hear his music. He can’t work without his music!”

Robbie Williams suddenly belts out his desire to feel real love and know it’s for real. Smiles all round.

Smoke it

The Suez pilots come aboard and disappear into the Suez lounge, which soon begins to emit gusts of cigarette smoke and loud Arabic. The crew call the Canal the Marlboro Channel; Egypt is ‘Marlboro Country’. You don’t get through without paying an informal tax.

Do it – or else

A Russian captain is on the radio, arguing with Port Said control. The Captain has lowered his gangway on the starboard side, but Port Said want in on port. It’s already down on starboard, the captain protests.

“Do you want to transit the canal tonight or not?” returns Port Said, crisply.

No further argument.

Great Bitter Lake

We begin our run in the middle of the night. At dawn we are anchored in the Great Bitter Lake, which smells of damp ashes. It’s as a passing place – we wait for the north-bound convoy, which appears mid-morning, led by a Spanish warship. Around us are feluccas with white fin-like sails, and fishing boats. Two boys, no older than 12 or 13, haul in a net, hand over hand. It takes an age, heavy work and harsh without gloves, while their adult captain holds the boat steady with his oars. They get about twelve fish.

Just here, just there

Our Suez pilot is Major Chief Pilot Captain Roshdy. He tells me war stories from 1973. When he talks about Israel he points northwest, when Saudi, southeast. Everything is close here – looking at the map you understand that the conflicts of the Middle East have the terrible bitterness of intimacy.

Great man

Not that Captain Roshdy is bitter. He has met the entire world on the ships he has piloted. His conclusion? Nationality is nonsense, flags are nonsense, countries are nonsense. “I believe ony in humanity, not nationality,” he says. “But how many of us think like this?”

How to solve it

“One year after we get a just settlement in Egypt you would see Saudi change,” he prophesies. He has great fears for the future of his country. No one is in control. He would not vote for them, but he says we are wrong to fear the Muslim Brotherhood: they are reasonable people, and organised. The problem is the militants. If we refuse to deal reasonably with reasonable Muslims we will empower the unreasonable.


When it is time for afternoon prayer he aligns his mat on the bridge at a precise angle – a compass bearing to Mecca. He breaks off once in his prayers to instruct the helmsman: “Steer one-six-zero!”

“One six zero,” echoes the helm.


Steaming through sand

The desert unrolls on our port side; starboard is irrigated and populated. We pass an appalling place, a deserted dictator-chic palace: you have to spend a lot of money to create something so hideous. It has its own parade ground. In the distance are a slum of huts where the soldiers must be billeted. The soliders are filling sandbags in forty degree heat.



Chris, the mate, and a man of surpassing phlegmatism (how romantics hide their souls!) nods at a large concrete cake in the water. There are a stream of them passing us by. “If something goes wrong with the engine that’s what we get,” he says, “That piece of concrete. To moor a billion dollar ship.”

“It’s not really worth a billion dollars?”

“A billion Danish crowns, I think.”


Your Help Welcome

Billion Crown Ship would make quite a good title for my book about all this, though it will not be based solely on this voyage. I am currently seeking suggestions for titles. No payment, but fulsome acknowledgement, champagne and literary immortality practically guaranteed. The front runner is my own Down to the Sea in Ships. I also like Ben Crystal’s suggestion Sea Fever – when in doubt, steal. Do send yours in, please. I’ll post them in this (incredibly, mystifyingly) popular blog.

Get off my boat

A line of blue appears at the head of our procession of great ships – the Gulf of Suez. “You have 15 minutes,” Captain Roshdy says. My bag is packed. I tried everything short of bribery but Maersk Group control were implacable – their final communication included a map of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean with a thick red line around them. In this area we will not carry you, ran the substance, so you will get off. Stop trying to change our minds, it’s becoming irksome, said the subtext.

Pirates – How to deal with them

The crew will have a safety meeting to prepare for pirate waters. They will double the watch and increase the speed: the Gerd Maersk can do twenty knots and more easily; no pirate has ever attacked a ship doing 18 or over. They will be in touch with NATO. They will keep constant visual and radar watch. If they are boarded they will call for help and lock themselves in a secure part of the ship. They say they are completely unworried, and seem it, too. The freeboard is too high for any pirate to climb, they say.

Serious, serious ship

I hate leaving them, it’s doing a runner in their hour of danger, when another pair of eyes might actually be useful. The gangway is lowered as we break out of the canal into open water. A small – it looks tiny – launch approaches as I go down the aluminium steps. The ship is vast above me, the waters boiling away from her sides below. Finally, an impression of her gigantic size and power – huge furls of water, ridges of blue and white are shoveled away from her as she steams. She’s quick, too; the launch is fighting to keep up.


