May 31st, Thursday morning

June 21, 2007

in a settled and civilized ocean like our Atlantic … some skippers think little of pumping their whole way across it” (Moby Dick)

A gentle swell all night has allowed us a good sleep. Out of the window, grey sky, grey sea with a few breaking wavelets, and a bird gliding by with black wingtips: one of our gannets. We’re south of Rockall over the Rockall Trough, and visibility permitting, we should see be able to see Ireland by supper time.

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After breakfast I had laundry to see to. Reagan led us down to Deck 5 to set the washing machine for us, not trusting us with the buttons and dials, especially after we’d messed up the DVD player last night; he got that machine working again, besides. Our washing’s on a two-hour setting after which we can use one of the three dryers. I notice that the Captain and Chief Engineer store a pair of bicycles down here as well, presumably for their shore-leave. Before we went back up, Reagan led the way to Deck 4, to show us the crew’s two exercise machines and sauna. We ought to make use of these facilities, having been so well fed by Amador, but it’s always Deck 13 where we’d rather pass the time.

Back up there, on the bridge, Nico has music playing from an MP3-player. We’re still too far off-shore to pick up any radio signals, but Chris says he’s just heard a Mayday call relayed from a helicopter, from a ship with engine room problems. There’s an optical illusion of white water on the horizon, but it’s actually sunlit water under clearer skies ahead, and we see wonderful bright patches between the rainstorms closer to hand. The outside air temperature is warmer, now. A pod of porpoises that the Captain identified as “Schweinfisch, I don’t know the English word for them, smaller than dolphins…” jump away from the bows.

Under Captain’s orders — who doesn’t agree with me that the Flottbek’s immaculate, thinks she looks scruffy! — members of the crew are painting the sides of the tower again. Capt. Block tells us about the care he takes to check out his ship. He even climbs inside the ballast tanks while she’s in dry dock, to check for dents and cracks. He found one once. We asked from what angle the ship would right herself in rough weather and he told us she’d roll to 50º before tipping over, but in any case he’d sooner jettison cargo than risk the lives of the souls on board.

I overhear the Captain talking to the Stehlis in German and using a poetic phrase. We are sailing “zwischen Himmel und Wasser,” he says, i.e. between the heavens and waters.

At lunch, we are given the copies of Thilo’s engine spec. and we read the latest edition of the daily ‘Flottbek News’, a summary of world news also selected and printed out by Thilo.

From the latest weather synopsis it seems a large, complex low-pressure system is covering the whole of the North Atlantic, lasting throughout the weekend, “moving east or northeast across all areas.” This afternoon a new chart appears on the desk: Outer Approaches to the North Channel, showing the Irish coast in more detail, Tory Island, Malin Head.

“Have you noticed anything different?” asks the Captain, towards the end of the afternoon.

“Yes!” I reply. “I have. The water’s changed colour!”

Correct. In fact there’s been a very striking change in the sea’s appearance, the water suddenly green. It means that we have reached the shallows of the continental shelf. We strain our eyes to catch a sight of land to starboard but all we see are showers on the horizon under clouds with anvil heads. And then, just after 17:00 hrs (Chris predicted it would happen ten minutes earlier), I am the first on board to sight land, about 27 nautical miles away, a faint outline of mountains. “Look, look!” I shout, to the amusement of Chris and the officers. The highest point near here is Errigal Mountain, 749m, so I think that must be what we can see.

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Distracted by this view, we didn’t register the rain cloud looming ahead of us until we were almost upon it; the Captain orders a change of course to avoid the new paintwork getting wet and the whole ship banks sharply to the left.

“Not so much rudder!” he says, raising his voice to Orlando, at the controls. “The boys are still hanging…” belayed to ropes carefully knotted to the railings outside the bridge. Now aiming straight for the headland, but away from the downpour, we are “just in time!” Captain Block leans over the rail, laughing at his “boys”.
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After supper the ship’s four passengers were allowed our one and only walk right round the outside of the ship, Stephan leading us, all of us wearing our orange helmets. We picked our way along the gangways, seeing the rolled up pilot’s ladder and the anchor chain, the headline ropes and their winches, past the towering containers. It was wonderfully quiet in the bows of the ship; all that could be heard was the swish of displaced water. We were awestruck by the metal ribs at the front of the ship that had been cracked and buckled when a container, on a previous voyage through very rough weather, worked itself loose from its pile and fell against the structure. We didn’t want to let our imaginations dwell on this for too long. The Stehlis took advantage of their permission to climb the metal rungs of the fo’c’sle ladder, Martin taking first turn, to see the view ahead; the rungs were not rounded but angular and hurt Mischa’s hands. It didn’t look safe to me; Chris and I limited ourselves to peering through the hole in the pointed end of the bows at the water beyond. In large waves, water pours through this orifice to relieve the battering pressure on the bows, not a good place to stand in those circumstances, I should think.
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Then we grouped ourselves at the side taking photos of each other and of the superb views of the Irish coast lit by showery sunlight: of the lighthouse on Bloody Foreland Hill and Tory Island, with an extensive range of mountains behind, untouched by human intervention. The coastline looked remarkably like Newfoundland. aliatrail.jpgMore viewing from the bridge when we’d finished our tour, comparing what we could see with what was drawn on the chart. There was Malin Head coming up ahead of us. The hitchhiking gannets soared round and round, perhaps looking for rocks to land on; on some crossings they’ve been known to snatch bread from our helmets, said Orlando. This was the last we saw of the gannets; by Friday morning they had gone.
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We had sensational views for the next three hours! Here was the lighthouse on Inishtrahull Island and the roads leading up to it; from the other side, little Garvan Island could be seen where the ships of the Spanish Armada were once wrecked with a cluster of romantically uninhabited, pointed chunks of island beyond, the Atlantic waves hitting their sides with splashes of white: the Tor Rocks. Eventually, after seeing the red sun set with bars of cloud across it very similar to the Ship of Death in Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner:

Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.

And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace !)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

… we sailed between Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre (visible from the port side, but slightly further away) into the long-awaited North Channel between Ireland and SW Scotland, our speed now down to 15 knots. Now that we were within range of Northern Ireland and not just Southern Ireland, we finally (after the others on board had already been chatting excitedly to their European contacts for some while) got cell-phone coverage and could receive Emma’s “Are you there yet? …Where are you?” text messages. “Past Malin Head” we replied, giving the co-ordinates, texting my sister and our friend Rob as well, and then Emma rang and spoke to us as well, saying that she and Peter had excitedly located our position on Google Earth, and welcoming us to Great Britain.

My legs were now very tired from all the standing and the stairs, so I repaired to the cabin to rest and admire the now full moon and evening star through the porthole. It’s a smooth, quiet night, and tomorrow we land.

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