A ripping yarn of a life on the seas
'Land is danger; sea is safety." Any reader of Horatio Clare's wonderful new book might well conclude the opposite by the time they put it down.
Tossed about by the tempestuous waters of the world's oceans, Clare's account of his journeys on container ships of the Maersk Line is gripping and stomach-churning in equal measure. Boarding the Gerd in Felixstowe, Clare evokes the spirit of Herman Melville as he signs on for his first voyage. Like Ishmael in Moby-Dick's opening chapter he is land-weary and "accounts it high time to get to sea as soon as I can". Clare seeks excitement and enlightenment. What he finds is another world.
As the vast ship slips out into the North Sea, its "a world of dark red steel", Clare meets a floating community of Danish and Indian officers and Filipino crewmen, defined in the strict hierarchy by the diminishing scale of their wages the farther down from the bridge they work.
Initially, there seems to be none of the age-old romance of the sea here. These block-ended vessels are mere conduits, shunting about the commodities that sustain our modern lives. They are oddly ascetic, hermetic places. Alcohol is banned. At "barbecues" on board, men stand around, not knowing what to do, unable to socialise without a drink. Soon they drift back to their separate cabins.
These sailors travel the world, but often cannot disembark at the exotic ports they visit, and are essentially disconnected from the oceans. As the Gerd powers on, relentlessly, "it is as if she were a spacecraft, one of many in her vastly high orbit". As far as we landlubbers are concerned, she and her like might be invisible, for all that she is 360 metres long.
Contained within this mother ship is a resolutely male world, of diesel-fumed cabins and storm-battered decks; of danger from without, and isolation within. Clare marvels that "women would never live like this!" And yet there is an old-fashioned etiquette on board as men greet one another formally as they pass, as if to give order to the chaotic element over which they sail. This pride -- the scrubbed corridors and laundered overalls -- is almost feminine.
'Down to the Sea in Ships' brilliantly reveals the lives of those tiny figures you might occasionally glimpse as these leviathanic ships pass by. But it is a way of life that may already be becoming outmoded.
"Trade has shrunk since 2008," one captain tells Clare, "and ships are getting bigger." A container ship, which can carry 50,000 tons of cargo, is a barometer of global economics: the lower it sits in the water, the better things are.
Clare's writing is fluid and readable, but perhaps his greatest asset is his empathy.
A deep sense of history haunts his travels, as he scans the endless seas from the eyrie of the bridge. Looking down into the Atlantic's freezing waters, he sees the victims of Second World War battles, like ghosts emerging from the waves. He writes of men abandoning a torpedoed oil tanker, swimming away from the sinking ship, only for its burning oil to overtake them, frying them alive.
There are contemporary tragedies here, too. On the Maersk Dubai in 1996, three Romanian stowaways were ordered overboard, to their deaths, by the ship's Taiwanese officers. A fourth stowaway was found by the Filipino crew, who hid the man, feeding him with their rations. Such is the lawlessness of the sea that, despite being charged with first-degree murder, the officers could not be prosecuted for their crimes.
Clare's story shifts from port to port, forever loading and unloading.
The container shipping industry holds a mirror to our consuming selves. It depends "on people's appetites for stuff, on our inability to produce it where it is wanted, and the readiness with which we throw it away".
Clare wonders, too, at the despoliation of the sea itself: the industrialised trawlers that rip up the seabed in search of fish. His voyages are a comment on our dysfunctional world. They are also a testament to the intrepid, unsung sailors to whom we owe so much. (© Daily Telegraph)