Hold on

Bag in one hand, camera in pocket, tape recorder stowed – I am committed to radio, but not sufficiently so to die while trying to do a commentary on this. “Have you got a passport?” hails a young man on the launch. “Yes!” He signals his helmsman and they come up. The gangway is too high – I cling on as Prashant, our cadet, lowers it. I call him Captain Verma because he will be one, one day, unless he drops me in the drink. You would be spectactularly dead.

Heave ho

Step across, jump down, and we’re peeling away. The Gerd rushes on as we circle and make a run at the ship behind us, another Maersk vessel. A young man in shades is having help manoeuvring his trunk down their gangway. “Have you got a passport?” the agent hails. He has. His trunk is strikingly heavy but we don’t quite lose it over the side. We smoke celebratory cigarettes. Khalid is a Bangladeshi engineer. He claims a lot of seafarers have even heavier luggage. That’s one thing about ships – no baggage allowance. His was carrying a yacht and a truck, as well as the usual containers. “I joined to see the world,” he says, “And I’m in the engine room!”

Welcome to Egypt

Suez is flocks of rambunctious house-crows all shouting, packs of dogs roaming, a hoopoe on a post, litter and detritus and spotless military and customs types in white uniforms, braided gold. Our passports are stamped by a man in a wood-pannelled office, sitting beside a huge chest of tiny drawers that must have been here when the British were.


Conflict of interest (resolved)

Maersk’s operation here is seamless – I am beginning to get used to their efficiency. The Suez agent gives me three telephone numbers to call in case of problems, but what problems? We have a vehicle and a driver to Cairo, and reservations at an hotel, which include dinner and breakfast. I have a momentary crisis of conscience: can I take Maersk’s hospitality ashore and remain an objective observer? Convene an emergency meeting of the Internal Ethics Committee which decides I most definitely can.


Hands where we can see them

We hurtle to Cairo across the desert, passing army checkpoints. All the police are hiding, I have been told. The army are certainly not: their British, American and Russian armour is everywhere, barrels pointing at the traffic. The soldiers stand guard with bayonets fixed to their AK47s. The fact that the bayonets are sheathed only underlines the menace.

Pirates – how they deal with you

“On one crossing we heard another ship, a tanker, on the radio. They were being attacked by pirates,” says Khalid. “We could hear the crew screaming.” The pirates tend to shoot at the bridge and accomodation block as an opening move, to disorientate and disable resistance. “That ship was hit by RPGs. The crew are still in captivity,” Khalid says, quietly.


Civilisation, of a kind

Our ships and our friends will be fine, we tell each other. They will. We haul Khalid’s trunk out at the airport and say goodbye. He’s going home via Dubai and worried about the smoking situation in the airport. I am driven to the Le Passage hotel. There are British mercenaries and Egyptian hookers at the bar. The local beer is called Stella and it’s much better than the Belgium brand. The barmen keep the glasses in ice. Ah, dry land…

Coming up

In the next edition – Rejoining the ship in Malaysia – Singapore Strait at night (not for the faint-heated) – North to Vietnam – Close encounter with a Typhoon – China and Hong Kong.

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Big Ship 2 – France – Spain – The Ionian Abyssal Plain..


Island Nation

It’s all the English Channel’s fault. The best bit of any continental childhood holiday in the era before Eurostar was the ferry. They used to serve an English Breakfast on P & O that my brother and I rated the best ever. Today the blue is crowded – thirty ships visible at any time, including a lifeboat from Dungeness which has been towing a motor-sailor with engine failure. Holiday skies and seas.


Don’t stand behind the heli

Leave Le Havre and the pilot is whisked away by helicopter. He stands with his arms crossed, sunglasses in place, as the strop is lowered down. I forget rule one with helicopters – the down-blast is slightly behind them. Attempting to record the action I am nearly blown over the rail. Ok, so I wasn’t, but it did knock me sideways.


Signposts in the sea

The course takes us northwest around the Brest peninsular, then we turn southward. Here and there are Traffic Separation Schemes – often around the capes and corners. They appear on the chart as purple patches, with narrow paths through the middle. Everyone crowds into these lanes. The radar is thick with ships and the radio crackles with voices. Russian, Indian, Chinese, and our Romanian, Sorin, the Chief Mate. The report number of persons on board, dangerous cargo, last port of call. We have an impressive amount of dangerous cargo.


