On an autumn Atlantic crossing in 1988, in a British cargo ship, we ran into a declining hurricane in mid-ocean. For twenty-four hours, the ship was hove-to, going nowhere, while the sea boiled around us like milk and the wave trains thundered. In the officers’ mess, the floor rolled through 75 degrees of arc, and tropical fish spilled onto the carpet from their tank beside the bar.
“Bit of a windy day we’ve got today,” the captain said from behind his pre-luncheon glass of dry sherry, and the two junior deck officers, stumbling crazily up the sudden hill toward the framed portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip, tried as best they could to nod vigorously and smile, as junior officers must when spoken to by their captain. The radio officer landed, from a considerable height, in my lap. “Oh, pardon! Whoops! Do please excuse me!” he said.
Had the Atlantic Conveyor been registered in excitable Panama, the scene might have been different, but we were flying the Red Ensign, and the more the ocean tossed us around like bugs in a bucket, the harder we all worked to maintain the old-fashioned prim civilities of our little floating England. Every student of the British class system, its minuscule distinctions of rank and precedence, its strangulated politenesses, its style of poker-faced reticence, should get a berth aboard a Liverpool-registered merchant ship in a severe storm . . .
The essence of being afloat is feeling the eggshell containment of an orderly domestic life suspended over the deep. The continuous slight motion of the boat, swinging to its anchor on the changing tide, is a reminder of how fragile is our tenure here—aloft with a novel, coffee cup close at hand, while the sea yawns underfoot and the bear prowls through its dripping wilderness on shore.
Jonathan Raban, “At Sea”