The Ninth Wave
‘Two large ships sink every week on average, but the cause is never studied to the same detail as an air crash. It simply gets put down to ‘bad weather.’ When a huge wave strikes a ship, several things can happen. The ship may take on so much water that it sinks, or it may simply be overturned. If the wave strikes the ship end-on, one end will first dip down into the trough of the wave before being abruptly raised by the wave. In a large ship, this can produce forces strong enough to break the vessel’s back.’
We set sail into an autumnal southern ocean. We still say this: ‘set sail’, but it is the ship’s four engines and a type of diesel called Marine Gas Oil which propel us through the water.
We inch out of Stanley Sound, then curve northwards, leaving winter behind us. Only 6204 nautical miles (11,490 kilometres) to go. It will take us four weeks to get home – home being, in this case, the Galician port of Vigo. That is where we will change crew and then fly to our real homes in England. We are twenty-nine people; officers, crew, and two ‘supernumeraries’ listed on the ship’s manifest, the doctor, and me.
Moving off on a ship always feels like an emancipation and a reckoning. Ships are not meant to stay still, or not for long; movement is their only function. And so we set to sea powered by purpose. As for the reckoning, no new input will come into our world for four weeks. There can be no happenings other than those we fear – breakdown, accident, storms, or any combination of these. At times we will feel unsafe. There is no getting out of this scenario, and because we cannot walk away, minor annoyances and difficulties are magnified. ‘You have to keep a perspective,’ – the officers on board say this over and over again, like an incantation.
Immediately there are safety drills to be conducted: man overboard, fire, lifeboat drills. In the open ocean we are our own fire crew, our own rescue. ‘Stay with the ship,’ the Captain tells us. ‘If anything happens, the ship is our best lifeboat.’
I have been to sea before, in waters more treacherous than these (although that’s the thing about the sea – you never know when it will rise up and overthrow you). But I’ve never been at sea for so long, traveling so far. I see myself, for maybe the first time, as a speck in an immensity. In my head I appear as a red dot in a GPS readout, inching up the planet.
Above the Argentine Abyssal plain seagulls ride the waves. A grey sea, no swell. Today, wind will increase to 40 knots from the southwest. But this is behind us, blowing us along. The ocean – we are moving through it, across it, on it. What is this entity? At sea just as in planes, if rarely, when flying at tropospheric altitudes 42,000 feet and above, you can see the curvature of the planet and realize: I really do live on a sphere. We are only balanced on its meniscus, crushed between the skies and the sea, two flatland horizons.
Let’s call it the ship The Inevitable. Usually ships such as this one, a research vessel, are named for the long-dead heroes of maritime and polar exploration.
Why do we have so few words for the future? Here is the dictionary definition of the future as a noun rather than an adjective: 1. the time yet to come. 2 undetermined events that will occur in that time. Synonyms as a noun: time to come; hereafter. As an adjective there are many more synonyms – forthcoming, approaching, coming, destined, eventual, expected, fated, impending, in the offing, later, prospective, subsequent, to be, to come, ultimate, unborn.
Technically the future is the territory that begins beyond this moment. Beyond this moment wherein I sit at my desk writing on a rainy Saturday morning in Stoke Newington, watching a silver car disappear into the trees overhanging the southbound oneway system, one year and three months after I returned from our trip up the Atlantic Ocean. This moment passed twenty seconds ago, owing to the delay it took me to write it. I stop typing to find I am already living in the future.
Off the coast of Rio Grande do Sul we pass through the most violent thunder and lightning storm I have ever seen. On the bridge, whitecaps leap out of darkness at eye-level as bolts of lightning cut the horizon like 'the signature of God', as Damon Galgut writes in his collection of novellas, In a Strange Room. It's this book I'm reading as we inch up the coast of Argentina and Uruguay. I am soaked in its claustrophobia and unease, its minute observations of the way people give themselves away.
