A Sailor's Life
“Some years ago, we were sailing down the east coast of the Big Island of Hawaii on a very dark, moonless night when lava was flowing out into the sea,” Commodore Christopher Rynd recalls. “We cruised very close by – safely, but close – so we could see the lava coming in, and its collision with the surf and that impact of forces is one of the most memorable natural events I’ve seen.”
Rynd has been sailing professionally since 1970, and learnt to navigate using stars, sextant and paper charts. Today, as Cunard’s senior captain, he oversees a fleet of three ocean liners. Yet sea travel has not lost its magic: from the billows of gravelly steam as molten rock meets Pacific breakers to the pirouettes of a pod of spinner dolphins, from the glide of a three-metre albatross to the hallucinogenic swirls of the Northern Lights.
Be it Right whales at play, seals tending pups on ice floes or Orca hunting as a pack, wildlife is one of the great charms of the view from the bridge. “Dolphins very typically come up and want to swim alongside in the ship bow wave,” Rynd says. “They’re not after food: they just seem to like playing in it. Maybe their life gets a bit dull from time to time.”
Marine bioluminescence, the ocean’s answer to fireflies, continues to enchant. “There are parts of the world on those dark, moonless nights where the whole sea seems to glow,” Rynd says. “But there are different types of phosphorescence: some just respond to movement, so you see a dolphin swimming by encased in a luminous glow, but others expand out in concentric rings when the water is disturbed.”
For a more intimate perspective on the sea than the sweeping vistas of the promenade deck, Rynd recommends a position low down in the vessel. “There are some lovely galleries on the lower decks of the Queen Mary 2 where you can just sit and watch the sea go by – and when there’s a bit of sea, like in the Transatlantic, that can be quite dramatic,” he says. (On the Queen Victoria, his other key command, he suggests the library, home to about 16,000 books and regularly refreshed magazines).
An heir to the grand transoceanic traditions of the Golden Age of ocean travel, Rynd is acutely aware of maritime history. He speaks as passionately of the transformations coastlines, cities and harbours undergo as he does of the night skies in mid-ocean. “Most of our mornings start before dawn and so you see the world coming to life,” he says. “Going into some of these Greek ports before there’s enough light to see the modern towns or roads, you’re looking at a scene that could have been seen by Odysseus: so there’s that timelessness and beauty and promise about that time of day.”
There are, of course, a whole world of views which can only be truly experienced from the sea: from the fjords of Norway and New Zealand to the pristine atolls of French Polynesia. (To reach the tinier islands, a liner will anchor in deep water, while smaller craft, known as tenders, ferry passengers to shore).
Yet harbours, Rynd is keen to point out, remain at the beating heart of the world’s great port cities, from San Francisco to Venice, from Rio to Sydney. And arrival by sea has a drama that plane travel simply cannot match. “In Kotor, Montenegro, we berth right alongside the UNESCO World Heritage town – actually inside its walls,” he says. “Stockholm is wonderfully picturesque as you weave through the islands, with their little red houses and the flags flying.”
A measured man, Rynd prizes the traditions of the old liners, from fine dining through to ballroom dancing. It’s possible, he says, for a couple who book a private lesson at the right time of day to have the entire ballroom of the Queen Mary 2 to themselves.
And other, older seafaring habits die hard. Sailors have been celebrating the crossing of the equator since at least the early 1500s and, on Rynd’s ships, King Neptune still appears as he has for centuries. While crossing the International Date Line is always exciting, Rynd’s favourite invisible boundary remains the Arctic Circle. “You’re in another dimension when you get up to the high latitudes,” he says. “You realise how much of the Earth is ice and rock when you get up along the coast of Greenland.”
Even as he manages a bridge that resembles the cockpit of an A380 than anything Columbus would have recognised, Rynd cleaves to a few old sailing superstitions. “Whistling on the bridge comes from old sailing days, I believe, where the fear was that you might whistle up a wind that’s not favourable to you,” he says. “That custom still prevails; I certainly endorse it; and there will be no whistling on my bridge.”
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