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A ship alive: intercontinental travel by container vessel

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

I seriously ponder dancing for a moment, but the prospect of gyrating before a dozen drunken Filipino sailors who are singing sensuous love songs, full of feeling and soprano tones, becomes less and less attractive. One sailor sticks the microphone in my face, another scrolls through the songs on screen and before I know it I am singing ‘Down Under’ – badly, very badly. I bellow, miss the words, am off key. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ is much better, after I learn not to bellow and how to read the damn machine.

Meanwhile the drink flows; cigarettes are passed around; delicious Filipino concoctions mass on the tables; I breathe a sigh of relief, having done my duty.

But what am I doing singing karaoke with drunken Filipino sailors? Is this a seedy bar in the Philippines? No, I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a container ship. I wanted to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage is far better than flying (one of the worst forms of transport invented by human beings) I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by CMA-CGM, the French company supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others. Our cabin is anything but compact, reserved for spare voyagers – the ‘owner’ perhaps, company executives, repair crews for engine overhauls, and passengers. We have a bedroom, bathroom and living space with a couple of portholes, plus access to the communal lounge and pretty much anywhere else on the ship.

On board we have 23 officers and crew: the captain and engineers are from the Balkans, from Montenegro and Croatia, while the crew and the three mates are Filipinos – hard-working and competent sailors who are not confrontational, preferring quite means of addressing problems when they arise. Over the next long month I would get to know many of them very well, sharing stories and drinks, singing karaoke, celebrating an equatorial barbeque, gaining an insight into the sailor’s life, pondering sex on the high seas …

A Waterborne Village in Motion

What is life like on a working ship, especially for crews who live for nine months at a time on board?

A Ship Alive

The ship is constantly alive, full of myriad inter-lapping movements. The quiver and surge of the engines at full steam ahead is the constant backdrop, but as I write (after a storm), we ride the oncoming waves like slow and sensuous sex: a gentle push, withdraw, push, with the occasional rush of blood. At other times, with a cross wind and diagonal swell from the stern, it begins rocking, heavily and deeply. At one moment you run down the hall, small steps acting as brakes; at the other moment you are climbing a steep mountain. But the roll is never consistent: a quiet half dozen may suddenly be followed by a massive lurch, the horizon now at what appears to be 45% to where it should be, chairs sliding, cups falling off tables, a roll onto your other side in sleep even if you didn’t want to. Turn the swell to the front of the ship, but at a good angle and the ship adds a juddering crunch to the roll, for the nose dives into the wave, the tail goes in the air, and then the ship shakes itself like a drenched dog, all the while rolling heavily either to port or starboard. But even on the quietest sea, the proverbial pond or Pacific doldrums, the tiny quivers, shudders, the gentle lift and drop, the tilt on the floor, remind you it is not at rest.

One word struggles to capture the feel: fluidity. I mean not the standard feel of a ship on a fluid surface, but the actual ship itself. What does that mean? It flexes, bends and wobbles! I first notice this flexing when standing on the bridge, watching for the massive bow wave in heavy seas. Slightly out of focus, peering into another world, I notice what seems to be the ship shaking itself. No, it is more like a slow, rubberised wave that runs through the ship’s hull. You can see the containers and crane at the bow move to a different rhythm than those closest. I had of course heard of flexible steel hulls, but to experience it: a massively reinforced steel hull, carrying engines, equipment and over 20,000 tonnes of freight, rippling, flexing, wobbling.


A ship alive; so also with the human beings on board. The human dynamics of the ship soon become apparent as we encounter the familiar roll of a wintry, windy and wet Tasman Sea – our first leg. It is a complex mix of tribal arrangements, following ethnic, linguistic and political lines. The ex-Yugoslavs – a Montenegrin captain and Croatian engineers and electrician eat together in the officers dining room, talking amongst one another in what are supposed to be separate languages (for political reasons) but which they all know is the same language. And the Filipino crew draws to its own dining room the officers who are also Filipino – the three mates, who are perfectly entitled to eat in the officers’ mess, opt for the noisy and crowded crew mess at the other end of Deck B.

