Monday, February 27, 2006

Looking for a ship

When it comes to the sea, there are countless books that have preceded me, books by authors both illustrious and unknown. The romance of the sea, the history of vessels, the life stories of mariners, the wonders of exploration – they have been a staple of literature for centuries. And I’ve allowed myself the chance to soak up tomes and tales for decades now, everything from Daniel Defoe to Joseph Conrad, from Alan Villiers to Derek Lundy, from Helen Creighton to Rachel Carson.

But if you really want to write about the sea and those who make their lives from it, you cannot merely read. You must sail. Anything less is an armchair travelogue.

Unfortunately, in the post-911 world, getting on a working, commercial ship is not nearly as easy as it used to be. The time when one could wander down to a wharf, eye a vessel and ask her captain if it’s okay to tag along for a voyage are long gone. Like so much of our world, the barriers and regulations encompassing shipping are more stringent these days: there is a fear, however misplaced, that “rogue elements” could take over a vessel and terrorize some urban centre. This has made an already secretive world even more cloistered.

So where does one start the process of getting inside the world of merchant shipping? Well, you can try making cold calls to shipping firms – as I did – and will encounter a suitably cool response. A better option, though, is to simply send word through friends and colleagues about your intentions and see what happens.

Because commercial shipping is so global in reach, a surprising number of contacts will appear. Keep in mind that merchant vessels carry over 90% of the world’s commerce, everything from iPods to lingerie. The world of seagoing vessels somehow touches us all, whether we realize it or not, most often not. So after a few weeks of passing news of my project around, I was put in touch with someone in the shipping business. Bob Abraham is an ex-pat Canadian living in the United States and he liked the idea of a book about commercial shipping and the experiences of those whose lives revolve these marine leviathans.

Bob said he’d see what he could do to help and within a few more weeks came the news that I could hitch a ride on a bulk carrier he was associated with. The vessel was somewhere in the Caribbean, en route to New England with a load of Venezuelan coal. With about a week’s notice, I packed my bags and grabbed a flight to Boston, where Bob met me.

Driving down to the port of Providence, Rhode Island, he filled me on the ship: She was an older vessel (built in 1979) called the MV Antwerpen, weighing about 40,000 deadweight tonnes and 199 metres in length (652 feet). Antwerpen’s compliment was thirty-two officers and ratings, all hailing from Poland. For the next few weeks I would be joining them as they sailed up and down the eastern seaboard of North America, to Maine, Nova Scotia, Florida and The Bahamas. She’d then head back to South America for more coal, though I was uncertain if I’d be able to stay with her that long. I’d flown down from Toronto on a one-way ticket with no idea when – or how – I’d get home.

Winding our way through the industrial wastelands that line the commercial port area, my first glimpse of the Antwerpen was obscured by small mountains of coal that the vessel was discharging from her holds. Pulling up to the base of her gangway, the Antwerpen’s red and black hull and her white superstructure loomed over me. Her two gantry cranes were swinging to and fro, clawing at the black mineral within her before dumping it on conveyor belts.

My arrival aboard the ship went unnoticed by most of the crew – they were too busy unloading the cargo, rushing to finish up and head back to sea. Bob led me into the ship and up to meet her captain so that I could be formally entered into the Antwerpen’s crew manifest. Captain Jacek Wisniewski was waiting for us in his day room, a somewhat spartan office cum living room located one deck down from the wheelhouse. Clad in a polo shirt and blue jeans, Wisniewski seemed indifferent and reserved about my presence aboard his ship. I assumed – correctly, as it turns out – that he was waiting to gauge me and see how I’d fit into his crew. A piece of advice given to me by a friend who is a professional mariner came to mind: “Whatever you do,” he’d said before I headed off on this journey, “Take it slow and easy. Slow and easy.”

As I unpacked my bags in my cabin, the sounds of the cranes unloading coal reverberated throughout the ship and I could feel the shudders as they banged against the hull. Bob Abraham dropped by to wish me well, grinning as he left me alone. And I was alone. For the next couple of weeks I’d be on my own at sea with a crew of Polish mariners, not sure where I’d end up or what to do next.

But I’d finally found a ship.

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