We are a ship of Poles. 22 to be precise plus one Ukrainian, 2 Germans and one Australian. We slip slowly down the river, in the Belgian winter fog, out of Antwerp bound for Cape Town via Porto, Vigo and Wallis Bay. Our ship, the six year old, 200 metre, 30,000 tonne, Blue Master 2.
I board the ship after two days in Antwerp, a fleeting visit to Amsterdam and a two hour pursuit of the immigration office around the port of Antwerp. In keeping with the tradition of something always needing to go wrong on every trip, the agents, Slow Travel, despite having to do little other than provide basic information in emails have clearly been unable to check that the immigration office is still at the address they have previously given.
This, and the fact that they have failed to notify the security office of my passage aboard the ship, thus involving a long delay at the gate, adds $40 to my taxi fare, for which I shall seek my pound of flesh.
I cross the docks playing chicken with 100 tonne cranes, forklifts, trucks,
a myriad of utes and other vehicles and board the ship. I am well prepared for my 27 day trip with 10 books loaded on my iPad, miscellaneous ideas for writing and a guitar to be learned (an exercise in wishful thinking judging by past experience). I also have Spanish, French and Italian grammar in case I find myself unable to sleep.
The security officer at the top of the gangplank summons someone to take me to wherever they plan to take me which turns out to be the ship’s office. There I am greeted by one of the engineers, who advises the crewman to summon the Captain and the Steward.
Most of the action, for those who are not working, takes place on the so-called Poop deck.
Aside from providing a degree of childish entertainment to passengers (aside from its English meaning, poop means to fart in German) this deck, one level up from the main deck is where the mess rooms, kitchens, and ships office are located.
From here going up it’s up past A and B decks (crew quarters) and then on up to C where my cabin in located and D decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.
Further below are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds. At the bow you also have the front the upper deck and the foc’sle.
The foc’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar and forward lighting structure, plus a few rolls of razor wire which, in certain ports are wrapped around the hawsers to prevent stowaways climbing the ropes. There are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, under most circumstances.
From my perspective the foc’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front it’s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. It’s also the best place for watching for dolphins, whales and flying fish among other things. In good weather one can make like Kate Winslet and stand meditating on the rushing water, wind and waves.
Crossing the equator, there are thousands of flying fish and I also expend a myriad digital images trying to photograph them as they emerge from the water just in front of the bow and flit away across the ocean, effortlessly traversing 200 metres of water in a single flight.
These days, though, the ocean is a sadly empty place. We see just a handful of pilot or other small whales, two pods of dolphin and almost no birds aside from a handful of migratory swallows and a dozen or so terns and other seabirds which I don’t recognise.
Of the once mighty great albatross and the frigate birds which once used to haunt the path of all the large ships, there is not a single one. The ocean is a desert.
The ship is like a living, breathing thing. No matter where you are, except right at the bow, you cannot escape the sound or vibration of the engine, seven, giant, Japanese made, cylinders powering the single prop. In addition to the engine the ship creaks and groans continually as it labours over the incoming swell.
From stern to bow the ship is 199 metres and to get to the bow one walks along the main deck five metres above water level. For me, at least, this is quite mesmeric; the rushing sound and motion of the passing water and the endless changing patterns and colours, light, dark and foam. Looking down into the water one has the sense, as the dark patches swirl past, of looking down to the centre of the ocean.
When not in ones cabin, the mess or foc’sle, the passengers spend most of the time on the bridge or passenger deck (deck D) soaking up the sun or sitting on the bridge, with the watch officers, watching the world go by.
Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first mate, Bogdan, second mate, Sambor, third mate, Kamil, and the steward (Severin). Suffice to say their last names are unpronounceable, except perhaps to other East Europeans, as are almost all Polish last names.
I get the sense that the passengers are tolerated, so long as they are relatively normal and not too demanding. They are a sort of inconvenient added burden.
My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and are good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant, in the sense that he worked for the German Government for most of his working life as a senior overseas aid person in various places around the world.
