A sailor’s rites of passage: The Tribune India

Lal Singh

Reaching the sea and seeing the world is an old adage. But what is true is that service in Indian Merchant Navy ships offers a chance to see the wonderful world around us.

On a ship where I was chief engineer, my wife joined me on a voyage leaving our children behind with my parents in Amritsar. We did a much sought after Great Lakes trip that covers North American ports in the US and Canada near lakes Ontario, Erie, Michigan and freshwater Lake Superior. By the time the ship reaches this last lake we are almost 600 feet above sea level. It is an engineering marvel when a ship is lifted in stages through different levels of water. ‘locks’, where water levels are maintained by gravity from the next higher level to raise the ship and by pumps while lowering the ship to return to sea level.

There is plenty of reading material on board. Even these weren’t very helpful in dampening my wife’s desire to be home with the kids. In one of the old National Geographic magazines on the ship, she had read an article in which geologists postulated that because of the continuous, albeit imperceptible, drift from the African continent towards Eurasia, the passage to Gibraltar between these two continents was shrinking. And that would one day result in our current Mediterranean Sea becoming landlocked and a dry valley once the Gibraltar Passage is completely closed, as has happened many times over the past billion years.

After a long passage from the Port of Montreal across the Atlantic Ocean, braving one storm after another, we were in sight of Gibraltar, the gateway to the Eastern Mediterranean and further afield the Suez Canal. Entering through Gibraltar, coming back from the west, is always a relief as it feels almost ashore. You see land from both sides, Europe to the north and Africa to the south, as your ship transits the Mediterranean Sea.

As our ship approached the passage to Gibraltar, my wife came to the deck of the boat and asked me to increase the speed of the ship. A request for a speed increase is not unusual, but I was exasperated until she added with mock concern, “Let’s get through faster before the Gibraltar gate closes in our face and delays us several days in case we had to go through the Cape of Good Hope, a much longer and stormier passage to India. It was quite a compliment to the ship’s chief engineer on the performance and speed of his ship, especially coming from his better half, not the usual source of praise in the normal course of things.