Every day I swim in the Solent, watching vast container ships pass down Southampton Water. Twice the size of the Titanic, these leviathans have no bands or cheering crowds to wave them off. With silent regularity they slip out of the port, sailing steadily around the world on their preordained routes. They bring back 90 per cent of the goods we consume, yet their presence is virtually invisible. How much more ignored are their crews, many of them Filipinos paid only a percentage of what their European counterparts earn? No romance of life at sea for them; often they are not even allowed off the ship at the foreign ports they visit. Helots of a disposable world, they are unseen servants of a global economy.
In his stupendous and extraordinarily exciting book, Horatio Clare – whose other works dwell on less dramatic subjects of nature and travel – bears first-hand witness to this quotidian yet paradoxically dangerous trade. Signing on to the Maersk container ship, Gerd, having convinced its owners of his value as a writer-in-residence, Clare soon falls in love with life at sea.
He loves the phlegmatic Danish captain who, like the rest of the crew, will never whistle on board, as it is bad luck, but is forever humming under his breath. He loves the officers, many of them clever and witty young Indians amused by this eccentric Englishman making notes and recording their anecdotes. And he loves the Filipino crew, for all that he feels excluded from their alternative society on board ship, as they huddle together to sing pop songs (practically the only employee benefit agreed by their employers in otherwise punitive contracts is the provision of a karaoke machine on every trip).
No romance of life at sea for the Filipinos. Helots of a disposable world, they are unseen servants of a global economy
Clare is punctilious and witty himself. He is wont to iterate ships’ manifests as indices of our consuming world, international shopping lists placed on the scales of the sea, measured out in weight and content: the US ordering 600 tons of televisions and phones from Hong Kong, along with 300 tons of computers, 20 tons of clocks and watches, 95 tons of books and magazines, 14 tons of batteries and 16 tons of parts for cars and bikes. Other containers, stacked up like Lego on the decks, ship luxury sports cars alongside cow heads swilling around in saline solution.
All the while, the great oceans rise and fall around him as Clare sails the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific. As the Gerd approaches the Suez Canal, he is ordered off for security’s sake – the owners won’t bear the responsibility of carrying a civilian through the pirate-infested eastern Indian Ocean. Regaining the ship at Singapore, the author is regaled with tales of terrible typhoons, 10m waves and crewmen washed overboard in an instant.
Clare is brilliant at describing the sea in all its states. “It is terrifying on the bridge wing now, the sky angry and torn, the clouds ripped open to a few shards of stars. You feel your courage cowed out there, as you cling to the steel and the wind rips tears from your eyes while the ship dives into invisible troughs, thump-thunders and totters up the darkness racingly alive”. He writes in the lee of Melville and Conrad, drawn to the natural world – the passing whales and dolphins, the birds that hitch a ride on deck – yet always alive to the human stories, both contemporary and historical. On the second half of his journey, from The Netherlands to Canada, for instance, he describes the invisible graveyard that is the Atlantic battlefield of two world wars, strewn across the ocean bed. “The water below us now is too deep for the chart to show wrecks. Anything that went down here might as well have been erased from the planet.”
What Clare demonstrates, even beyond his undoubted gifts as writer, is his basic humanity. I read his wonderful book with gratitude for his insight – but also with increased admiration for the men to whom we owe almost everything in our comfortable and secure lives.
Down to the Sea in Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men
By Horatio Clare
Chatto and Windus, 288pp, £20.00
Published 2 January 2014