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HindustanTimes Sat,25 Oct 2014

Locked at the Gibraltar gate

LJ Singh, Hindustan Times   December 28, 2013
First Published: 09:51 IST(28/12/2013) | Last Updated: 09:53 IST(28/12/2013)

"Join the sea and see the world" an old adage luring the landlubber, the shore borne, to the sea does no more hold much (sea) water these days, as naval ships rarely venture out of coastal waters of our own ports or a couple of nearby countries.

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But the merchant navy service still affords many chances to see the wonderful world, not only to the crew but also to the families allowed on board, a privilege that comes with rank. The life on the ship, no doubt, is monotonous for the officers and the crew but it is more so for the wives who join them for a voyage. Still, there are moments of interest and adventure. The sea passage from India to, say, the east coast of the US and Canada through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean is one enjoyable experience.

Aboard one of these ships, I was the chief engineer and my wife had joined me leaving the children with my parents. We made a much sought after journey to the Great Lakes from the North American ports near the Ontario, Erie, Michigan and Superior. By the time the ship reaches the last named freshwater lake, it is about 600 feet above the sea level, lifted in steps by that engineering marvel, the great locks that use gravity to raise the vessel on arrival and pumps to lower it when it returns to sea.

The wives' enthusiasm at the onset of the voyage, to see "great foreign places", gives way gradually to homesickness, the rush to get back to "our greatest country", which was the case with my wife, and the hostile Atlantic was delaying her reunion with the children. To pass time, from the reading material on board, she picked up an old issue of the National Geographic magazine.

After a long passage from Montreal in Canada across the vast stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, braving one storm after another, we were in sight of Gibraltar, gateway to the east, the sight of which returning from the west is a great-relief sign of being almost ashore. You see land on both sides, Europe to the north and Africa in south, as the ship transits through the Mediterranean Sea. On a sunny afternoon, my wife joined me on the boat deck, where I was into my usual stroll, and without any preamble or "beg your pardon", asked me, rather told me, to run the ship faster. "Let us get through," she said, "before that Gibraltar gate closes in our face."

She had been reading in the magazine about geologists' postulating that because of the continuous though imperceptible drift of Africa towards Eurasia, the inter-continental passage at Gibraltar was getting narrower, imperceptibly, of course, and would, one day, result in making the Mediterranean sea land-locked and a dry valley once the passage shuts completely, as had happened many times in the past billion years or so. Was she afraid really that we'd be delayed for days and have to head home eventually via the Cape of Good Hope, a longer and stormier route? A compliment to the chief engineer on the performance of his ship, even better coming from wife, is how I took it.

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