I was once a passenger on a ship sailing out of Milan, Italy. Heading to Corsica. The plan was to get to Corsica, climb the trail up the northernmost mountain, Monte Cinto, and then spend two weeks hiking over the back of adjoining mountains which span the island. After two weeks in the mountains I would be down on the beach with a bottle of wine and warm food.
Travel Light, but always Prepare
I packed dry rations that would last two weeks, a bivvy bag to keep me warm at night and I made sure that my backpack was as small and light as possible. No tent — it would create an off balance weight when moving across the rocks.
I packed my kit like a soldier going on patrol. Staying comfortable while trekking was important. At night, sleep in the bivvy bag and use my pack as a pillow. Adventure and challenge were my mission. Bivvy bags are a hot a sweaty affair.
Thoughts of Adventure on Corsica
Some of the routes are dangerous and require such things as edging along narrow ledges to reach the next foot sure area of the mountain. There are small passages were you have to climb up or down a sheer rock face using a rope — or trust the rusty cables that the locals attached years ago.
Heavy winds, about 2700 metres above the villages, regular electrical storms, with rushing banks of dark cloud that can disorientate your sense of what’s solid rock and what is, basically, the edge of the world.
Pre Knowledge and a Ton of Respect
I’d been up in the Alps, walking and climbing, learned a few things about safety — such as what my own abilities are as a basic climber. And, number one rule; always respect the mountain.
The mountains of Corsica are dry rock, from salt winds. This causes the rock face to fall away easily when you are climbing and using your hands to grip. A solid piece of mountain can dislodge as you pull yourself up on it, rocks often break away and tumble below.
Mountains are big, and like a powerful horse, if you think you can bend it to your will, it’ll try to throw you. Mountains throw people who don’t respect them.
And I swear, up in the Corsican mountains I felt the spirit of the mountain. There was a powerful feeling everywhere, as if the mountain was watching. It was beautiful.
White caps and Rolling Waves
Back on the ship that sailed out of Milan, a small commercial ship, a real bucket of rust, I went out on deck as it gathered speed and made its way out into the Mediterranean.
The surf spread out into the wake, and the white caps raced along back towards the harbour. I don’t know much about the sea, but I figure things out by looking at them and asking questions.
Ask Good Questions then Find Out what Happens
I was asking myself why a ship’s company would allow a rust bucket like this to stay in service and expect passengers to feel safe about it.
Then I noticed the white caps, those little rows of waves that roll in from the deep and dark of the sea, they were coming in fast and close.
The gap between each row of white foam was about two hands breadth in some places. I asked myself a technical question, “does this mean that when these little waves were big waves out there on the ocean, there were lots and lots of them?”. The only technical answer was, “Yep”.
A Vivid Imagination
I had a flash vision of a large white whale crashing through the waters somewhere out there, gleefully playing amongst the big waves — just waiting for our rusty old tub to trundle into his dark and stormy playground.
I’m no Captain Ahab, don’t even call me Ishmael, but the devilish white caps so close together were a sign that rough waters lay ahead.
I was heading to Corsica for an adventure. I thought the journey across the Mediterranean would be a boring several hours staring at flat clear water.
Always Pack your Tin of Sardines
I had packed a tin of sardines especially for the sea trip, so I found a chair and dragged it over close to side of the deck, sat, and wrapped my legs around the white railings in front of myself. The sardines were now in my pocket for when I’d get hungry.
The mountain trek would be dried rations of oatmeal biscuits, powdered soup and hot tea — so long as the mountain wind allowed me to light the burner I had in my pack I’d get something warm to drink during the cold nights. I also carried a sharp pocket knife, first aid kit, duct tape for broken boots, small sewing kit for repairs — even though Corsica is hot, it gets very cold at night atop a mountain and stitching ripped clothing is important to keep the wind out.
Choppy weather and Bigger Waves
As Italy disappeared and the water turned darker, the waves became choppy and rose up against the side of the ship. I kept my eyes on the horizon where dark clouds formed tentacles and lashed at the sea. I was content with my lot, and if we had to go through a storm, then so be it. Adventure is always welcome. I’d never been in a storm at sea.
By the time the first hour had passed the ship was feeling the swell of the water. I watched the horizon, now much darker, the bow was rising and dipping before me. The wind was already whipping about the deck and caused the ropes that secured the box of flotation vests to snap hard against the wood.
