Thursday, December 23, 2010

69. The Container Ship

Helen was to be married in England in August and I wanted to attend the nuptials. Several people said to me “You should travel on a container ship, we did and it was such fun. Blah blah blah”. My previous voyages on ocean liners had been dismal experiences, but I was prepared to give sea travel another go. I was fed up with flying cattle steerage on British and South African Airways. The Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals would not allow a pig to travel in as little space the airlines allow their passengers. I booked a passage on the SS Winterberg, hoping that the name was a good omen, Winter being my surname. I did not take much luggage since I would be returning by air.   

The driver who collected me from my house had not done his homework and had no idea where the docks were located. He first drove us to the Victoria and Alfred (yes, Alfred not Albert) Waterfront which we circumnavigated several times, stopping frequently to ask anyone who looked remotely intelligent, where the Winterberg was moored. For those of you who not familiar with Cape Town, The Victoria and Alfred is a pleasure / tourist area from whence, on a fine day, one can take a trip out to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC were imprisoned for many years. This unhappy island was, in the past, used to isolate people, criminals and lepers. Now the prison has become a museum and, apart from curators, the only inhabitants are approximately 25 000 rabbits. Perhaps it should be renamed “Bunny Island”

Eventually I suggested that it might easier to locate the docks, rather than a specific vessel, which, it turned out, were miles away near Cape Town’s industrial area. My instructions were to be at the dock security boom by 1500 hrs. where I would be met by the shipping company’s representative. It was 1530 hrs. with no representative in sight and I was afraid the ship might have sailed without me. Silly me! Ships do not run on time like buses or trains, they sail at the whim of the tide and, as it happened, the ship did not leave until lunch time the following day. My driver was only too happy to offload me at the boom, leaving the guard and me alone on the deserted docks. The guard waved his arms in the air and a minibus appeared, carrying six passengers and little room for me and my luggage but, with much passing of luggage over heads and shuffling around, we all squeezed in and were whisked across the docks to the ship. The other people on the bus were not fellow passengers but the mother and relatives of one of the Winterberg crew members on a visit.

As there was still nobody around to greet me I left my suitcase, looking small and vulnerable, beside the ships hulk and followed the family up the gangway and into the engine room. The memories of our flight from Egypt that filled my head did not bode well for the trip. Three tin-hatted men, wearing oily overalls, regarded me curiously, and one of them escorted me through the deafeningly noisy engine room into a very uninviting lift, and showed me which button to press. I hoped my luggage would be safe and that the nice mother would find her son. Stepping out of the lift I looked around for signs of life but everywhere was deserted. It was like being on a ghost ship. Then a tall very good looking coloured man appeared, great big wraparound smile exposing perfect teeth, and extended a large fist while saying “I am the Purser. Call me Stan.” My luggage also appeared and then Stan ushered me through several doors and up several flights of stairs until we reached my cabin where he demonstrated, in great detail, the way to work the electric kettle. I told him that I was electric kettle literate, but he looked doubtful.

The cabin was spacious, two single beds, settee, table, desk, chair, wardrobes, chest of drawers, and a video player which was to be my main companion. A small bar fridge contained a carton of fresh milk and on the table were a bowl of fruit, tea, coffee and a box of biscuits. Ever tried opening a carton of milk with a tea spoon? Thank goodness I had remembered my little Swiss knife set.

Tentatively I opened the cabin door, and peered down the corridor like a burglar casing the joint, and noted that outside the other cabin doors shoes stood in pairs, unfilled. The two pairs at the door next to mine were of the small variety. From the little brochure on the desk I saw that dinner would not be served until 1900 hrs, and so I made a cup of tea and devoured the top layer of biscuits. After unpacking, I ventured out on deck. Everywhere was deserted. The swimming pool, a square uninviting tank, had a large notice displayed informing passengers that swimming was not allowed at night and passengers must not swim alone. Since I only swim in the dark, and definitely alone, I could repack my swimming costume. Ah! I saw two humans who introduced themselves as Bernard and Valerie Manners, Yorkshire folk now living in Spain. Bernard had previously worked in Port Elizabeth for ten years, and they had boarded the ship in Port Elizabeth after visiting old friends. They told me that other passengers had boarded earlier on the run and had gone ashore to explore the Mother City.