Bolts come so fast that on the bridge we are strobe-lit. Peals of thunder are indistinguishable from water hitting the ship: they thump and spray, thump and spray. The bow slews down into water, and we are left tilting on our feet at a twenty degree angle – this is called pitching, a roller-coaster type motion. It rarely feels worrying, even as it sends us skittering across the bar much faster than we intended, like participants in some weird village gymkhana where the objective is to run head-long into the bar while still drinking a pint.
Rolling is different. The ship’s tilt from side to side threatens to upset our belief in the uprightness of the world. We are no longer moving forward. In its violent arc, somewhere, tilts the word capsize.
That night we sit talking in the bar. Bad weather invites conviviality. We talk about the cruise ship that had its bridge window blown out by a freak wave in the Drake Passage and had to be towed to Punta Arenas. About the Endurance accident; ‘the ship came that close to sinking’, says the second Engineer, his thumb and forefinger held a centimeter apart. A hole in the pump valve the size of a glass tumbler was the source of the near-doom. We have the full story on DVD, so we watch Endurance nearly sinks episode 1, closely followed by Endurance nearly sinks episodes 2 and 3, as the giant subtropical rainstorm sluices down our windows.
I am not sure I believed that the Atlantic ocean existed, or quite like this: that this roiling grey mass outside my porthole turned surly by autumn southwesterlies really does just to go on and on. Until I started spending time on polar research ships I’d thought of the open ocean as simply the space between continents, as filler.
‘Between 1969 and 1994, giant waves are estimated to have sunk some 22 supercarriers, with the loss of over 500 lives. An unknown number of smaller ships will have suffered the same fate. Computer modelling shows that outsize waves could be formed when slow-moving waves were caught up by a succession of faster waves moving at more than twice their speed. The two sets of waves merge, producing slower, larger waves. However, we cannot yet predict when and where such waves are likely. There are a number of physical processes that might cause them, and these depend on the winds, currents and geographic features in a particular place. Certain currents, for example, can focus waves as a lens focuses light.’
Election Day in England and Wales. But we are south of Rio de Janeiro and almost none of us has arranged a proxy vote, so this crew of disenfranchised sailors can only watch the drama unfold on the internet.
We have left the autumnal latitudes of Uruguay and the southern provinces of Brazil, and humidity is suddenly in the air. Last night, a velvet sky, a clot of stars and bioluminescence off the bow waves. We all went out onto the aft deck, groping in total darkness, to try to see it. By day we do circuit training in the science hold, so hot and sweaty now that we slip around on the grease of our hands. We do lunges, medicine ball lifts and star jumps in between crates, dollies, boxes of equipment, laser printer cartridges, the empty explosives locker.
The talk now is of King Neptune’s arrival, and the Grime-and-Punishment ceremony which awaits us on the other side of the equator, two weeks away.
At sea, we keep our own time. We plough through the time zones on our journey; twice a week we advance our clocks. The proper term for putting them back is ‘retard’. When you retard the clocks you get an hour extra sleep. But advancing them we find ourselves having breakfast at 6.30, 5.30, 4.30 am. Our body struggles to keep up with our march through time. Could this be shiplag?
At certain points in our journey we will be temporary visitors to lonely slices of time – hardly anyone lives in GMT – 2 for example, or the sparsely populated GMT -1, home to Senegal, Mauritania and no-one else, not even Ascension Island, which latitudinally should be its temporal neighbour, were it not for a major detour on behalf of Greenwich Mean Time, which sweeps out to claim it and Tristan de Cunha, distorting sunrise and sunset so that they take place at 7.30am and pm respectively.
We hug land, staggering from one outpost to the other. Why don’t we march across a genuinely lonely swathe of ocean? It’s not as if any of these places offer sanctuary: St Peter and St Paul’s rocks are volcanic outcrops inhabited by shags. True, we’d be able to tie up in Cabo Verde, in the Canaries. But like planes on their transoceanic routes we skirt land, keeping to established shipping zones, but also to give us something to look at.
