For many life at sea is a very daunting prospect, however this was an artistic residency I couldn’t refuse. Fellow Artist Louise Manifold had no problems convincing me this was a fantastic opportunity to spend time on the Celtic Explored where radio marine based sonar radio projects thrive. Several years build up for the trip did make me nervous as hell. How would I cope, as I got really sea sick on ferries as a kid and that haunted me a lot. A huge deluge of rain started as I left home and followed me to Galway where the temp stayed around 15, so I was relieved I had left my sandals at home, this trip would take me from Galway around the Scottish Islands, across the North Sea to Hamburg.
Thinking of radio history between Galway and Hamburg, pointed me to the infamous William Brooke Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw who was hung for treason in England for his Nazi radio propoganda, he had come to live in Salthill Galway as a child aged two from America and was educated at Coláiste Iognáid, at a Jesuit school in Galway (from 1915–21). Son of a mixed catholic and protestant marriage, his mother was a staunch unionist, he was forced to leave for London by the IRB due to his association with the Black and Tans. He studied English at Birkbeck University and failed to get into the civil service going on to become a key member of the British Union of Fascists under Mosley and forming the National Socialist League. which is rather chilling to discover he lived in Whitstable for a year, seven miles from my current home in Kent and rumor says he ran a radio and electrical shop. Local papers document him leading 1936 blackshirt rallies as Director of Propaganda for the BUF at Whitstable Foresters Hall.
From the outbreak of WW2 he made Nazi Propoganda Broadcasts from Germany his last from Radio Hamburg in 1945 and was shot and captured shortly after with a fake British passport which didn’t save him from the gallows even though he was technically American. Nigel Farndale book (2005) claims Joyce made a deal with MI5 to get his English wife Margaret released with out charge for treason and these MI5 links went to his grave. His remains were exhumed from HMP Wandsworth by his daughter and reinterred in Galway church in 1976.
Before I set sail proper, an afternoons respite of sunshine came during a site visit to the island of Innis Oirr a truly magical and amazing place, and perfect wicker man type location pff the coast of Ireland and part of the Arran Islands. This is a truly inspiring place to be showing work for Galway 2020, its devastatingly beautiful stone walls and scenery is totally inspirational. How-ever the tiny ferry boat journey was very choppy and quite frightening to say the least, I was covered in sea wash that day, hair wet and thinking what am I doing as the small ferry roller coasted through the Irish sea and my stomach was in my mouth.
However this proved to be good therapy for my bigger trip on the Celtic Explorer which was choppy as times but never as turbulent as that short trip. My first two nights of rolling waters at sea had me bouncing in bed against a flat wooden board you put next to your bed to stop you rolling of and in this case being thrown out of the bed. Every item must be locked down or it sails across the room the first night I couldn’t sleep as I was tossed like an astronaut up and down into my mattress which lucky for me was made to absorb this kind of heavy use. There were different rhythms of things moving in draws triggered by the rolling a cacophony of movement. It was just too rocky to record and hard to navigate a safe path from my bunk to my suitcase which was sliding along the floor.
My sea sick tablets worked wonders though and I only wretched once and that was because of the motion mixed with the smell of rancid water, as I tried to take a shower during a very rough sea which sent water washing across the bathroom floor like a tide, a very odd sensation and bit like being in a horror film as the most vile water came out. Apparently stale water sits in the pipes and only gets out if the boats rocking around. This was the most unpleasant way to learn that fact and a smell I will never forget and hopefully one I will never have to engage with again.
This trip was on a mission to pick up scientists in Germany who were doing a survey around the North Sea measuring sea pollution and so it was just me and the crew 12 guys on this voyage to pick them up. It was a relief that I wasn’t the only one getting my sea legs, as two of the youngest crew members aged 25, were also new to life at sea starting several months work experience towards there marine engineering degrees.
The ship did seem like a ghost ship without the scientists though, as their bays lay empty waiting for them to inhabit with photographic reminders everywhere of various projects. I was the only passenger and felt a bit useless as artist outsider only can when faced in such situations. The project had reminded me of the Artist Placement Group and now I know how this felt, except those artists could go home at night. On a ship you are in a contained space and this affects you. I imagine it’s like getting used to prison life. I knew I only had to do for five days though; I don’t think I could have done it for longer such was my craving for land, I found out.
