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Down to the Sea in Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men

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Our lives depend on shipping but it is a world which is largely hidden from us. In every lonely corner of every sea, through every night, every day, and every imaginable weather, tiny crews of seafarers work the giant ships which keep landed life afloat. These ordinary men live extraordinary lives, subject to dangers and difficulties we can only imagine, from hurricanes an Our lives depend on shipping but it is a world which is largely hidden from us. In every lonely corner of every sea, through every night, every day, and every imaginable weather, tiny crews of seafarers work the giant ships which keep landed life afloat. These ordinary men live extraordinary lives, subject to dangers and difficulties we can only imagine, from hurricanes and pirates to years of confinement in hazardous, if not hellish, environments. Horatio Clare joins two container ships on their epic voyages across the globe and experiences unforgettable journeys. As the ships cross seas of history and incident, seafarers unfold the stories of their lives, and a beautiful and terrifying portrait of the oceans and their human subjects emerges. Winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year


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Our lives depend on shipping but it is a world which is largely hidden from us. In every lonely corner of every sea, through every night, every day, and every imaginable weather, tiny crews of seafarers work the giant ships which keep landed life afloat. These ordinary men live extraordinary lives, subject to dangers and difficulties we can only imagine, from hurricanes an Our lives depend on shipping but it is a world which is largely hidden from us. In every lonely corner of every sea, through every night, every day, and every imaginable weather, tiny crews of seafarers work the giant ships which keep landed life afloat. These ordinary men live extraordinary lives, subject to dangers and difficulties we can only imagine, from hurricanes and pirates to years of confinement in hazardous, if not hellish, environments. Horatio Clare joins two container ships on their epic voyages across the globe and experiences unforgettable journeys. As the ships cross seas of history and incident, seafarers unfold the stories of their lives, and a beautiful and terrifying portrait of the oceans and their human subjects emerges. Winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year

30 review for Down to the Sea in Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men

  1. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    If you take a look around you at some of the things that you own, almost all of the have arrived in the country in a box. A container box that is. These containers are shipped in their millions back and forth oceans and round the world every year. Clare was invited to be the writer on board for the Maersk Group, to see how these veins of the capitalist world work and operate. He joins the first ship at Felixstowe, the UK largest port, on its journey from there to Los Angles via Suez and Hong Kong If you take a look around you at some of the things that you own, almost all of the have arrived in the country in a box. A container box that is. These containers are shipped in their millions back and forth oceans and round the world every year. Clare was invited to be the writer on board for the Maersk Group, to see how these veins of the capitalist world work and operate. He joins the first ship at Felixstowe, the UK largest port, on its journey from there to Los Angles via Suez and Hong Kong. On the ship he is allowed free access anywhere, and to meet and speak with the crew and officers with the aim of finding out just what makes these vast vessels tick. His second journey takes him from Antwerp to Montreal. It is an older ship, that reeks of diesel, and they are travelling into a huge storm in the atlantic. On this journey he finds out just how dangerous this journeys can be for the crews. It is a fascinating book to read as Clare gets to the heart of the shipping industry and the people that run these ships. The size of some of these ports is huge, I know I have seen the Hong Kong port, and everything is organised down to the last detail, so much so that on his first journey they dock to the minute have travelled three quarters around the world. Clare manages to convey well the feelings and the pressure that the crews feel, as well as recounting some of the stories from other ships some of which are terrifying. Did drag a bit at times, but otherwise worth reading.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    This book needs to come with a warning..."Be warned those who are easily influenced by what they read, you may find yourself at sea". Horatio tells things honestly, the rough sea, the dire living conditions, long repetitive work, low pay, No FRIGGING BEER, marginally adverse weather conditions and much danger. He tells you how bad it is, how lonely it can be and yet this reader still craved the adventure....just think how much reading I could get done at sea. Horatio explores every side of the jo This book needs to come with a warning..."Be warned those who are easily influenced by what they read, you may find yourself at sea". Horatio tells things honestly, the rough sea, the dire living conditions, long repetitive work, low pay, No FRIGGING BEER, marginally adverse weather conditions and much danger. He tells you how bad it is, how lonely it can be and yet this reader still craved the adventure....just think how much reading I could get done at sea. Horatio explores every side of the job on board the ship, from the Captain right down to the engine room. The working conditions in the engine room are insane, how a man can work there day after day is amazing. The book is split into two, first a trip from UK to USA via the Suez canal on board a giant of a ship carrying an incredible amount of weight, the crew are neat and tidy, the ship in pretty good condition and a nice automated system for loading/unloading. Part 2 is the polar opposite Europe to Canada across the North Atlantic, a smaller boat still full of cargo, the ship is old, battered and dirty, the crew are similar, they come across as quite mad and loading/unloading is mostly manual labour. This was a fascinating read, I have the utmost respect now for these brave sailors who bring us the crap we love to buy in shops. I'd love to see a follow up to the book, this time following one of the containers and it's contents, would be interesting to see why milk goes from Argentina to Europe and then back to Canada. I can see why this is an award winning book, brilliant writing and plan to pick up another of Horatio's books soon. Blog review: https://felcherman.wordpress.com/2019...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Alex Sarll