Our aloneness ought to breed camaraderie, an esprit de corps. The able seamen get closest to it. But the rest of us, officers and supernumeraries, fracture. I don’t know why. The 2nd officer is one of those men’s women – suspicious and withholding with women but turns on the lights for men. The only other woman is the doctor. The doctors on ships these days are always women. The doctor and the second officer form a friendship; this makes sense, they are the same age. The doctor commands instant respect cue to her position. But she is fair, personable.
An almost comic choreography quickly establishes itself just before dinner dinner. The electrician, the communications officer, the purser, the second officer and the doctor eat at the same table. The efflux table is myself, the captain, the chief officer and the second engineer, an unpredictable character. The clique makes sure it sits together by leaving the bar at precisely 6.27pm, even though the salon is not officially open until 6.30. There is a nervous flutter among them around 6.25. A silent signal is sent out: if we don’t make a move now, we might end up sitting with the captain, or he with us! As if on cue they drain their gin and tonics and bolt for the dining room.
I’ve observed this before in Britain, or at least in British institutions – intelligent, able adults, well into their thirties and forties, behave like teenagers fighting over who will sit next to the popular kids in the high school cafeteria. Normally none of this juvenilia would matter, but here we are bound to each other. If we were all to be wrecked and end up in the water, would there be any solidarity, or would they just drain their gin and tonics, climb in the life raft and cut us adrift, leaving us undesirables to our fate?
The Most Beautiful Voyage in the World
‘Here we see the majestic waterfall the Seven Sisters. In this spot in 1472, a young woman was beheaded by her village for having a child out of wedlock. The village cut off her head, killed her children, then displayed her head on a stake as a deterrent to any other young women who were thinking of doing the same.’
He switched off the live streaming – some old-timers on board still called it the PA system. Announcements were given three times, in Norwegian, English and German. By the time the cruise director, Elin, had got to ‘ladies and gentleman’ he’d usually reached for the mute button.
It was Day 2 of the Voyage and time to check on the Boneyard. He climbed the stairs – there were seven lifts on the ship but he forbid himself to use them – taking them two by two, startling the other stairclimbers who made their ascents gripping the rails and murmuring to themselves.
His assault on the Boneyard (as he called the outdoor observation deck or, on his black days, the Graveyard) was stalled by two old biddies, each as fat as a warthog, who’d plunked themselves next to the door. When they saw him they parted like a lardy sea, thighs shaking. Why didn’t they take their dexcyclrine like everyone else? They looked at him leerily as he passed.
He turned around to see a slight blonde woman. She had spoken with an American accent.
‘You work here, don’t you?’ She didn’t wait for his affirmation. ‘I was wondering if you could tell me the best place to take my father ashore for an excursion.’
‘The Viking Feast is excellent. They still make their own mead especially for the dinner.’
‘No, don’t go, it’s just a bunch of out-of-work actors playing Thor and Heidi,’ one of the warthog women intervened. ‘We should know, we’ve done this trip twenty times.’
The woman looked so confused he found he couldn’t just leave her there.
‘What would your father like most?’
‘He’d love to go skiing, but he hasn’t been able to do that for the last fifty years at least.’
He had the impression the woman was trying to sound hearty, that she was alone on this trip, alone as you could be – in the company of her decrepit father whom she had never loved quite enough – and that she had spoken to him not to ask his opinion or get insider information but because she’d decided she would make a friend on this trip, come hell or high water, because if she didn’t she’d go stark raving mad.
‘Can I buy you a coffee?’
‘Oh, I’ve got one of these.’ She held up the insulated all-you-can-drink tea and coffee mugs. Canny passengers always bought these at the beginning of the trip, saving themselves about three hundred dollars on coffee refills.
‘Can I pour you a coffee then?’
She laughed – not a mollifying laugh, but full and deep, like a man’s. ‘I’m Linn. What’s your name?’
‘A good Norwegian name.’
‘Yours too.’ He nearly asked her, how old are you? Then thought better of it. She might be that rara avis: a single woman of his age.
