The captain of the Irish Ferries vessel from Rosslare warned that there would be a swell of two and a half metres and that passengers would feel “some movement” by the ship. It did not seem a great height for waves, but I remembered that the fast ferries that crossed the Irish Sea would be cancelled when the swell exceeded two metres. Lying on a bench seat, closing my eyes, I managed not to move until we reached the lee of the Welsh coast.
The unsteady feeling recalled a first sea journey, forty-five years ago. A school trip, it was to cost £77, but, due to the 1973 oil crisis, the cost rose to £84 and the itinerary was changed; there would be no visit to Stockholm, instead everyone would travel in the ship’s launches to the island of Gotland.
Even with the rise in price and change in route, it was a major experience. Sailing from Southampton to Copenhagen, there was a hydrofoil crossing to Malmo, then onto Gotland, before the highlight of the trip, the days in Leningrad; a visit to a city with extraordinary cultural riches that was enduring the grey days of Communism.
For a thirteen year old, travelling without his parents for the first time, it might have been intimidating, but most of those travelling had similar thoughts. It was a school trip; the entire ship was one big school trip. The SS Nevasa had been a troop ship; the dormitories that had once carried soldiers outward to battle or homeward to safety now carried hundreds and hundreds of pupils on educational cruises.
It is hard to imagine such an enterprise being possible forty-five years later. Even if there were suitable vessels available, who would wish to spend days at sea when an airliner could make the journey in a couple of hours? More than that, though, our school party was a fifty strong mixed group, minded by three teachers, two men and a woman; the ratio of one to seventeen would hardly be acceptable, nor would the potential risks of unsupervised young people wandering the decks of an ocean-going liner.
Forty-five years later, images of that journey remain strong: the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the skim across the water to Malmo, the journey in open boats to go ashore at Visby on Gotland, and being guided around Leningrad by members of the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party’s youth movement. Even at the age of thirteen, questions arose: Malmo seemed to be visited for the sake of the hydrofoil journey; Visby was a nice place, but was hardly a substitute for the planned visit to the Swedish capital city; and, if Communism was such a great thing, why did we not get a chance to meet ordinary Russian people?
Two moments loom large in memory.
The first arose from the fact that we travelled on a group passport, whatever that might have been, and had been issued with individual identity cards with the strict injunction not to lose our cards because without them we would not be allowed to land in Leningrad. We docked at the Russian port and my card could not be found. The ship’s master had to issue the necessary document to allow me to travel with the rest of the group; he was not best pleased.
The other moment was the seasickness, the seasickness, and the seasickness – lying on an Irish ferry, I was glad our journey was a mere four hours long.