Saturday, June 30, 2007

Au revoir, Europe

Thursday 24 May 2007

It’s a whole week already since I set forth from Wokingham at the beginning of the watery part of my travels. A whole week. It seems like a blip in the eye of time. I do hope the next four weeks won’t go as quickly…

We didn’t spend so very long in Le Havre. I thought we’d be there for perhaps a day or two, but all the loading was done by supper time, and out we sailed. There was nothing more to see beyond what we’d seen on the way in, but the weather was a little brighter, and it seemed sensible to re-take some of the incoming photos, so we all piled up on to Monkey Island for what would, theoretically, be our last port until Panama.

Theoretically is a good word to use around cargo ships.

But, anyway, out we sailed, heading along the French coast to Cherbourg, round the corner, and then to the South … destination …
That’s what the Captain said.
And, no. You won’t find it on a map.
It’s short for “Finisterre for orders”.
We were sailing for Cap Finisterre, at which point – and by which time – the powers that organise (ie shipowners Andrew Weir and the charterers, Swires Ltd) would have worked out the logistics of getting us to rendez-vous with a sister ship from whom we would be able to pilfer the additional lifeboat of which we had need.
Then, and only then, could we continue on or way.

Well, they duly organised, and we know now – 48 hours later -- that we are headed for Lisbon. We probably won’t dock – both we and our sister are carrying ‘restricted’ cargo – just anchor off, and go through the palaver of lifeboat-swapping, but we are heading for Lisbon.

Of course, none of that makes any difference to me. I have slipped very nicely into my usual shipboard routine.
Up at around 6am or 6.30am, check out the outside temperatures, check the emails, breakfast at 7.30, up on deck with a book or three, down for midday lunch, straight up again having eaten, and stay there till five-ish after which its shower, change for dinner, cocktails, 6.30pm dinner and ... either more book, or some socialising, a little wine and/or off to bed for one of those sleeps one only gets at sea.

Really, the only variables are those caused by the ship’s organisation and the weather.
Yesterday, for example, was reasonably sunny and slightly cool-breezy. I managed some ‘shirt off’ sunning, and got through books number two (remainder of), three and four. Book number one, a large tome on the history of mapmaking by a chap with three names, had gone back to the library early. I only got up to Captain Cook. The facts were interesting, but the author’s style was unbearably self-conscious and thick. I suspect him of being an academic.
I went lighter and fictional for day two. No disasters but no unexpected triumphs either.
Anne Rice, as an antidote to the map-man. A book called ‘Lasher’. Well, you know what you are going to get with Mrs Rice, don’t you. Know where you are. And she’s eminently readable. This one was definitely a ‘ripping yarn’ in her usual style and manner, with something (sexual) for everyone, and more than a little cleverness in the plotting. All in all, good stuff.
Then a bit of Tom Sharpe. ‘The Midden’. As true to himself as Mrs Rice. I mean, no-one else could have written it. You can tell a Tom Sharpe blindfolded. Again, its good if predictable (in style) fun, But, just occasionally, Mr Sharpe pulls out a zany, wild, obstreperously bawdy scene that is distinctly better than just ‘good’, and this book has one of those. And better still, it comes right at the end. It had me laughing out loud. I shall read that last bit again when the library starts to falter.
Number three was a Kingsley Amis. I’m sure I must have read one of his books sometime, there are a lot of them, but I don’t recall it. This one ‘The Old Devils’ won the Booker Prize. Well, that’s what it says. And it has all sorts of quotes on the back saying how wonderful and funny it is. I think they need me on the Booker panel. Unless I’m missing something (and there are signs of the thing being a clef) it was run of the mill, not terribly interesting in its characters or its minimal tale, and indeed almost dull. Sorry, I prefer Mr Sharpe.

Today started off grey and windy. But I donned a sweater, found myself a niche where the wind didn’t penetrate, and settled down with ‘The Search for Nefertiti’ by Egyptologist Joann Fletcher. Rather a thick book, but the lady writes with mostly unaffected ease (she’s from Barnsley) and the story of the search – which is actually an attempt to identify a hitherto nameless mummy as being the iconic Egyptianess – was definitely interesting. Unfortunately, in the middle of her ‘search’, she puts the story into suspension and plonks in a potted history of the Pharoahs and Egypt which have all the air of having been written as a separate piece and sutured in here. I skimmed that bit, to get back to the archaeology, and finished nicely at 5pm.
I finished in my cabin, however, because Thursday is washing day. You get fresh linen in your cabin, and the seamen hose down and scrub the decks to rid them of those nasty, oily, all-ruining black smuts which rain, from time to time, in a sort of a nose-blow effect, from the smokestack. And ‘my’ deck is just below the smokestack. Actually, so far it’s hardly rained smuts at all, but the Captain says ‘it will’.

