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You Just Had To Be There

You got a bit of cabin fever, I expect.’ ‘Yes, I suppose you could say that. I had the 4 – 8 watch and I found it hard going.’ ‘Did you see dolphins though?’ ‘Oh yes, there were lots and lots of dolphins.’ ‘And phosphorescence? Did you see that?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you see dolphins in the phosphorescence?’ ‘I did.’ ‘It’s amazing isn’t it?’ ‘It’s fantastic, they look like torpedoes and … wait a minute. How do you know all this?’ My sister, St Francis, was chatting with an acquaintance this morning. Having very recently returned from a sailing trip to Bermuda he has an evangelistic need to share his experience that all first-timers get. His wife, who didn’t go on the trip and who hasn’t been sailing in tropical waters is already full to the brim with his stories. In St Francis he sensed a kindred spirit. ‘We sailed boats down to West Africa when I was a kid,’ she answered his question. ‘Did you?’ ‘Yes. And I was in the Merchant Navy.’ ‘Were you?’ He’s only known St Francis for ten years. No reason he should have picked up such details in that short time.  

There is a picture of St Francis, windswept and tiny, on the deck of our motor boat. In front of her our mother is frozen in the act of slicing the first piece from a birthday cake. St Francis is three and she’s celebrating mid Biscay. She’s already experienced Breton women in traditional dress clucking over her. Later, in La Rochelle, she’ll see her first dead body which will drift across the harbour between us and the toy sailing boat that she got as her present. My father will cast the little yacht adrift when next we put to sea because none of us want to play with it any more.

And so on, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Western Sahara etc., etc., until, one day, she and I will be standing in the market in Banjul, The Gambia, gazing up at a very well-built pink-eyed albino woman as she sold our mother some fly attracting mutton.

Three years later, we were living in Nigeria and two years after that we sailed another boat down to West Africa. This time via Sweden.

St Francis has had cabin fever. She’s seen flying fish, whales, dolphins, and dolphins gliding through the eerie glow of phosphorescent waters on dark nights when the coast is an unlit shadow on the horizon. She knew exactly where her friend was coming from this morning just as she understood the wide-eyed, inarticulate little girl from across the road when she returned from a trip to Kenya, a few years ago. St Francis hasn’t been to Kenya but she knows the heat, the noise, the smells of Africa. And she knows that, unless you’re talking to someone who has been there, you cannot communicate the experience. No matter how many stories you tell and no matter how many pictures you take.

Which brings me to an awkward thought – I fancy myself as a writer and if I accept the truth of what I have just written in the last paragraph …

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Now, Where Was I …?

Oh I remember. North east Scotland. Old ship.

Well, we sailed off into the northern sector of the North Sea with a view to surveying a small segment of it but our charterers had made clear that there would be other vessels on the patch and we would be bottom of the food chain.

Never mind the other ships, our big problem was the weather. It just would not let up. It didn’t blow hard enough to send us scurrying for shelter but it didn’t drop below a force seven for a lot of the time and that meant the swell was too big for us to deploy our survey equipment.

I don’t know if you’ve ever steamed back and forth across the same patch of steel grey sea for eleven days but it does nothing for your temper,

or your glamorous image.

We did manage some survey work and I have to thank the survey team for making sure that my first line on this ship (with whom I am only recently acquainted) was so close to a platform that we could have painted it as we passed. OK – it was actually a bit more than half a mile away but from where I was sitting -in the dark- it looked an awful lot closer.

‘Bloody hell, who put that oil platform there?’

 

 

 

 

A good time for a pressure cigarette … except that I gave up two weeks before this picture was taken. Aaaaaaaaaaargh!

That was about it on the excitement front – unless you count the unexpected and lovely moment when I stood in silence with two of the survey team and watched the sun slide down behind a cloudless horizon leaving us with a nanosecond of green flash dancing on our retinas.

‘Oh no,’ cried one of the chaps. ‘I’ve got my camera right here, I knew it was going to be a green flash, why didn’t I take a picture?’

‘Richard, my dear, life is for living, not photographing,’ I told him and ruffled his hair, the little tyke. But in case you are wondering what a sunset on the oilfields looks like … Here’s one I saw earlier.

 

 

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2012 in Shedward Seawards

 

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From Gijon to Santander – still sailing.

