Stories of the Earth


The ship left Suez in convoy at 4.00am, when I was fast asleep, so we’re well on our way through the canal when I wake around 7.00, and we’ll reach the mediterranean by nightfall so I don’t want to miss a thing. Peter is still on watch and I sit up at one of the portholes looking out at sand, and nothing but sand, with the strange illusion that the ship is still and land is moving past us.

But I can feel and hear the hum of the engines and once dressed and on deck in brilliant sunshine can see the canal, the convoy of ships stretching ahead and behind and the narrow strip of water on either side of us before the endless sand. It isn’t the sweeping dunes of Lawrence of Arabia with windblown waves and crests, just acre after acre of fairly flat, stony desert stretching inland. 

One of the officers is shouting over the side of the ship and I run to look. Three tiny boats are tucked between us and the stone built bank of the canal, their owners waving and shouting up to us. Derek lets the rope ladder roll down to the water and they race to reach it, the first there tying his painter to the ladder so that his little boat flows alongside us, then climbing up at speed with a bundle on his back.

“Gully gully men, I’ve told them only one.” A small, wiry, dark skinned man hops lightly over the handrail, bowing and beaming, and finds a space on deck where he can set up shop. When I come back from breakfast he’s sitting cross legged with a faded ruby red cloth spread out in front of him and all his wares carefully arranged – brass trinkets, little alabaster pyramids, pharaohs and cats, decorated scarabs, ankhs, camel skin wallets… And of course everything is very, very, good quality and a very, very good price. His smile is radiant and relentless, and finally I settle on a little pyramid, for its simplicity.

I stand at the rail and watch the desert passing us by, and the emptiness. Then there’s something ahead, a shape in the sand, and as we approach it becomes clear it’s an old jeep, half buried, almost intact. Now and then inland there are bombed out buildings where there must have been a village, and palm trees, some with their tops shot off. It’s the strangest landscape I’ve ever encountered.

Lunch is our first chance to meet most of the crew and Peter hasn’t sailed with any of them before. The captain looms as large as he did when he welcomed us last night, and just as cheerful – tall, broad shouldered, full bellied, a generous figure of a man with with a tanned face, shiny black hair and lively dark eyes. He introduces me to the other officers as if I’m visiting royalty, not just the first mate’s wife, then seats me next to him, and chats with ease.

This is different from our last ship which was friendly and hospitable but didn’t have the same warmth. Along with the engineers and deck officers there’s also an officer cadet, John, in his early twenties with a shock of red hair, freckles, and an eager, lively smile. I’m the only wife onboard again but feel very much at home, and grin happily at Peter.

The captain tells me that the real gully gully men are entertainers, magicians whose artistry is sleight of hand. They might take someone’s watch, throw it overboard and then mysteriously find it in someone else’s pocket, for a small fee. Usually one or two traders come on board with them, but today we have a seller of souvenirs and no magician, patiently waiting for several hours to sell anything at all to a few of the crew. 

During lunch we’ve crossed the Great Bitter Lake where the north and southbound convoys pass each other, and the shores are as barren as the canal. Apart from a lot more sand it’s my last sighting of Egypt as it’s dark by the time we reach Port Said and leave the convoy, sailing out of the canal and into the mediterranean.

The ship took on her cargo in Qatar in the Persian Gulf, and we’re now bound for Denmark and then Finland. Our route will take us around the North coast of Africa, through the Strait of Gibraltar and up to the English Channel, then into the North Sea and the Baltic. So we’ll be at sea for quite some time before the next port, gradually leaving the warmth of the sun behind. 

I settle into the rhythm of life onboard, where there’s no weekend, every day is a series of tasks to keep the ship maintained, on course and on time. Peter is on the same watch, four till eight morning and evening, and often busy with other duties, so I find my own pattern, reading, walking on deck, feeling my heart race when dolphins leap alongside us, occasional glimpses of land, the play of light on the sea, and the shifting colours.

I look forward to meal times and conversation, and tuning into the dynamics of the crew. These men serve for four months, at work every day, and then spend two on leave, so officers come and go from port to port and the team is constantly evolving. Such close quarters require a particular discipline, and it reminds me of boarding school. We’re all here within the confines of this ship, night and day, and there are very few places to be, so it’s an unspoken rule that you need to get along with everyone else. I enjoy watching the subtleties of this playing out, who neatly avoids who at the bar, or strategically chooses his seat at dinner. By and large the captain remains a welcome figure and his jovial nature can lift a quiet table, although he often leaves us fairly early after dinner with a bottle of whisky he takes to his cabin. 

