On the RMS – Bizarre games

And so to the afternoons.  There were a few options here.  I could join in with a game of deck quoits on the sun deck.  I got quite good at that once you had worked out the pitch of the ship and the wind effect.  I did not sign up to the Deck Cricket game on one trip, but Edsel, not wanting to shame his West Indian roots decided he would give it a go.  He was more naturally a tennis player and his stance was not particularly good for cricket – even in a steady sea.  The pursers put up nets all round the sun deck and piled the tables and chairs high against one wall and strapped them rigid.  Apart from the constrained pitch, the rules were pretty similar.  If someone hit the netting it was a four, if they hit a ball over the netting into the sea you got six, but because balls were a rare commodity on ship you were also declared out.  Otherwise other runs were scored running between two wickets.

Bowling was strictly underarm.  This infuriated one of the players; he was also west Indian, from St Vincent, long and lithe.  Even underarm he would demolish the wicket time after time. In the end they had to restrict his movements to no run up or else he would have bowled the other team out for zero.  Many of the crew pitched in on the team and even the captain had a go and got a lot of ribbing from the people he commanded when he was caught out.  I perched myself up on the top deck and got a grandstand view.

On the RMS – Settling into life on board

And that was pretty much your world for three days.  It  sounds a bit claustrophobic but in fact I was able to settle in to the lifestyle relatively quickly.  You learnt to slow down and not try to do everything at once.  It was best when the sun was out and the wind not so strong as you could settle up on the sun deck for several hours, grabbing the odd club soda from the upstairs bar.  I sat in the sun lounge occasionally, mainly for lunches, but there was a tendency amongst the saints that they would settle themselves up there early in the day and pretty much stay till dinner time.  They would use the time to chat; when I got to know some of them I might stop by for a few minutes and catch up, but they are such a tight knit community that there were stories and inferences that they would discuss that had no meaning to me.  The older ones would reminisce at length, and you could see the younger family members would sit alongside and pitch in from time to time.  They were basically in training to become long tale tellers themselves when the older generation passed on.  There was a lot of card games and dominoes up here; it was like a working men’s club.  If all the activity got too much I would head on down to the main lounge.  This was often quieter.  But I saw people who also wanted to escape the sun lounge chit chat and sometimes would spend an hour or two playing board games from the extensive collection in one of the built in cupboards.  I remember a four hour game of Monopoly that whiled away a long afternoon.

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Chatting on the sun deck

At lunch time I would wonder whether I should head down to the formal dining room and take another three courses.  More often than not I would go up to the Sun Lounge and just partake in the buffet salad.  In theory this was more healthy but the number of options available meant that you still came out with a stacked plate.  I’d either take it in the lounge or if the weather was nice enough, go through the little assault course of heading out through one of the heavy doors and passed the swimming pool to the sun deck, all while protecting a plate of salad from being blown away and not spilling your fruit juice… or losing your hat.

On the RMS – Exploring the ship (2)

The A Deck below was predominantly for passenger accommodation – two long corridors running almost the whole length of the non-cargo part of the ship, with the lounge at the far end.  On one side of the lounge a small well stocked bar, nearby some tables where coffee and tea were usually on tap all day round.  And at the other end an area which could be curtained off to show movies.  I was pleased there was no TV on board and my cabins had no entertainment save the archaic radio dials on the wall.  It meant you did get around the ship more and had the chance to catch up with people.  On the first day you tended to make polite introductions and getting to know what you did and why you were travelling.  Second day it was  gossip about the ship’s progress and what to do.  Third day you were usually laughing and joking like you had known each other since school days.

The A Deck also contained a little launderette – which I suppose on the longer legs over to Africa could have been useful – and a hospital.  I chatted to several of the doctors on my trips and most of the time they had little to do and joined in with entertainment duties.  But other times they may never be seen.  St Helena has only modest medical facilities on the island and there are occasions where the RMS has to medevac people to Cape Town or UK for treatment, and the hospital on board ship has to keep any patient stable enough for up to five days.