The view from the top deck was stunning and there, after a forewarning scream or two, I met five more passengers, Gary and Katie Thomas and their three sons, Russell aged 13, Martin aged 6 and five year old Steven. They were all highly intelligent but Steven had a terrible temper and screamed a lot; just the type of kid I’d like to be alone with for twenty four hours!

Katie and Gary came from Surrey, she made curtains for a living and he was a tiler by trade, although he looked more like a Grammar School teacher. Every year they took the children on an educational holiday. They had been together for twenty years, since they were teenagers, but have never got round to getting married, echoes of “The Darling Buds of May”, they appeared to be good parents and I liked them a lot.

At dinner I met the last of the passengers, Lynda and Guy who lived in Mexico. He was a big, loud mega rich Texan and Lynda was only fifty but looked sixty; I blamed that on the Texas sunshine, cigarettes and booze. They also were not married, at least not to each other. The Captain and ships officers did not dine with the passengers when the ship was in dock and they were all working.

Russell behaved well at table although he looked thoroughly miserable, which may be due to the fact that he was left in charge of his two small brothers a lot, was now bored with the cruise and wanted to get back home to his mates. The TWO attacked their food savagely, stabbing the dinner rolls to death with toothpicks and growling over the meal like two starving dogs. I was amazed at how much mess two small boys could make without actually eating anything. I prayed that once we were at sea and the Captain joined us at table, the children would dine early and alone! The food was good.

Sitting at the bar after dinner, while the TWO raced around the lounge, leaping on and off the furniture, I struck up a conversation with the Texan and Lynda. She talked a bit about “Karma” and “Out of Body Experiences” so I thought we might have some interesting areas of discussion. Lynda told me that I would meet a very nice man, much younger than I. and that I must not push him away because of the difference in our ages but to go for it! Lynda, I am still waiting! Amazing how much clairvoyance can be found at the bottom of a bottle of vodka.

Alone on the top deck I watched in amazement the incredible organisation and coordination required to unload and load a ship. The loading must obviously coordinate with the unloading. It was all fascinating but it had been a long day so I retired to bed. We were due to sail at about midnight and I wanted to watch the ship leaving port, so I was up and down all night looking out of the porthole. Nothing moved. We eventually departed the following day and I missed the departure because we were all at lunch and did not feel the ship move.

Breakfast was the usual gastronomic battle field. The TWO liked an excessive amount of sugar with their cereal which worked out at a ratio of 50% sugar in the cereal bowl and 50% on the table cloth. They pointed slices of crispy bacon at each other while shouting “bang, bang”. I noted that their end of the table had been covered with a plastic cloth, no doubt at the request of the sailors in charge of the laundry. Katie and Barry missed breakfast and poor Russell was again in charge, but he had no disciplinary skills.
We were warned that there would be lifeboat drill at 11.00 hrs. and that we must be in our cabins at that time. Stan came and showed me how to put on my life jacket, and as my cabin accommodated two passengers and there was only one lifejacket I wondered if they worked on a 50% survivor rate. I had already inspected the lifeboats and been surprised to see how few passengers they would hold. The boats seemed quite small; the benches had round circles painted on them with numbers on each seat. I stopped eating immediately, fat people would definitely be thrown overboard and two of the numbered spaces at each end were only large enough to take amputees, supposing they could climb the ladder to get into the boat that is.