    A book about how life on the oceans has changed, and how it hasn't, which inspires an urge to run away to sea at the same time as reminding you what a bloody awful idea that would be.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Enso

    I was recommended this book on a podcast as a way of getting some insight into the lives of modern seamen. In this, it was pretty successful. The author managed to get himself invited to be the "house writer" for the Maersk Group, one of the largest shipping lines in the world. He traveled on one of their flagships around the world (which is the first half of the book). He then traveled on one of their aging and more decrepit ships on the Atlantic (for the second half). You get the impression th I was recommended this book on a podcast as a way of getting some insight into the lives of modern seamen. In this, it was pretty successful. The author managed to get himself invited to be the "house writer" for the Maersk Group, one of the largest shipping lines in the world. He traveled on one of their flagships around the world (which is the first half of the book). He then traveled on one of their aging and more decrepit ships on the Atlantic (for the second half). You get the impression that a lot of these ships are death traps (though not the ones he is on). He talks about the state of the ships, what it is like to live on one, but mostly about the men and women he met, what they were like, and how they lived their lives. The book itself was a little flat at times (going on and on in places) but was pretty interesting as a whole. I really don't know of another book that would discuss this sort of life that isn't decades out of date. This book is written in the post-2008 period and on ships that now transport cargo containers back and forth as opposed to the earlier periods.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    What does it take to make a man? This was the question for which Horatio Clare sought an answer when he signed on for two voyages on container ships. He discovered the endless hardship of men who sail the seas for months at a time, with perhaps only one or two days in port, delivering all the goods that we take for granted: on one ship "350 tonnes of Tanzanian seaweed fertilizer for the prairies; 34 tonnes of Belgian chocolate;90 tonnes of Argentinian milk sent to Europe to go to Canada." All the What does it take to make a man? This was the question for which Horatio Clare sought an answer when he signed on for two voyages on container ships. He discovered the endless hardship of men who sail the seas for months at a time, with perhaps only one or two days in port, delivering all the goods that we take for granted: on one ship "350 tonnes of Tanzanian seaweed fertilizer for the prairies; 34 tonnes of Belgian chocolate;90 tonnes of Argentinian milk sent to Europe to go to Canada." All these on the enormous containers that we pass on the highways in America being delivered to their destinations. He describes the frightening storms, the indomitable spirit of the crews, the interdependence and the injustice of the wages, Filipinos being paid much less than Europeans for doing exactly the same work "because they don't need as much money." The men work here for adventure, but more from habit and necessity. He comes to the conclusion, "On the ships I began to understand that lying on the bed you made is perhaps the condition of adult life," and "This earth is a ship, and all of us are sailors." I enjoyed Clare's poetic rendering of this adventure, his images and metaphors, and I believe that Clare found himself to be a man after he had experienced the voyages.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mary Warnement

