Winter notebook: sailing the English Channel

This narrow stretch of water teams with ships in winter and possesses a language and character all of its own

Features

14 Feb 2019

When the skies lower and the gutters run and winter seems to stretch ahead in damp routines I sometimes bring up a shipping map of the English Channel and sweep the mouse over the arrowheads depicting some of the thousands of vessels which link us to the world every moment of every morning and every midnight.

As I write the long, low shapes forging through the murk are bound for Malta, for New Orleans, Ravenna, Castellon and New York, for Brownsville, Casablanca and Mundra in Gujarat. They are in the south-bound lane, the sea road to the springs and summers beyond the globe’s horizons. In the northbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme (the TSS directs their movements under the unsleeping radar eyes of Dover Coastguard) are ships bound for the crushing cold and deeper winters in Rotterdam, Esbjerg, Antwerp and Murmansk.

In my mind’s eye I can see the sluggish, thuggish grey sea viewed though their bridge windows. I can hear the chanted beat of their engines, their radios’ questions. ‘Destination, dangerous cargo and number of persons on board, please, Captain,’ Dover asks, tirelessly, and tirelessly the ships answer. I can hear the bleeping appeal of their watch alarms, which demand silencing every 11 minutes, proving the duty officer is awake. I can smell the diesel and the oily overtones of the galley and feel the rocking thump of the swells underneath their bows.

To travel the Channel on a trading ship is to see another side of winter: a sleepless, endlessly attentive season of short daylights and long nights, fretted with the lights of buoys, lightships and light houses, a web of radio traffic and great dark shapes, barely lit but for their navigation lights, heaving sleeplessly through the dark. I love the sea in any season but there is an absoluteness about it in winter – free of illusions, introverted, disinterested and mighty, as nature really is, as it has been and will be from the first day of creation until the very last.

On one journey I watched our Romanian first mate checking the cargo lashings on a foul day, green-grey rain spitting on his glasses as he went about his work, and I was struck by his stolid, unswerving commitment to the task despite the weather’s obdurate hostility, and felt I could have been watching a mariner at work in any century, in any winter, since we first went down to the sea in ships.

At night now, though, the channel is full of life. The Dover-Calais ferries and the dozens of passenger vessels linking the channel ports surge by, lit like discos. In the dark Filipinos, Indians, Indonesians and Chinese, the men and few women of hundreds of nations who travel the channel on bulkers and container ships look out across the water from their dim-lit ships and think of families and dancing and alcohol, all rare or unknown on the working sea.

The winter makes sense of all the unseen industry of the oceans: it is now, when the northern nations could not grow all they need to consume, that the great nets of international trade make sense. Out there, in the care of cold men on heaving decks, is tonnes of everything from Vietnamese prawns to Argentine milk, South African fruits, Sri Lankan shoe polish and ‘aircraft, space craft and parts thereof’, as the manifests put it, from China and California. Perhaps the happiest people on the edges of the sea in this season are birdwatchers. Ships’ crews keep an eye out, too, for species they cannot necessarily name, which rest and take refuge on the containers.

On the coast now are rafts of exquisite Eider ducks, their white plumage dotted with enamel-greens and rose. Waders, migrants, gulls and falcons visit our estuaries in this season. If you watch them, raise your binoculars sometimes and spare a thought for the seafarers on those ghost-grey shapes beating along the horizon.

This is the second of Horatio Clare’s winter notebooks. Read the first on Sicily here.


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