The Library: Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

Read by: Marcel Krueger

I awoke on the ferry from Cherbourg to Rosslare from ferry dreams, getting lost while searching for the ferry port in a small Italian seaside village in my slumber. Outside the cabin window, in the violet early autumn dawn I could see the dark shape of Cornwall; St. Ives, perhaps, or Tintagel, across the calm and dark blue sea. I knew that the old ferry that I was sailing on, built in 1987 in Finland, was crossing one of the more busy shipping lanes in the Irish Sea, but of other ships, or the men manning them, there was nothing to be seen. For miles there was only the calm sea, the dark shape of the land and a few seagulls hanging over the waves.

To make the world of the men and their ships – the countless trade vessels and tankers crisscrossing the world’s oceans under the authority of commerce – visible for us landlubbers is the declared intention of Horatio Clare and his book. Joining two very different container ships on their journeys from Felixstowe to Los Angeles and Antwerp to Montreal, he provides us with both a vivid portrait of modern-day sailors and their ships, and an oral history of merchant sailing and its many disasters. He first boards the Gerd Maersk, a large modern container ship sailing around half of the globe under the command of Danish officers and with a mainly Filipino crew (Filipino merchantmen make up an astonishing 75% of the world’s merchant crews) and uses the many stops and locations on the route not only to paint a picture of the daily routine on merchant ships, but also to view his contemporary surroundings through the eyes of past chroniclers of the sea and to present the history of merchant sailing.

Coleridge makes an appearance, and Hayklut, and of course there is Conrad as well. Clare talks about sea battles in the Mediterranean, about grumpy Chinese pilots and all the contents of the containers, forever unseen to the men shipping them. His second journey on board the Maersk Pembroke is quite a different one, on an old ship that does not stop anywhere between leaving the berth and reaching her destination. As Clare states, 'I wanted storms and I wanted a ship nothing like the great Gerd.' This second part of the book and its somewhat narrower setting is mostly concerned with the weather, and uses Richard Woodman's brilliant book The Real Cruel Sea as groundwork to contemplate the fight of the US and UK merchant navies against both the sea and German submarines between 1939 and 1943.

After the first few pages I became somewhat apprehensive, as here Clare seems to praise the sailors and their employer (and provider of the author’s passage on the ships), the Danish shipping giant Maersk, to the skies.  But reading on, the author does not shy away from addressing all the (for us consumers unseen) issues of modern merchant sailing: the fact that Filipino merchantmen are paid 25% less than their European counterparts purely based on their nationality, and that even today stowaways are still being set adrift, sometimes. He also speaks about the environmental influences of commercial shipping and our influence on the world's oceans, about that the ships only use the crudest of fuels when on the high seas:  

'Seen from the perspective of the deep we are alien, a quasi/Martian species inhabiting a universe of almost entirely different physical and temporal conditions. As the Gerd pounds on far above it is as if she is a spacecraft, one of many in her vastly high orbit. Now and then one gropes down, blindly, with a net. Plunder and pollution are our only contributions to the worlds under the sea.'

But this is not a mere criticism of commerce and the men keeping its containers safe for us. Clare, an acclaimed journalist and writer, manages to weave personal portraits of the ship’s officers and crews, their motivation and dreams, into a wider narrative of men at sea. With its fine observations and evocative prose, Down to the Sea in Ships is one of those rare non-fiction books that the reader can get properly lost in, despite its portrait of the reality of life at sea. In here are pirates, lost fleets on a bitter lake, hundreds of birds hitching rides on ships, and the prohibition of beer on most modern merchant vessels. The Germans have a word for such a book – a Schmöker – a huge tome that is perfect to get lost in on long rainy afternoons in armchairs. Or on ferry voyages across the Irish Sea.

Down to the Sea in Ships is published in hardcover by Chatto & Windus and in paperback by Vintage.

You can read more reviews by Marcel in all four editions of Elsewhere, available via our online shop.