Yet these are not ad hoc arrangements, as I find in a later conversation with the captain, for they are the result not merely of financial considerations but also of a reasonable amount of sociological study – some combinations work well; others don’t. On earlier voyages I had encountered Kiribati crews, Chinese crews, Papuan crews, Koreans. And he had worked with Indonesian, Japanese and Indian crews. The company finds that a few senior European officers work well with Filipino crews, but that Indian and Filipino do not (caste systems from India), or that European and Indonesian is not a good mix. So they are careful about organising crews, since they spend a long time together in restricted conditions.

The third tribe – apart from the ex-Yugoslavs and the Filipinos – is made up of the passengers, who have their own table in the mess. We – a Dane and Australian – meet three other passengers from New Zealand. They had come from Europe and are on the last leg of their voyage, from Melbourne to Napier. Obviously they have been too long together, driving each other up the wall: the logorrhoeic Bill, the retired minor bureaucrat with all the superficiality of an autodidact’s universal knowledge coupled with a mania for collecting things, the reticent and happy-to-follow Jim, friend of John and small businessman, and the former seaman Des, bedecked with gold chains and bracelets, a sweep of white hair and the desperate air of one who had spent too many days at sea listening to Bill’s. Napier cannot come too soon, for otherwise one passenger would be testing his swimming skills in the Tasman. After that we are the only two passengers.

Daily Rhythm

On this flexing, quivering ship with its tribes, the rhythm of one’s day becomes very simple. Without ‘entertainment’ that serves only to remind you of boredom, the day’s simplicity becomes a pleasure: it turns around the meals and what you do with the time in between: breakfast 7:30 to 8:30, lunch 12:00 to 13:00, dinner 18:00 to 19:00. Unless there is a talker (but he had gone in Napier!) or the captain feels like a chat, the meal usually takes half an hour. Between meals: a quiet hour on the bridge before breakfast pondering the sea over a cup of tea, and then writing, some Danish language practice (don’t ask me why) and reading during the 4-5 hour stretches in between meals. Exercise? One might climb the endless stairs, inside and outside, up ten floors to the bridge and down again, or join a sweaty sailor or three in the simple but effective gym – for the weight machine, rowing machine and the surreptitious comparison of muscled bodies.

Eating, sleeping, writing, reading, being ogled by sweaty sailors … the other pastime is talk – as much or as little as you want. At meal times, an on-deck barbeque, during a safety drill, a pause on the deck, in the engine room or deep in the bowels of the ship, but above all on the bridge, questions are asked, answers given, opinions shared, glimpses of other worlds and lives shared. But talk also takes wing beyond the outer limits of the ship, over seas and oceans to other places (often home) and other voyages.

Of Drunken Sailors, Sex, the Mysterious ‘Passageway’ and …

Beneath this calm daily rhythm, the ship is full of quirks and hidden corners, whispered secrets and the plain weird.

Floatation Suit

Take the floatation suit, for example. The overly keen third officer is giving us a ‘familiarisation tour’, allowing us to peek into the lifeboat before plonking us down in front of a computer screen to watch a riveting presentation on lifeboat procedures. But I am soon transfixed by the floatation suits, barely noticing the questionnaires signed and the Yellow Fever certificates passed over. Back in the cabin I cannot wait to struggle into the snug floatation suit, stored neatly in the cupboard for that unwanted emergency which would require us to abandon ship. Made of the same neoprene as wetsuits, albeit in a bright orange that clings tightly to my body, it has a triple effect: I begin sweating profusely, looked like a Telly Tubby and produced the most unflattering photograph I have ever witnessed.

Groundhog Day

Or Groundhog Day: on the first of July, the mate on duty announces that tomorrow we repeat the same day, since we are to cross that strange human invention, the International Date Line. And so, the next morning I wake with some excitement, for it is 1 July all over again. Will exactly the same events happen today, the same meal in the mess (probably, but it is the same no matter which day), the same acts, conversations, same stretch of ocean covered, same readings from the instruments that measure our voyage, same latitude and longitude, same markings on the sea chart? Groundhog Day? Sadly, it is not to be.