Enjoy Everything, but Stay Safe
Above me, the sky was moving fast, and grey clouds rolled towards us. The sea was mixing into a palette of grey and black tones, and I was trying to find a more solid way to lock my legs into the railings. Occasionally, sheets of rain covered the deck and the chair I was sitting on started to slip on the wet metal.
I decided to stay on deck for the whole journey of four-and-a-half hours. If I got wet, no big deal. Below decks was probably a stuffy place with huddled tourists drinking Pastis and munching chips while holding crying babies.
When the weather is grey at sea, and the waves rise a little, below decks makes it all seem worse than it really is. When the waves bang against the windows and portholes, the noise is loud and irritating.
Thoughts of Great Seafarers as Comfort
By now, the waves were increasing in size. I was right about looking at the many white caps close to the harbour bay. Thoughts of whales were far from my mind — they’re not often seen in the Mediterranean, so instead, thoughts of Joseph Conrad, a writer and merchant seaman, drew vivid sketches across my mind; freak waves and swirls that drag ships into troubled waters.
My legs tightly wrapped around the railings, chair slipping with each roll of the ship and hard rain gusting in my face, I had another thought of an article I once read about how many passengers go overboard at sea each year — it’s surprisingly more than you would think. I hung on to my sardines and enjoyed the roll of the ship.
Increasingly Dodgy Waters
Each rising of the ship’s bow blocked the horizon, and each time it dipped back into the sea it seemed to miss a beat, then all at once crash deeply into the water. Sprays of foamy water landed on the nose of the deck, the ship rose again, and the water spread quickly across the deck. Each time a flush of seawater passed me it swirled around the legs of the chair then ran along the deck and over the side again.
The movement of the ship was becoming heavier, I could hear the motors strain occasionally, I had all confidence in the Captain and a perfect view of how he might steer his vessel if things did get worse.
Stories of Derring-Do
I’d read Henri Charriere, “Papillion”, the autobiography of a criminal sent to the penal colonies of French Guiana and how he escaped across the ocean in a small sailing boat.
During his escape, Papillion steered his small boat through ferocious waves during a storm, it was only his seamanship and bravery that saved him and his comrades from drowning. He made the decision to tack across each wave diagonally. This allowed the boat to rise with the sea and mount the top of a wave at an angle, at which point he would steer the boat around and, hopefully, sail down into the gully of the waves without capsizing. Then up and over again. He did this for hours on end as his two comrades hung on for dear life.
A Solid piece of Rust — with Motors
The ship I was on was a solidly built rust bucket that had powerful motors and a conscientious captain at the helm. I had no worries, just interest to see if he would begin to steer at an angle over the bigger waves — or believe his boat could cut its way through the pressure of powerful water.
I had time and materials to figure it out; the rising sea, the pull in the swell between waves, and the ever-closing gaps between each wave. I look at things and see them in terms of nature and its habits. Things increase and decrease, they grow and they die. When a machine is up against such immense power, the machine often yields to nature’s demands.
Trust in Captains
I put my bets on a captain who wanted to lock onto land at some point that evening and would therefore do whatever kept us on course and in one piece. It would be my job to keep locked into the railings and not become a statistic in an article about people who fall overboard. I still had a sardine dinner to enjoy that day.
Things were definitely getting feisty around the bow and the crash of the waves against the boat now sent broken water rushing along the side of the ship. My clothes were soaked through and the leather of my boots was drenched. I enjoyed every moment.
Up on Deck with Drunkards
I was the only person on deck for most of the journey. But at one point, three men, drunk and carrying bottles of beer, came out of a doorway. They staggered about in the doorway, trying to figure out if they were really so drunk. They had trouble staying upright, gripping the doorway, when they shouted at each other the wind ripped their voices away. After being hit by a heavy gust of watery wind they stepped back inside and slammed the metal door shut.
I was glad those men made the right decision, by now the wind, rain, the waves smashing against the ship and the uncertainty of how big the next wave would be, made being on deck a very dodgy place to be.
Sheets of Rain and Wind, and nothing to See
It occurred to me that there would be other ships and small boats out at sea. I started to scan the water and realised that I could no longer see the horizon. When I thought I saw the horizon, it rose up, then fell to reveal large waves behind it. Heavy sheets of rain seemed to come from all directions, twisting at every fancy of the wind, turning it into spray that spread across the water.