We all trooped up on deck and, to add a little realism to the exercise, I had grabbed my blanket shawl and put the seven pieces of fruit from my fruit bowl into a plastic bag, and we waited for ages until we were allocated our places. One of the officers asked if I had any valuables in the plastic bag; I told him that I had my priorities right and that the bag contained food. Then the crew emerged from the boiler room, one VERY fat black man (he would go overboard for a start) and a very pretty, slim blonde girl who would obviously be saved. There were now about forty people present and I made a mental note to bring my Swiss knife with me next time because the fruit would need to be cut into very small pieces.

Stan, the purser, who seemed to think that this old Granny was his personal responsibility, asked the little blonde who was on the bridge? She told him that it was the Captain. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? Isn’t he supposed to go down with the ship? Then Stan asked me what I had in the bag. I showed him. He looked at me in surprise and said “We aren’t actually going, you know”. I swear I heard Tom saying “funny woman!’ one of his favourite sayings - not funny-haha, funny-weird. We were dismissed without ever putting a foot into a boat.

Passengers were requested to remove their shoes before entering the cabins; this was to protect the cabin carpeting from the oil picked up on deck and carried below on the soles of their shoes. So that explained all the pairs of shoes I had seen outside the cabin doors in the corridor. At the time I had thought it unlikely that little boys would put their tackies out to be polished! It was something of a balancing act, trying to undo laces and remove shoes on a rocking ship. Sitting down to do it was easier, but getting up again proved to be something of a challenge.

Quinton was our cabin steward and barman and also helped out in the dining room. He was the happiest young man I have ever met, his bright blue eyes were always smiling and it was a joy to see him. The other dining room stewards were Clint and Edward, one fat, one thin, and there were two cooks and a galley hand who cooked for the passengers and crew. During a tour of the gleaming stainless steel kitchens I learned that the crew ate the same fare as the passengers and when I complimented them all on the cleanliness of the kitchen the chief cook said “It is more than my life is worth to have a case of food poisoning on board”, so I felt nice and safe. Puddings were not exciting, but the cheeses were lovely and, on the nights that the Captain dined with us, a magnificent stilton was served, so ripe it had to be restrained.

For my friends who thought that this would be a romantic cruise, I can assure you that Cupid was no sailor, and so I stopped wearing make-up and just became everyone’s granny, including the Captain’s.

Sometimes I walked around the lower deck, four times round was a mile, but one could not take a brisk walk because there were obstacles everywhere. Steel and electrical cables and iron hoists had to be stepped over carefully. The noise was awful because, apart from the engine and generators, one was walking under the overhang of part of the tower stack of containers. Things creaked! Some of the empty containers must have had large metal balls in them, because as the ship rolled so did the balls, from one side of the container to the other. The ship was a mass of creaking, grinding, throbbing noise and I was pleased to reach the end – sorry, the bow. Here, away from the containers I was standing, arms outstretched, doing my Kate Winslet Titanic impression, when I heard a voice yell, “Wet Paint” I leapt on to the nearest capstan and saw that I was marooned in the middle of a sea of green paint. How was I to know? There were no signs around saying “Wet Paint”. I tip toed across the only unpainted strip and remembered my mother saying “Wherever you go dear, you will always leave your mark.” I don’t think she meant across the deck of the Winterberg! Back in my cabin I noticed that cups and saucers had slid off the table onto the floor and that the cupboard doors and drawers had swung open. One loose drawer opened and closed with the roll of the ship and the curtain across the shower door traversed its runner at the same rate. Quite fascinating.

Heavy rain kept everyone inside for two days, followed by extremely cold and windy weather. There were plenty of videos and books in the library and everyone seemed to be shut in their cabins viewing or reading. In the library I found a corset ripping, historical romance written by the daughter of the widow Mary from MacDonald Gardens. I looked at the photograph of the author and thought, “It was your mother who, indirectly, is responsible for me being where I am today!” There were enough tables and chairs in the lounge to seat at least sixteen, and other tables where passengers could make jig saw puzzles, or play board games but, apart from meal times and sundowners, the place was always deserted. It is my loss that I do not enjoy sitting at a bar at night after dinner, but alcohol does not agree with me and I am uncomfortable in a room full of people. I felt well and truly “widowed” and not very merry about it.

