Thursday, February 02, 2006

Beginning at the end

Alang shipbreaking yards, northwestern India

If artistic creativity thrives on chaos, then I had no better source for my book than the sprawling shipbreaking yards of Alang, India. This stretch of sandy beach tucked along the Bay of Khambhat northwest of Mumbai (Bombay) is the site of the largest marine graveyard in the world. It is a place where ships come to die, to be torn asunder by teams of migrant labourers and recycled into construction girders, steel plates and other re-useable items. It is a dirty, dangerous place rarely visited by outsiders, but proved a fascinating starting point for my global journeys in search of hte soul of a ship.

A few years back, I was part of a team of Canadian filmmakers working on a documentary about Alang and was able to spend over a month here. While at work, I met an Indian captain who queried me about what the film was about and, when I related it was to look at shipbreaking, he wondered why no one bothered to look at the entire life of a ship and those who make their living around her.

This was an interesting idea, without a doubt, but I don't have the means to spend thirty or forty year watching a ship's maritime wanderings and hanging out with its various crews. But when I returned to my home in Canada, this captain's words stuck with me and I began to ponder things.

Research quickly showed that there are few books written about men, ships and the sea (and women, too), unless they chronicle disasters it seems. Within a few weeks I'd decided that there might be something there, something about the world of merchant seafaring today. and, fundamentally, it went back to what I'd seen and experienced in India.

Graveyards have always been intriguing to me, not for any macabre aspect but because of the finality of life - the mortality - that is presented for all to see. Each of those vessels I'd seen in India had been carefully crafted at a shipyard somewhere, had sailed the seven seas and been homes to individuals for months or years at a time. Taken as a whole, all those rusting hulks being cut up for scrap metal had once been touchstones for tens of thousands of men and women.

So the idea became clearer: Was it possible that all those individuals could have left an imprint on the cold steel hulls? Could that be a means of exploring the world of seafaring today? Well, I figured there were worse ways to begin my journeys.

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