What’s the smell?

From bay 26 amidships and from somewhere behind the bridge comes the most appalling stink. (It will get worse – I am writing this from notes and memory somewhere north of Egypt and you can barely stand on the wing behind the bridge for the reek when the wind comes from astern.) Pungent, rotten, sickly, like but unlike putrid fish. “Skins!” Sorin explains. Animal skins, loaded in Germany, going east. They are curing in barrels of salt water, which overflow, washing around the deck. I have been walking through it on my daily stroll.


What’s in the box?

In the reefers  – refrigerated containers – meat, chocolate, fruit. In the dangerous cargo, paint products, flammable petroleum products, naphtha, perfumery products, solid sodium hydroxide, chemicals for Procter and Gamble, and – some ammunition, not very much, loaded in Germany, for Malaysia. And the skins.


And the dangerous stuff?

Not nuclear waste or weapons this time, but paint products, naptha, flammable thinners and petroleum derivaties, solid state sodium hydroxide, perfumery products – flammable – and chemicals for Procter and Gamble.


Nice tatoo

“The Bay of Biscay can be a very crabby place,” says Chris, one of our Danish deck officers. The Danes have charming accents – they talk of ‘surwiwors’ and ‘wirgins’ – in separate contexts. Chris is comically phlegmatic but he has a romantic’s love of the sea, beneath. He has an unmissable red, green and blue tatoo on his right calf – a sailing ship, anchor, telescope, rope and the legend ‘Sailor’s Grave’. He is considering commissioning a major piece of work when we reach America. His Mum won’t mind but his father will disapprove. He has been researching different signifiers.


But what does it all mean?

“You could read an old sailor’s whole story in his tatoos,” he says. A leatherback turtle meant you had crossed the equator. A red dragon for a stop in a Chinese port. (“But that’s not very cool anymore..”) A golden dragon for crossing the date line, a sailing ship for the Atlantic, a blue star for rounding the Cape of Good Hope and a swallow for every five thousand miles at sea. If I have time in Los Angeles, then…


Bordellos d’antan

Spain appears, Capo Vincente, as we turn east, then the sandy ear of north Africa just west of Tangier. So many ships: some peeling off into the sunset, heading for west Africa, others going to Spanish and Portugese ports; bright painted fishing boats, the Tangier ferries and catamarans and the east and west-bound cargo. Everyone excited about Algeciras, a good port and easy walking between the town and the ship. “There used to be a brothel, Los Lagos. Very famous. They closed it down because there was some crime and fighting. But then in Gibraltar they asked them to open it again, because all the crime went there! I know this is true because the sea-priest told me,” says the Captain.

Mountain gate

Jebel Musa, the other Pillar of Hercules, stands wild and magnificent, scarved in cloud. The Rock of Gibraltar is lion-coloured and profiled, with a saddle of greenery. I long to take a ferry to Morocco but luckily desist; the departure schedule will be brought forward tomorrow – I would have missed the ship.


Nice bit of fish

The Captain could write an excellent handbook: A Seafarer’s Guide to Fish Restaurants of the World. Madeira is right up there, he says – they pull it out of the boats in front of you and sell it to you by weight, then the chef takes over. And there’s a secret place in Portugal, a little port… We saw another whale earlier. “I want to get that whale and take him home to my wife,” says the Captain. He does not elucidate.


Easy Now

“I always like to pass the buoy to starboard,” he says, peering through binoculars. Navigating our great bulk into the crowded Bay of Gibraltar is a bit like driving an inexorable bus into a chaotic supermarket carpark. By the time the pilot arrives we have pretty well done it.


Roll with it

Approach Algerciras from the sea and you enter a lower town which is wholly Moroccan – spices, kebabs, two mosques, shops selling bright robes and slippers, men smoking and drinking mint tea, women shopping. The upper town is Spanish, with ships and the terminal at the end of every north-south street. Now I know why seafarers roll as they walk: you feel the earth rocking below you, so you brace to compensate.


Ladies of Spain

We don’t go wild ashore. Chris buys some new soft drinks. I meet some of the junior officers wondering about, vaguely seeking action. But it’s Sunday night in Spain. If anything is going to happen it will start late and we are all a bit sleepy. Bar Castro, past MacDonalds, is my tip. The girl behind the bar has flashing eyes. She tosses her black hair in a way that seems distinctively Spanish.


