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.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Princes and Paupers

Bhavnagar street scene

At the start of my exploration into the shipping world, I made two trips to India to visit the shipbreaking yards in Alang, located on the Bay of Khambhat in the northwestern part of the country. Each time I stayed in the nearby city of Bhavnagar, an industrial centre of a half million where Mahatma Gandhi went to university. It’s a typically chaotic Indian city, home to diamond cutters and salt merchants, as well as the newer shipbreaking elites. I never quite got a sense of the place, but I really only slept and ate there; it was merely a home base for the six weeks spent doing research.

For most of the time I was in Bhavnagar, I was sequestered in what had once been a Maharajah’s palace, originally built in the 1850’s and replete with peacocks wandering the grounds, an enclosed courtyard and the stuffed heads of various trophy kills presumably bagged by royalty.

As nice as that may sound, the palace cum hotel – “the grandest one in Bhavnagar”, I was assured – offered up crumbling plaster, specious electricity, a kitchen of supremely bland abilities and, in my case, a bathroom invaded by ants. The ants, oddly, didn’t really bother me: they seemed to appear on alternate days, trekking across a corner of the tiled room while migrating between places unseen.

Indeed, after a while I came to look upon the insects and their dogged crossings with a certain glee, their routine something to be favoured. Until, that is, I returned to my hotel room one day to find an older worker within. He spoke no English, but bowed deeply to me as he quietly exited, a can of aerosol spray clutched in one hand. The smell of fumigation permeated the room, so much so that I ignored the air conditioner and opened the windows to air the place. And as I listened to the peacocks squawking in the courtyard outside, I knew my ants would not be returning.

Staying in a former palace, even a rundown one, could sometimes create a sense of guilt on my part. This was because every day I ventured into the shipbreaking yards of Alang, I came face to face with the poverty in which most of the migrant workers lived. There are over 30,000 labourers populating Alang and the vast majority sleeps in modest shacks that are crowded close by the main street – the only street – that services the yards. These hovels, usually about the size of a garden shed, are cobbled together from plywood, sheet metal and anything else scavenged from the ships being desiccated on the beaches. Half dozen or more men will be crammed into the huts, sleeping on hard platforms in dark, sweaty conditions. A single bare bulb may provide some light, the electricity pirated from the local power grid.

For months on end, these shantytowns will be the only place that men from all over India can retire to at the end of a backbreaking day of work. It’s a filthy place – there’s no running water and the men use the adjacent fields as a toilet – but there is a sense of community to be found among the huts. The workers gather at the cookhouses and tea stands to chat and relax; they wander to the phone kiosks to call family; and on Sundays they enjoy their day off just as most others do. Some sleep in, others do laundry and eventually it seems all gather at the impromptu flea market that takes over the main street.

Sunday morning in the shantytown of Alang

Easily the most noticeable thing I discovered in Alang was the desire of individuals to be treated with dignity. Their lives were hard, physically and emotionally, far beyond anything I’d ever seen. They even had a phrase, “A ship a day, a death a day”, to encapsulate life in the shipbreaking yards. But the workers at Alang accepted that this was their lot in life. And, for many, it was a good life: they could make three or four times more money here than in their home villages, even if an entry-level position here makes the equivalent of less than eighteen cents (U.S.) an hour.

But these Indians – teenagers, widows, husbands, and fathers – welcomed me into their homes and into their lives. As we shared cups of masala chai, it was clear that pity was not a part of their vocabulary. None would ever sleep in a maharajah’s palace, but none cared. They would do the work assigned to them, toil in the heat, risk their lives, scar their bodies and take their meager pay and dream of returning home to settle down. In return, all they asked was to be accorded respect for their travails. Nothing more, nothing less.

The shipbreakers of Alang taught me an invaluable lesson, one that would extend to so many others who make their lives from ships and the sea.

Shipbreakers at their homes in Alang

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

War and Peace in southern Russia

Petr Vasil’evich Alhutov & Valentina Anufrievna Chumachenko

I stumbled on the photos the other day, while trying to organize my office. Of course this being the digital age, they were on my hard drive. Black and white shots I’d taken a few years back while directing my last documentary.

I was in the southern Russian city of Volgograd at the time, a massive edifice of crumbling Soviet-era industrial glory where a bottle of beer was cheaper to buy than that of water. A place replete with fading glories and forlorn parks more grey than green.

Russia can, at times, overwhelm you with its past, though not necessarily in the physical sense. The architecture of so many of its cities is barely a half century old and without character or merit; those grand historical piles you might visit are often re-creations painstakingly built from rubble; and even the names – of streets, towns or entire regions – change with regimes, rulers and political whims.

But her past still defines Russia, for it is filled with angst, drama, tragedy, intrigue, humour, sorrow, joy and a depth of other emotions that can be glimpsed in so many who live there.