25 May

It rained. All night it rained on the newly washed decks, and all morning it rained some more. I did my best to take up my usual place on deck, equipped with one of the Cadfael mystery novels (as satisfying as they always are), but the rain having started to penetrate even the covered parts of the deck, I had to renounce. Instead I spent the afternoon curled up on my bunk with the autobiography of Eric Sykes. What’s it like? Well, if you skip the bits about golf and so forth, it’s … yeah, it’s OK. No scandalous bits which is a relief, though it was good to get a bit of grit about the successive and he-is-probably-right-useless heads of Television Light Entertainment in amongst the sunny stories.

The main entertainment of the day came after dinner, For after dinner, we steamed into Lisbon. I have been to Lisbon before, light years ago, on the Northern Star, but I don’t remember very much about it. All I really remember is getting out of Lisbon in order to go to a special place where they sold local pottery. I was mad for pottery in those days. I bought some for my parents, and I bought two plates and a mug for my cabin. 35 years on, I still have them. One of very few souvenirs of those extremely happy days at sea.
Anyway, I won’t be re-visiting, because we are only anchoring off Lisbon. All we get to see this time is Lisbon from the sea. A gentle wander down the estuary, past the famous statue on the hill, and under a spick-and-span bridge, to what looks quite a large and quite an attractive city. But it is really too grey and night-falling to tell.

26 May

Dawn proves that Lisbon is indeed a nice-looking city, this side of it anyway, even if we are really a bit far away to see any details.
And not long after that rather chilly dawn, the day’s bit of entertainment begins. At 7am, the SS Boularibank picks up the Lisbon pilot and, soon after, she steams into view, escorted not only by a grey speedboat which looks like a gun launch (but is apparently only a police one) and shadowed by a rather quaint vessel with a yellow funnel which is – Lord forbid! – a Greenpeace ship! I thought they had all been sunk years ago.
Why all this fa-lal? It appears that our sister ship is carrying not only a large amount of uranium but also a consignment of dynamite. I think being a passenger on her might be just a little less comfortable than this one!
There is, of course, the usual vast amount of launch-type toing-and-froing as this inspector and that official do their thing, but finally the sun bursts out in a really frizzling heat rash and the activity – the transferring of the dinky orange lifeboat (it doesn’t look big enough to carry 50 people!) from Them to Us -- gets underway.
The boat is lowered into the sea, and four seamen (A Russian, a Scot .. etc) head it towards our left hindquarter. The aft cargo crane drops a pair of canvas slings which are then attached to the top of the lifeboat, the seamen transfer agilely to a waiting harbour vessel, then its heave-ho, and up the thing comes to the deck. I mean, it’s not an earthshaking event, but its an uncommon enough one that even the crew are out taking photos.

It takes much more time to hoist the boat onto its destined cradle than it did to physically get it abroad, and before its finished I have decided that I’m lifeboated out and have gone downstairs for one of our best lunches yet: spicy cottage pie with hot beetroot and cabbage.
After lunch, back topside for a lounge in the intermittent blazing sun (15 mins maximum exposure is, I feel, good fishing) and a really good book. ‘The White Rajah’ by Nigel Barley. The story of Sir James Brooke, the amazing man who invented -- and became the first dynastic Rajah of -- Sarawak. It’s apparently a story that’s been much told before – even though it was totally new to me – but Mr Barley makes its stories of political and pirate-chasing battles immensely readable and, since this is the 21st century, he gets to demonstrate the fact that said Rajah was neither a hero nor a villain (he has been painted as both by interested parties) but simply a remarkable Victorian man. Also that he was into young teenage boys. Not easy in Sarawak.

We were supposed to steam out of Lisbon at 3pm, destination Panama (traverse: 7 June), however a bit of unfortunate timing got the pilot to us before the local agent had returned with the departure documents, so we got shuffled down the queue a bit, and didn’t get away till 7.30. Still, most of the days from here on in are going to be 25 hours long, as we pass through the various time zones, so although I’m writing this at 8.45pm, as we steam out of the harbour mouth .. I can see the seaside buildings through my porthole … it’s actually only 7.45pm as I say

Au revoir, Europe, until the next time round.

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