Once they are accustomed to me, a few of the officers seek me out in the wardroom after dinner if Peter is working, and settle in for a chat. At first I’m all ears, anticipating tales of voyages all over the world, rounding Cape Horn in high seas, or maybe a night in the casinos of Macau. But no, I’m a female presence reminding them of how they miss their wives and families, and it’s all they want to talk about. “She’s been asking me to put shelves up in the kitchen for a year and I’ve never got round to it, and I’m really going to make the effort this time.” “He’s seven, but you’d never guess, he looks at least ten, and he’s doing really well at maths, wants to be an engineer like me.” I smile encouragingly, hopefully concealing a sigh.

The weather cools, sometimes the sea is pretty rough, the ship rises and falls in a slow, measured way, and I discover that I need to stow things in lockers if I want to find them again. I enjoy the motion and the power of the swell, and whilst you have to keep up with moving crockery at meal times I feel fine, and as long as it’s daylight, head out into the wind in my waterproofs and boots, experiencing it all to the full.

By the time we’re approaching Denmark it’s pretty cold. As the ship berths I’m surprised to see that we’re surrounded by industrial pipes and tanks but little else. I’m allowed to go ashore, and am pointed in the direction of a small town a mile or so inland, and set off through crisp, dry snow along a quiet country road. It’s exhilarating to be on land, if a little strange after being accustomed to perpetual movement underfoot. The snow clad shops and houses are a beautiful mix of old timbered buildings and contemporary Danish design, and though I’ve seen all there is to see fairly quickly and soon walk back to the ship it feels like quite an adventure.

As we sail between Denmark and Sweden we encounter more and more islands, and a tug comes out to meet us, bringing a pilot whose job is to ensure that we navigate safe passage through to the Baltic Sea. A quiet man with a beard, round spectacles, and a navy cap and jacket joins the captain on the bridge, where I too have been invited to see a little more of the landscape we’re passing through. Peter has told me that although pilots know their own waters far better, the captain always remains in command, taking a word of advice from the pilot when it’s offered.

I enjoy watching how this plays out, two strangers who clearly respect and rely on each other undertaking a job that requires absolute focus and clarity. There is a quiet calm, broken only by a voice suggesting, accepting, adjusting course a little, approving. It’s brief, low key, and reassuring. On either side there are the snow covered mounds of islands coming in and out of sight in a grey mist and I realise how often you must need to sail these waters to know your way with confidence.

We’ve entered the Baltic and as we head even further North the sea becomes frozen, covered in snow. Looking ahead there’s a smaller ship some way in front of us, an ice breaker with a specially shaped and strengthened hull that carves a path, pushing the broken chunks aside or under it without a build up reducing the vessel’s speed. This narrow channel of water in front and behind is a little like being back in the Suez canal, minus the heat.

The cold is an experience in itself. I wear as many layers as I can, thick socks in boots, hat well down over ears and mittens pulled over cuffs. Opening the door to the deck a fresh, sharp chill hits the back of my throat as I take a breath, my eyes water and cheeks tingle. It’s a wonderfully clear day with brilliant sunshine, and I walk briskly from bow to stern as many times as I can before the chill begins to bite. 

Added to the hum of the ship’s engine there’s now the crack and crump of ice being forced apart by the breaker ahead, and little islands of it fill the water in the channel between us. Something catches my eye on the deck, and bending down I find it’s the frozen body of a little bird that must have stopped to rest, only to freeze in no time at all, and I let it fall into the sea.

I meet Peter as he comes off watch and he tells me we have a problem on deck. Due to the extreme temperature some gear that is critical to keeping us moving fast enough to reach Finland on time has frozen, and the crew are struggling to free it up. For two days they’re out there a few at a time, and the captain is in and out continually. Weary, anxious faces gather at meals going over what else they might try. I stand by with coffee when they come back inside, wishing I could do more.

Finally something works and we’re underway at our original speed once more, faces relax and there’s laughter. Young John the officer cadet has clearly found it all pretty exciting, causing a few wry smiles from the older guys. The captain looks relieved, and dinner is lively. We reach Uusikaupunki in Southern Finland only a little behind schedule so our berthing slot is still secure, and I’m allowed ashore again for another snowbound walk into a very similar little town.

We’re heading back south through the Baltic when the captain receives word that the owners have changed our next UK destination to a shipyard on Tyneside in the UK for an unexpected re-fit. Apparently this is not good news and I ask Peter why. He explains that she’s an old vessel in need of a lot of regular maintenance which should be flagged up to the company by the captain and undertaken when needed. 

But of course the company aren’t too happy to hear about expenditure, so captains learn that they can become unpopular if they request frequent maintenance and the related costs. Work needed can build up on older vessels and no one is keen for a re-fit on their watch as they carry the can for months of under investment. Once in the yard the company will find out the cost required to get her in shape and meet regulations, and it’s likely to be much more than they are expecting. He could be for the high jump.

