15 November 2011

The Bilbao to Portsmouth Ferry

Air travel doesn't do justice to distances, or to journeys. Getting on a plane in one place, getting off in another, feeling nothing but blankness in between - it reorders geography into simple equations of hours-between and time-zones crossed. It's nice, every once in a while, to go more slowly and deliberately, and to have time to ruminate on the change.
We left the continent in grand fashion this time, setting sail for southern England with our car and a few days before our flight home. The trip took a little over 24 hours, beginning in darkness, traversing a full day and ending late the next night.
Above, morning breaks over the Bay of Biscay
The Brittany Ferries boat that plies the water between Bilbao and Portsmouth is much bigger than we expected. Because of some bad weather that we never saw but heard a lot about, the ferry was late in loading. During a few hours spent sitting in the vast holding lot, idling truck engines and the crackling radios of the customs men settled into a kind of dreamlike white noise. A few hundred other cars sat in the gloom with us. Truckers talked by their rigs, drinking beer until unsteadied and laughing over old stories.
When we finally were ushered on, it happened in a rush. We left the car with our overnight bags, found our cabin, settled in. Our cabin smelled faintly of seawater, the ship rolled heavily, we slept lightly, always aware that the ocean was beneath us.The morning brought brief sun, followed by spitting rain and strong wind as we entered the Celtic sea. We worked and sat, wandered from shop to restaurant to bar. There are events on board, of course, and movies playing, but we didn't take part in any of it. A certain pleasure can be found in being hemmed in for a finite amount of time, and in drifting into a soft-lit daze. The day passed very swiftly, in a cornerless line of rolling waves and quiet music.
There were two restaurants on board, and two real bars. Rumors of a third bar spread, and were confirmed by a vague mention in the directory, but we weren't able to find it. It sounded intriguing - the "chauffeur lounge," reserved for truck drivers and, one imagines, the more unsavory types.
The other bars were predictably bland, though they did a brisk business. People like to drink when they're on a boat, and to eat. We had sardines and bread for our chilly, on-deck lunch, followed in our cabin by some dates and oranges.
Night fell again, and with it came a certain edginess. The passengers were informed of another delay, minds were turned toward solid ground. In the last few, long hours, it was as if the boat had awakened. Passengers stretched and paced, standing restlessly in the hallways and congregating more anxiously around the televisions and bars.
The lights of England and Portsmouth brought people out onto the decks. The air was heavy with moisture, but the rain had cleared. Most of our fellow passengers were British, and the sight of their homeland seemed to calm them.
We slipped into our berth around nine-thirty at night. Driving away, speeding down a misty English motorway, the breadth of the water behind us felt immense.

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