Eight days in, we dropped anchor to spend the afternoon in Dakar. The crew instructed us to be back by 20:00 sharp having released us at 15:00. Past our curfew and the ship would set sail, no questions asked, or search party mounted by the sounds of it. A local, John, who looked streetwise was on standby and acted as a guide for us. For a good price, of course – T.I.A. – This is Africa. Nevertheless, he had something we needed: local knowledge. We saw very little of Dakar; shame the small bit of the capital we encountered was ramshackled and dirty, frenzied and on the same path as a pickpocket. I guess we were never going to see the best of Senegal so close to its shipping port. Nothing was stolen as we left our valuables behind although Ludwig nearly got his camera snatched.
After making a negligible payment for the internet, our bulk of CFA francs as a closed currency were now useless to us. John accepted these francs but petitioned for more, which knowing what he’d received was at least a good day’s wages to him and having been fleeced on the exchange rate, left me a little bitter. A sobering reminder that wouldn’t be the last time, I knew. Back at our anchored sanctuary, we found a number of hefty Senegalese guys erratically clearing the top deck ‘car park’ of bumper-to-bumper vehicles. What a bunch of wide-boy lads having a laugh on company time. Full of bravado, one gestured me for a “Fag, sh*g and money” – NICE! Another wanted to marry me to which Jason gave his seal of approval. Dream on, sunshine.
Just as we wondered how to stave off potential cabin fever around half way through the voyage, the captain honoured his promise and we were taken on an official visit inside the ear splitting engine room, received a Q&A briefing in the bridge and momentously crossed the equator. Any fleeting feelings of confinement we had disappeared into sea air. In the engine room, we were told that on a previous crossing to ours, the ship’s bow hit a whale in the dark, wee hours. What, no radar indication? Sadly, just an indication that her death was a foregone conclusion before the ship made contact with her; she was already floating listlessly on the surface. Nonetheless, this hunk of magnificent mammal slowed the vessel down by two knots throughout the night. I was saddened even more when we learnt in the next breath the crew discovered she’d been in labour; her calf partially hanging out when daylight broke.
Natural tragedies aside, it was interesting to see the harmonies between the bridge, the brain of the vessel and the engine, the heart of the ship. To fuel the life-blood of this four-stroke, eight-cylinder engine, 55,000 litres of diesel are consumed on average each day. Her braking distance won’t entertain anything less than 500 metres. Back at the bridge, the crew responsible for navigation astutely relies on paper charts more so than their computerised-counterparts.
I followed the pair of compasses down the chart on our line of travel and counted how many hours over the nautical miles required until we reached the southern hemisphere. On the equator, we watched the GPS eagerly count down from N 0.00.0001 to S 0.00.0001 – a big moment. Happy New Year! – we said or something to that effect. What with the tropical rain now spinning anti-clockwise down the ship’s drain-holes, never-ending flying fish accompanying us and decimating Jase at draughts in the same day, life’s never dull at sea.
In order to mark our equatorial passing, the Captain deemed a celebration was highly befitting. And a refreshing break due for the crew I’m sure. A passenger on board crossing the equator for the first time is called a “Pollywog”—a tadpole not yet a frog, who is about to become a “Shellback”, or veteran sailor. According to Roman mythology, Neptune, the God of the Sea watched over ships and sailors and His Spirit ruled “The Deep”. King Neptune was invited aboard by the Captain to perform a nautical ceremony on a Pollywog crossing the Line for the first time.
We gathered together on deck – bar a skeleton crew keeping us on course, pushing us ever south – all splendidly clean in our best clobber to dine al fresco. In a hushed awe, we glanced up and saw Neptune, Lord of the Seven Seas. Grinning through a mop’s bundle of thick strings for a beard, Neptune looked resplendent in a bed sheet tied at the waist by means of rope with his Converse pumps peeping out below. The crowning feature was Neptune’s fork; made of aluminium foil, it flashed in the setting sun inducing a certain je ne sais quoi. Superb effort.