The mood is sombre, although the captain is gracious in company, but he retreats quickly after dinner with his bottle, and can sometimes be heard singing loudly. Every spare hand is turned to doing whatever work can be achieved before we reach port. One lunch time I venture – “isn’t there anything I can do?” The captain takes me seriously. After a pause he says “yes, paint all the fire gear red. Peter, find her a boiler suit, get her fixed up, she can do it.” I take that as a compliment.

We’re heading into the North Sea now so although it’s still very cold I’m bundled up in sweaters under my new workwear, and out on deck. Peter walks me round all the stations where fire hoses and gear are stored, and brings me a couple of brushes and a large tin of red paint. The metalwork is all old, the paint cracked and peeling, if not lost altogether to rust. My task is to give it all a quick coverup so that it looks rather better than it actually is. So I set to and am soon lost in my work.

Something catches my eye, a figure moving out from behind some deck housing and then retreating again as soon as I look up. Puzzled, I stand upright and wait for it to appear again. A small Chinese man, one of the engineering crew we usually never see, wearing a boiler suit much the same as mine, must have heard that the first mate’s wife was working on deck. Wide eyed in surprise he shouts into the wind “You very worky, Madame”, and I smile in return and bow. It takes me a couple of days, and if only to make the captain smile I insist that he does a tour of inspection when I’m done.

We approach Tyneside in grey, blustery weather, and the ship inches gently into the narrow confines of a dry dock where the water is drained away. As soon as the gangplanks are down an army of workmen surge on board and there is noise and clamour everywhere as they begin the re-fit. I make my way through them and stand on the quay to take a good look at her, for I’m leaving soon. With every inch of her exposed she looks old and worn, vulnerable even, and inexplicably it tugs at my heart. 

The captain comes down the gang plank with a holdall, his face strained and weary, and I run over to say goodbye. He’s catching a train to head office where he will face the music, but of course we don’t talk about it, we never have, so I thank him with a hug for the pleasure it has been sailing with him.

Back on board I hold a door open in a passageway for a man pushing a large trolley full of provisions to re-stock the galley. But the wheels hit a lip on the deck, there to prevent anything loose rolling around in high seas, and the trolley is too heavy for him to lift over it. Taking a screwdriver from his pocket he kneels and quickly unscrews the lip so that he has free access, but before he’s even on his feet again a shrill whistle pipes out above all the other noise.

Suddenly someone is shouting instructions, all work stops, and the man and his trolley are under fire. He’s not a shipyard employee but only a delivery man, so he has no right to undertake the job of a ship workers Trade Union member. In short he’s not authorised to use a screwdriver, that’s someone else’s job. An immediate strike is announced in protest. All work on the re-fit ceases whilst a Union official lodges a complaint with the owners of the ship yard.

There are angry faces everywhere, this is barely believable, but the Union know they have the upper hand. As time drags on men sit around chatting, some of them get out their lunch, have a smoke, take a walk round the quay. The crew busy themselves, tight lipped, trying to ignore the impasse. It lasts hours, but eventually a whistle sounds and work begins once more. 

My final hours pass so quickly. I’m trying to take it all in, remember everything, watch Peter in his element, grateful that I’ve experienced his day to day. I seek everyone out, thank them for making me welcome, including all the crew who have served us. And quietly in my heart I give thanks to the ship, for I can’t explain to anyone how it feels to have become attached to her. 

And then I’m gone, and it’s over.

Forty five years later, in writing this I’m reminded yet again of how much our attitudes and beliefs about what matters change over time. Several things struck me, not least the absence of technology then. At sea we were without TV, and computers and mobile phones had yet to arrive, but I never felt isolated. Today there is such anxiety if we are without them.

Even though the power of trade unions in the seventies was well known, I would have thought the event with the screw driver was an exaggeration if I hadn’t actually seen it happen. Their original cause was just and right, and long overdue, but the pendulum swung too far and they became as overbearing as many of the employers they sought to undermine.

In the cold of the Baltic I wore a fox fur hat and sealskin boots, and never gave a thought to the fox or the seal. Now I’m vegetarian and couldn’t conceive of wearing either, but I don’t look back and chastise my younger self, it’s just where I was at the time.

In that environment women were understood only as wives and partners, and it would have been inconceivable that they could become officers, as some now have, and a tiny minority even captains. Sexist remarks, such as the suggestion made by an officer one evening that beneath my dress my nipples were standing out like chapel hat pegs, were considered nothing more than a bit racy. And even though I remember shooting him a frosty look, I wasn’t surprised. 

I’m glad to say that the captain survived a head office dressing down to sail again another day. But Peter and I didn’t, and had parted, amicably, within a year. He made it to captain not long after and has had a very successful maritime career. 

At the time I felt I had failed significantly, and it took me many years to see that life can offer you events you’re not expecting, and they can turn out to be just as precious as the things you thought were important. My marriage was short lived, but part of what it gave me was a remarkable experience that was nothing less than a gift. I’ve found that when I forget about looking for success or failure, life becomes far more interesting.

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