The Exhilaration and Fine Boat Painters
The sky was dark, thick sheets of rain filled the air, and the sea was now raging. I thought about the paintings of J.M.W Turner, a master painter of the violent tempest. His paintings of the sea in such turmoil could only have come from the feeling of exhilaration he felt as he witnessed it. I felt exhilarated, excited and safe enough as I decided that it’s better to lean forwards and grip the railings with my hands, as well as my legs.
Turner was a fine painter, he plunged himself into life to find out what it was made of. Not only did he hob-knob with the affluent of society, but also the underbelly of social life in among the underdogs that frequented the taverns along the harbours and docks.
The Artist as Adventurer
An artist is often misunderstood as an aloof member of society because of their ability to stand back and observe. To be still and look, to hide away and work for weeks or months, alone.
But when the need for work no longer calls, artists can be found among friends and strangers enjoying life, laughing and drinking, exploring and feeling what it’s like to simply be “a part of something”.
As I watched the roll of the sea and now felt every wave that hit the boat, I knew that I was simply enjoying life, and that one day it would become a part of my artistic memory. An experience that feeds the creative mind. Not forced into place or noted and marked for possible use — just lived and experienced in the moment. It would or would not be useful to me, one day. If an artist tries to live the moment and make notes for a work of some kind, then they are already missing the point of being an artist. In a storm, be part of the storm.
Heavy Seas, High waves and Good Captains
Enormous waves began to hit the ship so much harder than earlier. I could see that the bow shifted direction slightly, each time. By my reckoning, it was time that the captain started making decisions about how to mount these waves and come out the other side upright and safely positioned for the next wall of water.
After a few minutes of hanging on tightly, grinding noises came from the engines, the ship’s body shuddered. There were creaking noises that made me wonder if something was wrong. Loud vibrations from the ship were mixed up with the roar of the wind. Then the ship’s bow shifted a little and we began to climb the next wave at an angle.
Mesmerized by Slippery Waves and Wild Beasts
It looked as if the ship was sliding, struggling hard to keep pushing upwards. It was taking longer to reach the top of the wave, which was now rolling above the ship. I knew I was about to be hit by the wall of breaking water, but the sight of this magnificent wave was mesmerising as it rose up like a wild green beast in the screaming wind.
After some time, I noticed how the captain had found his rhythm and the ship attacked each wave at an angle. The motors were working hard, groaning and grinding as we climbed, followed by a sudden release of tension as we capped the wave and began to rush downwards into the gully between.
The bow would plunge into the water causing an enormous fountain of white and green to rise above the ship, then come crashing down on top of me.
I was hanging on tight with hands and legs wrapped around the white railings. I could hear ropes and tarpaulins cracking and snapping in the wind. Occasionally, I could hear the ‘twang-snap’, of a breaking rope somewhere close by.
Adventure and a Sardine Lunch
My heart would leap for a moment as I watched the front of the ship disappear under water for a short moment, then thankfully, rise up powerfully to mount the next wave which was fast coming.
I put my hand on the tin of sardines in my pocket. I actually felt hungry, in the middle of a raging sea storm. Nature is a powerful force, it controls our environment, it dictates our decisions, nature always wins against our will.
I was hungry, so I pulled out my pocketknife and, after a struggle with freezing hands, prised the thin slice of tin away from the sardine container.
It felt good to eat, satisfying, in the middle of a storm that, in hindsight, could have picked me up and sent me overboard easily. I had a Hemingway moment. No fear, wet, cold, but relaxed and enjoying every moment of it.
Always Remember Murphy’s law is Everywhere
After finishing the sardines, I checked the time; if we hadn’t been knocked off course, we should be in Corsica within the hour. I doubted that would happen. Consider Murphy’s law in all circumstances and add an hour or two for nature’s way of doing things.
After trying to settle into a safe and locked position close to the railings, I spent most of my time watching the bow rise and fall, protecting myself from some very heavy crashes of salty water, and carefully watching out for bits and pieces of ‘boat’ which were getting ripped away from their secured positions, and were now flying through the air.
So far, ropes that cracked like finger whips on the other side of the deck, and now and again, I saw a yellow jacket fly through the air to disappear into the sea.
The Power of Nature’s Call
Eating sardines was a grand idea, but it had caused nature to beckon again; I really wanted to pee. It’s astonishing how inconvenient nature’s call can be.
Pee? In the middle of a dangerous storm at sea?
Did captain Bligh have this problem in the middle of his mutiny, or did William Turner experience the urgent need to pee while painting “Man-o-War in a Storm”?
The need to go and find the toilet would mean going below deck.
