Italy to Tilbury
Saturday morning and we were still heading west on a calm sea but it was overcast and Brigitte, with a shudder, likened it to a typical day where she lives in Germany. We passed north of Corsica and close to the island of Baleares. I was tired after La Spezia and the shins and calf muscles ached, so I took an afternoon sleep. Later a phone call from Alex jolted me awake and I didn't know if it was day or night. He was asking if I would like to see movies in the lounge. I staggered down to the crew lounge to find a party under way to farewell the Polish deck cadet who gets off at Hamburg. Just inside the door a group at a small round table were using bottle tops and chess pieces to keep score as they played cards amid the debris of peanut shells and beer cans, and being applauded by onlookers. The rest occupied the jammed-in lounge furniture and took turns on the karaoke mike. They know all the words to every song. One of their favourites was "Sad Movies" (always make me cry) which strangely enough was the song my Aitutaki crew member used to sing as he strummed away on the ukulele during the trimaran voyage from the Cook Islands to Fiji away back in 1964. The sea makes one sentimental.
Sunday turned out to be a much more Mediterranean day. The sea, however, gradually changed from blue to a greener colour and eventually to a murky looking grey and I thought of Mike's description of swimming in doubtful waters, I think in Portugal. Spain lay out to starboard all the way, just too distant to make out any details. A couple of small Spanish naval patrol boats appeared and here was, as you would expect, much more shipping in evidence along this route.
For the crew's afternoon off I provided boxes of beer, a bottle of black label, coco cola and peanuts. We sipped away and watched movies through into the evening including an American spoof, a wild life doco of some sort, an infantile pop group called "Step" and finally in the evening I redeemed the day by screening Prince's "Purple Rain" that I had brought in Singapore with this in mind. They had not seen it before and it went down extremely well. Hermann showed up at the crew lounge late at night just as the last three of us were tidying up, so we opened a couple of beers and then equipped with two more went up to the flying bridge and watched the shores of the Straits of Gibraltar slip past as we headed towards the Atlantic.
Gibraltar was close enough to see the steep illuminated side. The great surprise was noting that there was more shore lighting on the Moroccan side than on the Spanish. Of course I knew the straits were narrow but seeing is believing. The three officers on the bridge were very intent as they guided the ship through that busy thoroughfare. We met a good sized cruise ship ablaze with lights.
A calm nondescript Atlantic beneath a glowering sky greeted the morn. Sturdy deep-water fishing trawlers indicate the nature of this ocean in contrast to the lighter fishing craft of the sheltered waters we have passed through since Java. I slept for an hour during the morning and awoke to the old rock and roll as the ship forged into an increasing north-westerly sea, white capped bottle-green in sunshine patches and blue-black in cloud shadow, quite beautiful. I had wondered whether the ship was deliberately ballasted a little to one side to prevent rolling but the Captain explained that it was only the effect of the wind that was presently holding the ship over a few degrees and that generally an even keel was desirable because it increased its efficiency. He demonstrated by touching a button that activated automatic ballasting by pumping seawater from one hull compartment to another and in only a matter of minutes the list had corrected. Fuel may sometimes be moved from one tank to another to aid the process. They can also give the ship a bit of a lean when the crew are washing down the decks so that the water runs off.
By early afternoon we were opposite Lisbon with a swell swinging more to the beam causing both rock and roll, conditions that put our speed down to about seventeen-and-a-half knots over the ground. Apparently the engineer has to maintain a speed that prevents cavitation of the propeller that could put intolerable strain on motor and driveshaft. A combination of spray along the port deck and occasional nasty cold showers discouraged any thought of an outdoor stroll. It looked as if we were going to get a right traditional pasting crossing the Bay of Biscay wherein, by the way, lies an abyss more than three-thousand metres deep, if my memory of the chart is correct.
With time running out the film society decided on a double showing of Twin Peaks and I am sure that, had I conveyed the slightest interest in doing so, they would have sat through all remaining four. A calmer sea under a grey dawn heralded what I thought was my last day at sea. My customary dawn preamble of E deck was cold and brief. The cabin clock registered the final one-hour time zone adjustment so I changed the computer clock accordingly, hopefully then set for the duration of my UK visit. Then at breakfast I found that it was only my second-to-last day. I had been so anxious to get the computer stuff done that I had slipped a cog. It was a good feeling to know that I could now relax again and I resolved to divide my time between catnaps and reading. Mind you I found I had registered a bit of a mind shift with the realisation that the end of the trip was so near and was now actually looking forward to getting off the ship. Up until that point I could have continued on around the world indefinitely.