He administered and supervised German aid programs but now sees all aid programs as largely racist and paternalistic and, thus, a failure which, far from aiding developing countries actually hinders them.
Renate is a pharmacist and researcher and they are on their way to Namibia (Formerly German SW Africa) to do some research on the German history in Namibia.
Unlike the entire rest of the world they view Angela Merkel as a German disaster story who is more interested in staying in power than anything else (they quote, for example, her decision to close the German nuclear industry which they say was not driven by good policy but to simply keep the Greens onside and thus keep her position). They think the German energy policy Energiewende is a disaster and are they are climate sceptics.
Inevitably this produces some interesting breakfast and dinner time conversations, as we traverse the fields of politics, climate change, world wars, overseas aid, energy, human development, identity.
Eduard is quite talkative, which is fortunate for him because he is able to compete with me, while Renate is much quieter. They have an interesting dynamic no doubt developed over 40 or so years. As an example, Eduard, has a habit of saying to Renate at least a couple of times each meal “Correct me if I’m wrong.” Which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.
Eduard and Renate have three children, Eduard II, Elsa and Marie. Eduard II lives in Luxembourg and is a currency trader or some other such activity designed to produce wealth but with no other discernible benefit to humankind. Apparently, like the Americans, there is something of an unfortunate tradition, in Germany, to name your first born son after his father.
I’ve always seen this as a very egotistical and patriarchal tradition that, I assumed was restricted to the US, like the vast majority of stupid practices. Leaving aside the questionable ego involved in naming your child after yourself (and the inevitable confusion involved), why does this seem restricted just to men? Why not Renate II?
I guess, once again, women are not so foolish.
Like all the best parents, Eduard and Renate are slum landlords, with an apartment in Berlin for which they extort large sums of money from their two daughters and, presumably, provide no maintenance in return.
The quid pro quo, however, for Eduard in particular, is that his eldest daughter, Elsa, is attempting to re-educate him in an attempt to make him into a good human being instead of a scion of capitalist, conservative, society.
As a part of this she buys him books for his birthday which she thinks may improve his understanding of society. Currently he is reading ‘The Lies that Bind’ – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduard’s many failings Elsa is trying to address with this book.
Fortunately both Eduard and Renate appear to understand my sense of humour and Eduard takes the frequent jokes at his expense in good humour.
Porto street art
The Polish crew members, on the other hand, seem someone bemused and some look a little put out. I have to assure them that I am only joking, it is just Australian humour which, frequently, relies on taking the piss. This seems not to translate well into Polish humour, however, or is simply lost in translation.
Others, less kindly, might simply argue that my humour it is not Australian humour, at all, but simply Chris Harris humour which is understandable to only one person on earth or is, perhaps, just not funny.
Aside from meal time entertainment the trip is largely taken up by sleeping, lying in the sun, reading, taking photos and writing. I started the trip with pretensions to writing for two to four hours daily and to producing, at the end, my best-selling Man Booker prize winning novel. Sadly the first week produces nothing but five or six desultory, five to ten page long first chapters, all of which end in the bin.
On day seven I decide that, given my inordinate success at novel writing, I will gracefully retire to writing my periodic blog based on a series of sequential events over several years. By day ten I suddenly realise this looks more like a memoir than several unconnected blogs and by the end of the second week I have written 50 pages.
From this there emerges, unasked a section which I, realise, would have the good makings of a novel. I then proceed to write an outline including the characters, their stories and the plot lines.
Suddenly from nothing I have an accidental memoir and an accidental novel, or, at least, the first twenty pages, which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in producing previously. But, I caution myself, completing ten laps of a 100 lap race is no guarantee of finishing.
Aside from this the other events of note are a Saturday barbeque, a tour of the engine room and visits to Porto, in Portugal and Vigo in Spain. We get six hours in Porto which turns out to be sufficient to have a good walk around the old city and find a fine coffee shop and spot for lunch.
Porto is a beautiful city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyone’s ravings about it I don’t find it more or less interesting than a myriad other beautiful old European cities.
