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Floating along on a voyage of discovery in more ways than one; Author Horatio Clare never thought of himself as a travel writer, but then he went off to sea to see what he could find.

THERE comes a point, when you are writing about ships and the sea, when you cannot even walk into a pub without wincing at the pages of research material which leer at you from the walls.

There's a fine place in Aberdaron for a jar, but I could barely enjoy it for all the maps of the Llyn around the bar, each hedged and hatched with that little tilted line drawing of a half-ship sinking which denotes 'wreck' on a chart.

And every one of them a story, a cargo, a captain, a crew.

Each a history of economies, weathers and, often, wars.

Imagine all that Welsh coastline, from the late Bronze Age to the present, and imagine you could see every boat that ever sailed there and sunk there, all at once. That is what it was like.

Now, add all the vessels currently afloat on all the seas today. That is your field of operations.

The simple story of how the shipping business works is enough to give a supercomputer a migraine, believe me. I am no supercomputer. So what to do? Until quite recently I would not have admitted to being a travel writer.

Jan Morris does not allow herself to be so described, but then, as well as being the greatest living travel writer in any language, she is also a novelist, historian, essayist: labelling her does not work.

I have managed two volumes of 'memoir' (actually they were more like biography), a retelling of a Mabinogion tale in the form of a novella, and one travel book, A Single Swallow.

But faced with the global blob of flags of convenience, murky practices, pirates, subsidiaryof-subsidiary ships with multiple name-changes and publicity-shy owners, the Mafia (who pretty well run one of the Mediterranean's biggest ports, Gioia di Tauro on the foot of Italy), and all the strange and worse things that happen at sea, I decided to drop the pride.

I am a travel writer: there, I've said it. You might as well. As far as the media are concerned travel writing is something like sheep-jumping: you only have to do it once, and that's you tagged for life.

Compared to being a journalist, being a travel writer is easy. A very, very fine journalist, Rose George, was writing a similar sort of book about the same business at the same time as me, and she was travelling with the same company, Maersk Lines, that accepted me as 'writer in residence' when I had what I thought was the original idea of writing about ships, seas and sailors which was to become Down to the Sea in Ships.

You have to admire Maersk: they took Rose and I on separately, and told us we could join any ship we liked, and write whatever we wanted - they did not care. They would not set the lawyers on us.

And they did not tell either of us about the other one.

When you are a $10bn company carrying 18% of the world's container trade - and emitting, incidentally, as much CO2 as the entire nation of Denmark - you are not so worried about what people might write about you.

Especially when you are as efficient as Maersk. So that was an unwelcome treat in store for both of us. But the good news for me was that I was approaching shipping as a travel writer, while Rose took the whole giant business on as a journalist.

I think it must have nearly driven her crazy.

Shipping is perhaps the biggest and most complicated and most crucial industry in the world today.

Much of it is lawless (on the ocean, captains, chief engineers, the weather and the Gods are the only real powers) and much of it is deliberately secret. Most travel writers follow a simple method. Get a room, go for a wander around, talk to whoever, see what happens, and hammer your phone and email for contacts. When you get back with a full notebook, Google up the loose ends and read like mad to fill the (vast) gaps in your 'knowledge'.

Write it out twice, fight off depression, send it in, and pray. In this case it was even more fun than normal, and even more interesting, and even easier, because I had a free en-suite room - the pilot's cabin on the Gerd Maersk, which is a very big, beautiful, great monster of a ship - and three meals a day, all free, and the oceans rolling by, and sailors who just could not get away from me for two months.

It was about as dangerous as checking in to a Premier Inn, except for the storm on the second ship, and the moment when I had to jump off the Gerd as she sailed out of the Suez canal, and land on a tiny weeny little pilot boat: that was exciting.

And the result was amazing.

I learned more than I could ever have imagined about men, and their great floating machines, and the exquisite majesty of the seas.

I would do it again tomorrow, if I could.

Down to the Sea in Ships is published by Chatto & Windus, PS20

Much of it is lawless (on the ocean, captains, chief engineers, the weather and the Gods are the only real powers) and much of it is deliberately secret

CAPTION(S):

Horatio Clare, a man who's found his sea legs
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 15, 2014
Words:901
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