They were on the northbound journey, chasing the midnight sun. ‘I wonder what it was like, when there was ice up here,’ she said.
‘Oh, very beautiful.’
‘Did you ever see it?’
‘Yes, when I was a child. But I saw more of it in the Antarctic.’
‘Oh, the Antarctic.’ The way she said it, she could have said, the moon.
The ship slid into Molde – that meant fjord salmon for dinner, with a confît of capers and wild fennel. The menu never varied; you could set your watch by it.
Linn was not Norwegian, it turned out. He’d guessed as much, if only because he’d detected a spark in her, a joie de vivre that had not been extinguished by 130 years of undisturbed sickening prosperity. She was an American, ‘born and bred’, as she’d put it, an expression which had always made him think of yeast and loaves and complicity. He would never describe himself as Norwegian, except in a default sort of way.
Linn was a political scientist and taught at a university where the snow piled up to the second-floor windows and only three of her colleagues could find Norway on a map – she’d tested them, under the pretence of doing a quantitative study on foreign perceptions of Scandinavian politics, even though she’d admitted to him she knew nothing about this. Eleven people pointed to Sweden, three to Britain, and the remaining fifteen or so simply shrugged.
‘Listen, can I invite you for a drink?’
‘I don’t drink on board.’
He realised he’d have to explain. ‘I mean, I can’t drink. We have to sign a contract pledging not to drink alcohol on the voyage.’
‘That must be tough. Everyone around you is packing it away.’
‘They’re bored,’ he shrugged.
‘And you’re not? ’
Something deep inside him shifted, like pack ice loosening imperceptibly in spring. He liked go-for-the-jugular types, and they were rare, in women at least. ‘No, there’s always plenty to do,’ he lied.
‘But how so?’ She looked around, a furtive note in her glance. ‘I mean, everyone looks indestructible. What can there be for you to do?’
‘I administer the serum, or do stem cell treatment. In severe cases I operate.’
She narrows her eyes. ‘I’ve heard they call you Doctor Immortality.’
‘Where did you hear that?’
‘Well I suppose it’s better than Doctor Death.’
‘They call you that, too,’ she said.
The trip is billed as The Most Beautiful Voyage in the World. I don’t know if the cruise ship company has done a quantitative study and concluded this, or if they’re just squatting this particular dais of the superlative. The ship is the MV Uunngåelig – Inevitable. The other ships in the fleet are called the Egivhet (Eternity), the Uendeligheten (Infinity) and the Udødelig (Immortality).
I like the way Linn calls the entertainment crooners. This is Marta the Albanian (or is it Moldovan?) singer, and Imran the Pakistani keyboardist; a mafia-boss-and-his-moll duo. Marta wears a clinging dress of silver sequins and Imran a black leather jacket. They are actually quite good singers but persist in resurrecting megahits circa 2080 such as ‘The Pure Scent of You’ and ‘My Love Keeps on Truckin’. The rare teenager aboard the ship rolls their eyes in horror and leaves.
The crooning happens nightly in the NordOil bar, located directly above the Fridtjof Nansen buffet, which regularly teems with aggressive-looking shellfish, mounds of butter and bread and obscene steaming trays of potatoes and cheese. (The only titan of Norwegian culture/mega-corporation left out on this ship is my namesake Knut Hamsun, perhaps because his most famous work is titled Hunger.)
We’re now well into the Geirangefjord. High above the steep sides sit long-abandoned hardscrabble farms, wooden farmhouses disintegrating against a background of a cold phalanx of mountains. Ladders snake between paths, connecting the vertical stretches.
Elin comes on the live streaming system to tell the story of the woman whose husband was fighting in the second world war and she was left alone to give birth to their tenth child. She took the baby to be christened, strapping it to her back and clambering down the ladders, rowing the newborn, herself and her three youngest children across the fjord in the dead of winter. Those were the days when people still feared God and death – were they ever not one and the same? – enough to take such crazy risks.