Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Posts Tagged ‘ships

NORWAY AND SORROW’S END

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The Spitsbergen’s thrusters whine into full power and gently push us away from the dock. In mid-harbour the helmsman takes advantage of the ship’s momentum and deftly executes an arc that turns the bow towards the channel markers. The main engines take over and we move, dead-slow, to the waiting open water just beyond the towering, treeless granite mountains standing on each side of the harbour mouth. Angry crags of rock dark from cloud shadow are sucking what sunlight they can into their crevices before the dark night clouds roll in.

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With the sun sinking behind us we are outward bound. A certain sadness sails with us.

September 19 – 3:30. On a soft, sun-filled afternoon Alice left us. She hadn’t the strength to fight any longer. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her mind. Now it wanted her spirit. We were with her. She knew because she held Norma’s hand tightly. It was one of those late September days that borders on autumn but is reluctant to cross over. You know this because you can see the light changing – loosing its softness – the colours becoming vivid and taking on a harder edge as the sun prepares for the oncoming fall.

She was days away from her 94th birthday. We were days away from our trip to Norway.

 There was little time to grieve. Just time enough for us to stop in our tracks and think about what just happened. Time enough for arrangements and lawyers and wills and settlements and a multitude of phone calls and of course, packing and travel needs. In the midst of it all we realized that we would have to pack our sorrow and take it with us as we sailed the coast of Norway.

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There is nothing as exasperating as travel to take your mind off everything else. Caught in the computer labyrinth of check-in and customs. The lateness of flight departures. The guaranteed jet lag. The stress of tight transfer timelines. The unknown of arriving sleep deprived in an unfamiliar country. Some would say this is the down side of travel; taking yourself out of your comfort zone – trying to create a new “now” even though it is only temporary but must be mastered, quickly. Lawrence Durrell in “Bitter Lemons” described it well: “Journeys…A 1000 different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.”

A new level of determination is needed because it is ‘travel’ – a personal challenge – a unfamiliar situation where you willingly place yourself – where the puzzle of logistics – the unfamiliar of an unknown place – the solving of ‘the way’ is your task. Maps, guidebooks, Internet recommendations don’t accurately deal with the new reality of location, language and customs. Hauling belongings. Running for trains. Searching for streets with unpronounceable names. Fighting fatigue. Lost in the din of strange words. Your best currency is your wit and your intelligence.

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When I was young. When I was dreaming dreams of traveling the world, I dreamt of sailing to strange places on a tramp steamer or a cargo ship crewed by misfits and lost souls running from their past – escaping from themselves. We would put-in to strange ports, drink rum in some noisy quayside bar, off-load cargo then sail on to repeat the same process in yet another port many nautical miles away.

I read stories of people who left their lives behind or vacationed recklessly as passengers on a rusty, creaky ship for months at a time seeking solitude, anonymity and the peace of just being themselves without the bother of having to be a tourist. This trip would be something like that only more civilized.

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The Spitsbergen is a supply ship for 200 travelers that stops in small ports up the coast of Norway, past the Arctic Circle turning at the Russian Border and heading back down again…a working ship with cruise ship amenities, but none of the luxury liner nonsense. It would be twelve days on the Norwegian Sea, time enough to move through the silent sorrow that was traveling with us.

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Lights creep towards us. As they come closer, they flash revealing a bigger ship approaching. Our bridge lights come full on. A blast from our ship’s horn startles us. Now the bridge lights of both vessels illuminate the darkness. Spitsbergen’s sister ship rushes past lights flashing as if waving. We rock with its wake. With engines full now we race ahead into the night of dark water.

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It was on this day that I learned of Henry’s passing. Henry had been a close friend since grade school. The loss of a childhood friend brings on a completely different feeling of grief than that of the loss of a family member. What is taken from you is a close relationship forged independently of family prerequisites. It is something deeply personal. A friendship founded on a sharing of intimate life-moments and experiences that infused your personality and contributed to your independence. And this independence let you leave your family; so to speak, so that you could become the individual you are now…the individual that only your friends would understand because they were there most steps of the way. Henry was one of those friends. But, like Alice, he left. And now we are sailing with the memory of them both.

