Down to the sea in ships

Paul French applauds a recent raft of books that look at life at sea, all of which could make good Christmas presents.

In his new travelogue of crossing the seas in container ships award-winning author Horatio Clare declares at the start, “Our lives depend on shipping but it is a world which is largely hidden from us. In every lonely corner of every sea, through every night, every day, and every imaginable weather, tiny crews of seafarers work the giant ships which keep landed life afloat.”

Clare’s book, Down To The Sea In Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men, is a rare beast – a book that looks both at the nuts and bolts of commercial shipping as well as being a highly readable literary feast of anecdotes about the sea, ships, sailors and international trade.

Big rusty containerships and lumbering giant VLCCs don’t normally inspire lyricism in the way the tall ships and Indian clippers of yesteryear did, but Clare was writer-in-residence for the Danish container shipping giant Maersk. Onboard to record life he sails from Felixstowe to Los Angeles via the Suez Canal and China and then takes a second journey from Antwerp to Montreal in “a ragged old battler”. He examines exactly how containerships from China supply the rest of the world with goods and how oil tankers supply China with the fuel to produce them. But within this narrative he sprinkles the greats of waterborne literature – Joseph Conrad, Jerome K. Jerome – as well as his own lyrical meanderings.

What emerges is part travel writing, part history, part economic examination of global trade. But what’s important is that, for those in the shipping business, he reminds us that the sea is a magnificent thing we should never stop fearing or ever take for granted while, for those “landlubbers” who never see a ship larger than a local ferry or a millionaire’s yacht in a harbour, the seas remain the vital arteries of trade.

Rose George’s Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Brings You 90% of Everything is another personal voyage aboard ship. However, George looks at other ships that are rarely seen – for instance, pirates and illegal factory ships. George also looks at the shore-bound communities that rely on shipping. Not just the stevedores, dockers and shipbuilders, but shipping’s informal workforce, such as the beachcombers who track the 10,000 containers that are lost every year, the robots who are gradually replacing human crews, and the environmentalists campaigning against the tide of marine pollution.

And finally, a voyage with another writer aboard the largest of the leviathans crossing the oceans – Geoff Dyer’s Another Great Day at Sea where the man who normally writes about D.H. Lawrence or modern art joins the crew of the aircraft carrier the USS George Bush, on active service in the Arabian Gulf. Dyer sees the carrier as a microcosm of society, a decent sized town on the oceans with 5,000 people living and working on a giant hunk of floating steel.

Literature has always embraced the power of the sea – from Homer to Melville’s Moby Dick, Conrad’s ocean going adventures, Victor Hugo, Hans Christian Andersen, and so many others. These three books show that the sea, the ships that sail upon it and the crews that work aboard those vessels still have the power of great drama and inspire awe among those who spend most of their lives ashore.

This article first appeared in the just published latest issue of Maritime CEO magazine. Readers can access the full magazine for free by clicking here.




  1. For a look at shipping of a slightly earlier and very, very different voyage, I would recommend a read of ‘Westbound, Warbound’ by Alexander Fullerton. It is a story of one ship, and her voyage during the early months of World War Two.

    The writing tells a tale of bravery under the heading, ‘its all part of the job’, of a small ship battered beyond belief by a hurricane; of a Merchant Navy crew who risk their lives and freedom to save fellow seafarers, and of the heroics hidden by a single title ‘Wartime Merchant Mariners’!

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