Thursday, March 02, 2006

Looking at a Ship

Off the coast of South Korea

Sea travel has always had a slightly mysterious aura about it, mainly owing to the fact that it entails leaving the safety of dry land behind and setting out upon the great unknown that is our planet’s key defining characteristic. It’s also something that is only experienced – regularly – by a minority of us. There are less than two million professional mariners working today, plying the oceans, seas, rivers and lakes on about 26,000 vessels.

For the rest of us, the chance to savor life aboard a ship are left to brief journeys on cruise ships or even shorter jaunts on ferry boats, and neither can truly provide anything more than a glimpse into the world of seafaring.

To be aboard a working, commercial vessel is a completely different experience. It’s a mixture of factory, dormitory, office space and cafeteria, all shrouded in solitude and privacy. And constantly on the move. Whether it is a bulk carrier, an oil tanker or a container ship, these vessels have purpose, a workaday sensibility that is not benign or relaxing. The cadence and rhythm of life here is structured around the task of shuttling cargos from one port to another, regardless of weather.

Wheelhouse of MV Antwerpen

Merchant ships are utilitarian entities, but they are note without character. They are, I’ll grant you, somewhat bland expression of marine design: Cabins tend toward early IKEA in resplendency, synthetic fibres reign supreme and I never knew that fake wood paneling could still be employed so ominously. But the eyes are not always the best tools to observe what a ship’s like.

For instance, my first impressions while sailing with the crew of the bulker MV Antwerpen centered on the sounds and sensations the ship made. In port the vessel resounded to the crescendo thuds of her gantry cranes scooping up tonnes of coal from the cargo bays, steel careening on steel. While at sea, though, the timbre of the ship rang loudest.

The Antwerpen was always trembling as her engine strove to drive us through the gentle, mid-summer swells off New England. Closets vibrated in my cabin, a glass of water revealed ripples on the liquid and the deck transmitted the cut of the propeller doing battle with the ocean. Taking a shower in the morning, you grasped the handholds emplaced on the bulkheads to deal with the rolls. At night, you could lie in your bunk and feel the rise and fall of the hull, the swaying from side to side, the shudders of waves. All in all, I found it a decidedly pleasant and reassuring experience.

C deck companionway, MV Antwerpen

Mariners develop an acute sense about their marine hosts, something directly related to the reverberations a vessel displays. More than one captain or chief engineer recounted times when they’d suddenly awakened from a deep sleep, sensing something had changed in the resonance they’d been accustomed to. It could have been a slight burp in one of the engine cylinders, maybe a heavy wave brushing against the hull. Either way, these professional seafarers were up in an instant to check on things, because at sea only a novice, or a fool, ignores a change in the rhythms.

Throughout my travels at sea - through gales, hurricanes, tropical downpours and glassy calm, sun-soaked waters - I always found a reassurance in the shimmies and shakes of my temporary homes. I allowed myself to be embraced by the power of the engines, coddled by the marine-grade steel hull and relished the interaction between manmade leviathan and Mother Nature. This, I quickly realized, was the first part of understanding why some consider ships to have a soul.

Sea trials, near Ulsan, South Korea

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