I once wondered how something so fundamental had become so invisible — when did you last meet a working seafarer? — so in 2010 I went to sea on a container ship and wrote about it. And so, a year later, did Horatio Clare. We chose the same shipping company, Maersk, a Denmark-based giant global corporation that has become increasingly visible thanks to a sound grasp of social media and a sold-out Lego model of its Triple-E container ships, brought to shops around the world by gigantic versions of itself.
We followed the same route for our first trip, from the United Kingdom to Asia, although in the year between our passages Somali piracy had made the Indian Ocean too dangerous for passengers — even intrepid journalists (“intrepid”, is, oddly, an adjective that is applied to writers who go to sea on container ships, though not to the 1.25 million seafarers who do it for a — very dangerous — living).
So Clare disembarked with reluctance at Port Suez and was only reunited with the “Gerd Maersk” and its boxes several thousand nautical miles away in Malaysia. He rediscovered his ship with great affection, but more so the crew — who seem to bond tightly, although they will probably never work together again once their contracts are up. Hardly any modern ship has a permanent crew any more — these are the days of manning agencies and six-month contracts.
Although the shipping agent in Felixstowe tells him to expect “hard men ... the reservoir of tradition”, Clare finds himself among friends: Danes, Romanians, Filipinos and other nationalities, the motley mix that makes up the crew of modern working ships. He is lucky with his captains, both on “Gerd Maersk”, where the master is a bear of a man named Henrik Larsen, roaring and sometimes boiling over at the stupidities of pilots or other ships, but never losing control of his ship or his bridge, where the atmosphere is always “easy and alert”.
On “Maersk Pembroke”, Clare’s second ship, which sailed across the Atlantic to Montreal, the master is Pete Koop, a keen-eyed Dutchman, who warms to his supernumerary — a traveller on board who is neither crew nor paying guest — “when he sees I like” the ship. Chris, the second mate, has a skill for teasing the new boy, who, coming on to the bridge at night, finds something amazing and says so. “‘Yeah. Well. You think everything is amazing,’ says the darkness, heavily.”
There are jolly Filipinos who replace “Horatio” with “Horace” and who work on deck among the 9,000 or so metal containers that “Gerd Maersk” carries, and in the punishing heat — sometimes 50 degrees — of the engine room. They welcome their supernumerary when they needn’t. Clare treads carefully at first, though he falls foul of ship superstitions that don’t like bare feet on steel decks, or whistling anywhere. He feels his way around the ship, “going up and down ... and feeling her spirits”, and also around ship life: the harshly lit corridors, the diesel fumes pumping into his quarters, the “wild desolation” of what lies outside and beneath.
Clare is known as a nature writer, and although he is surrounded by metal, nature gets its full share of attention. He lists birds but also describes winds, skies and water, usually with a lyricism that the dour second officer Chris may laugh at but which can be lovely: night coming in “under grim veils”, or bodies from a shipwreck, he imagines, “turning and tattering ... somewhere in the water below”. If his phrasing sometimes tips over into the baffling, so that the sea is “a failed memory”, then that is forgivable on the high seas, where the enormousness of the emptiness can do strange things to a man’s mind. Sea-time, Clare writes, after he has had plenty of it, “is like being in a rolling dream, conscious but unable to wake”. Time slips both literally (a ship makes its own time zones) and figuratively.
There are other oddities about life at sea. On a ship, so many normal aspects of society are absent. Women did not feature in Clare’s first trip, and are only a quiet background presence, in the barely sketched character of Annabelle the cook, on his second. Clare doesn’t ever seem to miss society, and only rarely women: he has run away to sea with delight. But the crew do.
Ships possess the means of communication, but there is only intermittent e-mail access, even on “Gerd Maersk”. Maersk banned alcohol for its seafarers on April 1, 2007, a date memorialised on “Pembroke” by a Beer Museum consisting of a beer bottle and a sign suggesting onlookers gaze on it “and let your mind wander to days of ships with happy crews. Free admission.”
These days, crew members often disappear to their cabins with DVDs rather than socialise. It is a lonely life, despite Clare’s belief that “the isolation of seafarers from the fullness of the world seems to make of them men in full”. He notices the same thing in all crew, however junior: “something that land life frequently fails to supply ... a kind of quiet self-possession.” (At this point in my notes, I wrote “bromance”, but he means it well.)
The criticism that he makes of shipping’s darker practices is also reasonable, from the delinquency of flying some flags of convenience (registering a merchant ship in a sovereign state different from that of the ship’s owners) to the exploitation of seafarers (a crew member crushed by boxes he should not have been loading; a young South African female cadet found floating in the sea after she was allegedly raped by her first officer). That the Filipino crew are paid less than anyone else Clare describes as a “moral disgrace”, though his indignation is not shared by phlegmatic fourth engineer Joel. “They always say it’s the market,” he says, and shrugs.
“Maersk Pembroke” heads for Canada with what that country needs for the winter, which includes Indian spices, 25 tonnes of Greek wine, British sanitary towels, Dutch medicine and Swedish paper. It will deliver two tonnes of used machinery from Congo and 300 tonnes of sawn timber from Germany, to a country of forests. Such is the oddity of shipping, which is so cheap that sometimes it costs nothing to ship anything. The weather is against them, and Clare writes powerfully of the merchant navy men who died in this ocean during the Battle of the Atlantic, grandly named by Churchill but with nothing grand about its reality: torpedoed men who jumped ship, then watched as flames of burning oil reached them in the water.
Clare rightly salutes Richard Woodman, whose wonderful “The Real Cruel Sea” tells best the story of the wartime merchant navy. He has other literary companions in Conrad, of course, and Melville. He nods to past ships and disasters, but his focus is definitely the present — the neglected, unheralded lives of these men living their lives on unseen ships, bringing us everything.
Clare has written a lament and a praise-song: he laments that things cannot be made better for the seafarers who slog at sea so we have our well-stocked supermarkets and pointless stuff. He is served nostalgia in spades by officers who remember better times, but the nostalgia is founded on truth: before, seafarers had a hard job but they had enough time ashore to lighten that work. Now containerisation is so fast, they are spat in and out of ports with barely time for dinner.
The praise is for the view, for the elements, but mostly for the seafarers. He went to sea to experience ships, Clare writes, but he ended up learning more about men. He disembarks both ships with dragging feet, wandering around Montreal “like an odd ghost”, wanting to take people by the arm and say, “listen, there is a ship at sea tonight, and this is who is on board, and this is what their lives are like, and without them none of this world you call normal could exist”. Some container lines take paying passengers, but if you can’t run away to sea (though I recommend you do), Clare’s book is a warm and captivating companion to it.