Down to the Sea in Ships
by Horatio Clare
Chatto & Windus, 288pp, £20
Romantics, he adds, “take a long time to grow up; the lucky ones, perhaps, never do”.
Clare’s voyages on board two enormous container ships – travelling west from Felixstowe to Los Angeles, and north from Antwerp to Montreal – read like the stuff of romantic seafaring yarns. But they also involved tedium, squalor and the kind of danger that acquires a gilding of glamour when described in a warm bar over a cold beer, but at the time seems a pressing argument for staying on dry land.
Somewhere between the terrible vastness of the ocean, and the diesel-saturated routines of the merchant sailors who ply the sea-lanes, Clare finds an ageless grace of character. As elusive as it is unmistakable, it extends in a direct line from Odysseus, via the protagonists of Conrad and Melville, with their strange mixture of taciturnity and volubility, to the officers and underpaid Filipino crewmen of the two container ships on which Clare travelled as a writer- in-residence.
To leave the land for the mutable freedom and peril of the ocean is, Clare writes, “a desire without a beginning (when does a boy first think of taking ship with pirates, or pirate hunters?)”. But the particular desire that eventually took him about the Gerd Maersk and her sister ship, the Maersk Pembroke, was formed one damp, drizzly November when, like the narrator of Melville’s Moby-dick, he felt it “high time to get to sea as soon as I can”.
Having persuaded the giant Danish shipping firm Maersk to accept him as a writer-in-residence (he stresses that the company “forswore censorship” of what he wrote), Clare travelled to Felixstowe to join the Gerd Maersk: “along the quays the giant machines are moored, higher than castles, longer than villages…”
Loaded into these sea-going castles are sealed containers containing cargos whose surreal variety reads like a kind of poetry: flower bulbs, cocoa powder, Polish moss, Iranian dates, Czech candy, Greek wine, British malt, Latvian clothing… But it is only at the end of the voyage that the crew discovers what they have been risking their lives to deliver. The sailors say they are kept in ignorance deliberately, so they are not tempted to steal.”
The temptation to steal might well be strong: rates of pay for crewmen are low, and while the conditions aboard the vessels on which Clare sailed were relatively humane, he notes that the good practice he encountered is far from universal.Clare’s indignation at the harsh lives of so many merchant seamen is matched by his admiration for the fortitude of his companions, in whom he discovers a certain kind of masculinity that he intensely admires (he encounters a single woman – a cook, Annabelle – during his time aboard).
The distances he covers in their company are epic, but this is as much an inward as it is a physical journey. “Inner strength is the secret of seafaring … on the ships I began to understand that lying on the bed you made is perhaps the condition of adult life.”
So the second-stage romantic grows up at last, and how admirably he describes the process. Clare has the two essential qualities of a good travel writer: a sharp observing eye and a generous spirit. And if his prose tends occasionally to the lush, having weathered storm, ice, choking fumes and scalding heat, he has earned the right to the odd purple passage.