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A Slow Boat to China - and back

29 January 2016

John Pridmore finds time for reflection in a life on the ocean wave


Leviathan: the container ship CMA CGM Bougainville off the port of Hamburg in October 2015

Leviathan: the container ship CMA CGM Bougainville off the port of Hamburg in October 2015

THE view from our cabin window is restricted. It is of a steel container, almost near enough for us to reach out and touch. On the side, it says that it is “super-heavy” and can hold “32,500 kilos gross”. You would not want this thing falling on your foot.

There are some 18,000 such containers on our vessel, stacked in tiers 20 high — 11 below decks and nine above — ranged in ranks from bow to stern. The lower levels of the containers are secured by lashing rods. The upper levels have no such restraint: each container simply slots at its four corners into the one below. A giant, it seems, has been playing with his Lego. When the sea turns in its troubled sleep, the containers howl and gibber like the souls of the damned.

My wife, Pat, and I are passengers — the only passengers — on the three-month maiden voyage of the Bougainville, one of the world’s largest container vessels. We live in “the castle”, a tall thin tower amidships, surmounted by the bridge, where everyone from captain to galley-hand is housed.

Our voyage will take us from Southampton to ports in Europe, China, South Korea, and Malaya before the long haul home. (We’ve been told where to hide if we’re boarded by pirates, but we mustn’t tell you.)

This is no cruise. We are spared the macabre desserts served next to the pool at midnight, the tacky stage-shows, the lectures by a retired bishop on “The Antiquities of Smyrna”. To be sure, we are travelling in comfort. We are well-fed — after all, ours is a French vessel.

Our simple cabin is sufficiently furnished. We have the use of facilities provided for the officers and crew. There is a slightly larger version of the tank you find at your fishmonger for the accommodation of live lobsters. In this we flounder when the surrounding sea, which feeds it, is warm enough.

There are a running machine and a table-tennis table. I haven’t played so much ping-pong since my Baptist boyhood. Ping-pong is a wholesome pursuit, and our social ills are surely because young people no longer play it.

The behemoth in whose belly, Jonah-like, we travel is a colossus. One perambulation of the deck is a half-mile walk. Most days, we complete several circuits. Our path is along two arcades, port and starboard, whose arches support the outermost stacks of the containers. The vista along each arcade recalls the nave of a great cathedral. But, if the Bougainville is a cathedral, it is not Salisbury, but St Paul’s. It does not uplift by its grace, but overwhelms by its bulk.

The vast vessel reminds us that we are one with the tiny bird that we befriended yesterday on the foredeck. Today, we brought some breadcrumbs for this little creature, but found only its lifeless body. This we committed to the deep, in the sure and certain hope that the sea, too, will give up its dead.


OUR embarkation happened to fall around the 50th anniversary of the day when, in Camborne Parish Church, Quentin Lash (formerly Bishop of Bombay) turned me into a clergyman.

Some clergy mark such an occasion with a high mass, with all the trimmings. That is not my style. My need is not to celebrate, but ruefully to reflect. Our three months on our slow boat to China and back are already meeting that need. I begin to sense some of the things that — had I taken them to heart half a century ago — might have sobered and shortened my sermons.

There are the obvious lessons, though too late I have learned them. First, as the much missed Malcolm Muggeridge famously said of jetting round the world, “travel narrows the mind.”

To cross the globe in half a day is not so much to suffer jet-lag as to contract brain-death. Eliminating the time it takes to get from A to B, when B is 6000 miles away, abolishes any real possibility of understanding B.

We need to recover a sense of distance. Only if I have taken weeks to meet you will I, perhaps, have learned the patience to get to know you.

Overnight flights may bring us into proximity, but there can be no meeting of hearts and minds when we are flung together in this way. No wonder most delegates to international conferences fly home all the more entrenched in the opinions with which they set out. One thinks of that one they used to hold at Lambeth.

The weight of the many thousand containers that we carry imposes another question which, across the decades, I have not considered enough — not that my lack of thought has stopped my talking about it.

The issue is: where to draw the line between what I need and what I want. No one knows what is inside these containers — apart from the “reefers” (the refrigerated containers full of frozen vegetables), and those holding “dangerous freight” (nasty chemicals and the like).

As for all the others, we can only speculate. It is safe to assume that everything that furnishes, equips, decorates, distracts, comforts, and pampers our lives is sealed within them. The question — a stone in our trainers as we plod round the deck — is what proportion of this vast cargo actually contributes to humanity’s well-being.

In a severe storm, mid-ocean, a decade or more ago, a container fell off a ship like ours and burst open. Its contents — many thousands of little yellow plastic ducks — spilled into the sea. All these years later, those ducks are still being washed ashore around the world.

Of course, a plastic duck at bath-time is one of life’s necessities. How much within these containers, I wonder, serves my flourishing half as much? At sea there is time — at least, if someone else is seeing to the business of getting you safely across it — to think on these things.


ABOVE all, the immense presence of the sea itself disturbs my mind at depths rarely sounded. In high winds, we have had to hold the rail as we tread the deck. So, too, I seek some ring in a rock to clutch, as I try to make sense of the sea.

The only place I know that allows some purchase on the sea’s impenetrable mystery is the Bible’s account of how it all began. The sea, in this, the first of the Bible’s many sea stories, is the primal abyss. It is the original chaos, the reservoir of all that is recalcitrant, of all that resists the divine purpose.

The sea was there before the beginning, and will be there until the end. Only then will there be “no more sea”. So, until that day, all that is incomprehensible to us abides; above all, the persistence of unspeakable suffering in a world allegedly under the control of a God of love.

Creation, in this tremendous myth — and myths are the only way in which truth may be told — is not ex nihilo, the making of something out of nothing. It is the provision of a tiny and precarious bridgehead thrust into the hostile waters that always threaten to return and engulf us. To that little parcel of dry land we cling, under the pitiful illusion that there we are safe.


TSUNAMIS and rising sea-levels should at least suggest that such thoughts are not altogether far-fetched. I was taught these things long ago by the great theologian Alan Richardson. Now, these many decades later, somewhere in the Yellow Sea, the truth of them at last begins to dawn on me.

Creation is an unfinished business. That task was taken up, so the story says, by one who trampled the sea beneath his feet. His word to the waves was “Be still!”

But there is a sense in which the sea says the same to me. Its unfathomable immensity and utter inscrutability command my silence. No more than Job can I “draw out Leviathan with a hook”. Like Job, “I have uttered what I did not understand.” The best thing to do, as Job eventually did, is to shut up.

I trust that, when we step ashore at Southampton, I will not forget what this voyage has taught me. Above all, I hope that I will not forget the Filipinos. The Bougainville is commanded by a French captain, and most of his officers are French, but the rest of his crew are almost all from the Philippines.

And so it is on most of the world’s container vessels. The round-the-clock maintenance work is all done by Filipinos. On back-to-back tours of duty, they are away from home and family for nine months at a stretch. But they always seem to be smiling.


The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a retired priest, living in Hove.

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