Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Old Man & the sea

Captain Jacek Wisniewski on the bridge (with binoculars)

In what I consider a good omen for the recent release of my book “Ocean Titans” here in Canada, I received an email from “the Old Man” this past week. It was sent from somewhere off the east coast of Nova Scotia, from a merchant ship plodding its way south towards Jacksonville, Florida. Sounded like the trip could be a little rough: as he wrote, “The weather isn’t too good, but the vessel is okay. We say ‘brave’.”

The “Old Man” in question is Captain Jacek Wisniewski, a Polish mariner I first encountered aboard the bulk carrier MV Antwerpen about a year and a half ago, when I joined him and his crew for my first extended trip to sea with a commercial vessel. Captain Wisniewski is now in charge of the MV Gdynia, a new vessel that he will call home for the next four months.

Though his official title is Master Mariner, most of us know him as “the Captain”. Except, that is, his crew, who have another term to describe the individual legally in charge of a vessel, its cargo and anyone who sets foot on its decks. To those who work on commercial vessels, the person who safeguards their lives at sea is universally known as “the Old Man”. This is not a slight at their age nor a reflection on any curmudgeonly aspect of their character, but an honorific steeped in tradition, something whispered behind his back. (Captain Wisniewski is himself in his early forties and an intelligent and cultured man with a wry sense of humour.)

There are perhaps 50,000 individuals worldwide who bear the credentials necessary to command a merchant ship. The vast majority are, in fact, men, though a few women continue to make inroads into this somewhat exclusive fraternity. And even they may be referred to as the Old Man by their crews.

To be a Master Mariner is to reach the pinnacle of professional seafaring. It takes decades to become one and entails taking on responsibilities well beyond the scope of what most of us bear. In an era in which accepting responsibility for one’s own actions seems out of vogue, the captain of a sea-going vessel shoulders ultimate and direct responsibility for everything that occurs on his watch. And, yes, they can still perform marriages at sea.

I again thought about the responsibilities captains take on when I read Wisniewski’s email, heading into rough seas with a multi-million dollar ship, a crew of about thirty and a heavily insured cargo. Would most of us do what he does? Not likely.

Consider this scenario: You are driving down the road in your car, a vehicle that has been certified as safe; you have years of experience driving and you haven’t been drinking. The weather’s clear, but suddenly you spy another car veering into your lane, straight at you. You steer out of the way to avoid a head-on collision, but managed to scratch a rusty trailer parked nearby. As a result, you are charged with negligence and must accept at least part of the responsibility for other driver’s incompetence. Would you accept that? Not damn likely.

Yet that is the fate of master mariners. An abiding principle of seafaring is to avoid a collision – with another vessel or dry land – at all costs. The safety of the ship and its neighbours is a priority.

This, of course, also extends to aiding those in need, so long as it doesn’t endanger one’s own crew. I think about another Old Man I sailed with, Captain A.S. Grewal of the container ship MV Canmar Spirit. I spent a couple of weeks with Captain Grewal and his crew crossing the North Atlantic, not long after first meeting Captain Wisniewski.

We had a very tumultuous crossing that time. This is not merely a writer’s perspective, but a reality: at least one ship sank on the oceans we were transiting that time and a couple of experienced mariners later told me it was one of the worst set of conditions they’d seen in a while.

After disembarking from Captain Grewal’s ship in Montréal, the ship returned across the North Atlantic to England, encountering a vessel in distress southeast of Iceland. To his credit – and that of his crew – Captain Grewal responded to the S.O.S. and successfully rescued the sailor from his wallowing boat, upholding a tradition that goes back thousands of years, the one that promises to do whatever humanly possible to protect a life at peril on the seas.

To Captain Grewal, Captain Wisniewski and all the other mariners who are willing to brave the elements in defence of others, I thank-you.

Captain A. S. Grewal, master of MV Canmar Spirit

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Balkan Memories

Serb villager in Kosovo with graffiti: “No Future For You”

The recent news that Slobodan Milosevic died while in custody in The Hague for war crimes has returned Serbia – and the Balkans – to our front pages, displacing Iraq, Afghanistan and avian flu for a few moments. To some, the death of Milosevic seems an unfortunate reminder of the unfinished business lingering from the wars that wrought the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990’s, as though it had all been solved years ago. Or, at least, superceded by 9/11 and the “war on terrorism”.

I have an intimate and exhaustive relationship with the countries that once made up Yugoslavia: my father was born on the Adriatic coast to a mixed Serb-Croat family before immigrating to Canada and I have traveled throughout the region since a young child. Cities, towns and villages that are but bylines to most are familiar to me: Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Mostar, Pristina, Srebrenica – these and many more are anything but remote to yours truly.

But I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my father’s homeland or, rather, a difficult one since Tito died in 1980. Before that, things were pretty simple. I was half-Yugoslav, a partial product of a multicultural, multi-ethnic nation that was the envy of the Eastern Bloc. My relatives traveled the world with all the confidence of someone like myself, a Canadian.

And then it all unraveled.

Ashkali kids at Pristina railroad station

To be a liberal-minded individual with ties to that part of the Balkans was a test in the last decade of the last millennium. You were tainted by association, a member of a group of people who were carrying out “ancient, tribal, ethnic hatred” to one another. And that, to me, was the singular fault of the rest of the world when it came to the Balkans.

Yugoslavia did not fall apart because of long repressed, simmering animosities. It fell prey to politics, pure and simple. The people who have lived in what we once called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were not always intent on killing one another nor did they merely await a trigger to ignite a conflagration. But politics are more difficult to explain to outsiders; actually, they’re pretty complex to explain to insiders.

A few years back – okay, over a decade ago – I was at a social function populated by what are termed “policy wonks”, civil servants and academics with an abiding interest in international relations. Seated across from me was a well-known Canadian apparatchik, a bored older man with a desire to pick a fight to enliven his evening. For some reason I rose to his challenge and we became engrossed in a discussion about the Balkans.

His take was that “Yugoslavia” was an articulated, compromised entity doomed to failure owing to the ethnic enmity that had resided there for centuries, a common perception at the time. My view was that the region was under the undue influence of politicians keen to gain power and willing to do whatever it took to achieve their goals.

“These people have been at their throats for years, far before we even considered them,” I remember him telling me. “They are not like us. And never will be.” He stared at me hard with that last quip, as he tried to communicate the difference between Canada and Yugoslavia, us good, they bad.

Taken aback, I thought about what ethnic hatred can engender, the means one can ethnically cleanse or kill.

And I asked this man a simple question: “What place am I describing in which two communities are separated by a river? Two ethnic groups that have lived together for hundreds of years but harbour differences? Differences that come to a boil over an issue nearby, resulting in one group stoning the others. Stoning women and children.”

He was stumped for an answer and mumbled “Mostar? Sarajevo?”

No. The answer is Montréal. Canada. During the 1990 Oka Crisis in my homeland. The country that successfully eradicated the Beothuk people of Newfoundland in the 19th century, the world’s first example of ethnic cleansing.

Anyone can be manipulated. We aren’t as different as we think we are.

UN Train in Mitrovica, Kosovo

Friday, March 03, 2006

Book release update

The release date of my new book has been announced. Beginning March 12, Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of a Ship will be available in bookstores throughout Canada, as well as from various online sellers. You can read an excerpt from it on the Penguin Canada site; just follow the link on the right, then go to New Releases, where you’ll see the cover among the March releases. Click on it and you’ll learn more about the book and can read the prologue.

I’ll keep a posting here of any upcoming events at which I’ll be participating. Meanwhile, I invite you to check out the book, explore this site and look forward to your feedback.

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