The day we docked at Las Palmas for a few hours, I went ashore urgently to buy a pair of eyebrow tweezers because mine had been left at home. I am a strange person, I can carry around twenty pounds of surplus body weight without caring too much, but a hair on my upper lip drives me insane. Do I hear “funny woman” again? Also I needed to cash some traveller’s cheques so that I could hand out gratuities at the end of the voyage, so I disembarked. The Bank was beautiful, not a security guard in sight, no security doors and everyone looked so civilised, in a Spanish sort of way. I wandered round the streets for a while and then found quite by chance, because the building had only one entrance and no windows, the most incredible department store. The ground floor, easily the size of an aircraft hanger, was devoted entirely to jewellery, watches and cosmetics, all lit so extravagantly that one was almost blinded. There were seven floors in all, kitchenware, electrical equipment and toys, everything one could think of. I finally located a pair of modest eyebrow tweezers, some chocolate and a banana split. I sat in the tearoom playing “spot the Brit”. Incredible how easy it was. I watched two women and would swear, even though I could not hear them speak, that they were from Yorkshire.

Back in the street, taxis were plentiful and, within two minutes of holding my arm up, a taxi stopped. The Purser had given each of us a slip of paper with something written on it in Spanish which we were told to hand to any taxi driver we might hail. I trusted that the card informed the driver where the ship was docked and did not instruct him to take me to the nearest house of ill repute. The man drove like maniac, they all did, and driving on the right hand side of the road made it seem worse. We arrived back in the harbour and I rushed to my cabin and began a plucking session.

Our next stop was Le Havre, a small, quiet dock with very little traffic. A bus came alongside from the duty free shop but I did not board it as I had enough luggage to worry about. We left Le Havre and reached Rotterdam the following day. And I think Rotterdam was the highlight of the trip for me. We had docked in the early hours of the morning and the cranes were already working when I awoke. From the top deck everything going on at ground level looked totally chaotic, but after I had studied the comings and goings for a while I realised how incredibly organised and interlocked it all was. The whole process of unloading and loading was so skilfully done that I could only explain it with sketches and demonstrations. Gary said he was disappointed to miss the docking and would like to see the departure, which was scheduled for about twelve o’clock. I said I would keep watch and call him when the tugs arrived to tow us away. I spent the entire night, hypnotised by the organisation of it all. Every four hours the dock shut down, all the cranes and ‘horses’ parked along the fence surrounding the loading area and everyone went off. The first time it happened I thought a lightening strike had been called, but it was only for a twenty minute break. It was then I realised that all the transport and equipment was controlled by human beings, before it looked as if the whole place was run by robots.

By 0500 hrs it was obvious that the ship was not ready to depart and so I went below to get some sleep. We finally left at midday. Sailing out of Rotterdam was a great experience; it took two hours to reach the open sea. We sailed past hundreds of dreary acres of plastic tunnels inside which tomatoes, cucumbers and maybe strawberries grew. We reached Tilbury the following night and I disembarked at 0930 hrs next morning with many hugs from Stan and lots of waves from the crew, they had done us proud! Farewells to the other passengers were friendly and polite, with no promises to write. There had been nobody there that I would wish to meet again.

A taxi took me to the Seamen’s Mission which, contrary to the name, was quite a grand place, and there I awaited the arrival of my granddaughter, Helen. Tilbury is a long way from Milton Keynes where Helen lived, worked and had been attending meetings all morning. She looked absolutely ravishing and was driving a huge Chrysler Voyager which seated seven comfortably, and my luggage was lost in the boot. The drive home was luxurious indeed. Helen first surprised me with the news that the wedding was off. The whole relationship was off! My journey had not been necessary after all! Of course I had brought that small wooden box, with its precious contents - Tom's ashes - destined for Milford Haven, with me.

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