Vigo, the northeast most city of Spain, in Galicia, is the reverse. Despite being told it’s not very interesting I find it an interesting city of friendly people, wide gracious streets and people friendly boulevards. Importantly I also find a supply of organic crunchy peanut butter and six good avocados to substitute for the sausage breakfast.
Our interesting tour of the engine room simply serves to demonstrate to me my ignorance of all things ship. This starts with the revelation that this ship, along with most large vessels, has a single engine and prop where I had always imagined they would all have twin engines and screws.
The ship, built in China, has a Swiss designed, Japanese made engine and whereas I still had images of a dirty oily edifice, the engine and its surroundings are an immaculately clean and entirely computerised operation comprising its seven cylinder 11620 kw engine which consumes 28000 litres of fuel oil daily.
There is also a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water and an air conditioning plant. The workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft.
My cabin is a gracious and comfortable seven metres by six metres with ensuite, desk, table, wardrobe, TV, radio, drinks cabinet, dining table and chairs. This used to be the fourth officer’s cabin but, like the rest of the transport industry, crews have been downsized and have lost fourth officers and radio officers.
There is also a satellite modem connected to a piece of metal whirling around somewhere in the sky. With this I can communicate, via data, with the rest of the world for a cool 150 times what I pay for my internet ashore. So it’s limited to transmitting WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.
One of the downsides of a life at sea, at least for those who are not engaged in the manual labour of constantly maintaining the ship, is that life is almost entirely sedentary with the sole exercise being that involved in climbing the endless flights of stairs between the main deck and the bridge, six floors up.
This lack of exercise is compounded by efforts to feed the entire crew into a stupor with three cooked meals a day. The food is what I would describe as canteen food.
As such it is a mixture of the very good (soups for example) and stupendously awful (every third breakfast is a single Polish sausage which both looks and tastes disgusting). If you were a vegan you would surely starve. But given a single person has to cook for 25 people in a single sitting at the same time then it is a noble effort by Robert, the cook.
In the event that 3 meals a day is insufficient, the pantry is always stocked with bread and meat which you can slip down and consume in case the late night hunger pangs suddenly hit your well engorged stomach.
One might imagine that one could do one’s daily 10,000 steps around the main deck but in reality the main deck is an obstacle course of pillars, protrusions and slippery decks that pretty much guarantee that anyone foolish enough to contemplate using it as an exercise area will quickly find themselves exchanging pleasantries with the insurance company.
Not to be deterred we have noted that the ship’s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and a swimming pool.
It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vessel’s owners. The equipment consists, firstly, of six aerobic trainers that appear to have been purchased in a garage sale circa 1990. Assuming they were ever completely serviceable their physical decline appears remarkably similar to mine.
The rowing machine works not at all, much like my memory on a bad day. The two bikes are operational providing you have no desire to know things such as heart rate, distance, time etc. The weight resistance machines look as if Henry Ford used them to keep fit and the static weights appear to have been used for training by Dean Lukin (who won gold for Australia in weightlifting around 1980) when he was a child.
Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that it’s possible that the average tadpole or small goldfish might manage to keep fit in the pool but for anyone over about a foot long swimming laps might prove to be awkward. In addition, unless either of those animals had miraculously obtained lungs their ability to breathe would be somewhat constrained.
As for the crew and passengers, plunging into the plunge pool would tend to leave them winded or worse if they failed to notice that it was permanently empty. This is leaving aside the slight illogicality, in a ship traversing the tropics, of an indoor swimming pool in a windowless room below decks.
Not to be deterred, however, one may pass a pleasant fifteen minutes in the sauna in the event that, the tropical heat, on deck, is insufficient. Or, that would be possible if the sauna was anything more than a lined timber box permanently at a temperature of 20ºc.
Having enjoyed the pleasures of the pool and sauna, I make a mental note to research the address of the German office of Fair Trading, or its equivalent, and write them a friendly note regarding the accuracy of the ship’s advertising.
