May 26th, Saturday

June 19, 2007

We blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.” (Moby Dick)

We were awake by 0630, the sun well up but shining through stratus over the Gulf of St Lawrence. The visibility’s better today and the sea still pretty calm. According to Chris’ GPS we are somewhere between the Îles de la Madeleine and the southwestern tip of Newfoundland.

In the shower Chris was covered head-to-toe in bubbles when the water supply suddenly stopped. I offered to pour a bottle of mineral water over him straight from the fridge, but he said “No. Go away.” A few moments later the water supply came back on; what a disappointment (for me).

Up to the bridge briefly before a pancake breakfast then back up the 84 stairs. The barometer shows that the pressure’s dropping. I discover that we’re carrying 11670 tons of cargo, dry goods, in 20 foot and 40 foot containers. We’d missed seeing some of the largest colony of gannets in N. America as we rounded the tip of the Gaspé peninsula but later realised that a few of them had stowed away among the containers. Now came the coast of Newfoundland with exciting views of the Table Mountain, snow covering its steep slopes. I could make out the lighthouse at Isle aux Morts and a powerline up the cliff; otherwise no sign of civilisation. We looked through binoculars and talked to the 3rd Officer, Nico, who comes from a small island at the end of the Philippine chain. He still has his own fishing boat and the rest of his family there.

This is Nico showing Mischa and Martin the radar screens. nicobridge.jpg

Cape Ray is our closest point of land, 442 nautical miles from the pilot station at Grandes Bergeronnes. From there to Liverpool was 2691 nautical miles, at which point our estimated time en route, pilot to pilot, was 6 days 5-and-a-half hours. At about 1000 we overheard the goodbye call radioed from the Canadian coastguard at Channel Head, before we made a slight change of heading aiming towards St Pierre and Petite Miquelon, across the Banc de St Pierre, in French waters! We still have to skirt the Burin Peninsula and the Avalon Peninsula of NFD, which will take another 12 hours! There are numerous iceberg reports for the waters ahead but the weather prognosis is still fair. We saw whales again, quite close and later, a school of dolphins, who swim more jumpily, Apparently they often play with ships: it’s as if they dare each other to leap across the bows. Time is passing surprisingly fast. It’s almost lunch time. Chris is enjoying himself mightily, taking GPS readings to chart our course and making the same marks on his WAC and seachart as the officers. The weather’s clearing up again. It’s just beautiful.

Afternoon. It’s chilly on the bridge now, the windows and doors still open. We climbed the stairtower to see the ship enter France, but there was no sign of the Miquelon islands. Are they at too low an altitude? The swell’s now obvious, but we can see the waves coming, with a wave period of 6-7 seconds. On reaching the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, we predictably sailed fog.jpg into fog. [Photo by Martin Stehli] We watched its rapid approach; then suddenly we couldn’t see the foremast any longer. The Captain’s worrying about icebergs. I have come back to the cabin to warm up and put César Frank’s Violin Sonata on the CD player.

A smell of cooking wafts up to the cabin. The ship’s now rolling and pitching enough to make us unsteady on our feet. I still don’t feel exactly sick, but rather hollow and tense in anticipation of the BBQ coming up at 1800 on Deck 5.

We wander downstairs 15 minutes early, only to find a deserted deck with sticky handrails and foggy dampness. Now what? Let’s go and ask on Deck 6. There we find one of the crew who looks amused by us and who leads us down a different set of stairs to the dry-storage room on the deck below, where we are greeted heartily by most of the crew standing round a long table, with sheets for a tablecloth, covered with bottles or cans of Becks beer, a bottle or two of gin, bowls of salad and fruit, hot sauces, and a hot, foil-wrapped potato on each plate. It’s going to be a bit of a squash. Metal shelves store rice, milk, oil and jars of other foods under a low, metal ceiling. At the table’s end is a steel BBQ piled thick and high with greasy sausages, pork ribs, chicken wings, etc., fat smoke filling the air. Flags hanging behind the table — among which the Red Ensign, Germany, the Philippines — are all swaying with the roll of the ship.

“May I sit down?” I say nervously, choosing a seat near the door.

“Have a beer!”