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As we sailed this rugged, rocky mystic coast with its cliffs, crags, snow-capped mountains, mist, fog and fiords – this shrouded landscape with steep scree strewn slopes that slide straight into the Norwegian sea – where rain clouds chased the light until they both blended into a kaleidoscope of colours – where stars dominate the night skies and the aurorae dance to the unheard music of the universe – we realized this is the perfect place for remembrance:

 But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

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On a cold rainy overcast day, in an old wooden Sami church in Trumso, we lit a candle for Alice and a candle for Henry. And then we got on with our journey.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

November 13, 2016 at 3:13 PM

Connect-The-Dots

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Travel is a ‘connect-the-dots-game’. You move, from one point to another at varying speeds, by various modes of transportation until you end up full circle – home. Along the way you experience degrees of discomfort. Airport hotels – small, noisy, uncomfortable, stale one night stands before moving on to the next dot. Airport boarding lounges full of sleep-deprived fellow travelers desperately seeking coffee. One or two night stands in strange places you previously believed would satisfy your ‘inner traveller’. In the days ahead, no matter how hard you try, your sleep clock will remain indelibly set to ‘home time’. Time zones play havoc with your head. Your biorhythms are constantly trying to correct themselves, searching for some inner landmark to anchor your spirit.

Our sleep clocks are set to ship’s time now and the ‘connect-the dots-game begins. We are cruising the Lesser Antilles, island hopping.

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First light slips through a slit in the drapes. A barely audible rushing sound like water lapping the shore of a Northern Ontario Lake lulls us awake. Opening the sliding glass doors we are slapped with heavy humidity rushing in to take advantage of a new opening. It drives us back into our equally heavily air-conditioned cabin to catch our breath.

The sea is calm. Dawn clouds dot the horizon. The ship’s wake is twisting, swirling white-foamed water rushing away from the white steel hull – dissipating then disappearing – losing its forced form – becoming waves in the softly rolling sea swells.

Boobies skim the sea’s surface. They glide between the troughs, rise up then dive deep into the wake with wings folded tight to their bodies, disappear then bob back up to the surface, sit briefly, then take flight. They repeat their kamikaze attacks again and again creating a rhythm that has dictated their lives for eons.

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Towering dark cumulus clouds dominate the horizon. We can see the rain lines falling from its gunmetal grey edge. As the ship moves steadily towards it like some jousting knight meeting a challenge, the cloud lifts itself above the horizon revealing a steadily growing gap of burning orange…a haze-fire in the luminous morning mist. Into this opening a red ball slips up from the sea line growing relentlessly. Its light reaches up piercing the cloud’s darkness etching its shape. In an effort to challenge the rising sun, the white-rimmed cloud contorts itself into multiple moguls and towering columns. But the challenge is well met. The now heated rays of the rising sun burn through the cloud’s base forcing the horizon gap to widen and claim the birth of a new day.

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And then they appear – rocks in the sea born of fire. Oceanic crust and coral thrust upward by colliding sub sea plates moulded by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, green thick-wet verdant hills running up from sea to sky, cloud shrouded peaks and lush valleys…islands. Cruise islands…more dots to connect. The pilot boat comes rushing towards us.

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Island to island there isn’t much difference. The port towns are unbearably hot and heavy with humidity. Tight streets and lanes, sidewalks of alternating degrees of narrow, crowded with bewildered tourists looking for bargains in the markets and street side stores. Frigid air blasting from shop doorways (a moment of relief) is quickly sucked up by the humidity.

Each island’s hills are laced with roads twisting and turning their way up to somewhere. There is room only for one vehicle at a time. Passing is precarious because the culverts on either side are wide and deep to carry water downhill. If you slide over to quickly to make room for an oncoming car you could be lost, swallowed up to the axel. Towns, villas, shanties, shacks, abandoned half finished homes and churches, all perched on the hillsides, jut out from the greenery.

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A rainbow rises from the sea. Rain, fog and mist hang over the deep green hills that run layer after layer into the dark clouds that blanket the mountaintops and slide between the peaks. It is a damp, dreary day. Our guide is driving us deep into the rainforest. Switchbacks, fallen roadside rocks, chewed up asphalt, potholes and washed out roads with cars parked on either side, mean nothing to him. Compared to the claustrophobic congested warren of market stalls on the harbor streets, although treacherous, at least these are open roads. There is beauty in the lush verdant hills even though rain clouds rule their peaks.

