The Russiappines – 1421 nautical miles to New Zealand
I have entered New Zealand from both ends – up in the North Island at Auckland airport and down south in pre-earthquake Christchurch. Both flights took about three hours from Melbourne and would have been completely unmemorable except that on Air New Zealand they give you a snack. This time, I cross the ditch at ditch level: on a cargo ship.
You are in danger, when you catch a cargo ship, of making the journey to your destination more exciting than your destination. With no baggage restrictions, Tom and I pack to the gunwales. One suitcase, three tramping packs, two small backpacks, one striped two-dollar shop bag and one giant styrofoam dolphin head. With all of this we step on to the shaky gangway and enter another world. It is as though the Philippines and Russia have amalgamated to create a floating metal nation called the M.V. Natalie Schulte. A film of grease coats the outside of this country, containers fly overhead suspended from cranes, and the national dress is coveralls and hard hats. There is only one rule on the ship and it is obeyed by all: don’t get in a collision.
Tom and I spend our first night docked in Port Melbourne exploring the vessel. The asylum-clean internal stairwell links six levels – from ‘the bridge’ (control room) to the ‘poop deck’ (lower floor), the sea-water plunge pool that laps with the swells, the bar. In the hungover dawn, we move up to the bridge and watch Melbourne blow away from us. The water widens. The land moves but it is us – this new country where we will be tourists for eight days.
‘Big blue watery road’ – 1066 nautical miles to New Zealand
The last time I was on water for this long was on a homemade yacht off Central Queensland with my high-school boyfriend. Trying to escape his bickering family and the wash of piss from their incontinent dog dripping from the deck into the cabins, Craig and I hung over the bow in the moonlight drinking whatever we’d got our hands on and eating smoked oysters from a tin.
‘Let’s jump in,’ he said as we looked down into the swirling navy blue. ‘We could sink down to the bottom and take in a lungful, be together forever.’ I’d fallen violently out of love with him the day before while he was windsurfing bow-legged in his boxer shorts. I considered jumping just to get away from him.
Fifteen years later I am ploughing through the middle of the Tasman Sea in an effort to get around without using planes. The effort is worthwhile. Tom and I wake in room 415, under the porthole, to an alarm set at 0730 hrs to make the breakfast shift. In the rumbling hallway we brace ourselves. Heave open the greasy handle of the fourth deck door to be thwacked in the face by a salty wind. Down the external metal stairs we get alternating views of the expanse of water beyond the stern and the cargo stacked to the bow. The messman sees us through the porthole and leaps into the kitchen, where Filipino hip hop competes with crashing pans. Scrambled eggs and a strange sausage, let’s call it a hot dog, are on the table in the sweltering meals room before we sit down. The food is weird and it’s not the cook’s fault – the last stock-up was at Long Beach, USA, and everyone plays ‘find the condiment without corn syrup in it’. Throughout the breakfast, lunch and dinner hours, an array of seamen arrive, eat vast quantities of food, bellow with laughter and tell us about their homes. We eat with the officers and engineers – those that work on the bridge and down in the guts of the five-floored engine room – Russian, Ukrainian, Filipino, Estonian and Belarusian men. The rest of the crew eat in a separate room, hoeing into the Filipino cuisine we wish we had instead of meat and potatoes.
During the day, Tom watches the sailors haul rope on the forecastle while I go up to the bridge to gaze out over the cargo and drink tea with the officers. The ship pitches bow to stern, then rocks from starboard to port and the constant bracing gives the effect of someone having beaten the shit out of you from behind. I pull an arm muscle trying to open the suction sealed, two-inch doors. Nothing gets through the walls but there is always the roar of the air-con, the gruff rumble of the engine. At the porthole of our room, Tom hauls the binoculars off his head and announces, ‘Well, it’s watery as fuck!’ The surface of the ocean is silver and the water rushes out the back of the ship in a foamy stream that stretches to the hairline horizon. We are told that we can’t go around the top of the North Island because of a dock strike in Auckland, and will have to cut through Cook Strait, instead. This will cause delays and turn our eight-day voyage into an 11-day one at no added cost. We pant happily into the briny wind and don’t see land for days.