There’s no sign of the Stehlis yet, but Jesus (2nd Engineer) tells me to go ahead and help myself to the greasy meat on the BBQ. Don’t panic, Ali, I tell myself, deciding I am probably hungry rather than queasy. I choose the smallest piece of chicken I can find and unwrap my large potato.

“Have some garlic butter on it. We won’t start eating till you do!”

flottbekbbq2.jpg [Photo by Martin Stehli]

So I do start, take a sip of beer and it tastes good. There’s talk of the karaoke party to follow which will be a sort of competition, the highest and lowest scorers to treat the others to a crate of beer. Chris and I are rather puzzled at this, but we’re obviously expected to join in. I get talking in German to one of the cadets, Stephan from Hamburg, doing his ‘Praxis’ in training as a navigator. He wants to captain his own ship one day. The other cadet, Michel from the Philippines is further ahead in the system; this is his last crossing for the time being. When he goes on to the next stage, Reagan will take one step up from cabin boy / steward, and presumably some new boy will be appointed in Reagan’s place.
flottbekbbq3.jpg flottbekbbq4.jpg
The table gradually fills up until all the seats are taken, the Captain sitting in the middle next to Chris. Many toasts of “Santé! Prost! Zum Wohl!” We begin not to care about the rolling; alcohol helps! Mischa is very happy to accept a large tot of gin in her orange juice. It all feels quite cosy and intimate, Jesus obviously relishing his role as chief entertainer.

At the meal’s end the ship’s company (except for those on duty) repair to the crew’s recreation room up a level on Deck 6, where the karaoke machine is already in operation. The tables are covered with bottles. Amador the cook brings in the left-overs from the BBQ plus some fruit and peanuts in case we’re still feeling peckish.


This is the equivalent of the sea-shanties of old, sung to an accordion accompaniment, vital for morale at sea, an excellent team-building strategy and an outlet for suppressed emotions. Behind the titles, lyrics and scores awarded for our karaoke songs appear screen-saver shots of scenes from the Philippines. “I wonder if those pictures make them feel homesick,” says Chris to me sotto voce. For sure they do.

Again we are all squashed up tight on the long benches against three sides of the room. Pleasantly relaxed, I take my shoes off and put my feet up, as they otherwise dangle. The microphone / remote-control is passed around as well as The Book, i.e. the list of songs to choose from, from hymns ancient and modern to pop, folk and rock, also ancient and modern, mostly ancient. The Filipinos — I hear a couple of them talking to each other in Spanish — turn out to have great voices. It’s uninhibited, quite musical singing. Jesus jokes about them strengthening their singing voices above the noise in the engine room till they can sing “like Pavarotti.” They know every song backwards.


The computer judges each person’s performance and gives us marks. For example, I get 85 points — applause! — for my rendition of Summertime, and Chris gets 46 points (“needs more effort”) — but more applause! — for Tell Laura I love her –which he hasn’t attempted for 40 years. Capt. Block warms things up with his version of Bryan AdamsSummer of ’69 and Jesus, swaying on his feet, is a convincing Tom Jones in Delilah, everyone present joining lustily in the chorus: Why, why, why, Delilah? My, my, my Delilah… I just couldn’t take any more! — with a picture of a lemur-like animal with pink eyes in the rainforest projected on the screen behind the prompts.

As the beer bottles keep being opened and the gin handed round, other songs are The Great Pretender with a memorably original rhyme in it:

I wanna be just as close as
The Holy Ghost is

as well as Love Story, Imagine and Take me home, country roads, West Virginia…, tutti fortissimo. The Stehlis sing in unison, choosing Californian rock songs, and soon lose their inhibitions about singing in public. I have a second go, at Danny Boy, which is difficult, the accompaniment being so slow, but the all-time favourite and highest scoring song is by Capt Block leading the whole company in We all live in a yellow submarine! Very apt, though Chris is none too sure what the words mean. Score: 96. “What a [sic] excellent singer!” says the computer. Rapturous applause and enthusiastic toasts to the Flottbek.

We excuse ourselves exhausted at 1030, clocks in advance one hour already, as the party continues for another four hours below, and the ship, with Orlando in control on the bridge, continues heading away from land through the fog, over the “huge and heaving dome,” as Oscar Wilde put it.

I feel as if I’ve learned something this evening.


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