    Clare's prose makes me underline many of his phrases that create images in my mind. Coates's book on the Rhine had some similar descriptions of ports with cranes, containers, and workers, but Clare tells a story with style. What story here? A world most never see or consider but without which we would flounder. Civilization would halt. He concludes--after his journey on a large container ship through the Med all the way to China and then across the Atlantic from the Netherlands to Montreal--that Clare's prose makes me underline many of his phrases that create images in my mind. Coates's book on the Rhine had some similar descriptions of ports with cranes, containers, and workers, but Clare tells a story with style. What story here? A world most never see or consider but without which we would flounder. Civilization would halt. He concludes--after his journey on a large container ship through the Med all the way to China and then across the Atlantic from the Netherlands to Montreal--that "this earth is a ship" (348). His title comes from the psalms but Moby Dick seems behind his yearning to go to sea. "Land, loved ones, family, friends, work, talks, books, meetings, the job and the quotidian burden of being are all very well, but who would not leave them behind for a while. The sea is simpler" (121). I suffer from motion sickness, so the call of the sea holds no appeal; however, travel across land and by air calls to me, although I would take books & talk with me--as he did. He admitted, during the stormy North Atlantic crossing, (77) that he would entrust his journal to the sailor with the best life jacket. I wondered how and why one jacket would be better than others on same boat, but given the inequities he highlights between Filipino sailors and all others, I shouldn't be surprised. There's some talk of looking for men, what it is to be men and only men at sea; however, on his second ship, the cook is a woman. Not a sailor, per se, but essential to the ship's working. His gendered talk falls away in that second half of the book, as only seems natural. 77 "The sea turns time into distance." This was published first in 2014. Reality tv shows about occupations requiring physical hardship had appeared, but I doubt he was influenced. Given his taste in movies illustrated by his interactions with the crew and its dvd librarian, I doubt Clare watches reality tv. Nor do I; I can't think of a name of one. My only disappointment. On the back cover of my 2015 pb from Vintage, there is a credit to Neil Gower for the inside map illustration; however, there is no map! I tried the publisher's and bookseller's websites to see if I could see the map, because I'd wanted one for reference as I read. I'll have to locate a copy of a hardcover and see if it is there. I've only read two of Clare's books and look forward to the next.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Veronica

    I hadn't heard of Horatio Clare before. I enjoyed this account of travelling on container ships -- it's a mixture of poetry, travelogue, history, and most of all an account of globalisation from the sharp end -- the men (they are, almost exclusively) who transport goods from one side of the world to the other. It really makes you appreciate how containerisation was a massive force for globalisation and the delocalising of manufacture. Even perishable goods are not exempt -- the insanity of trans I hadn't heard of Horatio Clare before. I enjoyed this account of travelling on container ships -- it's a mixture of poetry, travelogue, history, and most of all an account of globalisation from the sharp end -- the men (they are, almost exclusively) who transport goods from one side of the world to the other. It really makes you appreciate how containerisation was a massive force for globalisation and the delocalising of manufacture. Even perishable goods are not exempt -- the insanity of transporting fish across the Atlantic: "It is evidently cheaper to catch all the fish in the East and bring them to the West Coast than it is to catch them in the West, or even to catch half the fish in each place and leave the rest to swim. Or Argentinian milk, taken to Peru via Europe. In port, the crew step ashore, buy loads of the consumer goods they spend their lives transporting, and take them back across the ocean. Clare is good at capturing the strange other world of life at sea, where different rules apply. Democracy, freedom, and equality are irrelevant concepts here -- what the captain says goes, and a Filipino doing the same job as a Dutchman gets about a third of the wage "because they need less money". No-one finds this unreasonable enough to be bothered about protesting or joining a union, and in any case, giant freight company Maersk doesn't recognise unions. Clare combines empathy and keen observation in his accounts of the crew. I liked his insight into the captain and chief engineer, into model trains and planes respectively -- he sees them as they were as little boys, "adorable for the endless accuracy of their devotions ... Perhaps it is the owlish engagement of little boys in love with certain and calculable things which builds machines as great as the Gerd, and greater." If the book has a fault, it's a bit long -- the descriptions of seascapes and storms are vivid, but there's only so much you can take, and once you've got the point about globalisation it doesn't really need ramming home so much. Recommended though, if only to make you think about the concrete realities of the global economy, when so often it all seems to be about dematerialised financial transactions.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Yiling

    I suspect one would either be annoyed with Clare's prose and perspective, or find it absolutely sparkling. I'm the latter case. I read this cover to cover. Clare is bloody funny. Many have written absolutely dry and dastardly books about ship life (IMO as a librarian in a library with a significant maritime collection), but he does keep me flipping the pages, googling the nautical jargon, checking Google Maps for where the Bay of Biscay is and even youtubing what the unlashing of containers is a I suspect one would either be annoyed with Clare's prose and perspective, or find it absolutely sparkling. I'm the latter case. I read this cover to cover. Clare is bloody funny. Many have written absolutely dry and dastardly books about ship life (IMO as a librarian in a library with a significant maritime collection), but he does keep me flipping the pages, googling the nautical jargon, checking Google Maps for where the Bay of Biscay is and even youtubing what the unlashing of containers is about (Clare devotes 2 pages to its description). It was quite a voyage! Not bad for a random title placed on display by an anon colleague.