Another deck down are the plusher cabins – usually taken up with tourists on their holiday of a lifetime or some of the elite of St Helena.  They take up only one side, the front is a series of rooms which serve as the reception and information stand, a small shop for souvenirs, and the purser and hotel offices.  I had not really thought much of the services given to the passengers and had always thought the purser’s staff would do everything.  But there were specific teams looking after the passengers’ activities including the kids club (which had a riotous play den on the promenade deck) and various games, while the two officers supervising the hotel staff ensured the cleaning and supplies of soap and towels was efficient and almost unseen.

The other side of B deck was for crew only and you got tempting glimpses into the life below decks when the connecting doors might suddenly open up.

A modern innovation at that time was the internet services.  I tried it out a couple of times but it was like going back to the early 1990s for email.  There was a ship to shore telephone which some people used to ring ahead, and then there was an old white desktop and a set of instructions to compose an email and send it up to the bridge for relaying onwards.  Trouble was you had to use the one account for the whole ship.  I did it just to impress my mother and a couple of friends – text only of course.  You had to make sure that the other end understood that the email was open to be read by anyone and that if you wanted to contact me directly, you needed to put my full name.  The ship’s bureau would print off the incoming email and the hotel staff would leave it on your desk in your cabin… if they could recognise who you were.

Then down one more set of stairs to C Deck.  Another set of cabins not far above the foam, the large dining room and kitchens.

On the RMS – Exploring the Ship (1)

I headed down to breakfast; after last night’s banquet I wanted to have a bowl of cereal and a coffee.  But then I saw the buffet of fresh fruits, and the smells of egg and bacon were overpowering, and the toast and marmalade… well it was just silly not to have at least a round.  So I ate heartily once more and headed back up.  I decided to spend some time that morning doing some work.  I had some more background reading to do about the job I was to do in St Helena.  But the hours passed slowly and I got through what I wanted to do easily.  I decided to explore the ship properly.  As I went up to the sun lounge, a pot of beef tea was being laid out on the small buffet.  I’ve never been a Bovril drinker but I thought, why not.  So I took up a cup, let it cool for a minute and took a taste.  It was a weak beefy taste, but it was another one of those ship’s drinks that settled the stomach.  As opposed to a mid morning coffee, beef tea was a legacy of British Sailors that the RMS could not quite struggle past.

I went out on the sun deck.  A number of tables and deck chairs strewn around a small deep square pool, it was a good place to soak up the sun, but when the weather was bad definitely an area to avoid.  The wind would whistle right across no matter what direction .  If you looked over the back you could see another small deck for the engine room staff.  Often you could lean over and have a quick hello with them as they took their breaks.  Either side of the sun deck were two short promenade areas.  If I was seeking quiet for reading outside I would stand or sit around here – the perspective being slightly different of course – you saw the water going past parallel to you instead of staring at the wake of where you had been.

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The sun deck

Tucked away up here at the top of the stairs was a large cabin.  It was reserved for the Governor of St Helena when he was on board, or else sold out at a high price to someone wanting a bit of luxury.  Theoretically the RMS is the Governor’s Ship and he could direct it wherever he likes.  In practice of course, there is a fixed schedule.  When I was travelling up and down the ocean it was usually heading straight from Cape Town to St Helena over 5 nights, and then doing a shuttle to Ascension and back, and then back to Cape Town.  They would also call at Walvis Bay in Namibia, which at one time had been a tiny enclave of South Africa.  There had been some experimentation with stopping off in Lüderitz, a small town in the south west of Namibia.  The thought was that revenue could be increased by selling  a more cruise like experience.  Unfortunately there was little to do in Lüderitz except wander around in the intense heat looking at old Dutch style architecture and it was slowing up an already snail’s pace service to the islands.  Twice a year the RMS would head up to the UK, taking over two weeks to do the round trip.  It would stop off at Tenerife and at Vigo in north west Spain where the locals had got a taste for fish from the South Atlantic.  For many years the RMS would turn up at Portland just south of Weymouth in southern England.  Here some items which could not be shipped to other locations would be put on board.  Right hand drive cars for example would be stacked on board.  But the UK run was stopped in 2010 and the service simplified.  Twice a year, the ship would head over to Tristan Da Cunha, one of the world’s most isolated communities.  The UK Territory of St Helena covers both Ascension Island and Tristan, and The Governor would try and get down there at least once a year to carry out various duties.  Ascension was always an easy option for the Governor – he could pass through on his way to the UK for his duties or for leave, but a trip to Tristan had to be organised carefully.  Even with the time taken to get across to the island, there was no guarantee things would run smooth – the tiny harbour at Edinburgh-By-The-Sea, Tristan’s “capital city” of 200 souls, might not give enough shelter to let the RMS drop anchor.

On the RMS – First night at sea

On my first trip, the evening came towards an end; it had been a quiet night and my thoughts turned to how I would spend my first ever night at sea.  I worked my way back to my cabin down the corridor from the main lounge.  Unlocked the door, fumbled for the light, fumbled for the bathroom door, abluted and headed for the bed to undress.  An evening of good food and plenty of booze had made me forget I was nursing a horrible injury but as soon as I tried to undress a searing pain crossed my lower ribs.  I struggled to remove my shirt, and it was even worse when I tried to bend to take off my shoes.  After a couple of low groans and contorted face expressions,  I managed to push back the crisp white sheets, fall as gingerly as possible into my cot and draw the sheets back across me.

Then I had to get out again as I realised I had forgotten to turn the bathroom light off.

Lying in the dark I tried not to think of the pain in my chest.  The motion of the ship rocked me side to side in my bunk and the low throbbing of the engines three floors below me was ever present.  I found that I nodded off very quickly and another experience was under my belt.  I slept so well and it was almost as if the RMS itself was rocking me and singing me a lullaby.  For the first time of many, I started to think of the ship as a person.

Next morning the thin curtains across the port hole let in light as soon as the sun made its first rays come up over the Atlantic.  I rose soon afterwards, well rested but my torso very stiff from the bruising.

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Not glass on this occasion but still a lot calmer than you might expect

I got myself together and went for a quick breath of air on deck.  A few people were having a smoke up there but otherwise it was all quiet and as for the view, it was blank.  I was surprised to see that after the rolling of the night we were sailing across a sheet of glass.  Here in the middle of the Atlantic, the last thing I expected to see was a calm sea, but here it was – as level as a billiard table, as reflective as a new mirror.

On the RMS -What it feels like to migrate

My first evening aboard was very quiet, a few drinks around the lounge chatting to guests.  Nice to get to know who was going home, who was going to be working on the island, who was just starting out on their holiday of a lifetime.  At the bar before dinner I had come across a large Scotsman who was downing a pint of draught lager and getting ready to order a second.  He looked rather nervous and at first I thought it was the ship’s motion that was concerning him.  He told me he was planning to start on St Helena as the resident dentist.  He’d left his wife and small child behind in the UK and was going to get set up and if everything went OK they would follow him over.  I could see he was not certain about his mission, and this was the first few hours of “the point of no return”.  Here we were, at the mercy of the RMS, heading slowly but remorselessly to one of the most remote inhabited places on the earth’s surface.  I could empathise with him a little.  I took the plunge to move to the BVI in the October of 2001.  There was so much to do to arrange the move, put stuff in storage, work out what I was to do with my house, my finances, as well as contractual arrangements at the other end and finding out what life was going to be like there.  Emotions ran high from time to time, from excitement to sheer terror, to chastisement at how stupid I was being for giving up home comforts and familiarity.  I remember being taken to Heathrow Airport by my good friend, Vicky, and after a tearful farewell and assuring her that if it was not for all her support and assistance I would not have been able to uproot like this, I went through to the departure lounge and felt a numbness.  I was there – my life’s belongings either stored away in a shed in Maidstone ready for transhipment, or being processed into the hold of an American Airlines flight to New York.  I’d travelled through here so often but had never felt so isolated.

As I sat on the aircraft and watched the UK grow farther away below me, I had a sense of resignation.  It was not a particularly sad moment, although there were tears in my eyes.  It was that now I was fated.  I had no choice at this point.  I just had to sit here and go through with what I had planned.  And this was the sense I saw in this dentist’s eyes.  He looked nervous, but in fact had just come to terms with his fate.

I suppose the prospect of St Helena had different affects on everyone on board ship.  For the Saints, this was a homecoming; they looked forward to being with friends whom they may not have seen for a couple of years.  For the holiday makers there was the sense of mystery.  For some, like this dentist, it was more about the fears of whether the island, its people and infrastructure would be enough to sustain them.  And there were those of us who were planning to work on the island for a short term.  For a first visit, I fell more into the holidaymaker sense of excitement.  When I returned it was more like a returning Saint.  I’d already learnt to love many of its people and wondered at its scenery and could not wait to taste it all again.  Second time around I had Edsel with me and could not contain myself at preparing him for the richness of experiences about to hit him.  I had to hold back sometimes as I wanted him to explore and get involved himself, and particularly to experience that anticipation of doing everything for the first time.

On the RMS – The trials of walking and sickness on board

One of the aspects of this trip that had caused me some trepidation was the feeling of seasickness.  I’ve been on many boats and not had much trouble, but there was one very nasty experience in St Vincent when I was working on the coastal project there.  I had tried to prepare better for this, making sure before I boarded I had something sensible in my stomach.  And I also had found a tablet called Stugeron that others had recommended.  I’d taken a couple in good time before I got aboard but on the first trip I did feel a little queasy as we waited in harbour for the ship to be ready to depart.  I think it was because the stabilisers for the ship were not activated and the RMS was buffeted in lots of different directions at the same time.  It made it very difficult for my inner ear to decide which way was horizontal.  The way I had dealt with it in harbour was to grab a cup of tea in the sun lounge and head out on deck  Once in the fresh air, I was able to focus on the horizon and stabilize myself.

Now we were under way, I felt no ill effects at all, the stabilizers stopped the swaying in two  directions so all you had to deal with was the up and down of the waves we were crossing ahead of us.  I never had another queasy moment on any trip I had with the RMS.  However, on my second trip down the weather turned nasty not far out from Ascension Island and while I carried on as normal, I found I was amongst only a handful of the 70 or so passengers that were following the routine.  So many were holed up in their cabins, rolling around on their beds trying not to throw up, and many not succeeding.  I was in the bar in the evening and I commented on how quiet it was to one of the stewardesses.  She said yes, she had been helping the doctor go round the cabins and injecting strong anti sickness shots into people to keep them calm (and hopefully let them get to sleep).

So while the sea sickness was solved, the movement of the ship still caused physical challenges.  When you have never been on a ship you think of all the comedy films that show items sliding back and forth across floors, but the carpets and the fixtures make sure things stay in place.  I loved the little sticky mats on the tables where you could put a plate or glass and be sure it was still there as you crossed the next wave.

You got used to walking down the corridors, timing the steps to go with the flow of the rocking.  I could even work out how to get water on the right part of my skin when in the shower, although in the confined space it was rare that I would get through a bathe without banging my head on something.  It was a bit of a surprise if you went over a crest of a particularly high wave as you sat on the loo – when it turned more into a bidet than a lavatory.  And you just had to concentrate very hard when shaving.

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The Sun Deck but watch out for those heavy doors!

The areas in which you had to take extreme care were around the outside doors.  These were heavy duty watertight doors; left open in good weather to help ventilation, they were closed shut during any bad weather.  If you decided to chance your luck and head out to the open deck, you had to be ready with all your force to make those doors open and ensure all limbs were well away from the gap as it could swing back with many Newtons of force on the next wave.  I found all these dynamics just a series of new problems that needed to be adapted to and life on the ship settled down easily within a few hours of boarding.

On the RMS – Pavlov’s Dogs

Every day the entertainment staff would leave a few documents on our desk in a glossy folder.  There would be the ship’s news telling us of the order of the day, times of meals and entertainments and when different facilities would be opened and closed; the gym, the laundry, the bar. There would also be information of which table I might be invited onto for dinner.  There were three class of cabins on board.  The luxury or B deck, the standard or A deck where I was resting, and the economy or C deck down amongst the galley and dining room.  Depending on how much you were paying it seemed, you would be invited to sit at one of the officer’s or maybe, the captain’s table.  Otherwise you just came in and found a gap on one of the other tables.  If the ship were busy there would be two sittings.  But whatever, you were not allowed in the room till the call was given over the tannoy.  This is an annoyingly catchy tunelet, somewhere between “Come to the cookhouse door” and Lily Bolero.  Over the days on board you almost hang around the speakers like Pavlov’s Dogs waiting for the call.  I would tend to get changed and head over to the bar for a quick beer.  On the first ever night I looked at the prospect of being all at sea, miles from coast.  As the stewards went round the lounge and closed the curtains, I appreciated that the best way to deal with all that ocean was to shut it out and get comfort for being in a warm, cosy room with lots of easy chairs, bright orange and red decor all round me and the idle chit chat of people in transit.  Don’t worry that there are thousands of metres of water below you, and no chance of survival if something went wrong.

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On board the RMS

When the jingle sounds it is down to the belly of the ship to fill your own belly.  After the austerity of Ascension Island it was a treat to open the blue mock leather menus.  Three weeks of chips and burgers and pizzas, the odd roast dinner and lots and lots of tuna fish cakes, it was a pleasure to see soup and salad starters, a choice of main courses longer than three options, and a range of delicious cakes and desserts, biscuits and cheese.  All served as professionally as in a good restaurant back home.  And washed down with a wine or a beer.  And with conversation thrown in.  It was a little bit of a shock for a development worker like myself, more used to sidling into a cheap restaurant or sit silently in a hotel bar and wolf down your meal as quickly as possible before getting too drunk to find your way back to your hotel room.

Three courses of lovely food later, I would head back up to the main lounge where coffee was served by white gloved stewards, and I went for a digestif from the bar.  On my first night I met the Government of St Helena’s lawyer, and he introduced me to the delights of port and brandy.  I love a good port, having been introduced to it in my university days on a trip to northern Portugal.  Brandy I can take a few and I love it in Christmas Fayre, but never become a connoisseur.  Put together I found a deep smooth drink with a rich sweet flavour, texture and colour.  And what is more, it warmed the innards so wonderfully that even if there is no medical proof that it does you good, it felt like it settled a full stomach.

On the RMS – Navigating round Ascension

St Helena is to the south east but the anchorage next to Georgetown is on the north west side of the Ascension.  So it makes little difference which way you head out.  I’ve been both ways.  If you travel down the west coast you get to see the fuel depot and the American air base before turning the corner round by the airstrip and all the weird and wonderful masts which make up Mars Bay.  But I much preferred going round the east side of the island.  You leave Georgetown behind and pass the golf balls near Comfortless Cove but then have a superb vista of the BBC World Service Transmitters and power station.  The backdrop of the taller mountains in the centre of the island is incredible here, the colours so vivid in the sun, but it only gets better and you come turn southbound.  As I’ve already explored in other places, there are only a few places you come down to the coast on this eastern side of Ascension Island, and although it is good to see North East Bay from the sea side, it was much more revealing to see the low coast beyond the firing range, and then the dramatic cliffs of Spire Bay, White Horse and on to Boatswainbird Island and the Letterbox, all of these unreachable by vehicle under normal circumstances.  The sea bird colonies were a hive of activity, the sun was starting to set behind Green Mountain making that even more dramatic than usual, a fiery cauldron of light and cloud against the dark silhouette.

I stayed on deck as we passed by, but I could see as we turned the north east corner of the island that we were not going to stay close inshore and the island started to retreat into the distance.  As an escort to the departing ship, a pod of pantropical spotted dolphins leaped about in the RMS’ bow wave.

As it went dark I headed on inside and back to the cabin.  It was getting to dinner time and I needed to get changed.

On the RMS – Watching the stevedores

Under the bed was a metal box containing a couple of stout lifejackets.  This reminded me that I was told on being shown to the cabin that the safety drill would take place once everyone was aboard.  There were three short blasts across the ships tannoy and I dragged my jacket out and followed people up to the sun lounge at the top of the ship.

Geoff Shallcross, the fantastic purser, warmly welcomed everyone on board.  He and a couple of crew helped explain all the rules about being on board the ship.  The two major fears were fire and water.  Smoking was banned indoors and outdoors there were strict rules on disposing of butt ends.  All too easily the smouldering remains of a cigarette could end up sucked through the air vents into the bowels of the ship.  We had several minutes of fun putting on the lifejackets.  Once you had the knack they were simple but if you misinterpreted the instructions or just started from the wrong angle you could get yourself tied up in knots.  We were also told about what to do if someone was suspected of going overboard.  One simple trick that makes so much sense to me once told was to fling one of the lifebelts over.  Not so much for the casualty, as the ship moves so fast that it is unlikely your aim could be that good in a swell to reach them, but just as a marker.  By the time the ship has slowed, turned and come back the person could have drifted a long way and is unlikely to be spotted in amongst the grey rolling waves, but at least an accompanying bright orange ring might be spotted through binoculars from the bridge.