After tea the crew broached a few bottles of Hermann's donated red wine and watched Purple Rain again with background ambience provided by a very noisy game of mahjong. Then it was film society with a sundowner interlude between the last two episodes of Twin Peaks. Hermann reckons the next series will be called Triple Peaks. I took a couple of good snaps of Hermann and Brigitte watching the sunset wrapped in my blanket.
I didn't need a four o'clock wake up. Looking out the porthole revealed a lightening of the sky; travelling north has considerably extended twilight and pre dawn. I dressed and went out to check conditions. It was fresh but dead calm and there were boats everywhere. Land to starboard turned out to be Guernsey, the largest of the Channel Islands, and you can see on the chart where the ship was positioned at that time. Later we saw four small naval boats and a larger one, the chickens looking after mother hen. The blue sky was crisscrossed with vapour trails and at any one time there were a dozen or so vessels in sight. It is certainly a busy part of the world. It seemed sometimes that we were in an organised convoy heading up the starboard shipping lane while other commercial craft passed south out to our port. These lanes converge at headlands and straits where traffic becomes concentrated. I noticed from the charts that some passages were designated for hazardous cargos only. Clear conditions pushed the horizon out to the maximum. I felt pleased that I had got the photographing other vessels out of my system and didn't feel the need to dash for the camera every time one came by.
The first sighting of the UK was just before lunch when a chalk cliff appeared away off to port, which I assumed to be Beachy Head near Brighton. The next headland passed was on the French side where we were close enough to see the blades of wind turbines turning and to discern buildings in Calais though still too distant for a photo. The highlight of course was seeing the White Cliffs of Dover opposite on the other side. Any number of postcards would give a better picture than I could hope to manage and anyway images of them are indelibly imprinted on our minds from numerous coffee-table books, geographic magazines and encyclopaedias. It is a fairly wide stretch of water and incredible to think that some people have actually managed to swim it, including a New Zealand woman, I seem to recall. There were a number of ferry boats crossing our path, some passing very close, and one little very neat little boat slipped by from which five men with rods were drift fishing.
In the middle of the afternoon, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the ship heeled over as it took a sharp turn to port. I leaned out to see what it was were avoiding and then noticed a moored light ship to the side and realised that we were in fact changing direction to head in to the coast. Here again the sky was slashed about with jet trails. During dinner the pilot came aboard to guide us for the five hour trip up the Thames. Low lying land was just visible to the north and showing as a mere smudge to the south. A row of buoys in the brown muddy water marked the narrow channel through the wide featureless expanse of the river mouth. I can appreciate what an essential feature lea boards were for the old Thames sailing barges as they could be hauled up when touching a mud bank allowing the craft to avoid stranding. The sun faded away in a thickening sky and the outside temperature, which was eight degrees while it was shining, was bound to drop some more. Brigitte had a forecast though that said tomorrow would be mainly fine except night and morning.
The crew were working their way around the superstructure washing and touching up paint work and I didn't envy them their conditions though I would have liked the swinging about in harnesses had I been younger. I was lying down having a read when I thought the engines had stopped but it was just the ship slowing right down to pass a small tanker in the narrow channel and of course I had to take some photos because this was our closest encounter of the trip. This brief spell outside rendered the body of the camera as cold as a can of beer out of the fridge. Also getting cold was our remaining stowaway dove. A couple got on in Damietta and I don't know if this one was another or one of the original. I took its photo for the Guinness Book of Records. Whatever the case, getting off at an earlier and warmer port would have surely been a better option. Hermann and Brigitte invited Moss and I to spend the latter part of the evening in their cabin where we shared some more red wine and ducked in and out to observe the passage of the Thames. The final sight was of a beautiful little cruise ship heading past down river to exotic places unknown and it just happened to be a German one too. We tied up at a riverside Tilbury dock at 11pm - voyage over.
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