Travel | History | Commerce
Fifty years ago I boarded the first of 37 merchant ships and went to sea. I experienced a way of life no longer available to the modern mariner.
In August 2019 the world’s largest container ship the MSC Gülsün arrived in Europe from China. She can load an astonishing 23,756 standard container boxes. At 1,300 feet long, MSC Gülsün—247,900 dwt—is three times the length of my first ship, MV Deido and carries 26 times more cargo. Built 58 years before, Deido was 450 feet long 9,400 dwt and needed a crew of 50 to man her engine room, maintain and work her twenty two derricks and five hatches, and keep navigation and cargo watches. In 1965 Elder Dempster’s entire fleet of 49 merchantmen reached its peak total of 293,853 gross tons. That fleet required approximately 2,000 officers and crew. Despite her size, MSC Gülsün needs a crew of just 26.
This scaling up of vessel size and scaling down of crew numbers is a dramatic illustration of the vast changes experienced in the world of marine transport.
And of the life at sea—and long days in port—experienced in my day? All gone. In 50 years.
We may need fewer crew and ships but we still import by sea 95 percent of the goods that Britain needs every day. That is eight tonnes for each person in the UK. It surely must be good for the balance of payments deficit if the Red Ensign flag were flown on more British owned vessels.
Data from the Department of Transport shows that the number of British-flagged ships fell by more than a third between 2009 and 2014, but 2019 figures from the UK Chamber of Shipping show that since 2015 fleet tonnage has picked up 12 percent to a total of 16.7 million GT and is now the world’s 14th biggest in terms of tonnage. Of 537 UK flagged vessels, 277 were registered to UK companies.
International shipping is a growing industry. If Britain played its part in not only providing officers and men but in financing UK shipping companies, as we used to 50 years ago, then this island nation could begin to reclaim its proper place sailing the world’s oceans, navigating us more securely through stormy economic seas.
The numbing cold of riveted steel decks plates has leached into my boots. My ears still echo with the clang of chipping hammer on rusty hulls. The smell of Brasso immediately invokes polished portholes.
I have witnessed myriad sunrises and sunsets over steel grey horizons and smoky headland, and stood lookout under a canopy of glittering stars. From bridge or bow I have had a grandstand view of dancing dolphin pods, shocks of flying fish and stuka-diving gannets. Snug in a hammock rigged on the monkey island I have been lulled to sleep by a gentle swell. Like a wild horse in bucking seas, the kick of the deck has sent me sprawling. I have been covered with choking cargo dust, and been threatened by rope, wire and heavy block. I survived. But three ships and many of their crew did not. They sank into the deeps, lost forever.
To me, ships are not a prosaic construction of steel and machinery. Every time I read that a ship has been broken up, it hurts. It hurts because these ships were my home; the home where I ate, rested, worked, played, sometimes drank too much, sometimes enjoyed parties on board. Slept. Woke up to another day as my ship sailed inexorably onward, laying a silvered wake across a carpet of deepest blue.
We crew lived together for months on end, shared good times and bad times, in rough weather and glorious. Went ashore together. Came back to our ship. Glad to be back after a good run ashore. But sometimes sad to be stuck on board and wishing to be home.
The older the ship, the greater the character. The Glenorchy, built in 1941, had 27 years of history rammed into her deck caulking when I joined her and countless thousands of marine encounters under her keel. Ships built in the 1980s had less charm, built to be efficient steel boxes but still carrying the freight of mariners’ lives, their hopes and fears, their dreams and sodden realities.
‘Scrapped at Kaohsiung’ may be an acknowledgement of a commercial reality but it was a heartless epitaph, a kick in the teeth to the sentiment we mariners felt about her, our ship. It wasn’t about economic turnover for the sailor. Her loss was a loss of memory, a loss of shared experience, of a voyage safely completed. ‘Finished with Engines’ was only meant to be for now, this port, not for ever. I felt that most strongly when leaving that old rust bucket, Rogate. I was the last man aboard. The last to feel her as a living vessel before she became a steel hulk and was razor bladed.
These ships also made a ship owner a minimal profit. When that thin margin vanished, the sentence was to suffer the ultimate indignity of being scrapped, taken to the knacker’s yard in Europe, India or Taiwan.
Some ships arouse feelings of unreasonable dislike, usually due to a master careless of his crew, or poor maintenance. Ships have to be cared for, by captain to cabin boy, from bridge to keel, from cable locker to propeller. Or they turn nasty on you.
In seeking to discover meaning in my own life I have discovered that ships have a life of their own, worthy of celebration. And commemoration. These ships and men have vanished from the seas. I tell my tale so that the vessels and those who lived on board will not be erased from our national memory.
To climb up a gangway is to commit yourself to the ship, trusting her (for a ship is always feminine) to complete the voyage safely, to survive the unknown encounters ahead, be it storms or hidden rocks.
To climb a gangway is to seek life beyond.
To step down the gangway onto solid land is to give up an unspoken expression of thanks for the voyage safely completed, the biblical chaos of the waters survived.
A ship’s gangway is the link between the hidden worlds of life at sea, over the horizon, and the more known world of life ashore. A gangway invokes a complex metaphor of the link between the solidity of the land and the mysterious, often dangerous, instability of the seas and oceans that circle our planet.
The call of the sea was in my blood. I discovered several years ago that my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were both master mariners. Thus it was, even though I lived in a Cotswold hamlet one hundred miles from the nearest sea, that sea salt flowed in my veins. After the gangway had been hauled in and the ropes let go, and we set sail away from the safe, solid shore, I wanted to discover what lay beyond the distant flat horizon.
Every time I joined my ship, every time I went ashore, from Archangel to Yokohama, the gangway was the link between these two contrasting worlds.
I have learned that once a sailor vanishes over the horizon, he is forgotten by the landlubbers who remain ashore. The mariner is no longer held in close affection by the community memory because so few British men and women go to sea. There are no longer, as in my day, the numerous family connections to those who follow the call to go a-roving, very few left behind who talk about absent fathers and brothers away for up to two years at a time, leaving behind ‘grass widows’ to bring up families all alone. There is no residual understanding among landlubbers, and the seafarer’s life is a lost world.
The wake of life stretches away behind us, silvered by a rising moon of memories, its ghostly illumination casting a pale light on recalled events. This memoir is an evocation of my past. You may have similar memories of a time when the British Merchant Navy was at its peak, when 3,000 British ships under the Red Ensign—the Red Duster—plied the oceans of the world, manned by British officers and sailors, under conditions that have never been bettered.
For centuries the ships of the British Merchant Navy carried the lifeblood of Britain, their bulging holds crammed with goods to satisfy every perceived need and luxury, to sate the population’s appetite.
Not now. These arteries have had a transfusion of foreign bodies. Ships have grown huge and fat. They are rarely sustained by British blood. Their stories belong to other shores.
My story is of seafaring five decades ago, of men like me who filled the fridges of families with groceries, manufactories with raw materials, foundries with base ores, who then sailed away to live their lives over a distant horizon.
So climb up the gangway and glimpse a world long gone, a world which shaped and sustained a nation.
by Simon Quail
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