Given the situation of the gym and the main deck the Captain, Mariujs, has wisely decided that he will take his exercise on the bridge. He thus appears three or four times daily for a spin around the outer reaches of the bridge trudging his domain once every forty seconds or so in a clockwise direction.
Fortunately the remainder of our vessel appears to be in better shape than the gym, pool and sauna. However, in the event of an emergency, it seems likely that, unless the emergency were catastrophic, the entire contingent of crew and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured by a prospective evacuation in the lifeboat than by the emergency.
Such an evacuation involves boarding what looks like a large orange slug perched some twenty metres or more above the ocean. On being released it hurtles rocket ship-like at high speed, off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best. Those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.
Our only obligatory task, as passengers, is to attend the weekly boat drill. The general assumption seems to be that the average passenger is a moron since, regardless of how many times one has done the drill, one is required to wait in ones cabin until the steward arrives to guide you to the muster station, 30 metres away. Here the three of us stand, among the crew, where we are instructed to obey the Master’s orders..
For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Master’s orders, no matter from whence they come.
In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via the previously mentioned rocket ship. One removes shoes and dons ones survival suit. Then you squat, a somewhat amusing exercise if the entire crew were to do it collectively since it would look like some sort of communal bowel evacuation. All together now.
Then donning ones lifejacket you board the orange rocket ship. This particular rocket ship is not designed to launch one into space but, along with a maximum of 39 other people, to launch you semi-vertically downwards, twenty+ metres to the waters surface.
Here, if it does not break apart, as the third office and safety officer, believes it is likely to do, you will hit the water surface with the impact of a speeding bullet and enable the medical world to study 40 simultaneous cases of whiplash and worse.
Alone, on the world’s oceans, far from land, in your orange rocket ship, you watch your ship go down and wonder if you will ever be able to turn your neck again.
The likelihood of such an eventuality seems remote given the ship is just six years old and well maintained. The life of the average seaman (the ordinary seamen and the able seamen) is a never ending life of maintenance. In this way it is similar to the maintenance of the Sydney harbour bridge where you start painting at one end and when you finish you go back to the beginning again. Everything has to be regularly sanded and painted or oiled and greased to keep rust at bay.
It’s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a an avid reader (I managed to read more books in a 27 day trip than in the previous few years) of some boredom. It is to some degree subject to unknown schedules determined by wind, tides and the exigencies of available berths and pilots, such that the ship can end up anchored or drifting off shore for days at a time as it once did for four days off Durban.
Glorious departure sunset at Walvis Bay
On day 18 we reach Walvis Bay the principal Namibian Port. This is very much just a port city and pretty much everything is focused around serving the cargo ships and occasional cruise ships that call here to give their passengers access to the Namib Desert and adjacent nature reserves.
From the point of view of entertainment it doesn’t have much to recommend it and pretty much just comprises a single long main street and an esplanade with a bunch of good restaurants that service the tourists passing through on their way to elsewhere. Fortunately, for me, it also has a great coffee roasters and coffee shop where I spend a pleasant couple of hours each day.
A twenty minute walk due west and one hits the Namib Desert but surprisingly, even in February, Walvis Bay is cool due to the mixture of fog and cloud created by the cold Benguala current and the cool winds blowing north from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic ocean.
Having been both a German and, later, South African colony, when it was known as South-west Africa, until liberated in 1990 by SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organisation) it retains influences of both. There is still a significant non-Black population evident. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa it confronts similar issues with large areas of the country still owned or managed by the remnants of the former colonial powers.
We depart Walvis Bay late on Sunday night to a glorious sunset and the sight of two of the world’s largest drill rigs lit up like Las Vegas as they seek to find additional fossil fuels with which to put an early end to humankind’s stay on planet earth or, at least, the existing technological society. It seems no number of calamities or warnings will stop the climate criminals.
Southern Right Whales at Cape Town
From here it is two and a half days to Cape Town. For most of those two days we see little of anything due to the fog created by the Benguala current and the fact that it is flat calm and almost windless. Even the summer sun fails to completely burn off the fog at any time of day. Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.