South IV: Black water

Double Entendre of the Day:
“As we were supposed to fly out of Basra, a lot of shooting started near the airfield. So, it was just me and six military officers in very close confines for the next sixteen hours. As you can imagine, the sketchbook didn’t really have a chance to come out.”
Military artist Mandy Shepherd describes her experience of the war in Iraq.


There is no place lonelier than the middle of the ocean. It’s late. Real late, and the whole ship sleeps, except for the one half-open eye of the bridge, which burns like a nightlight through all these hours. But aside from its dim red glow the ship is a desert. And beyond it, a desert of a scale like no other on earth.

Steaming away from South Georgia, hanging out my window, I’m looking back and feeling like the only man alive. The wind has been picking up steadily, and with it the sea, in great lumpen swells that push their shoulders into our starboard stern. But the real magic comes from the moon, which is following us on the same line as the swell, and a strange other world comes alive with its touch. The waves make an ever-moving landscape of hills and valleys, wallowing their way towards the edge of vision. There are only two shades in this world. Where the moon hits, it picks its way among the wavelets, it runs its fingers down the sharp edges of peaks, it dodges each trough only to splay a flat palm on the face of the next approaching rise. The patches of night are as black as a tar pit, and might well have dinosaurs buried deep within them. But the other colour… “That silver, he said, and that silver, he said, and that silver is streaming and silver is steaming…” those patches are true silver, slicing into your eye, fierce and clean, so bright you can almost hear the ring of metal as they shift on the water. No-one moves, no-one breathes. This is a true witching hour, and I’m waiting for a giant to pluck me from the window.

As a kid, I was enthralled by the idea of being marooned at sea. Terrified yet somehow drawn to it. When I read of it in books, I’d nervously daydream myself into the scene. So being out here, in the middle of nothing and nowhere, taps into all that old psychology. Out here it could be real. And I’m struck with part fear, part thrill, that feeling that makes your stomach twist up and your breath get shallow, your jaw clench while your mouth waters, like half an hour after a good tab. I can imagine floating out here in a dinghy, in all this nothingness.  No food or shelter. Baked through the day and hanging on through the night, drifting powerlessly, the waves as big as houses. Or being trapped with other survivors, each one silently working out who gets eaten first, who gets pitched overboard to stretch out the water supply.

And out here, alone, I have another option. Imagine going overboard. The decks are usually deserted. It’s dark and we’re steaming at 20 knots. Chances are no-one would see a thing. And if they didn’t see you fall, it would probably take 24 hours or more to figure it out. So you missed a few meals: you’re probably seasick. You weren’t in your bed this morning: your cabin-mate thinks you got up early.  There’d be no reason to think otherwise. And all it takes is a large swell, a tilt of the ship, the railing thudding into your hip, and spinning over, down. The sudden shock of the cold Atlantic. Coming up spluttering, panic-breathing. Trying to float in clothes and shoes. Maybe kicking free of them, then trying to yell, to wave, as the ship sails blithely on, its lights getting smaller and smaller. In water that cold I doubt you’d last more than a few minutes. But when do you stop waving? That’s what gets me the most, the moment when you realise, they’re not coming back for you. Nobody’s noticed. And the dark presses in and the cold surrounds you and you think, I could float for a minute. I could float for five, maybe ten. But… how’s that going to help? That moment you know that there’s nothing you can do.

I’ve never been able to get them out of my head, these kind of imaginings. There’s a horrified fascination that keeps drawing me back. The submarine crews in WWII, for instance. On a sinking ship, you have a chance. If you’re already submerged, you have nothing. The German U-boats being depth-charged in the north Atlantic, the sailors huddling and waiting and hoping that one doesn’t get close, the pressure of the water outside, the hull groaning, and two hundred metres of black water just clamouring to get in. Even when I read about these things, there’s the same gut-twist of fear. The examples in literature stay with me unshakeably. There’s Cryptonomicon, where Bischoff swims out of his torpedoed sub to an unknown fate. Then there’s 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, which my dad read to me as a kid. I remember literally nothing of it, except the passage where they find a sunken ship, its crew still tied to the masts, and a young woman still holding her baby up to try and keep it above the waves. And the clincher is a poem by Ian McBryde, about a case where two sailors doing maintenance work on the outside of a submarine were left behind when it submerged. The first time I read that I cried on a mid-morning suburban train.

A lot of it’s the fear of the deep. Of just how far down you go when you sink. Of how soon light stops penetrating the water, of how truly black it is down there. When I see those documentaries, with robot-cameras sinking into the ocean depths, I get the same gut-twisting shiver. The Mariana Trench goes seven kilometres straight down. Even that sentence makes me feel slightly ill. There is just such a volume of space down there that we can’t access, that is alien to us completely, and if it takes us we’re never coming back. And somehow if it’s night time it’s even worse.  The darkness is both above and below. I tried to explain this once in a poem called Carcharodon, which is really about fear of the ocean rather than fear of sharks.

It is at night, on land, that I fear him.
That is when oceans blend with sky,
all become the same blackness.
He is out there, moving in their silence –
not the surface hiss and pitch and froth
but the absolute nullity of sub

Along the curves of bays the fires go out.
Worn-down cliffs are washed with cold,
rubble pointing to the sea. He is out there
in the sickening immensity of ocean,
in the sheer volume of dark below,
only the surface’s thin membrane
to stop him vaulting into the sky itself.

The next night, out on the stern deck,  I still can’t shake that thought of pitching over the safety rail, heading down into that darkness. The shiver is eventually enough to drive me back inside. As I go into the cabin my roommate Mel says, from nowhere, “Imagine if you fell off the boat. No-one would ever know.” There is no place lonelier than the middle of the ocean.

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5 Responses to South IV: Black water

  1. Tim Renowden says:

    Loving your work, Geoff.

  2. Stacy says:

    I totally agree with the black water sentiment. I remember having those same thoughts when travelling to Tasmania on the boat. Not quite as isolated as the sub-antarctic but still enough to send a shiver down your spine.

    BTW, love the pics. Especially the penguins. So jealous.

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  4. Lucas says:

    just to add to your oceanic worries, the Mariana Trench is actually 11km deep at the deepest known point.

    for some perspective, if you were took take Mount everest, pick it up and sink it at the bottom of the trench and then somehow stand on the top of it, you’d still have over 2000 meters of water between you and the surface. it blows my mind that manned submarines have been down to the bottom. those guys must have BALLS OF STEEL, I tell ya.

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