Distant seas

Excerpts from the first mate’s log and photographs shot in ports visited by a long-haul Turkish commercial shipping vessel.

Bearing the full weight of the day’s weariness on its shoulders, the sun descended the stairs slowly and left the stage, leaving us to stark, silent horizons, a skinny crescent moon, a handful of stars and a radar scope. And I’m not counting the loneliness that fills the heart in the night. It’s always there. When you gaze at the horizon through a pair of binoculars, especially in the middle of the Pacific, you don’t even notice whether it’s in focus or not...
Except for the sounds on the bridge, the wind and the waves are all that’s audible. And the tick of the gyro compass inside. And the battery of indicators. And then the radar, seeking echoes in the darkness. We are two. After two or three months, even captain and first mate have little left to say to each other.
But the sharing increases. We divvy up the mangoes I bought from the workers on the Panama Canal. But the communications instruments interrupt my dream of starting a mango farm on Turkey’s southern coast. There’s a message signal on the satellite receiver, a newscast from Turkey. Our ears prick up at reports of the new foreign players being hired by our home teams. The three German players cost more than the ship we’re on! We sail the seven seas year round on a ship the size of two football fields, yet they have to be yelled and cheered on to break through the opposing team’s defense. As the day advances, we sense that the sun is eager to join in the conversation too. It pokes its arm through the clouds and tries to trace shadows.

The storm is in its fourth day and starting to peter out. But, one after the other, the West Pacific swells continue to pound the bow and shake the enormous ship. Apparently the Master doesn’t want to spend another sleepless night, because he was up on the bridge before sunup and went straight to the weather fax where the meteorological analyses are received. Even though our ship is a 190-meter, 60,000-ton bulk carrier of cast iron, the seas aren’t much impressed by that and take great pleasure in tossing it about, in utter disregard for its enormous size. As the fax slowly prints out the surface analysis, a new storm warns us of its approach. But the Master’s face wears a smile. “Okay”, he says, “if we chart our way 40 degrees to the north, this new low pressure system will remain on our the south, and we’ll have an end to our sleepless nights.”
Dolphins heralded the good weather with a sudden joyful leaping and cavorting  amidst the waves. Scores of them surrounded our ship, those at the bow literally outdoing each other in front of the ‘bulb’. The deck hands put down their work, and the jumping and swooping increased to the whoops and whistles of the crew. They’re really very much like humans, these dolphins are, as responsive to the cheers as the most seasoned soccer players. Towards evening the sea became very calm. And so the 47,000 tons of corn loaded on in New Orleans would reach Japan in 28 days’ time, to be followed by coal bound from China to India.

China’s ports are not only extremely attractive, but procedures there are further streamlined with each passing day. Fifty thousand tons of coal were loaded in two and a half days flat, and nobody even got a chance to do any proper shopping. And then we wound our way between the crush of fishing boats and other maritime traffic along the foggy Chinese coast.
Watches spent with one eye on the radar, one looking through the binoculars and one on the map. The traffic was even more congested in the Malacca Strait, where we were constantly on the lookout for pirates. While it might strike a landlubber as fanciful, the incidence of piracy is unfortunately mounting with each passing day, and the attacks steadily escalating in their savagery. Nor is anybody doing anything to counter this growing threat to world navigation. Today, as always, seamen are forced to look after their own. For the duration of the contract, which is usually for six months, working hours on the ship are anywhere from eight to ten six days a week. Although the need for repairs is almost non-existent on this spanking new ship in the expanding Turkish commercial fleet, maintenance and inspections are frequent. And the 19-man all-Turkish crew - including four captains and three engineers - take pleasure in their work on the new vessels. Contrary to popular belief, outside of the long ocean crossings, they have little time to miss their home and country.
The unloading in northwestern India was done in five days. Plus, we’d arrived smack in the middle of the mango season and so could replenish our supplies. On the last day women workers came to clean out the remains of the cargo still left in the holds and what had spilled onto the deck, gracing the ship with their colorful saris, delicate sandals and vibrant culture. Crowds of students from all the high schools in the city also showed up for a tour of the Turkish ship. And then the 49,000 tons of petrol coke bound for Thailand were loaded on. Following the loading, it took us two  whole days just to clean up the deck, a job we were finally able to put behind us in the Saturday evening sun. We had more than earned our Sunday morning R&R. The next day I would do my laundry and, while I ironed, listen to the Jamil Sherrif I’d bought on my last night on Bourbon Street. The sea however had some creative surprises in store.

We were awakened Sunday morning to the blare of alarms and cries of ‘Man overboard’, as a loud commotion resounded through the corridors of the ship. The enormous 60,000- ton vessel listed first to starboard then to port side. As reports and commands poured over the wireless on deck, the Master announced that he had seen a man in the water and was going to rescue him. Before long, with some skillful maneuvering by the Master, a former submarine commander, we reached the victim. A large ship had collided with some fishing vessels off the coast of western India in the night. As soon as the Indian Coast Guard was informed, the aid of a nearby Indian warship was enlisted and the drowning man was hauled on board. As day ended, exhaustion gave way to the satisfaction of having been able to help a sailor in distress.
The unloading off shore in Thailand was completed in five days. But 180 dock workers had to work their tails off for two days straight to clean up all the petrol coke. For the next cargo was wheat bound from Australia to Tanzania. The cleanup continued during the seven-day voyage as well so as to present a pristine ship to the Australian inspectors, who are known as sticklers for cleanliness.

Bidding winter farewell in South Australia, we started the 20-day voyage from Tasmania to Tanzania. There are two seasons in Tanzania, rainy and non-rainy. Naturally we arrived in the rainy season. And the unloading was unduly protracted by the tropical downpours. But we made good friends. What’s more, it was election time in Tanzania. Every conversation started with Galatasaray, which nobody seemed not to have heard of. They asked us how many tribes we had in our country. Over a hundred different ones were competing in the polls here. Had I said, “We’ve got parties, not tribes”, I doubt it would have made much sense to them. “We’re curious about your country,” they said in the end. “You’ve got four seasons but no tribes.”
On the 25th and last day I threw myself down in the shade of a ‘Baobab’ tree. There’s no better place for a good think than under the spreading branches of a baobab. But I just kept pondering what I should do. Obviously the time had come to head home. It was blue fish season on the Bosphorus. The new cargo was bound from South Africa to New Orleans. And thus the world tour would be complete.
The men working on six-month contract would return home, and all the storms and weariness would be forgotten in the two-month break. And the ship, with a new crew, would continue to sail round the world, as ships have been doing for hundreds of years.