The Artist Placement Group, APG was founded by Barbara Steveni and John Latham who argued that artists are a human resource underused by society, because they are isolated from the public by the galleries and shielded from the mundane realities of industry commerce and government as the Tate puts it “The idea was that artists, designated Incidental Persons by Latham, would bring completely alternative ways of seeing and thinking to bear on the organisations they were placed in. APG would thus recognise the artist’s outsider status and turn it to positive social advantage.”
On the second eve at sea we had to divert and pull near a port in a remote part of Ireland to let a crew member off at sea due to family emergency. I was tempted to get off as well, as seeing land pulled me towards it, but as much as I wanted to get off, I overcame my gut reaction to abandon ship. Sleep made all the difference to my mood as I slept soundly on my second night despite the rocking and sea throwing my body around.
The ship did feel somewhat ghostly though with-out the scientists, across the ship were photos, machinery and desks all waiting for the scientists to use them as we sailed via the Ise of Skye and other Scottish islands and highlands looming through the mist and onto Cape Wrath.
Radio Music and Sky TV seemed to be what keeps the crew going across the ship different stations are tuned in the kitchen has daytime TV on whilst the ships navigators have different radio stations dependent on personal tastes providing a soundtrack to the journey. Listening to Gold FM seemed fitting as pops songs about sea popped up a lot like surf city by the Beachboys and other classics, there are so many 70’s pop songs about the sea. There was daytime radio and TV atmos across the ship, its clearly the way the crew normalise working in extreme conditions at all hours, as the soothing if mind numbing domestic themes of daytime radio and TV clearly help them stay sane. Homes under the Hammer did normalise the confined existence at sea. I watched an episode of Tales of the Unexpected about an Irish hitchhiker con artist and made a film of the view out of the port hole at the end it this was an uncanny domestic/industrial sea experience. That night I watched a documentary about another ship also called the Explorer the biggest cruise ship in the world which couldn’t be more different and unecological to the ship I was on, the contrast was stark. I was on a working vessel, practical and efficient no frills and no waste either. As all waste water was pumped clean and no waste was put in the ocean, dirty water contaminated by oil for instance was carried back.
The crew ate like horses and food was clearly a comfort to them and a key part of their day, my appetite was not really on top form. The ships motion did make me feel queasy though and I forced myself to eat and drink and not let it get to me.
I really missed nature to be honest, plants and flowers a lot, which made me think plants at sea would aid sailors to feel more at home. The crew are on here for 3 weeks at a time which highlights what a wimp I am. They thought plants would be too much trouble to look after and this got me thinking it would be easy to design a sailors plant and radio holder which could swing around and is full of air plants which only need water spray once in a while. I wished I had brought a plant with me. The Italian female captain in the super cruiser documentary, had in fact brought a garlic bulb for good luck, this was not the case on the CE no good luck items were forthcoming when I enquired.
There are said to be plants which help sailors as there is some folklore about not having plants in the wheel house as they will take you off course back to land and superstitions about flowers being bad luck, but there is also a lot of superstition about women on boats and women with red hair which is clearly unfounded, now so many women work at sea. Land of course was what I was totally drawn to and felt calm and safe when I could see it seeing birds was a welcome sign we were near land. .
The sea seemed strangely empty of traffic and sea life until we got near Germany, however dolphins were spotted off the Scottish islands and I saw the tiny fin of a minky whale is vast ocean offering just a hint of what lies beneath.
Radio communication use was limited the emergency channel 16 which was always on but not much coming out here on the edge of the Minch a stretch of sea which is at the top of Scotland, a strait in north-west Scotland, separating the north-west Highlands and the northern Inner Hebrides from Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. It’s also known as Skotlandsfjörð in Old Norse.
The CE has 3 engines and they were very quiet, this was the quietest ship when it was built, it travels at 11 knots about 25 miles so goes quite slowly to save fuel up in the highland seas in the distance I could see ghostly outlines of mountains like sound waves the shapes were amazing. Going past the Isle of Sky the sun came out for a while and it was rather spectacular.
The captain told me you have to respect the sea, I was learning to do just that, I felt a bit guilty when one of the first things he told ne is no one should ever go to sea if they are frightened of it, it wasn’t that I didn’t like the sea I just didn’t like being sea sick. He also explained the sea maps which show you what lies on the ocean bed, a multitude of ship wreaks and cables.