Looking again at the photo of Petr Alhutov and Valentina Chumachenko, this all came back to me. Both were veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad, that horrific struggle for possession of the city now known as Volgograd. Alhutov was a young Red Army infantryman who, on a very cold February morning, escorted German field marshal Freidrich von Paulus into captivity at the end of the six-month long battle. I remember he mumbled to me that the German commander looked forlorn and haggard, with a numb look in his eyes and a nervous tick in his hands. Alhutov saw nothing heroic in what he’d done as a soldier, merely the need to carry out an order and hope to get out of things alive.

Chumachenko, though, was a feisty and vivacious woman with a commanding presence. Even in her late seventies it was obvious she must have been a heartbreaker for the boys when younger. Back then she’d been a nurse assigned to a Red Army tank battalion in the war. “We were all tank drivers,” she told me. “My husband was a tank driver. My brother was a tank driver. It must be in our blood.” As a nineteen year-old woman in the midst of the greatest battle ever fought – around three million fought at Stalingrad and some two million died – Chumachenko knew that the options available at the time were limited.

“Capture? That would never happen,” she told me in a parkette near the Volga River. “Do you know what would have happened to me?” And retreat, I asked? “No. Never.” Her eyes stare off somewhere, possible remembering the edict from Stalin that had retreating Russians shot by their own troops. “We had only one option: to survive.”

A dog began barking somewhere off in a nearby apartment block, interrupting our interview. Without bashing an eyelid, Valentina bellowed loudly in Russian for the owner to shut the beast up and – surprisingly – the dog is silenced.

The pain that the Great Patriotic War created in the former Soviet Union is immeasurable. No other nation has ever felt such a bloodletting and few families are without harsh memories of the time. But Valentina Chumachenko, at least, had found some peace in her life, possibly from the passing of the years.

“You understand, we didn’t invite them here,” she says of the invaders. “I meet the Germans who come here now and they tell me ‘Hitler made us do it.’ But people are responsible for their own actions. But still, it is time. Time for us all to live in peace, to live in kindness, with good hearts and feelings no matter what nationality we are. These constant wars, they cause such trauma to people. How many people must die? Who needs this Chechnya?”

Valentina’s last comment has always stuck with me, the words of a battle-scared warrior musing on a nearly unknown war raging a few hundred kilometers south of where we sitting that late May morning. For as my journal notebook records, the very next day a bomb exploded in Volgograd killing a number of young soldiers near the local army base with the papers speculating it was Chechen rebels. Sadly, it barely merited a national headline. It was the currency of life accepted in Russian society at the time.

Valentina Chumachenko, Volgograd, May 2000

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.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Cast up from old ocean

It was on a cool midwinter's day not unlike today that those words - cast up from old ocean - were pondered by a compatriot of mine, words that still resonate with me. Joshua Slocum, a Nova Scotia-born sea captain, was sitting in his Boston home and struggling with boredom and unemployment. A master mariner of the highest skill - he'd captain sail vessels throughout the seas and oceans of our planet - Slocum was about to embark on a new and exciting endeavour; he was going to attempt to sail around the world. Solo.

Slocum eventually achieved his goal: he left New England on April 24, 1895 in a little sloop called "Spray", returning to America three years later. He wrote about the experience "Sailing Alone Around The World", a book little remembered outside of diehard sailing fans. But the idea of trying something outrageous, something audacious, something dangerous...well, I understand what that Canadian mariner was thinking.

For the past two and a half years, I've been immersed in the world of commercial shipping and those who make their livelihoods from this ancient business. I'm a writer, and sometime documentary filmmaker, based in Toronto, who decided to write a book about seafaring today. It was definitely not an easy task and has consumed far more time - and money - than I'd imagined possible. It took me to Korea, India, Monaco, England, France and the U.S. I ventured across the North Atlantic in September gales, through the edge of a hurricane off Cape Fear and into the tranquil waters of the East Sea off Asia. I met captains, engineers, deckhands, priests, wives, designers, builders, wealthy owners and poor shipbreakers.

It was one of the most amazing things an individual can experience.

Now this may seem a boring topic to consider - people shuffling goods from Point A to point B within frameworks of industrial steel - but I ask you to pause a moment and ponder a few thing: First is why wouldn't individuals who traverse the seas and oceans of our planet in solitude not have something to say, about life, love and existence? Second is to consider that seafaring is the most dangerous job around: somewhere in the region of 6500 mariners die on the job every year; think about that for a moment. Finally, I put to you that the tales of travelers are always imbued with mystery, danger and insight. We must just listen to hear the stories.

My book, "Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of a Ship", will be coming out in mid-March here in Canada. so as I prepare for the launch of the book I've decided to relate some of the stories and events that I've been privy to while working on the book. There are stories to be told, stories not included in the book plus ones not necessarily related to it. But all remind me of the variety of experiences to be encountered when one just opens your eyes and ears to what surrounds us.

The sea may be of infinite width, as Jules Verne wrote, but life is immeasurably larger.