  9. 4 out of 5

    J.A. Pieper

    I can muster interest and fascination in almost any topic for at least the length of an extended essay in the New York Times Magazine. The author managed to keep my attention for at least half the book and then the details of life at sea on a merchant marine ship began to grow tedious. Horatio Clare's prose almost bridged the gap, but not quite.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Julie Wake

    This book was hard work and I only finished it because it was my book club choice. From the very beginning it lost me as it referred to the desire of the author to live in a world away from women, children and families. Awful book.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Colin

    So much of the stuff that surrounds us and on which we depend is moved around the world by a constant flow of international shipping, almost all of it in containerised form. In this fascinating and revealing book, Horatio Clare hitches a ride in two very different container ships for two very different journeys. He joins his first vessel, the Gerd Maersk in Felixstowe and travels with it through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, is obliged to leave it in the Red Sea on the insistence of the So much of the stuff that surrounds us and on which we depend is moved around the world by a constant flow of international shipping, almost all of it in containerised form. In this fascinating and revealing book, Horatio Clare hitches a ride in two very different container ships for two very different journeys. He joins his first vessel, the Gerd Maersk in Felixstowe and travels with it through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, is obliged to leave it in the Red Sea on the insistence of the owners due to the risk of piracy, but rejoins it for the next stage if its journey to China and then across the Pacific to Los Angeles. His second trip takes him north across the Atlantic to Montreal on a rusty ship that has seen better days. Clare’s portrayal of life on board and the experience of travelling through storms, ice and the tropics is sharp and vivid, but the book comes most fully alive in his sympathetic descriptions of the men he sails with, the inequities that are part and parcel of seagoing life and the strength of character that pulls them through.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Whyndham

    The author was the narrator/walker recreating Bach's walk to Lübeck, which came on the radio on Christmas Eve. Having been entranced by his observational acuity and prose, I was eager for more. Rather than pick out any of his land-based journey books, which would perhaps sit nicely alongside Sebald, Deakin, MacFarlane etc, I somewhat randomly chose this. Very glad I did. It's an intriguing ethnography of the tribal bands who populate the high seas, bringing those endless containers of the stuff The author was the narrator/walker recreating Bach's walk to Lübeck, which came on the radio on Christmas Eve. Having been entranced by his observational acuity and prose, I was eager for more. Rather than pick out any of his land-based journey books, which would perhaps sit nicely alongside Sebald, Deakin, MacFarlane etc, I somewhat randomly chose this. Very glad I did. It's an intriguing ethnography of the tribal bands who populate the high seas, bringing those endless containers of the stuff we seem to need "getting and spending, we lay waste our powers". As a writer in residence he's able to transcend the boundaries of the ships' hierarchies and get sympathetically in the heads of all on board. He then reserves his greatest descriptive powers to attempt a portrayal of all the moods of the sea. In this he fails (there is simply too MUCH sea for one, or two hundred pages), but the descriptions and impressions are delightful and, well, impressive. 


  13. 4 out of 5

    Roger Boyle

    Peter sent me this, I think. He knows how much I like boats. It's an unprepossessing premise but Clare writes very well. His trick of pulling on established literature about the sea works without being schmaltzy, and his descriptions of the danger and the boredom are splendid. It is [largely] a company of men, but they can't drink ... it's such an artificial environment in which complete knowledge of what you are doing is sine qua non. Then the wind, and then the ice. Two very different voyages i Peter sent me this, I think. He knows how much I like boats. It's an unprepossessing premise but Clare writes very well. His trick of pulling on established literature about the sea works without being schmaltzy, and his descriptions of the danger and the boredom are splendid. It is [largely] a company of men, but they can't drink ... it's such an artificial environment in which complete knowledge of what you are doing is sine qua non. Then the wind, and then the ice. Two very different voyages in which you get at least part way to learning just what it is like. Great stuff - how did he persuade Maersk to let him do it?

