Ferries are fascinating vessels, right up there with steam engines, auto rickshaws, and bullock carts in my list of favourite transports.
My love for auto rickshaws is easy to explain: every second person I grew up with in Kerala drives an auto rickshaw now, so I have some personal investment in the three-wheeler industry. Bullock carts, well, that’s a post in itself, so let me just say that I once befriended an ex-bullock cart driver who had a challenging life looking after siblings too numerous to count on one hand. As for steam engines, I can think of no one who does not like steam engines. Can you?
Which brings me to ferries. Why do I love them? It took me some head-scratching and thinking — thankfully, I had an hour-and-a-half to do that as I waited for the ferry to Stromness — but I think it is fair to lay the blame on Mark Twain. Huck, more than Tom, was a hero of mine, and Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi on a pine raft that they had “catched”, fishing and taking occasional dips in the river, is a memory that I cannot shake off. My love for large-bottomed vessels that ferry people and Big Things across received further anchorage after Mark Twain enthralled me with the excitement of piloting a steamboat in Life on the Mississippi (if you haven’t read it, what’s wrong with you?). As far as I am concerned, every ferry that runs today is an offspring of Huck’s raft, one way or the other.
So I waited to board the ferry to Stromness, the second largest town on Orkney islands, rubbing my hands in glee. I was up in the north of Scotland, in a place called Scrabster. It is difficult to be overwhelmed with excitement when you are in settlement with a name that is a cross between a skin ailment and a crustacean with five pincers, but I swear there was glee all over my hands when an attendant waved me on board the ferry. I drove in and parked smartly on the car deck behind a campervan from which a grouchy couple was alighting, then serenely joined a milling crowd to make my way up to the passenger decks.
That is the other thing that I love about ferries. On a ferry there is none of that post-departure panic that I experience when I jump on to a flight. Did I leave my one-year-old in the backseat? Gosh, I hope I left him enough formula for a week! No such anxiety accosted me now. There was also some comfort in knowing that your personal transportation was at hand should you need it, though I was not quite sure which road I could take out of the North Sea.
The ferry I was on was the Hamnavoe, which in Norse means ‘safe heaven’, the old name for Stormness. It was an impressive craft with seven decks, which could take 600 passengers and 95 vehicles comfortably. Less comfortably for me, it also took £84.15 for the 90-minute crossing with car. So I was determined to milk every second of the journey.
I pottered around trying the various lounges and bars for size. I poked my head into the restaurant and stood in the queue for a while just for the heck of it. I inspected the toilets. I had a look at the executive lounge, which for the price of £7.50 offered me unlimited hot drinks and the privilege of exclusive toilets. Nobody could part me from money do easily; I returned to rub shoulders with the plebeians.
By now the engines had begun to pant beneath. Someone began making announcements on the PA system. I thought it might be the captain. As I wanted a word with him — in case he wanted an extra hand on the bridge, you understand — I went in search of the commotion. Alas, it was only a steward. I provided him an audience of one for a bit, then feeling bored, I retired to the lounge upstairs and ordered a coffee. Still traumatised by my instant coffee experience, I took a hesitant sip. It was not good. It was grand — and it only cost £2.75, 40 pence cheaper than in most places on mainland UK.
Energised, I decided to have another look for the captain. He had to be somewhere up front, and my binge watching of Below Deck had imbibed in me the knowledge that the bridge was usually in the vicinity of the sun deck. Find sun deck, look up, ahoy.
After blundering into a few places I had no business blundering into, and falling over the grouchy campervan couple twice (sea legs were a wee late arriving), I found the sun deck. It was right behind where I had sipped coffee, through a heavy metal door. Outside on the deck, a stairway led up, but was chained off. The captain must be up there.
There was no sun on the sun deck, but there were people sunbathing fully clothed. They huddled around in deck chairs, miserable in the wind but taking in the sights bravely. I thought of joining them, but then the image of the revered steamboat pilot that Mark Twain had painted — master of the craft, lord of the waters, tamer of turbulent conditions — swam into my mind.
I squared my shoulders and walked to the front of the deck. Standing tall and brave, my hands gripping the white rails, left foot on port, right on starboard, I took a deep breath, letting the ocean air fill me.
The ferry had picked up speed and was swallowing sea. I scanned the horizon through steely eyes that would do a steamboat pilot proud, noticing the contours of the Orkney shoreline emerging on the faraway horizon. Then I realised that the shoreline was receding, not approaching, and I was at the wrong end of the boat.