Last evening, I attended a concert in a perfectly renovated hundred-and-fifty-year-old church in my home town. We sat at ninety-degree angles on stiff wood benches, huddled together inside that beautiful and ornate old building listening to a musical group that calls itself LaNef.
The men on stage (on the altar), seven in all, were there to perform sea songs and shanties in the purest tradition of the sailors of the Atlantic (with the exception of the song Rolling Down to Old Maui).
In the evening’s program, I read: “Our goal here tonight is to present these songs, not only as they have always been sung, but also as music to be listened to. It is no small challenge to drag these pieces, tar-stained and tattered, into the concert hall. We hope to give you something new to listen to in these pieces.”
They sure did. Reverberating off the wooden walls and arches of an old church, those songs take possession of you, swirl around inside your head and chest and squeeze your heart. And you find yourself awash in feelings and images from a world of groaning wooden ships and motley crews of men, and the cold, grey, salty sea with waves crashing and rolling, and gales blowing mercilessly, and the men chilled to the bone and hanging on for dear life.
Those seven men up on the stage sang and played their hearts out, and what they sang was beautiful, funny and sometimes tender but of course it was also about the punishing harshness of being at sea and living that life—a thousand years ago, and today. Which is why their songs made me laugh and made me want to cry as they transported me away from my own, comfortable world.
It was easy for me to let go and follow them, because a hidden part of me has been living among large cargo ships and frosty air for months now. First, there’s been my son Jeremy’s life with his new employer: a large ocean-going dry-bulk shipping company, and his frequent travels to board and inspect his company’s fleet. Last July, Jeremy opened an unforeseen door in his brother Christian’s life when he made it possible for Christian to take a three-month contract working as the Boarding Clerk on behalf of the same company, at the port built by its business partner, a corporation that mines iron ore in Milne Inlet, Baffin Island, Canada.
Before leaving for his hundred-day stint at the “sixth northernmost community on Earth” (his words), Christian spent a day with Jeremy, inspecting a ship berthed here in Quebec, meeting the mostly Indian crew, and slowly catching the scent of the distinctive culture and language of the life of mariners. This hundred-day Arctic contract was an opportunity to make some serious money—the life of a young actor and writer is precarious—and seemed like it would be a hell of an adventure.
Christian left for Milne Inlet on July 19th, and arrived at his temporary new home —well within the Arctic Circle and separated from Greenland on its northern side by Baffin Bay—on the 20th. Nothing he had done previously to get himself ready (buying lots of extra warm clothes, a pair of indestructible-waterproof-extreme-cold-resistant-protective-steel-capped-boots, a good camera, and several pairs of sunglasses for the days of endless sunlight) made any kind of dent in the reality of living in an Arctic mining camp.
None of it made Christian a sailor. He’s spent these last three months of his life at the mining port, working alongside his superior, Captain P, a veteran seaman, hardened by years of often thankless and even dangerous work and crushing responsibility; alpha down to his bone marrow and surefooted whatever the conditions, both inside and outside the port’s office.
Christian won’t have become a sailor, because the extent of his travel upon the surface of the water was the distance between the tugboats he sailed almost daily and the ships at anchor further off in the Inlet that he had to board in order to begin the endless amounts of paperwork that were his responsibility.
But he will have smelled the brackish water of the inlet daily, and grown fond of it. He’ll have discovered that he’s as steady as any member of any deck crew when it comes to climbing the gangway to board a cargo ship, and looked forward to each and every visit. On the worst, choppy, heavy, restless days at Milne Inlet, he’ll have found his sea legs aboard the tossing and tilting tugboat, and been proud of it. And he will have grown to admire the mariners he had the honour of meeting with every boarding.
When he finally does arrive back home after a hundred days of endless work and ruined circadian rhythms, having lived with miners and truckers, cooks, cleaners and stevedores, engineers and technicians—all male and all constantly counting off the days till their two-week rotations ended and they could head home for an equal number of days off— Christian, standing by and watching them come and go while he stayed put, will have peered, as through a porthole, into the lives of the men on each and every ship that entered Milne Inlet, duty bound to fill her holds with iron ore, their destinies linked to their ship’s, all of them a long, long way from home, and perhaps only a few weeks into a six or ten-month round-trip.
He may feel a kinship with the Russian, Indian, Finnish and Filipino seamen whose lives intersected with his at the frigid top of the world.
I think if Christian had been with me at the concert last night, he, perhaps more than anyone else in the church, would have been moved by the tar-stained and tattered sea songs and shanties of his brothers in spirit.