September 4th: Barb and I are currently crossing the Atlantic on a British ocean liner. This is an odd experience – like walking through the television screen into PBS. The majority of passengers are British, including some colonials. Other big groups are Germans and Americans. This boat seems a microcosmic analogue of the larger world. All of the issues are here: history, politics, class, economy, environment and its sub category climate, race, gender, religion, food, drink, addiction, public health – everything.
Historically this line, Cunard, is in its 175th year. Charles Dickens traveled aboard a Cunard ship. The WWI era liner Lusitania, sunk by the Kaiser, and the Carpathia, which rescued the Titanic survivors, were both Cunard ships. In 1938, Cunard merged with White Star, owner of Titanic and Britannic. The line has had ups and downs since the introduction of transatlantic jets in 1958 and is now owned by Carnival UK. But the ambiance aboard is purely British. Two of the points from the 10 point service pledge are “Our level of service is formal” and “English only will be spoken by employees in guest areas.”
My shipboard reading material includes a history book about the love affairs of British authors in London during the Blitz. Amazingly I never knew that Virginia and Leonard Wolfe’s house was completely destroyed, all of their books and writings, everything, a short time before her suicide. Equally astounding was to learn that Ireland remained neutral in that period, making Churchill so angry that he blamed them for English casualties in the Irish Sea because the Irish would not allow use of their ports. The Irish position was that their country was so unstable that entry into the war would destroy it. But, of course, the real villains of the story are the Germans.
September 5th: Television available on the boat includes a web cam of the bow, a channel with a map showing our position in the Atlantic, the BBC and Sky TV (a news channel). Sky is currently showing arriving Syrian refugees being lavishly welcomed into Germany. The contrast between the current Germany and the Germany of the war is absolute. Sometimes I find myself in coincidental situations and this is one of them. I’m currently corresponding with Cheryl Reitan about a fundraiser that the café is going to help with. The purpose is to raise money to send a group of Duluthians to the American South on a tour of civil rights era historic sites (like the Pettus Bridge and so forth). The high school students on the trip will then return and report to the community what kind of meaning they gleaned from the experience. Part of our discussion has been about what we are doing – in other words, what are the real issues concerning race that need to be addressed in Duluth? Cheryl was the editor of Susan Sojourner’s memoir about SNCC and activism in Mississippi. Cheryl is much more knowledgeable than I and says that that she does not judge, but just does things that the “Clayton Jackson McGhie and Saint Mark’s AME communities” want to have done. I myself, also being German, feel compelled to judge. And right now I feel that the biggest problem facing Duluth – indeed the world – is segregation.
Don’t worry – I am not going to go there – am not going to try to go into a full blown discussion of that topic – will only say that it is a discussion that needs to be continuously had. Here on the boat, the passengers, with few exceptions, are all white people. The officers are white. Most of the hotel and restaurant workers are not white. Back in the day of the Lusitania and the Carpathia, that was not the case. Everyone was ethnic English – divided by class but not by race. Back in the early days of Duluth that was also the case – divided by class and ethnicity – but not by race. (few Native Americans lived in town.) Now, it’s different. I am pretty sure that eventually this race barrier will break down. But, in the meantime, there is work to be done.
The evening of the day we left New York harbor (that was an experience in itself) I saw a hammer head shark swimming off the port side. We were passing between the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, one of the richest fishing areas in the world – home to cod, haddock, herring, flounder, lobster, scallops, clam and other seafood. It is rich there because the cold and nutrient laden Labrador Current meets and intermingles with the warm Gulf Stream. That mixing, coupled with shallow depth, creates a perfect environment for phytoplankton – the base of the oceanic food chain.
In the news recently has been a story about Cargill taking over salmon farming in Norway. This cannot be good. At the café we use Rogotske salmon from Alaska, wild caught, even though it has to be flown there from Seattle. And we use Lake Superior whitefish and Red Lake Walleye. I wish that we could use scallops and lobster from New England, Dungeness crab from the west coast, stone crabs from Florida. Those would make our menu so much more exciting. Food issues are always complicated and often hard to tease out.
September 7: Yesterday we passed over the Flemish Cap, also a rich fishing ground. (That’s where George Clooney fictionally went down in the Andrea Gale.) There is meaning in the experience of taking this slower route across the ocean, seeing these things, knowledge to be gained from close up – more than a flyover transit. I assumed that traveling this way would use less fuel than flying, but (because you are moving at 28 knots instead of 600 mph and because you are resting on the ocean, not lifted above gravity) but reading about it, I’m not sure. I wish this were a more ecologically sound way to travel – but it may not be. All of these issues swim around in my head today as we continue eastward, sailing into an Atlantic storm. The Captain is making light of it but a 50 mph gale is expected. We can already hear things banging outside. It was noticeable when we left the protection of Labrador and sailed away from the Gulf Stream (74F) and into the open ocean (53F). The most astounding thing seen while crossing the Flemish Cap, was a tern-like sea bird flying alongside us and then settling down to rest on the ocean surface like a duck – hundreds of miles from any land.
The 60s vocal/rock group Crosby, Stills and Nash are on the boat with us and last night they gave a concert in the ship’s theater. The swells were at 16’ in anticipation of the storm and the boat was rolling a bit. The band commented on the moving stage taking them back to psychedelic days. Waiting for the concert to begin, I looked out over the audience, mostly in their sixties, and there were several people sound asleep due to the Dramamine. Listening to those old songs about “almost cut my hair” and “we are leaving, you don’t need us” was pretty weird in that setting, in this place. But “Teach Your Children” made me cry, as it always does. It’s never lost its meaning.
There is a strict dress code at dinner. About half the evenings are designated formal – which means “black tie for gentlemen and evening dresses for ladies.” Had I brought my tuxedo (if I still had it) I would not be allowed to wear it. Those of us not willing to put on costume, are encouraged to restrict our movements to the two salons of the ship reserved for informal attire.
September 9: The storm was definitely memorable. Reminded me of standing on the Canal Park pier in November when Superior is kicking up. The Captain had the hydraulic stabilizers out and we were mostly steady – but every once in a while you could feel a significant shudder – and of course the horizon moves continuously up and down. For anyone interested, there is a pretty good description of how QM2 is engineered on Wiki. This liner is a little longer than the largest lakers (e.g., the Tregurtha) but taller. It’s nowhere near the size of the big cruise ships.
Today we are passing over the Porcupine Abyssal Plain – sailing a mile or so above a relatively featureless rolling muddy bottom. Every day at noon
the captain gives a little talk after he tells us that the clocks need to go forward one hour. Today is the day that Queen Elizabeth becomes England’s longest reigning monarch. Much was made of that on the BBC. She is an amazing woman – a genuine public servant – utterly unlike Victoria. There is a painting of her hanging in the purser’s office.
Tonight at dinner Barb and I found we were sitting next to a couple of the ship’s gigolos. I could tell that’s who they were by what they were saying and struck up a conversation with them. They do not get paid but get free passage and free meals. Their job is to go to the ballroom after dinner and dance with the single ladies. One of them was English and the other was an American former federal worker who lives in D.C. They were both retired, in their sixties and both love to dance. It is forbidden for them to become involved with the women so both parties feel comfortable and safe. I enjoyed talking to them, although their situation was not one I could picture myself in – either role.
September 10 – Almost there – The Celtic Sea. We’ve passed into shallow water again – about 100 meters deep, the European Continental Shelf. I saw my first seagull since leaving America. We are to pass Bishop’s Rock this afternoon at 5PM – will dock in Southampton at 6AM tomorrow. Bishop’s Rock is where they once measured the total time it had taken a liner to cross the Atlantic. The liner speed record was set in 1952 by the SS United States, “the fastest ship afloat.” United States was built with subsidies from the US government and designed to be easily modified into a troopship should the need arise. It was also specifically designed to break the speed record of the original Queen Mary, a Cunard ship.
In 1957, a few months after my grandad died, I traveled with my Oma across the Atlantic on SS United States. I come by my love of the ocean honestly. That year was the last before transatlantic jet travel began. United States was decommissioned in 1969 and now sits rusting at a dock in Pennsylvania. The original Queen Mary has been converted to a hotel in San Diego. I have never visited her there but understand that she is still beautiful.
It’s impossible to say what will happen to our oceans in this century or how any of the great issues of our time will be resolved. I certainly do not know the answers to any of it – except the old saw: “Everyone just needs to do the best that they can.” Today (Sept 13) is my birthday – I am 69. I’m sure that 58 years ago the North Atlantic and the North Sea were colder – and that our climate has changed, and continues to change and that we have not done much about it. But in the intervening years we’ve had the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights and the Americans with Disabilities act. So it is possible that things can be accomplished.
All of the choices are ours.