This trip got me thinking how industrial the sea is across the route we took over cables, pipelines past oil platforms and windfarms. We all have romantic notions of the sea but its working place and a dangerous one.
As the captain pointed out “if you thought about the wrecks you would never go to sea, this was good advice its always was best to not dwell on what could go wrong, put safety first and focus on the job in hand and do it well. My job it felt however was to ponder how I could tempt the crew to come near my microphone which proved to be a very hard job indeed, as they preferred to stay out of the limelight and get on with their work and I didn’t want to upset them. This was a very male environment and I did feel very much the outsider in a working family.
Brexit was on people’s minds and I had some very passionate discussions both ways in fact and many had been fishermen and had a lifetime of experience to share and clearly fishing quotas have had an impact.
I ventured into the bowels of the ship after 2 days, and met the ships engineer who was in a great mood as it was his birthday and was happy to talk me on mic about how the ship runs and the detail of the engine room. I have been recording a diary of my thoughts and some of the sounds on here the sea sounds different in ever stretch we have done.
Annoyingly I had no hydrophone to play with it had been left ashore in Ireland by the last artist. I took many photos made films and recorded a diary. I also did some judging for the CMA creative radio awards, which was a pleasure as well as reading through my students Bens Horners PhD on podcasting. A real joy was spending most evenings up on the top deck watching the seal listening to the radio and chatting to who ever was at the helm.
The most interesting message I heard was telling ships to avoid a sea cable which was now floating in the northsea. As we get closer to Hamburg it picked up and the messages were in German, unlike the radio air space there is not a universal sea language. The ship had an impressive collection of semaphore flags which sat unused a legacy to the telegraph system replaced by radio communications but still onboard if that failed, none of the crew I spoke to had used them.
The last day was my favourite as we sailed up the river to Hamburg, the weather was hot and balmy and the sunset spectacular as we past more and more life green land, cyclists, boats, power stations, windfarms, giant electric pylons, towers it got more and more busy and the sun got hotter and hotter until it burnt out and burst into the most amazing pink hues reflected in the waters below. The pinkest sunset ever and clearly so because of the huge amount of pollution in the air. You could smell the oil and the stink of tankers and feel it on your skin as dust hit and darkness crept in the sky was lit up by the lights of the huge city of Hamburg. I felt alive and excited by the pull of the city. I had two dreams of being in London whilst on the boat, but this was better. I used to live on the river Thames and one of my dreams was returning there and walking along the docks which had been gentrified beyond recognition. Now I was sailing along Hamburg’s river Elbe it took all day and it was fantastic. My body felt more centered but achy as my menstrual cycle started. I was so glad to be near land and in an amazing city. Its funny but I was reminded of sound films which celebrate industry in the 1920s and sailing into a city past huge tankers and boats as big as castles, this was exciting and industrial a kind of the sea version of landscape of the road to New York in the Great Gastby as we drew nearer the city.
The roar of industry has its spell until a very large super cruiser crushed the sun out as it parked infront of it for its passengers to look at this was the vile face of mega cruising in action spoiling the scenery and actually blocking out the sun!
The next day I spent walking around Hamburg’s wonderful park and Japanese garden, where I dipped my feet in the river as it was 31 degrees. My body still swayed in motion with the sea and I looked at plants and felt free and less contained. After 3 days I was still swaying, I’ve read you can get Mal de debarquement syndrome (MdDS disembarkment syndrome) a neurological condition usually occurring after spending time at sea, which I was most fortunate not to get.
I certainly learnt a lot from the experience and actually conquered my own personal fear of being at sea and getting sea sickness. There is a book title by Erica Jong Feel the fear and do it anyway which is how I feel now. I did get a lot out of the experience and enjoyed most of it and it was such a priviledge been afforded the opportunity and the crew were all fantastic.
When I was younger I once spent weeks watching a flat mate in Equador learn to paraglide and thought he was insane. On the very last day of his course, I had the opportunity to have a go after much deliberating and was tied to his instructor on the top of a cliff and it was amazing experience and I would have never have known if I hadn’t had a go it I was absolutely terrified but it was great. As a working artist and mum I’m not that adventurous these days and this really this took me out of my comfort zone, and made me appreciate how lucky I am to have had such an experience to share. Looking forward to making new work for next summer.