The journey across the Atlantic was a significantly different experience from our other ocean crossing, largely because the Independent Venture was half the size and 10 years older than the G Washington which had taken us across the Pacific. The officers on the G Washington had tried to tell us we were lucky to be on a brand new Korean built vessel and that these conditions are not typical for long distance cargo voyages but the warnings had left our minds when we happily accepted the cheapest passage we could find across the Atlantic. The 11 days that followed were a tedious, uncomfortable and for significant periods nauseating experience peppered here and there with the odd moment of enjoyment.
The taxi driver who delivered us to the vessel had never taken passengers before and so was mystified when all we had with us were our passports and a ticket on my phone. Still, he shrugged his shoulders and said “I guess I’ll just take you to the boat”. On the drive there he entertained us with second hand stories from sailors about 100 foot waves and vessels large enough to carry hundreds of thousands of containers. To his credit he also said he was sure they were exaggerating. He also told us that if we got into any trouble at sea we should let him know because he could call the Marines out to help us. I’ve heard that the military of the worlds last remaining super power is a bit short of things to do but I never thought that would extend to personal favours for ex members.
My first impression of the Independent Venture was that it was small. The G Washington had capacity for 14,400 containers, the Independent Venture only 2,400. There was no one to meet us at the foot of the gangway but the huge letters on the hull confirmed this was our ship so we clambered up the rickety steps. I announced to the seaman at the top “We are the passengers” and he waved us past. “Do you need to see our tickets or passports?” I asked but he shook his head and gestured again for us to keep walking. Have you ever been invited to someone’s house and when you get there the front door is open and they’re nowhere to be seen so you just sort of wander around from one doorway to the next swinging your head from side to side in exaggerated fashion to show you are clearly looking for them, not just breaking in? That’s what this felt like but it was a 200m cargo ship and rather than inquisitive pets being the only thing that registers your arrival it was steely faced dock workers. Eventually a smiling fellow who I later learned was the first mate came and shook our hands and then instructed one of the ratings to take us to the Owners cabin.
The Owners cabin was not glamorous. It was large, second only to the Captain and Chief Engineer’s cabins in terms of floorspace, but everything felt a bit used. The whole cabin was bizarrely pressurised, opening the door inwards was a real challenge and once it was closed ours ears would pop. We tried to closing the vents but air seemed to come out of other places like the metal door frames and windows. There was a double bed, two settees, a table and a large desk. It had three windows, two facing out of the rear of the vessel and one on the starboard side. They were quite small though and didn’t let in much light, plus they were as far as possible from the bed (where I spent most of the journey) so the cabin felt a bit dingy at times if I’m honest (my overall negative impression of our cabin may influenced by the fact that I spent around two days of the voyage confined to it whilst being violently seasick, looking at pictures of it now it doesn’t actually seem that bad).
The remedy to our gloomy pressurised cabin was the bridge which was a lovely spot. Much like our previous crossing the highlights of the journey were the conversations we had with the crew up there whilst looking out at the Atlantic. This time around we had more nationalities to chose from with Polish, Ukrainian and Filipino officers present alongside a couple of Romanians. The first mate who had welcomed us on board was from an inland city in Poland which is rare, all the other sailors I’ve met grew up in port cities. He was a friendly man until I made the mistake of asking him whether the oceans are becoming less predictable with the shifts happening in the global climate. Climate change, he informed me, wasn’t happening and that we are just going through a natural cycle which will return to normal again at some point. Hearing these opinions always saddens me, because it reminds me that we haven’t succeeded in reaching even basic levels of consensus on some of the issues of climate change. It’s also a contradiction – the climate is changing as part of a natural cycle therefore climate change isn’t happening? I tried to clarify if he was questioning humanities impact on the climate or the whole idea and then gave up. I was on his bridge and I didn’t want to make anything awkward.
The final two days of the voyage were the most enjoyable. First we hit a snow storm just before entering the English Channel which shrunk the expansive world of the Atlantic Ocean down to about 200m. There were times where even the end of the vessel was invisible as the wind blew flurries of snow around us. The Third Mate spent his whole watch staring at the radar screen, the channel is incredibly busy and if another ship crossed our path we’d have no visible warning. In both our voyages the extreme weather has never coincided with high waves, so torrential rain and snow storms were quite tranquil experiences, sat on the bridge with a mug of hot chocolate, cosy and warm (the Independent Venture had a sofa and coffee table on its bridge, one of the few advantages it held over the G Washington). It was far more enjoyable than the high waves, jerky movements and glorious sunshine that we’d previously experienced.
The next day we awoke to the sight of the white cliffs of Dover. We caught a small amount of UK phone signal and crossed the Greenwich meridian. We had done the full circle. We’d lost half a day, gained a whole one and then lost another 12 hours to bring us back to GMT. There is a nice symmetry to the fact that we crossed this and the dateline by sea, watching the clocks adjust themselves by and hour every day or two. A real physical reminder of the significance of travelling around the world.
For all the pictures that we took aboard the Independent Venture please see here: