For more than a week the radio bands had been awash with static. On the morning of 14th
July they came alive again: Dunkin Donuts, Dodge dealerships and Dolly Parton
announced the lurking presence of America. Small, colourful fishing boats began to dot
the ocean and jet planes arcing high up into the sky left vapour trails that looked like
giant party streamers. The loneliness of the open ocean was coming to an end.
Civilisation called out to us… Hilary Clinton was on Long Island, canvassing support
against the gun lobby, and Whitney Houstin was singing in Madison Square Garden that
evening. God bless America.
Late on the afternoon of the 14th we sighted land, the eastern end of Long Island,
which points like a giant finger towards New York City. The last land I’d seen was Lizard
Point, in Cornwall, England. That was eight days previously as we were making our way
down the English Channel. Once out on the Atlantic Ocean it felt like you were in
another world, another time, another dimension. Sighting land again produced a peculiar
surge of both excitement and depression. The distant coastline of Long Island looked
unreal, almost like an alien planet.
The ship followed that coastline for a few hours before the twin towers of the World
Trade Centre peeped at us from over the horizon. During the next hour the rest of the
New York skyline slid coyly into view. The depression now went and a wave of
excitement ran through the ship. Even far out at sea you could still sense the energy and
vibrancy of New York City. I planned to check into the Waldorf Hotel. I planned to soak
in a hot bath for two hours. I planned to have cocktails in Manhattan. It was all there for
the taking. The Big Apple shimmered on the horizon and the Marie Anne strained to
reach it before sunset.
Ah, the romance, the adventure, the telex that came from the shipping company…
Captain Markiewicz was ordered to heave to. The Marie Anne was to stay for four days at
open anchorage off Ocean Beach, Long Island. You could almost hear a groan run
through the ship. How could the shipping line guys back in Germany be so cruel?
We were the victims of world trade. The Marie Anne carried kaolin, a valuable
commodity. The commodity markets change hourly. The trading never stops. The London
Stock Exchange takes over from Tokyo, then Wall Street takes over from London, and so
it goes on, 24 hours a day. When the Marie Anne left Rotterdam her cargo was going to
be sold for X amount of money in Y place. But during the nine days of her voyage the
markets were constantly fluctuating. This meant that at any time the ship could be
diverted or deliberately delayed in order to gain maximum profit from her cargo. For
example, when we were one third of the way across the Atlantic the Captain received a
telex on the satellite link saying that our first port of call might be Searsport, in Maine.
The shipping line guys eventually dropped this idea and we continued on to New York.
This glorious uncertainty is a part of cargo ship travel. If you need to get somewhere by a
certain date, or are in a hurry, don’t take a cargo ship. Kurt told me that on one of his
previous trips from Rotterdam to Savannah the ship was diverted mid ocean and they
went down to South America. They finally got to Savannah six weeks after leaving
Economics also came into the order to heave to in open anchorage. There was no
reason why the Marie Anne could not have docked in New York harbour and then delay
unloading her cargo until the price was right, except that the shipping line would have to
pay port charges. Open anchorage was free; and so we came to a grinding halt five miles
off Long Island.
Time hung heavy during this period. The crew were ready for port cargo operations.
Most of the ships maintenance work had been carried out during the Atlantic crossing and
there wasn’t much left to do; but a Captain can always find something to occupy his crew
and he had them painting the decks. To make matters worse, New York was suffering
from a heat wave and the temperature rose above 100F. Kurt couldn’t handle this heat and
stayed in his cabin most of the time. I wandered around the sweltering ship, my eyes
forever drawn to the distant New York skyline. On the second day at open anchorage I
went up to the Bridge. Zelko the Second Mate was on watch. He showed me the chart for
the approaches to New York and pointed at our position. We were in a hatched area that
said: ‘DANGER, MINES’ in big red letters (the approaches to New York harbour were
heavily mined during World War Two and even today large areas remain uncleared). I
expressed my concern but Zelko did not seem worried about high explosives. There were
three other cargo ships anchored nearby us, and they hadn’t blown up yet, so I carried on
as though mines were nothing unusual.
By the third day at open anchorage there still appeared to be no sign that we would be
moving anytime soon. You could no longer see the NY skyline because of a heat haze.