US Marines

Or almost being strafed by a US Marine helicopter gunship: we are sailing along the east coast of the USA, past the Carolinas and up to Virginia. I am reading quietly earlier in the afternoon, only to look up at the hint of noise and see, through the porthole, close by and in great detail the massive, camouflaged helicopter gunship on our bow. It sweeps across our bow and then turns to pass up our starboard side, directly overhead. Holy shit, I think, running to the deck in time to see the second pass. Up on the bridge I mention it to the captain and chief engineer. ‘Americans!’ shrugs the captain. ‘Only in the US would they do that’, meaning … ‘weirdest people on earth’.

Drunken Sailors

Or drunken sailors: at an outdoor barbeque. Crossing the equator, in the Pacific doldrums (a curse for sailing ships, a blessing for ships with engines), still calls for a celebration. Soon enough the music is blaring and the fire raging in a half 44 gallon drum fire, which is piled high with all manner of recognisable and unrecognisable meats. The deck is full of very drunken Filipino – or ‘Pilipino’ as most of them say – sailors and even more drunken Croatian engineers. As they toss bones, cans and cigarette butts in the water, occasionally pissing over the side, they lean alarmingly over the railing in the midst of the Pacific. Amazingly, the count of sore heads in the morning is the same as the night before. The Bosun speaks endlessly about praying, missing church on board, Muslim neighbours, his seasickness. The third engineer, a man married three times and with an impossibly white shirt and winning smile, chats up Christina, asking whether she has a twin sister he could hook up with. And the habit for photographs is not some stiff pose with a photo smile – the smile that you put on when you think what a smile might be – nor even a pose by a monument, but a moment of extravagant mockery: everyone piles together, arms outstretched, drinks held aloft, heads kinked, frozen in time … The best approach to photos I have seen for quite a while.

Sex on the High Seas

Or sex on the high seas? Is it restricted to porn and five finger fantasies? Or do the younger horny men, with testosterone pumping through their systems, form bonds at sea, bonds that are regarded as either normal for sailors while at sea (but not at home)? Or is all this kept in a classic closet? Or is there one who is the ‘tart’, who is sexually available for a bit of massage, fellatio or buggery for anyone who is interested? Is the strict hierarchy of the ship also maintained in ship sex? I do remember a passenger on a previous ship, who liked to invite the young men into his cabin for massages and lessons in English … and possibly some French and Greek. Perhaps the old saying from the navy still applies: on shore it might be wine, women and song, but at sea it is rum, bum and fiddle.

The Passageway

Which brings me to the ‘passageway’: the captain is not one to forget things, for on the second last day of the voyage he mentions ‘the passageway’, asking whether I still wish to be initiated. I had mentioned it once, on our first day, a long month ago. Today the chief officer turns up early – boilersuit, helmet, boots, gloves and torch. I am impressed and grab my helmet. The English might call it the ‘Burma Road’, but for others it is simply the ‘passageway’. What is it? Let us see.

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

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

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

Sadly, we cannot stay there forever, since the chief is busy with the duties of four imminent ports (Tilbury, Dunkirque, Le Havre and Rotterdam). So I set off the way we had come. ‘No, this way’, says the chief, ‘there’s more’. We had come up the port side; on the starboard side the passageway winds its way back to the start. Torch on, ducking, stretching, small steps to avoid slipping in the oil and then, like a horse sniffing the stable, I am off for the escape hatch. ‘Not so fast’, says the chief. He pulls me over, places a hand on my shoulder and whispers: ‘Do you want to see the cargo hold?’ I am awed, for now the deepest secret of the ship is about to be revealed. He bangs open the levers – alarmed as well – and hauls back the airtight door, beckoning me inside. I am a little worried that he doesn’t follow me in, imagining him slamming the door shut with a wicked chuckle, holding me there for ransom or perhaps as a sex slave for the crew. It is not to be … but the space looks like it could well be used for exactly such purposes: in between the deepest container, with reefer outlets and dirt scattered about, a talented artist had painted a woman wearing nothing but a wicked grin, her legs spread wide in invitation. ‘Do not enter here’, someone had scribbled, as if to state the obvious on a ship full of men.

Outside the cargo hold, we stand in reverend silence for a few moments. ‘Time to go’, says the chief. After climbing the ladder from the depths and stumbling out of the hatch, daylight feels strangely different.

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