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Spare a thought for the BBC Bangkok and its unheralded seafarers who keep global trade afloat


Vital: the BBC Bangkok

Vital: the BBC Bangkok

Vital: the BBC Bangkok

The BBC Bangkok sailed unnoticed into Belfast docks on Sunday. An unremarkable cargo ship visiting on an unremarkable day. She's a 128-metre long, almost new vessel, currently sailing between here and Denmark with metronomic regularity, keeping trade between these isles and Scandinavia moving.

Flying under the flag of Antigua and Barbuda, she's owned by the giant BBC Chartering company, founded in Germany as recently as 1997, but now a massive worldwide concern.

The Bangkok is one of more than 100 leviathans owned by the company currently sailing at a very sedate 14 knots across the world's seas. BBC is but one company. Out there now, criss-crossing the oceans, or tied alongside taking short breaks from their perpetual quests, some 100,000 cargo ships are keeping the world supplied.

Out of sight and mind, they are like ghost ships. But without them we would not be the people we are. And, like zombie towns, these gargantuans are inhabited by just a handful of forgotten people.

So maximised is the space for the cargo, the real stuff that fills our balance of payments sheets, that the men have been pushed further and further to the edges of their own vessels, let alone our thoughts.

Spoken to a seafarer recently? Out for months on end, the captains and engineers and mainly Filipino crew have but one task: to keep the vast, throbbing engines ticking over, tracking a course for one port and then the next; vast, featureless horizons stretching out before them, grey emptiness in their wake.

The giant hulks that bring us our bananas, our cars, our breakfast cereals, our fuel and our face creams keeping in time with the rhythm of our interconnected economies.

These islands are inextricably linked with the oceans, they gave us our strength and our livelihoods.

A former First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy recently lamented that we suffer from sea blindness, we've lost touch with that part of our natural world.

He wasn't talking about the weekend sailors buzzing about the coast, but the real thing, that which supplies our food, regulates our climate, gives us global connection.

Take Belfast. It is the sea, without it it is nothing. Yet we are indifferent to what it has done for us.

Those cargo ships tying up alongside are the lepers of the seas, they might as well be on Mars.

The docks are at the centre of town, but not of the town, the sense of wonder at its business long since replaced by thrill-seeking at the Odyssey.

But for this hopelessly landlocked writer, romance can still be detected amid the whiff of brine that occasionally makes its way even to Royal Avenue. It's almost as if you could smell the monotony, the chugga-chugga of the straining pistons, the unwelcoming ports, the sense of being of the world, but not really part of the world, the uncompromising waves.

Maybe spare a thought for the BBC Bangkok today.

She's shortly to leave her moorings opposite the Stena terminal on her unheralded, never-ending journey.

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