Mind your back

Traversing the port is entertaining. You need a high-vis jacket, and a hard hat in theory, though if anything falls on you it will surely be dramatic and fatal. The container loaders are straight out of Star Wars – giant six-wheeled bogeys. Everything seems to move all the time, and not all of it beeps.

Stop ship

They were excited to dock in Algecrias, and touchingly, just as excited to leave. There is a mini drama as we are leaving the berth: the lines are still on when the world moves, suddenly. “Captain the ship is moving backwards!” Chris calls, urgently, into his radio. He runs, very quickly for such a big man. There are two crewmen by the ropes and the winches scream. It turns out one of the telegraphs was on slow astern; when command was switched to it 90,000 horsepower in the main engine started to pull as backwards. It was lucky the winches were on automatic or we could have snapped ropes. They are designed to break backwards in a straight line – unlike the wire hawsers they still use in Bremerhaven. Those whip-lash. They would cut you in half.


Full Ahead

“Free again! We are free as birds!” says the Captain, as we leave the Bay of Gibraltar. He and Sorin are in excellent humour. There is something wonderful about taking the seaway again. Soon our mobiles will lose signal and won’t regain them until we pass Pantelleria, south of Sicily, which seafarers call Telephone Island, because when you pass you can get European-rate tariff on your phone.


Passing south of Sicily in the dawn we see Etna, the great volcano, like a smoking egg on the horizon. A single oil rig works the Vega field – it looks very Ridley Scott on its spindly legs, and its gas flare. A flight of herons – I think Purple Herons – cross our bows, heading south. Also a willow warbler turns up, and a yellow wagtail, and swallows. No sailor would ever harm a bird on a boat.


He slew the Albatross

“A Turkish bo’sun told me this guy found a bird on the foc’sle, it was exhausted, shitting everywhere. He broke its neck and threw it over the side. Within one week the guy had lost an arm in an accident,” said Sorin. “If it was a Russian, a Bulgarian or a Romanian I am not believing him, but Turkish – these guys tell the truth.” So there you are. We are friends to birds.


Not superstitious, but..

We never whistle anywhere on the ship, especially not on the bridge, and we don’t turn our backs on the sea ahead. Whistling brings storms, and turning your back is unlucky, as well as bad seamanship. Trying not to whistle is actually quite hard. I forget, in the B-deck corridor, by the mess. When I enter the room all four senior officers are looking at me, faces frozen. I think the Captain hums to himself so much, and mutters whispers, because he is fighting the urge.


No stopping

Under a hot moon we tell ghost stories on the bridge. We are shapes in the darkness; the lookout never takes his eyes from the seas ahead. We have three days and nights at sea; we can normally see other ships, and the radar certainly can, but sometimes we seem to be alone. It is very strange to be in constant motion, to feel it all the time, to sleep with it and eat with it. Addictive, actually. When we sleep we dream deep and wide – the lack of alcohol seems to make them very vivid.


No watery wastes

The sea is a scape dramatic as any land and as varied as any; as intriguing as the desert and at least as featured. The chart shows us passing into the Ionian Abyssal Plain. It is four kilometers deep. Here and there it rises:  a shallow ridge is called a bank; a peak rising from the depths is a seamount. We pass a something called Terrible Bank, and Archimedes Seamount. Ahead, south of Greece, is Herotodus Bank.


What this button does

The engine is one of the most sophisticated ever constructed. It has several hundred alarm points – “More than a Boeing 747-400,” says Rohan, the young and smiling second engineer. “We are in space-ship territory, actually. You can do anything and everything from here,” he says, “And it is possible to adjust it from Copenhagen by satellite link.” We are in the engine control room. Rohan is looking at a complicated screen showing the ventilation system. It reports that the temperature in the engine room is 39 degrees; 49 by the engine.

Good with your hands?

“You can put a bolt in in normal conditions, but try putting a bolt in when the ship is rolling ten degrees, it is one hundred percent humidity, the temperature is fifty degrees, you haven’t slept properly, and you haven’t eaten properly. Then put the bolt in,” Rohan grins. He comes from somewhere south of Mumbai. He is twenty five years old. At that age I was just about capable of taking responsibility for a bar. “We need to make one hundred percent on time delivery, and there is no one who can help you. So – you have to make a lot of correct decisions.” He loves it. And he’s signing off in Salalah, Oman, so he will see his wife again soon.


Sea Monster

Saw two! Towards dusk, playing in the wake. They were much bigger than dolphins and they had vertical dorsal and tail fins. Huge creatures. Basking sharks? Do they play in wakes? No. They were sea monsters…



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