I thought through my route away from the safety of the railings; cross about five metres of open windy and slippery space, then grab hold of the handrails attached to the central structure. Edge my way along to the large metal door and once inside, make my way down the narrow metal stairs without being thrown against the hard walls.
Bolster Your Courage and Just Do It
The way to the door meant fighting against the wind — which was so strong, I buckled several times and told myself to hang on till we reached Corsica. But it wouldn’t wait.
I waited until the ship had crossed the cap of the next wave, then with eyes fixed firmly on the metal hand-grips close to the stairway door, I rose up, arms spread out like a bird for balance, made my way into the open deck.
The Scariest Moment
The ship creaked, cracked, then started to tilt to one side, the wind pushed hard against my body. I could feel the bow begin to rise again, and I had to shuffle with my feet to keep my balance.
After just two or three seconds out into the space I heard an enormous snapping sound followed by the heavier sound of breaking wood. Several pieces of plank flew past my head. I looked back and could see that the large wooden box of life vests had been ripped apart by the wind. The ropes whipped about the deck like snakes, wrapping themselves around posts, then sliding away with the wind. Life jackets filled the air with a stream of yellow-orange inflatables.
I ducked and balanced, shuffled and orientated myself towards the metal hand grips in the centre of the ship.
Whirring Box Lids and Small Decisions
Then as we began to climb the next wave, I heard a whirring sound that was getting closer by the moment. I looked about to see a large panel of wood, about twelve feet long, tumbling through the air directly towards me. If it hit me it would not only knock me overboard, but probably kill me. It was the lid of the life jacket box, the ropes had finally broken and the wind had picked it up like match wood.
A simple decision: I couldn’t control where the box lid went, so duck down and keep heading for the door. I did this. The lid twirled above my head, threatening to change course as the wind shoved it up and down just a few inches from my precious skull.
The Power of the Waves
The dark object spun around several times, hit the corner close to the door, and was rapidly carried into the sea below. I grabbed at the hand grips and pressed myself close to the metal door. All this just to go to the loo. I could see the wooden lid getting pulverised in the waves. It lasted a few seconds as it was twisting and turning, being ripped at, then finally it broke into parts and dispersed among the dark water. I wondered how long a person could last in those waves. Probably no longer than a minute or two; the powerful water, the cold, and the obvious effects of fear or shock that would quickly set in.
A Sad Sight and Feeling Helpless
I got myself through the door and hung on tight as I made my way down the metal stairs. The steps were wet, and I could see a few damp patches at the bottom. The air was stifling, and I could hear each wave smash against the boat, the wind was muffled, and I felt a little warmer. I reached the bottom and was astonished by what I saw. Crew members in panic stations.
It hadn’t occurred to me that other passengers were having a tough time of it. They were.
Medics and Waiters — All Hands at Work
I surveyed the large room of medics and waiters, all working hard to revive people who had collapsed. Some of the older passengers were in dire straits — I’ve seldom seen a human being look so pale. A strange paleness to the skin, that makes you think they might well be dead.
At first, I thought they might be dead. They looked like it. Then I saw a few movements from one person and a medic stepped over several people to help her.
Another man, maybe a waiter, was slapping somebody’s face, he kept turning and asking for help in Italian. Each crew member was too busy working to respond to the waiter’s request for help. He did his best.
Offers Help and Loose Canons
I spoke in English and asked if I could help, a man who looked like the purser waved me away and shook his head. It was just a matter of helping people to stay conscious or bring them back from unconsciousness.
It looked like chaos, but they were doing a great job in an unexpected situation. I looked for the toilet.
Serious Sea Sickness
It made me feel helpless, or selfish even, to walk away from all those people who had collapsed due to sea sickness. I’ve never experienced sea sickness and always thought it would be a small dose of puking. But to see what happens when the body becomes so disorientated and confused about what’s up and what’s down, is a serious situation.
The medics were doing their best, and I imagine they waved me away to avoid allowing a loose canon into the situation.
As the storm raged on, the captain had radioed ahead and asked permission to dock at the closest harbour to his ship. We were supposed to dock in the south, but after being slightly knocked off course we were able to finally dock at Bonifacio port in the North of the island.
What should have been a boring crossing to Corsica had turned into an exciting journey for me, and probably a never-again experience for many of the passengers.
Finally, the Adventure Begins
I stepped off the ship, my small rucksack intact. I threw my empty sardine can into a rubbish bin. I could already see the mountains. They were impressive and daunting, they offered the challenge of Corsican adventures that I would never forget.