And as we drive deeper into the rainforest I wonder if we will ever find a clearing that would give us a view of the surrounding sea.

We climb Mount Sage the highest peak in the British Virgin Islands for a change of perspective. But clouds shroud the land beneath us. There is no sea. There is no island. No dots can be see. There is no connection to landmarks of place or spirit to settle you.

And it is still raining.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

July 11, 2015 at 5:17 PM

RUNNING THE BAR

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We left our berth under full power, Regatta’s prop wash, wake and the ocean’s swells melding into an angry, foaming, swirling mass behind us. It looked like we were leaving a trail for someone to follow.

I was surprised at the speed of our cruise ship. Usually, the Captain left Port gently, slowly, slipping away on little cat’s feet. This was a curious change in his pattern. Why would he be in such a hurry?

From our window table in the grand dining room aft, we watched Astoria, Oregon disappear into the oncoming mist. Under my feet I could feel the vibration of the huge diesel engines straining to drive us forward.

As the sun set the horizon burned with an equally angry red glow matching the mood of the sea. Tiny white fishing boats boldly slipped into our wake bouncing like bobs on the end of a fishing line. A large trawler cut across our stern fearlessly challenging our churning wake. Pelicans darted by, big and brown, their strong, long wingspan carrying them effortlessly forward.

Chasing us a yellow Pilot Boat jumped the swells and soon sprinted along side. Regatta cut one engine, settled into a deep trough and began to roll with the motion of the sea. We were approaching The Bar and a Columbia River Bar Pilot was coming aboard to lead us out.

At the mouth of the Columbia River there is a system of bars and shoals about 4.8 km wide and 9.7 km long. This is where the river’s current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean, often as large standing waves. These waves, the wind, and current are hazardous for vessels of all sizes. The Columbia current is focused “like a fire hose” and varies from 4 to 7 knots westward. The predominantly westerly winds, ocean swells and strong outgoing tides create conditions that can change from calm to life-threatening in as little as five minutes due to changes in wind direction and ocean swell.

Behind us we could see big breakers crashing on the rocks of Cape Disappointment. The Pacific was churning like boiling water as the Columbia River brazenly emptied itself into her waters. We were in that danger zone that has earned these Pilots their vaunted reputation. No big ship enters or exits this channel without one of them guiding her.

Our big ship seemed to be moving cautiously, slowly forward now. She was in the safe hands of the Pilot who has memorize every inch of sea bottom, wave pattern, shoreline, rock formations, sand bars, weather patterns, winds, tides and currents. He was taking us out to the safety of the open sea from memory.

How he got on board I have no idea. The first open deck of the Regatta is 25 feet above the water line. I’m told they basically tie themselves in and climb the ship’s ladder. Sometimes they rappel down from a helicopter. These Pilots and their crew are clearly cowboys – daredevils – brave men who meet the challenge of the Bar no matter when or what the weather.

Suddenly, it felt as though Regatta was dead in the water. From my vantage point directly at the stern I could feel the ship shutter as waves hit her broadside. I could see the sea swells and troughs, their every motion shifting the horizon to unsettling angles. Dinner was going on all around me but I was transfixed by the scene unfolding beyond the glass. Then I felt the engines kick in.

The propellers hummed confidently as they pushed us out to open ocean.

A flash of yellow darted by. The Pilot boat skipped forward over the waves, slowed, turned to face us, watched and waited as we sailed away…like a mother watches a school bus carrying her child away from her. She hung back a while, then, satisfied that we were well past the Bar, she turned her head and sailed shoreward into the gathering fog.

(With notes from Wikipedia and http://www.columbiariverbarpilots.com/)

A NOTE TO MY READERS: We’ve just returned from a 14 day cruise from San Francisco to Alaska and back to San Francisco. I’ll be blogging about my impressions of the trip over the next couple of weeks. I’ll try to keep it interesting and not a travelogue. Thanks for reading.

Mountains above Skagway Alaska