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Opinion & Analysis

Looking out to sea

If you plot them on a map of the world, the trade routes across the oceans are like a richly woven tapestry linking east to west, north to south. More than two simple axes, it is a picture that is constantly changing, a dynamic web overlaying the globe and shifting constantly in response to the social and economic vagaries of communities thousands of miles removed. Be it coal from Australia to soothe an energy crisis in Japan, grain from Latin America to tide Europe over a poor harvest, or the latest technology just in time for Christmas, wherever there is demand, there is a ship. And for the Rock, straddling a maritime motorway like the Strait of Gibraltar, there is opportunity.

Not that the average person ponders this amid the day-to-day grind. Ships are the lifeblood of global trade, the cogs that keep the wheels of the world’s markets turning. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, about 90% of the goods bought and sold in the world are carried by sea. Globalisation, that buzzword that evokes equal measure of praise and derision, is old hat for shipowners. Stretching hands across borders and oceans is nothing new in this industry, which has always existed precisely to bridge those physical divides. But the maritime industry exists largely out of sight and out of mind, despite its vital role

I was thinking this after introducing the Chronicle lecture at this year’s Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival. Our sponsored author, Horatio Clare, has written an account of two voyages on container ships entitled ‘Down to the Sea in Ships’. The book sheds light on a little-known industry. It is an intimate portrait not just of the business itself, but of the men who sail on cargo ships. Clare is a former journalist, having worked in both print and broadcast media, and the book is reportage of the highest quality, a non-fiction account of what he saw and heard. But it also has an enduring, lyrical quality that captures not just the facts of life at sea, but its essence too, the romance that still exists out on the oceans.

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Clare was an engaging speaker and his focus, most of the time, was on the “big, tough but gentle” men who sail these behemoth steel machines from one side of the world to the other and back again. These men are “human cogs” in the machine and they exude “the professional calm of men who maintain the world, out of sight.” Clare described their daily routines and their hopes and fears, how they found safety at sea and viewed land as danger. He spoke too of their tough lives, particularly at the bottom end of the business where the rights of seafarers - most of whom are from the developing world – are easily ignored. And he praised their inner strength, which he described as “the secret of seafaring”.

Clare’s talk and his book offer a timely reminder of the importance of the sea to Gibraltar, not just because of our maritime history, but because of our future too. During the closed border years, the sea offered a lifeline for Gibraltar. Against the backdrop of Brexit and the potential for a troublesome border, this may become all too relevant once again. But either way, the local maritime sector is about much more than the delivery of goods.

Gibraltar remains the busiest refuelling port in the western Mediterranean. The bunkering industry, a mainstay of the local sector, continues to supply nearly 4m tonnes of fuel a year, safely and (mostly) without incident. Ships are repaired here too, crews changed, provisions and supplies delivered both inside the harbour and off port limits. Merchant ships are registered under the Gibraltar flag and legal services provided to companies in boom times and in times of trouble. Cruise ships come and go, bringing hundreds of thousands of passengers a year, and the whole thing works thanks to men – and women – who labour tirelessly, unseen, not just at sea but on land too. Shipping creates jobs and generates knock-on business across many sectors. It is a key pillar of our economy, but one with a low profile. We are surrounded by water, but we often live with our backs to the sea.

Similar sea blindness afflicts the UK, and in particular its navy. Admiral Lord Alan West, a former First Sea Lord who has been to war on ships, said it was “a national disgrace” that the Royal Navy was down to 19 vessels. Maritime trade, Lord West said, provides “the sinews of our global village”, and the wealth and security of the world depends on ensuring that ships can sail freely and safely. “We are a maritime nation,” Lord West said at this year’s Trafalgar remembrance service, “but we forget our navy at our peril, and the same is true for Gibraltar, which guards one of the nine key strategic maritime chokepoints.”

In their passionate defence of the maritime world, both Clare and Lord West appeal for a deeper understanding of the role of the sea in our lives and, most importantly, of the contribution made by those who work in it.

In his book, Clare describes a night in Montreal after crossing the Atlantic in winter. He had swapped the confines of a ship for a landscape of bars, crowds, food and wine. But he found nothing to replace the comradeship he had felt at sea. On land, he was like “an odd ghost”, wanting to grab someone by the arm and say, “listen, there is a ship at sea tonight, and this is who is on board, and this is what their lives are like, and without them none of this world you call normal could exist.”

It is a thought worth holding onto as we reinvent ourselves in the face of the Brexit challenge.