The humidity was very high and everyone dripped with sweat. The Captain gave the crew
a break and they were relieved of deck painting duty. Most of them stayed in their cabins
and turned the air conditioning up full blast. Everything was still. The sea was dead calm
and a pea soup colour. Whisps of vapour rose from it. Due to the bizarre movements of
world trade we had to languish out here, on this sweating, heaving sea. Oh how I wished I
was a fish, and during the blistering heat of the day I dreamed of a cold beer while at
night, Gotham City twinkled in the distance with the lights of aircraft buzzing like
fireflies in the sky.
Cold beer was needed in these circumstances. Problem was, we were in US territorial
waters and strictly speaking duty free could not be sold. Barry told me of a similar
situation, when his ship had run out of booze in the South China Sea. The Third Engineer
was a roaring alcoholic and had resorted to drinking acid from the ships batteries. He died
writhing in agony on the floor of his cabin.
By the end of that third day at open anchorage it appeared that we might be there for
some time. Captain Markiewicz made a wise decision and with a wink and a nod
sanctioned the duty free to be opened for essential items only. The essential items were
beer and cigarettes. I managed to get a crate of Grolsch and 200 Marlboro. Everyone else
on board was granted a similar amount. In temperatures of 100F, and with nothing much
else to do, the beer was consumed fast. The empty bottles were thrown out of the ship’s
portholes and because the sea was so calm these bottles lingered and congregated at the
ship’s stern. After a while Captain Markiewicz ordered the engines to be turned on for a
short time so that the wash from the propellers would drive the bottles away.
On the evening of Monday 19th July, our fifth day at open anchorage, the Marie Anne
started shaking and vibrating. Another bottle clearing operation? No, a boat came
alongside and the New York Harbour Pilot jumped on board. For five days it had felt like
we were living in a pot of boiling glue. Now this feeling dispelled itself. It was still hot,
but we were on the move again. We had purpose.
The ship slowly made its way down the Ambrose Channel. It was dusk and the pearly
necklace of the Verazzono Narrows Bridge passed overhead. We were now in New York
Harbour after 15 days at sea. To the left was the Statue of Liberty, but this was dwarfed
by the buildings of Manhattan on the right, a gigantum wall of glowing, twinkling lights
that reached for the sky. It looked unreal, like something out of Star Wars, but it
confirmed that we really were in New York, at long last.
In 1624 the Dutch West India Company established the settlement of New Amsterdam
on Manhattan Island. They bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24 worth of beads
and trinkets. The British kicked the Dutch out in 1664 and renamed the town in honor of
the Duke of York, thereby giving the world a legend: New Amsterdam, New Amsterdam,
it’s a wonderful town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down… doesn’t work, does it.
The entire crew came out on deck as we sailed into New York harbour. Even these
hardened sailors were filled with awe every time they arrived in New York. The sheer
scale of the place left you breathless. We were even more breathless when we realised the
ship’s engines were still driving her along. What was going on..? another telex from the
shipping company was going on. The Captain had been ordered to dock not in New York,
but in Ravena, 150 miles further up the Hudson River. Our mouths hung open as NY City
was left glittering in the ships wake.
When I awoke the next morning I noticed something different: the ship was no longer
rolling and pitching. This motion, produced by the waves and tide, had become a familiar
sensation. Now we were on the Hudson River, which comparatively speaking was as flat
as a mill pond.
The cruise up the Hudson from New York to Ravena took 14 hours. Ravena is ten miles
south of Albany, in upstate New York. I was surprised that we could travel that far inland.
The Hudson is a big river but we were on an equally big ship and it seemed like we were
making our way up a small stream. The New York Pilot had been replaced by the Hudson
Pilots. Yes, there were two of them, such was the difficulty of navigating large oceangoing
vessels that far up the river. The Pilots were immaculately dressed in casual ware.
They both wore dark shades. Their skin and teeth were perfect. They looked like they
were made of plastic. Captain Markiewicz did not like the Pilots. No Captain likes having
his Bridge invaded by complete strangers, especially strangers who are giving orders.
The heat eased-up and things became a bit more bearable. Kurt came out of his cabin.
We stood on deck and watched the beautiful scenery of Hudson valley go slowly by. Kurt
had been nearly everywhere and seen just about everything. However, this was the first
time he’d been up the Hudson River on a huge cargo ship. He was excited by it all. So
was I. We passed places called Bear Mountain, Cornwall, Fishkill and Poughkeepsie.
There were eccentric houses built on tiny river islands, pretty little farms with white
picket fences, mansions built by New York’s wealthy, and in the distance the Catskill
From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon