Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

Inspired by reading Melville’s Moby Dick the travel writer Horatio Clare contacted Maersk the Danish shipping-and-everything-else mega-corporation, offering to become their writer-in-residence. They assented and he then undertook two very different voyages on two of their six hundred vessels, heading east on the gargantuan and ultra-modern container ship Gerd Maersk towards Suez, Malaysia, China and eventually Los Angeles, and also venturing west across the Atlantic on the smaller and creakier Pembroke, bound for Montreal. Which led to this rolling, surging, illuminating, carry-you-with-it-like-a tidal-surge blinking masterpiece of a book, mapping as it does a parallel world which sustains the world we inhabit, literally delivering the goods. 

To those who knew Clare’s writer’s trajectory to date, we might have reasonably expected a further curve upwards, but not, perhaps a trajectory quite so steep or indeed soaring. Albatross soaring. 

The author had wanted to go to sea ever since he recited John Masefield in school at the age of ten. Little wonder then that he finds himself in a state of ‘suppressed exultation’ on the bridge of the first of his great ships, in the company of a captain ‘fierce with bulk’ preparing to go down to the lonely sea and the sky, in a great machine with a steering wheel smaller than a Mini. And when he says ‘great’ he means it, as the Gerd is most certainly no pedalo, being longer than the largest US aircraft carrier and carrying an amazing variety of cargo, including forty-two tonnes of Chinese umbrellas, benzyl alcohol, frozen shrimp, albacore and cod, parts for space craft and ten tonnes of soap.

Clare’s two oceanic journeys offer, quite naturally, the very stuff of adventure. So we have tempestuous storms in mid-Atlantic, typhoons off the Beaufort scale and crossings of pirate waters. But Clare gives us so much more than just a rollicking tale of brine-drenched adventure. He gives us the history of seafaring, which, he avers, might look a bit like a ‘borderless painting, a Turner worked over by Ernst, Pollock and Bosch. Flying wind and water are swirled about with breaking ropes. Here ships fight, founder and death-dive; here they are broken-backed. The scene flickers, incarnadine with fire and blood.’

Horatio ClareClare is superb at doing research and then being judicious as he marshals and metes out his material. We find out that Lady Astor suggested merchant seamen be compelled to wear yellow armbands on shore, signalling their potential for carrying venereal disease, and later told Parliament that a colleague suggested that ‘he would not expect ferrets to live in such conditions.’ We hear about the floating patch of plastic the size of Texas accreting in the Pacific and the young author tells us about the symbolism of tattoos, from the gold dragon which shows a sailor who has crossed the date line through the leather-back turtle for crossing the equator and the swallow signifying five thousand miles to the blue star etched on the skin for going round the Cape of Good Hope. At other times he teases and disinters meaning from his documents, such as a superb, Geoff Dyer-style examination of a photograph of a survivor of the flaming seas following an Atlantic U-boat attack. The man is covered in oil, ‘the left side of his face shines as though moulded into a plastic mask:’

His eyes are narrowed almost shut and his mouth gasps blackly open, the human equivalent of an oiled seabird. He is not in the ship’s sickroom, which suggests he is a low priority case: much worse it taking place out of shot.

The book is full of bright vignettes of crew and companions, not least the ubiquitous sailors from the Philippines. Indeed, Clare suggests, a system quite akin to apartheid exists in the crewing of ships. The Filipinos work hard, love singing karaoke but are paid very little and Maersk – though Clare’s sponsors – are not shown in a good light, denying their workers union membership: some terrible things also happen on their ships, not least to stowaways. In addition to his human companions, Clare enjoys the ghostly presence of writers who have similarly gone to sea, from Coleridge through Jerome K. Jerome to Melville. And there those who have sailed the seas before him, in wartime convoys and stalking German submarines, in slave galleys and the piratical vessels of the Barbarossas, plundering the eastern Med.

For the paperback edition a quick trawl through the text could gainfully net typos such as ‘passess’, ‘Algericas’, ‘Medocino’, ‘imagaine’ and ‘tonness’. But those are minor cavils. This is a fine book which helps explain some of the idiocies of capitalism and free trade, with similar goods being exchanged across continents: Philips and Grundig electronics going East while Sony and Hitachi stuff goes the other way. It is also beautifully written, melding oral history with the sort of travel writing that made Clare’s earlier A Single Swallow work and sing so well. He has elemental material to work with and he works it well. Storms bring out the best in his prose:

The faces of the waves are chipped with liquid ridges and their backs with flying white. Now and then they explode before we reach them as if a monster is breaching. We are making seventeen knots but the wind is still rising and backing, coming now from the north-north-west. When the ship misses her footing there is a deep boom in her steel chest and a white curled hand of a billion droplets leaps as high as the foremast and caresses back towards us, whistling and falling as tears on the screens. The containers look as if they are on fire under the gusting spray.

At one point in the book Horatio Clare describes a particular darkness which is ‘racingly alive’. That phrase applies to pretty much all of this book: it allows us to feel just that, racingly alive. This salty travelogue, with a subject that affects us all, deserves a twenty one-gun salute. And all the flags out. Yes, all the flags.