Our man [formally] of Amsterdam


Crossing the Channel – Part 1 of 2
October 5, 2009, 13:22
Filed under: London, Travel

You know England can’t be too far away when the advertised chef’s special on the overnight ferry from Hoek van Holland to Blighty is fish fingers with chips and tartare sauce, with a big, bold, fluorescent star-burst design around the enticing price.

StenaLine passenger ships ply the Netherlands-England sea route with the ugliest boats afloat. Blunt-nosed bows with decks stacked high forrard taper away to lower decks hovering just above the Plimsoll line aft, with their two red smoke stacks leaning back off the stern as if bent by the fierce winds whizzing along this tempestuous stretch of ocean.

stenaline1

On board, truck drivers are separated from other ‘passengers’ with their own relaxation area, bar and restaurant, though we all share access to the single duty-free shop, which sells, apart from the standard booze and perfume, an inordinate number of porn magazines, including straight, gay, S&M, bestiality, fetish, inter-racial and other such ‘specialist’ titles.

A vision of the Chef’s Special flashes on a flat-screen monitor as I exit the said duty-free store, my only purchase I hasten to add, being a miniature Cointreau bottle.

“For later, luv?” said Sharon of my single purchase, the overly-chirpy sales girl, mid 50s and wearing way too much makeup this late at night. “I’m usually on reception, but im enjoying dese shifts in de shop. Judy’s way you see – on holiday the lucky thing. Em just fillin’ in. You know, one man earlier bought five bottles of bourbon and some magazines I ain’t never seen the like of.”

Yeah, thanks for the info Sharon.

“She’s gone to May …”

Before Sharon could utter “… orca” I was gone and heading straight to the Metropolitan Bar & Grill, one of those all-you-can-eat buffets where I’m sure the staff are proud of their output. One item was so deep-fried beyond identification that a hastily hand-drawn sign was thought needed to indicate fish inside. It could have been veal, chicken, pork, so encrusted was the nuked filet. And the tour group of elderly passengers crowding the race couldn’t get enough of it.

Sliding onto the end of the banquette in the bar I opted for the only red wine available by the glass, a passable French Beaujolais as it turned out, and a packet of paprika Lays chips. The staff were extremely friendly, and the four elderly couples who shared the Metropolitan Bar with me buried their faces in newspapers and magazines or books. The German couple beside me ordered two cappuccinos each, back to back. And this just a few hours shy of midnight?

And yet another flat screen flashed the Chef’s Special and I was starting to feel nauseous. I’m not a good ‘sailor’ at the best of times, the musty, musky interior air of ferries like these often induce waves of dry retching forcing me to seek relief in the bracing air on an outside deck as the lolling, rolling swell tips my insides from side to side. I even feel a bit ‘funny’ on the Manly ferry on a ‘heavy’ day.

Yet delivering a yacht back to Sydney from Hobart one January in 50 knot winds and 10-metre swells, with a sail the size of a handkerchief and a storm anchor dangling off the stern in Bass Strait to slow us down as night descended, and using a hand tiller to steer because the cable connecting the helm to the rudder snapped soon after losing sight of Tasmania, our 40ft Farr surfed down the face of these waves like Kelly Slater on a lazy day, as I clung onto the harness under a waterlogged moonlight so tightly my fingers went numb with the wet and cold, and did not for one second succumb to sea sickness, unlike four of the seven seasoned sailors on board. Funny how fear and ignorance can do things to your system sometimes? Years later, one of the sickly seasoned sailors confided in me that in all his decades of ocean racing, he had never feared for his life as much as he did that night. But that’s another story.

The Metropolitan Bar & Grill closed and there was a lot of food left but few patrons. I couldn’t finish the wine and so adjourned to the casino on deck 8 to try my chances there.

“Place your bets,” said the roulette croupier. He was serving deep-fried fish only half an hour earlier. I guess you have to be multi-skilled to work the StenaLine fleet. I cashed twenty euros and put the lot on black.

“Twelve red. Even twelve.”

With that I ordered a plastic cup of ice and made my way to my single cabin on deck 9 and emptied the Cointreau over the ice and stretched back in the bunk thinking maybe I should have ordered the prawn cocktail as I was starting to feel hungry.

About four hours later a wake-up call bellows through the ship’s intercom. In four languages, I think? It lasts for what seems like half an hour. As far as I could tell I had about another half hour before embarkation commenced at 6.30am. Might have to pass on the English breakfast buffet; the sight of anything savagely deep fried is not the ideal way to start the day, let alone the morning after a night at sea on Stena Britannica.

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