Excerpt from Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare (Chatto and Windus - January 2014)
In this extract the container ship Gerd Maersk is leaving port: Tanjung Pelepas is at the southernmost tip of Malaysia, in a hot swamp. The Gerd Maersk is a gigantic vessel, bigger than the biggest US aircraft carrier. Like all such cargo ships she is manned by very few crew...
Just after sunset we leave the berth. The night is as black as the bottom of the sea, the air thick and languid. All three navigating officers are on the bridge because this a corner of the world in which you want as much practice as possible. The egress from TPP, which will take us out into the Singapore Strait, is akin to pulling out of a carpark into the confluence of two eight-lane motorways. The first channel is tight, leaving very little room to move. A ship is coming up towards us.
"Can you see his red?"
Naturally, in accord with the convention of the sea, we will pass port side to port side. That is not the problem.
"Can you see his red, second mate?"
Shubd is staring through binoculars, so is Sorin, but though we can all see the green on his starboard side with the naked eye, there is no red showing. This means he is angling across our bows.
"This is bullshit," says the Captain suddenly, pointing at the electronic chart. The screen has the triangle representing the approaching ship neatly off our port bow, its course aligned in such a way that we could not possibly be blind to the red light on its port side unless the bulb had gone, the possibility of which is not even worth considering. The two hulls converge through darkness. The Captain's instruments are lying to him. There is very little time.
If we are where the AIS says we are this course could take us aground.
Sorin swears and jumps forward, pressing buttons on the radar console as the ship ahead shows red light, at last.
"The gyro! The slave-station is not adjusted - ..."
The electronic chart realigns. We are exactly where we should be and the radar screen is a nightmare, spattered with heavy gold rain, every drop a ship at anchor or charging under way. One monster shoots across us, doing twenty knots, showing three lights. The confusion is doubled because the anchored vessels are all lit up while the movers show only navigation lamps.
All the Captain's humming and muttering stop. Now he almost dances around the bridge, studying screens, spotting buoys and gruffly teaching Shubd.
"You see, Second Mate? Have they called you, Second Mate? Yes they have! You see here - ..." He keeps talking, explaining where he is heading, where the hazards are, on which side we will pass them. We look out for certain buoys and certain depths as we turn north east up the Strait.
"Now we will have some fun with the echo-sounder! Look!"
He is navigating by paper chart, electronic chart, by lights, depths and buoys all at once. Singapore passes in a strobing, towering, silent glitter to the north; to the south the Indonesian shore is a twinkle of oranges in the dark. Above the hum of the engine and the sigh of the air conditioning there is the Captain's teaching, radio static and the voice of Straits Traffic Control, an alluring tone, both soft and clear.
"Could you do me a favour, Second Mate?"
"Call that girl and ask her if she would like to have a baby with the Captain?"
We gust the over-hearty laughter of breaking tension. There is something quietly wonderful happening here, as the Captain teaches Shubd. The young man is receiving a lesson not just in what to do but in how to be, how to lead. In seafaring is the evolution - not of man, for there is little or no essential evolution of character between those dogged, brilliant men who first doubled the capes of west Africa, and those who found new oceans beyond the tips of continents, and men like Captain Simpson, who brought the Indian Empire home after she had lain on her side in the Pacific, and men like Captain Larsen - but of manhood: of what it is assumed and expected and required to be. Archaeologists now suspect that seafaring had a hand in the creation of manhood. Robert Van der Noort of Exeter University argues that in the Early Bronze Age the men who voyaged in sewn-plank boats (stitched together, in the absence of nails, by roots and willow twigs), the first men to go to sea as we do now, as a crew, with a captain, formed the kernels of their societies.
"The success of these journeys depended on a reliable crew, probably comprising a selected group of men, the retinue of the member of the elite who travelled to foreign soils. Through the shared experience a common identity of lasting importance would have been created," Van der Noort writes, suggesting that crews offered their leaders something the land could not supply: "the long-term support of a select but closely knit group of followers for many years after the overseas journey had been accomplished."
The idea of retinues forged at sea, Van der Noort claims, "has far-reaching implications for understanding the sources of social power and the reasons of rise of prominence of particular members of society in the Late Neolithinc and Early Bronze age."
Thus it may be that men who lived near the sea - who, like all men, imagine and create themselves according to role models, who naturally elevate and even deify certain among them - learned to measure themselves and their leaders against the most capricious, changeable and eternal element of all.
Outside on the bridge-wing the night is sweetly hot and utterly dark, a darkness like falling sleep, and the air is like a bathhouse, and the water far below is black, black and hissing.