The wheelhouse (aka the Bridge) of the MV Greenpeace is not all that big. Snug, some might call it. A free-standing gyro unit and two free-standing radars take up a lot of the room. And Esteban and Fernando took up the rest. Especially Fernando because he was a big chap. Marijke and I huddled together in the centre and stared out at the blackness beyond the windows.

To be fair to the fishermen, they tucked themselves out of the way – one at each side of the wheelhouse – and tried to be unobtrusive. Why were they there? Didn’t they trust two women to get us safely to Santander? Or were they just enjoying sailing on an ancient salvage tug decorated with rainbows? I like to think it was the latter of the two. I couldn’t ask them because neither spoke English and I don’t speak Spanish.

Midnight became 0100. 0100 became 0130. Marijke and I said little to each other because we didn’t want to be rude to the boys in the corners. Time dragged. Above the throb of the engine, I could hear the wind tearing through the rigging like a mournful ghost and every few seconds the ship buried her nose in the swell and threw sea spray up to splat against the windows. On the port side of the wheelhouse, Esteban hummed quietly to himself.

‘Ok Esteban?’ I asked him,

‘Si, si,’ he smiled and nodded.

‘OK Fernando?’ I looked to the starboard side.

‘Si, OK.’ Fernando’s teeth shone white under his huge Mexican moustache as he too smiled.

And that was all the conversation we managed.

Finally, 0130 became 0200 and Esteban decided to go to bed. Marijke and I held our breath. Would Fernando go to? No. Fernando stayed. Five minutes passed. Then ten.

‘OK, I had enough now,’ Marijke pulled something out of her pocket. ‘I bringed this up especially for us to listen to and I’m fed up with waiting.’ She went to the stereo and slipped in a cassette and jacked up the volume. Jangling guitar backed by harmonica burst from the speakers and Alanis Morissette asked us if she stressed us out

It’s dark, it’s the wee small hours of the morning. A small green ship is rolling and pitching heavily along an easterly course. In the next port, many people are waiting to come aboard and see what a Greenpeace ship is like from the inside. Some other people are waiting to have serious meetings about wall-of-death fishing practices and, maybe,  a few news editors are hoping to get some decent footage from their cameramen in the field …

But in the meantime, the ship is still at sea. Marijke and I are still on watch, Alanis is singing All I Really Want and Fernando has come out of his corner. The three of us are dancing – in a force nine gale – and we’re loving it.

 

This picture dates from the year before the events I’m writing about took place but I think it gives a flavour of Greenpeace life.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in Shedward Seawards

 

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In Case There’s a Pause …

… you should know that I’m heading off into the wide, grey, lumpy yonder again. Yes, it’s back to sea for me. I’ll be flying up to NE Scotland in a couple of days and joining a ship that’s working the North Sea. Mm, good time of year to be up there …

Anyway, I imagine that we’ll spend a bit of time in port and I’ll post when I can get the internet but, if we do spend all our time at sea, there may be a two month gap. Don’t abandon Shedward though because I’ll be back.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a sweet picture of a poorly Floyd, star of Short Legs/Deep Puddles. Seems he has mysteriously hurt his back. He has been prescribed painkillers and bed rest.

Lovingly wrapped in a blanket and tended by Medusa, Floyd in the car

The dog is laying at the foot of my bed now and he is very uncomfortable despite his painkillers. No boinging around like Zebedee for Floyd at the moment but he is better than he was yesterday. Poor little chap. I haven’t the heart to tell him that I’m leaving him in his hour of need. Mind you, he’s seen my kit bag on the floor and he knows what it means. Perhaps it isn’t just a bad back that’s making him look sad? Oh well, I’ll make it up to him when I come home.

And I’ll make up for any long gaps between posts.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2012 in Shedward Seawards

 

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A Full Moon Over The Ferry Terminal

Yes, the cloud tore apart into trailing shreds around the rising moon and I wandered up on deck just in time to see it. I tried to photograph it but on the small screen of my mobile phone, it didn’t look romantic enough. Well, not with the lights from the ferry terminal starring the picture with sodium flares.

It seems possible that on this ship I will have time to write, whether I’ll carry on with the novel or write in response to my environment, I don’t yet know. I only arrived yesterday and we haven’t left the quayside yet. But I will write. And I’ll write about the writing on here, The Kinky Boot Collective. I’ll write about being a sailor on Shedward.

If there’s a bit of a gap between posts, it’s only because I’m out of range of the internet. When I’m closer inshore, I may have saved up several posts. Who knows? Here’s hoping.

 

 
 

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