Both the Captain and Neptune began the ceremonial baptism and issued each passenger with their certificate commemorating the crossing of the Great Parallel of Latitude 0 degrees at the Longitude 026 degrees 16,8’ West. Upon my baptism, I bowed before the marine lord and he poured a ladle of holy water over my head. Reborn, my new name was ‘Shaula’ and Jason in his sacred ritual became ‘Merak’. Fitting names for a mermaid and merman, sworn to our new aqueous allegiance. One of the crew didn’t quite receive the same treatment and in bending before Neptune, got soaked to the skin by a bucket of gushing water from an above deck. His expression was priceless – it was peeved personified.
The shindig festivities commenced straight away, everyone was famished. It took three days to construct the barbeque from scratch using an old oil drum, having watched the guys take pleasure out of creating, welding and fixing it together in the baking sun for hours. The sky favoured a perfect sunset and we feasted like kings on the rich flavours of succulent meats, salads, rice and ice cream. Rocco, the cook and his team had outdone themselves. The moon hung low over the sea, ripening toward full. The crowd-pulling music was blaring full blast and before we knew it, we were dancing, laughing and having fantastic fun with the crew.
It was the first chance we got to engage them in some meaningful conversation, be sociable with everyone and find out what it was really like to be a seaman, away longterm from family and home life. Unimaginably difficult but an accepted sacrifice, at least perhaps on a financial level to those back home. I understood better why there was such strong camaraderie bordering on brotherhood amongst the crew; working day in, day out, with the same men for months on end. It seemed to me these seamen were blessed with two sets of families.
Out of the blue, the chief mate took the initiative – namely Jason and me on a tour of the bow. No doubt he sensed that we were becoming fathoms deep in boredom. There’s nothing quite like being in the right place, at the right time and I hope – the shape of things to come. We treaded softly through ‘Authorized only’ passages, ordinarily prohibited to non-crew, however, were granted a one-off leniency as a gesture of goodwill. Had I have gone down to the lower decks by myself, it would’ve been on the goose-bump side of eerie as the ship creaks, hollers and moans to itself non-stop.
Upon reaching the bow, I was astonished at seeing the size of the anchor; a seven tonner and that was just the spare one. On the front of the boat, there were two balconies that afforded tremendous views of the bow, slicing through the ocean. It was almost dusk and the flying fish were effortlessly gliding over the surface. It was beautiful. As fortuitous as the day materialised, it panned out with spending the evening with Michael, one of the younger Filipino guys in the crew’s quarters. After a tremulous intro, we soon became emboldened and as a duo brought the house down on Karaoke – much to the amusement of our audience, the older crew. Well, it killed a few hours if nothing else.
Before reaching Santos off Brazil, I rose at 5am to watch the cook’s dough do the same. I was curious to see the bread produced on a mass scale having made crusty loaves at home. There is always a certain quiet at sunrise, which makes it peaceful. Plunging my chops into warm bread was my reward for rising at stupid o’clock, which I extended to Jason and bestowed upon him the freshest breakfast in bed this side of the Atlantic, if not starboard side of the ship. High above on top deck, I cast my eyes down and did a double take when I mistook a small pod of dolphin for tuna. Doing a swift upward 180, I caught a booby swooping down for his breakfast and smiled; sighting a member of the gannet family meant land was once again on the immediate horizon.
Brazilian landscape off the coast is tropical and radiantly lush. What I didn’t expect though was Paranagua’s shipping port, more so than Santos’ counterpart, which juxtaposed its shanty towns of crude dwellings high up in the hills behind a shorefront of uninterrupted contemporary high rises. The pending arrival to our penultimate port of call off Argentina boiled quite a different kettle of fish. The sea turned silty to a milky coffee colour as we entered the densely jungle-lined estuary towards Zarate. It was remarkably different cruising so close to land on either side of a narrow river. We romanticised about the lives of those inhabiting the hundreds of homely wooden cabins we past, some boasting perfectly manicured lawns. Having been at sea for twenty-four days, both of us were chomping at the bit for some land bound activity.