Having scared us all to death with the safety drill, we were warmly welcomed on board again and told of the schedule for the rest of the day.  As he did so we could hear the anchor being drawn up and we softly glided away from Ascension Island.

For the other two passages to St Helena, Edsel was alongside me.  One time when we boarded at Ascension Island the captain decided to change the order of service.  We were called early to the wharf and were put on board while the cargo was still being loaded and offloaded.  We travelled over in the new launch (which was covered) and, knowing we had a few hours before heading off, I grabbed myself a cup of tea from the sun lounge and headed out forward to watch the stevedoring.

The RMS is a curious shaped ship.  The rear half is for passengers, the front half contains most of the cargo placed within a giant hold between the bridge and the derrick.  The derrick is on a single swivelling pole but there are two cranes attached to this.  On the day I watched only one crane was in operation and it seemed to be that a generous amount of cargo was being taken off to Ascension.  I think it was probably because it was a month since the ship had last visited.  I was interested to see that a pile of containers had been loaded from the wharf into the hold already and that a few items going off had been left till last.

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It was slow progress and I had time to look over to the mass of Ascension Island in the late afternoon sunshine.  I’ve crawled all over the volcanic peaks and valleys of this island and could pick out and name every feature, the towering Green Mountain the most dominating and for once not with its head buried in cloud.  The island looked so quiet and peaceful even now – the activity of the RMS one of the few dynamic events of the month.  The launch was making another trip across with some more passengers.  The barge was heading out with one container to be picked up by the wharf crane.

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The view back to Georgetown

The crew in the hold were preparing to do some lifting and I realised what was left was not the routine containers but delicate items that needed some careful handling.  Crew were positioned all around the hold, one guy nonchalantly dangling his legs over the side of three stacked containers waiting for the process to begin.  A supervisor got everyone positioned and the crane operator moved the crane’s hook over the deck.  A cradle was attached to this hook – a square formation of clips were made by metal poles fixed between the ropes.  A  series of long slings were attached  to each corner of the cradle and it was dropped deep into the hold.  More crew detached the ropes and spread them out across the lower deck and a car was driven from deep within the ship over the ropes.  Reattached to the crane’s hook the car was gently lifted vertically to the main deck then eased out over the edge of the ship.  More ropes attached to the axles were held in place by four people to keep the alignment of the car square and stop it swinging against the swell or wind.  Ever so slowly it was dropped down onto the waiting barge.  The process was repeated for a second car.  Next pallets stacked high with onions, potatoes and rolls of paper were offloaded in nets.

As the last launch arrived with boarding passengers, the two cars were sailed across the wharf and the last two precious items were moved.  From the ship came a small red wooden crate with about ten grey bags in it.  This was the Royal Mail delivered to Ascension from St Helena (and possible further afield), the raison d’être for the ship in the first place.  Considering the size of the ship and all the other activity, this little box of bags looked pretty insignificant.

A second crate was offloaded from the ship, this time it was empty.  With great care several staff packed it with cardboard boxes marked “eggs”.  I assumed this was a delivery of eggs which had come down from the UK by the Airbridge and was intended for use on the ship; after all St Helena did have chickens.

The crate came back over the side of the ship with more care than for the cars and the mail, placed meticulously on the main deck and offloaded an carried below by hand.  Then, the tidying commenced.  The crew on deck gathered up all the loose ropes and cables and nets, the barge below was let loose from the ship and sailed back to a mooring point in James Bay.  The crane operator took his crane and turned it along the side of the ship facing straight at the bridge.  He then transferred to the other cabin and turned the crane which had been stationary to point towards the prow.  The cranes locked in position by crew at either end of the deck, the operator shut down the machines and descended his ladder to the deck.

I was close by the bridge and I watched the ship’s officers pace up and down.  They could do little till the foreman below had finished his work and tidied up the decks.  Finally the instruction was given and the roof of the hold closed to seal in the containers.  Just one or two containers were left on deck; one a refrigerated unit.

And then we were away.