Alison Bate

Writer, editor and journalist

Sailing to Shanghai (2): Men are headlines, women the fine print

It’s my second evening on board the Felixstowe, and we’re gathered in the crew’s dayroom, where Capt. Gomez has exchanged his smart uniform for casual black pants and a beige shirt. We’re in the middle of a rousing Catholic prayer meeting and he’s the star of the show: the guardian of not just the ship but our souls as well.

With short, dark hair and a tidy moustache, the captain radiates quiet competency and a serious manner most of the time. But now he lets rip with a microphone in his hand, bending to the music as he leads us in rip-roaring hymns such as “Come Holy Spirit Come”. Backing him are several Filipino members of the crew: Gaudioso Blancaver, known as Alan, on keyboards; Eduardo ‘Edward’ Moratalla on drums; Reggie Victoria on guitar, Erwin Zarate on the hand drums, and Warren Bilog and Jovie Villaluz in supporting roles.

Now the sermon begins, as the captain tells the crew of mostly married men to communicate more with their wives. Women have emotional requirements, he says. “There are headlines and fine print. Men are headlines and women are the fine print. They want to know everything about your lives.”

He quotes the Bible, adding his special interpretation to a passage in Ephesians about wives submitting to their husbands. “There’s God’s ordained order in every place. In the government we have order, in the ship we have order, so also there’s God’s ordained order that wives submit. Not be a slave, but submit. If something is wrong in your house, men, it’s your responsibility.”

My mind is in turmoil as we all shake hands after prayers. I love the singing, the camaraderie it generates, and the Captain’s way with words. But I’m quietly steaming over Ephesians, which brings back unhappy childhood memories of the Bible’s view of a woman’s place in the world.

We’re only 150 miles off the coast of California, but I’ve already stepped into a very different world. A world that combines a strict hierarchy dating back to sailing clippers with the traditional family-based culture of India and the Philippines. A world where everyone does what they’re told, where religion is all-encompassing, and the captain is king.


I learn quickly from Jina that the days of seamen enjoying rum rations are long gone. Just before boarding, I’m about to buy some wine and beer for the crew. When I ask which they’d prefer, Jina says firmly: “If you drink, you will be drinking alone.” Chastened, I board the ship alcohol-free.

Although beer is allowed off-duty, it’s quietly frowned upon on the Felixstowe. Discouraging drinking and getting everyone together for prayer meetings all tie in with the captain’s strong religious beliefs. “I see it as the only way. Instead of getting soaked in alcohol, you are getting soaked in God’s word,” he says. “They experience love from us to them, because a seaman’s job is basically a lonely job, you know.”

It seems to work, as Sikhs, Hindu and Catholics alike all show up at the Sunday prayer meetings. “The bible-sharing lifts our hearts. I like music a lot and it removes some problems when you miss your family,” says able seaman Reggie Victoria, who plays guitar in the band. Reggie is 28, and his wife Shirley and their 18-month-old daughter Shireann live in Legaspi City in the Philippines. As a single man, Reggie enjoyed working on vessels, but finds it harder now he has a family. “That’s the agony. I miss a lot of things with my daughter and her progress. The first walks, the first word. . . ” His voice trails away.

Dasan Jorge, a 39-year-old electrician from Kerala in south India, used to drink a lot of whisky in the old days. On one ship he sailed in, the captain and chief engineer clashed and the chief engineer appeared the next day with a big, swollen cheek. “All these things happen during drink, while the conscious mind is off,” says Dasan. He’s quit drinking and smoking as well, prompted by his wife. “She doesn’t like me smoking, you know. She used to tell me: “God heals all things except my smoking”. I told her: “You know, keep praying darling, one day he will heal everything. Don’t worry, keep your faith in me.”

Not much drinking, but I do get to hear lots of sea yarns, as the captain, chief engineer Anil and third officer Praveen Prabhu trade stories over curry lunches in the officers’ messroom. Today they’re talking about the Suez Canal, nicknamed the Marlboro Canal, where if you don’t pay the pilot with cartons of cigarettes, they won’t move the ship. One time the captain finally gets a pilot who says he doesn’t take cigarettes. “I’ll just have coffee,” he says, then but then adds a huge list of tea, butter and other demands. “Better you take the cigarettes,” says the captain, finally.

Another time, his ship is at anchor at a port in West Africa, waiting and waiting for the pilot to show up. Finally, he sees a man swimming toward them who hauls himself onto the vessel, still wearing swimming trunks. It’s the pilot. He speaks no English, just points directions, then afterward, simply goes to the bow and dives back into the water.


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