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Soup at Sea

By Tess Zondervan –

The wind is teasing me. As I try to keep my balance, resting my back onto the big wooden pillar around the magnetic compass – the one us telling we are sailing westwards – the soup keeps flying off my spoon. It is mushroom soup today. Tomato it was yesterday. It is tasty and filled with the last fresh mushrooms we have left on board. Canned and frozen vegetables will have to do the job until we reach our next port. The ocean doesn’t know grocery stores. It is a soup of a thick consistency, but not thick enough to stay on my spoon whenever I lift it out of the bowl. The southwesterly winds blow it straight towards the sea. Feeding the fishes if they wish, perhaps treating the dolphins with a little snack. They must be hungry after the visit they paid us this morning, playing around with the white, foamy waves under the bow, tossing and turning, jumping and diving, like teenagers trying to impress their “cute classmate” on their first prom night. 

Another unexpected wave throws me out of my dolphin daydream and forces me to catch my balance with my steady sea legs, wide-legged, strong legs. Stronger than two weeks ago, when there was still reliable soil underneath my sneakers. Solid, steady and still. Now there is steel underneath my steel-nosed working boots. A steel ships deck, tossed around by the ruthless wants of the North Atlantic ocean in February. She could be a stubborn teenager too. 

The sea has taught me always to expect the unexpected, but when it comes to waves, I’m usually just a second too late expecting them. Luckily this time, my sailor colleague had found herself a more steady eating position, and caught me on my slide to the leeward side. She saved my soup and me. Mostly my soup. I stayed where I landed to give my lunch another attempt, trying to wrap my mind around the inconvenience of our eating-fluid-food tradition on board, under these wavy, windy circumstances. Even with my best effort, most if the time the soup doesn’t reach further than the sleeve of my bright red sailing jacket. The wind, the ship and me are playing a game. One out of many that I wordlessly agreed on when I first embarked two weeks ago, back in the Dutch town of Den Helder. For this one, the rules are rather simple: the fastest one gets the soup.

We’ve been days and nights at sea. We’ve seen some coasts, some ships, but mainly water. The wide and endless ocean, illuminated by sun – occasionally trying to peek her way through the menacing skies – at daytime, and by breathtaking starry nights during dark hours. The ship’s two mast stand like twenty-nine meter high towers on the middeck, fiercely carrying the big, square-rigged sails which are indispensable for our journey southward. As soon as the wind and sails collide, it’ll push us towards our destinations: Sète, in the south of France. Morgenster is her name, known as a traditional clipper brig sailing vessel, predominantly functioning as a sail-training vessel or a charter ship on international and sometimes transatlantic voyages. During the voyage from Den Helder to Sète, the forty-eight meters long ship carried a crew of eighteen professional and voluntary seafarers, and formed – besides my office as a sailor – the field site for my ethnographic inquiry. 

Within the social and physical confinement of the sailing vessel,  there are countless things for the anthropologist to study. Today at lunch time, people sit closely without talking. They offer help without asking. Enjoying the wind and occasional sun on their faces, the consistent sound of the waves and familiar ship sounds, silently appreciating each other’s company, overlooking the ocean’s endlessness and thoroughly keeping an eye on the forces for forwardness – the behaviour of the ship, the wind and the sea – at any time of day. The ship is the only place to be.

The vessel is like an island of its own, where challenges are faced, decisions are made, risks are taken and community is formed. Life is simple, expectations are clear and rules makes sense. Nevertheless, days are as changeable as the weather. There are only few ingredients, but the difference can be like apples and pears. While one morning the water appears like a velvet blanket in an unnaturally bright shade of blue, only hours later the rain can pour onto the seamen like buckets of water, accompanied by threatening skies. The sailors, at mercy of the elements, have no other choice than to anticipate on any weather condition they are confronted with. They share a communal goal that holds above all other desires: to create harmony between the wind, waves, and the vessel, to eventually reach the comfort of their destined harbour. Playing with water can be like playing with fire. However, this can only be successful when another kind of harmony is achieved: harmony amongst the people on board. The only way to do it, is to do it together. With that comes a level of trust, dependency and teamwork that is hardly comparable to any on-land circumstances. The ocean is mighty and has its own will. Ships and sailors are welcome, but can merely be considered vulnerable puppets in a major play. The wind blows as it wants, the sea moves as it should, while the sailors navigate their way at mercy of the ocean. It is a place that’ll humble any stubborn teenager, as well as the one that hides within all of us. 

However, for a sailor, it is all about the game, the playing, the adventure and the sea of opportunities that the ocean symbolises. It is about living with nature within a world of make belief. Away from a man-made society full of expectations and obligations. At sea, small matters become big, and big deals become small. Enjoyment can be found in climbing to the top of the mast or completing a difficult manoeuvre together, but it can be experienced just as much in the simple game of stealing the soup from your spoon, before the wind does so.

Tess Zondervan is enrolled in the Master’s programme in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit and is an editor of Standplaats Wereld.

One Comment

  1. Freek Colombijn Freek Colombijn

    Mooi stuk, Tess! Wie dit leest kan de zee ruiken.

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