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jan Jackson

    Everyone should read this book. Everyone should understand the lives of those who spend so long over the horizon, accompanying the vast stacks of containers playing host to who knows what to their destinations. In all weathers, at threat from pirates, and endlessly exploited by the shipping companies. This is a terrific book. A beautiful, open, honest, humbling book. It’s beautifully written, and ever so human. I urge you to read it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jasper

    At times I thought the author was straining a little to write in the style of the best contemporary nature writers. Part of the problem is that a lot of what you see in and from a container ship is (perhaps) rather dull and ugly. But he has interesting things to say about the policies of shipping companies, and the anecdotes told to him by seasoned crew members are great.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Samuel James

    Worth a read Well written. Gives an interesting and open account from such a closed off world. I would recommend this book for anyone who is interested in an unbiased review of the merchant world.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Hiccopolit

    4.5

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gregoire Jones

    Really beautiful

  19. 4 out of 5

    Skalman71

    Very interesting about life on board freight ships. Just struggled a bit with the writing style.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Felicity

    Thrilling and fascinating! I learnt so much. Horatio Clare writes beautifully. Looking forward to his next. I want to run away to sea too!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Christina

    I don't know much about them, but I'm fascinated by ships and the sea so this was a really great find for me! There was a lot of good detail about the people on these ships, and their stories.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

    Down to the Sea in Ships I chose this book because of the poem which gives it its title and Wow what a read it was. It covers almost everything the layman could want to know about container ships and how they operate in two sections: To the East and West and North. The two sections cover different size ships and the lives of the crews at sea while also throwing in the different pay rates for Filipinos and other nations, women at sea, how the author and the seamen feel about their ships and the wo Down to the Sea in Ships I chose this book because of the poem which gives it its title and Wow what a read it was. It covers almost everything the layman could want to know about container ships and how they operate in two sections: To the East and West and North. The two sections cover different size ships and the lives of the crews at sea while also throwing in the different pay rates for Filipinos and other nations, women at sea, how the author and the seamen feel about their ships and the work they do, hazards of the work and the two World Wars. All this in 348 pages making for a very interesting read. The only place I found it la bit slow is in the East and West section where they are crossing the Pacific and I think this is because of the boredom that was felt on board the ship itself. I really enjoyed this book and felt that I was in for a treat as soon as I read the opening words 'The Captain is fierce with bulk like a small bear. His skin is pallid, his beard grizzled, his teeth are touched with alloys and gold.. I really felt that I was on the voyage with them at points, due to these verbal illustrations and was sad to leave when the time came. If you enjoy books with plenty of gorgeous descriptions like this then this is the book for you. My only niggle was that I would have liked to look at the places mentioned while reading the book instead of the nondescript sea lanes shown inside the book on the front and back covers.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Pierre Schifflers

    This book is very beautifully written and successfully plunges you into the world of seafarers. The fact that it also recounts two separate experiences on very different ships (one going from Felixstowe to Los Angeles and the other from Rotterdam to Montreal) aptly shows the variety of situations one can face at sea. It does, however, suffer from its excessive length. A reader can only appreciate so many descriptions of the colour of the sea and of various types of birds landing on containers an This book is very beautifully written and successfully plunges you into the world of seafarers. The fact that it also recounts two separate experiences on very different ships (one going from Felixstowe to Los Angeles and the other from Rotterdam to Montreal) aptly shows the variety of situations one can face at sea. It does, however, suffer from its excessive length. A reader can only appreciate so many descriptions of the colour of the sea and of various types of birds landing on containers and I ultimately found it difficult to stay interested at times.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tom Bennett

    This is a wonderfully written story of the people who live and work the world's shipping lanes. Horatio Clare captures the spirit of the modern merchant mariner wonderfully in this book, and does a wonderful job of bringing to life the history and heritage of seafaring. He definitely has salt water in his veins!!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jessie T-G

    I am a budding marine engineer and read this to really fined out about life on ship. I loved the account and even gave it to my mum, someone who is not at all a technical person, and despite her not getting the appeal of life aboard ship, she loved the book. And it think its that a perfect bridge between the layman and the hidden but huge and influential world of cargo shipping.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin

    Reading this books makes one wonder the value of all our purchases and the sacrifices required to get items which not only were the product of cheap labor overseas, but also sacrifice and danger. Is Belgian chocolate worth that danger? The intrigue of this book was that it was not just a forthright telling of life on cargo carriers, but also a travelogue, invoking many literary references.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Wilde Sky

    A man joins a cargo ship to experience modern day ‎commercial shipping. Interesting in places but the writing was a bit flat and I ended up thinking I was reading a very long newspaper / magazine article.

  28. 5 out of 5

    David Keane

    A sometimes interesting book with a lot of points that make you think but i found it slow to read at times. Not sure i'd recommend to a friend.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Graham Tennyson

    Destined to be a classic. An insight into how the world really works.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    Excellent.

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