‘The female’ – 711 nautical miles to New Zealand
I projectile vomit in the clean stairwell. The news and the stench travels from poop to bridge and within minutes everyone in the 21-man crew knows about it. For the next week, whenever I am missing from Tom’s side, crew members ask him, ‘Where’s Laura? Is she … [cheeks bulge as though filled with vomit]?’ I imagine they call me ‘the spewer’. In reality, on an all-male ship with crew on contracts from three to seven months at sea, I’m probably known as ‘the female’ or something less polite. We make friends with the second engineer – a Ukrainian sailor with a bowl cut and a goofy, heart-melting smile – and sit with him in the sun of the starboard side, him and Tom smoking cigarettes and me trying to spot whales in the blue.
‘We like you Tomas,’ he tells Tom, ‘but only because you have Laurrra. If you didn’t have Laurrrra … [mimics throwing Tom overboard].’ We all laugh: the engineer with his beautiful smile, Tom with surprise, and I rather nervously.
We brought wads of US dosh onboard but there’s nothing to buy on the ship but beer and popcorn. Once the extortionate fare of $1500 each person each way is paid, our cabin, meals and entertainment – the landlubber’s obsession with the sea – is assured. In lieu of currency, Tom exchanges music like cigarettes. Hip hop with the messman; techno with the third officer. I exchange photos that I’ve taken of the second engineer with ones he’s taken of us. We try to show Monty Python and the Holy Grail but the communal TV is a sepia mess and the sailors fiddle with the controls, making it worse. One turns to me eagerly. ‘Why is an Australian woman like a kangaroo?’ he asks. ‘Because both have big bodies and small brains!’ I rise and fix the television. The sailors go to bed.
A thin fog – 15 nautical miles to New Zealand
There is something wrong with the ocean. It becomes rough. Up on the bridge, the sailors have binocular eyes pointed at a low bank of grey cloud. It’s New Zealand, growing like a storm. If I look north I can pretend we’re still far at sea. But land has a siren call. It pulls your focus and your eyes fling themselves into the water and swim towards it, drowning. After the slate grey of the Tasman Sea, the shallow waters surrounding New Zealand are aquamarine. I begin to see colour in the cloud. Pale cliffs or cities in a haze of spray. I ask the chief officer the difference between mist and fog. He starts to explain and then suggests we consult the computer dictionary.
Fog: a thick mist.
We scoff. ‘I suppose it will say that mist is a thin fog!’ he says. We type it in.
Mist: a thin fog.
At 12.1 nautical miles I see waves crashing against Aotearoa through my $40 Army Disposals binoculars. They focus like the eyes of a newborn, picking up shiny earrings of light on the water. As the sun falls, a lighthouse winks at us then opens its light-beam eye and flashes over the flooded river valleys of the Marlborough Sounds. A New Zealand accent crackles over the radio: ‘smrrlblurpblurp Auckland. Auckland.’
Landfall – 0.0 nautical miles to New Zealand
By morning the officers and captain have changed into their white shirts with stripes and cradle walkie-talkies like violins. There is something inhuman in their posture: their shoulders hunched, eyes fixed. I stare where they stare and have no idea what they’re looking at. The fins of sail boats circling the marina? The impossible rock-lined entry to the port? The spiralling gulls? They must have done this hundreds of times, but the sailors treat every docking with the gravity of surgeons.
As they rush out to starboard to glare at the water, I get the urge to grab the handle and push it from dead slow, to slow, to fast. We’re going to crash into the Chiquita Rostock, anyway. But the tug guides us past it and other ships with porn star names: Asian Adonis, Lodestar Princess. The radio screeches, the stench of fuel fills the sky and wharfies perch with bright chests on the pier. We are tugged into a park that a mum in a Corolla hatch would struggle with. The whole ship rumbles in an effort to stay still. We make landfall.
Laura Jean McKay is a writer based in Melbourne. Her work can be found in literary journals and at laurajeanmckay.com. She writes about her year without flight, including more from the cargo ship, at flightlessness.wordpress.com.