I’ve just finished reading a really fascinating account by Rose George of life aboard a modern container ship on a voyage from Felixtowe to Singapore. Packed with information about piracy, pollution, dodgy ‘flags of convenience’, and a whole lot more besides, it’s a healthy reminder of the vast scale and vital importance of what she calls ‘the invisible industry’. George also describes vividly how tough, lonely and thankless the seaman’s life remains. In fact, in many ways, working conditions seem to have got worse rather than better in recent years.
What really caught my eye though was George’s description of the captain of the Maersk Kendal, a man close to retirement with more than forty years service behind him. She obviously has great affection and respect for Captain Glen, whose conversation is littered with references to ‘Henry The Navigator’. His nickname is ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’.
Captain Glen, she says, ‘commands a ship guided by gadgetry, but he still loves to move through the sea using only what it and the sky can tell him’. He is wedded to celestial navigation, though he no longer has much time to practise it – and, of course, even less need in the age of GPS.
‘I get great satisfaction’, the Captain tells George, ‘just steaming on an ocean passage and plotting the position from the heavenly bodies. The biggest kick is when you’ve never seen land for days on end and you didn’t have a satellite navigator, and then right on the money, where you say there should be land or a terrestrial feature, there it is. Henry the Navigator.’
The captain’s former cadets reminisce fondly online about ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ and his attachment to his sextant – especially his determination to teach them how to use one! He despairs that the officers aboard the Kendal can’t use the ship’s sextant, Chinese-made now, but still kept in a box on the bridge, just in case.
Deep Sea and Foreign-Going by Rose George was published by Portobello Books in 2013. If you’re interested in the sea and ships, you should buy a copy right away!