The first thing you should know is that me and boats don’t really go together. From an early age my kids learnt that on even the shortest Channel crossing the best thing to do was to leave me in a secure area with a set of headphones on and pick me up again once the ship had docked. I’m not at my best on boats and have been known to do uncharacteristically stupid things on boats – like accidentally leave a three year old locked in my car on a car deck when we about to set sail. Sorry, S.
I put this weakness down to both nature and nurture. My grandfather was convinced that his descendants were aboard the Girona, a Spanish Armada ship that sank off the north coast of Ireland. I believe they swam ashore and settled in the small town of Kilrea, passing down in their genes forever the ancient memory of a deep distrust of the sea. My own childhood was nurtured through many trips on the Belfast-Liverpool ferry, which in those days was a cattle truck full of soldiers and a few hardy civilians braving the Force 8 gales through alcohol and by wretching miserably over the side of the ship.
You can see then that booking myself onto a 2-day trip across the unknown Sea of Japan was an act of the utmost heroism which will lead you to suspect that there is more to this trip than just going places and seeing things.
The boat from Vladivostok to Sakaiminato in Japan sails weekly on a Wednesday afternoon, stopping en route for a few hours in Donghae in South Korea. Accommodation on the boat is compulsory and can be booked in a range of classes depending on how many people you’re prepared to share with and whether you want a bed to lie in or a rubber mattress on the floor. I booked second class, which means you share with seven other people but have the luxury of a bunk bed to lie on.
The first thing you notice as you enter the marine port is that the brand new terminal building doesn’t actually link up with your entry to the ship at all. Instead, you have to cart yourself and your luggage down flights of stairs to security, wait for the wet-nosed dogs to snuffle around your cases, and then walk across the quay to the gangway which presents a long and steep 45 degree climb up onto the ship.
Luckily, the crew of lean and keen Korean porters are more than happy to rest a suitcase on each shoulder and leap up the gangway two steps at a time. S watches this performance carefully and will try to replicate it at every possible opportunity throughout the rest of our journey. As a dutiful father, I feel it is for me to provide as many opportunities for him to practice carrying our luggage as possible.
We’re directed to our room and the four Russian girls already installed in half the small dormitory do not look terribly impressed with our arrival, or at the very least with the prospect of sharing with me. The more mature Russian woman on our side of the room takes our entry with more sang froid, and later in the evening when we return to our room to find that the girls have locked us out, it is the woman who gets out of her bed to open the door.
I’ve read about meal times on the ferry, that they are a buffet where only the fittest survive. We install ourselves in the Zest Bar and only 1 burger and 2 hot dogs are bought all evening. I should know. I bought them both. What happened to the buffet? Tonight the fattest would have had no trouble surviving.
In the lobby outside the bar the crew have enticed a dozen or so passengers into a raucous game apparently based on fortune cookies and, no doubt, fabulous prizes. The only game we engage in is Charge That Device for One Dollar. Ignoring signs warning that the plug sockets in our room are unsafe and should not be used, we prise the covers of the sockets to find that rather than being dangerous, they don’t have, and possibly have never been close to, any electrical current. I make endless trips to the Information Desk with my one dollar stake money in my hand.
After eating, I go for another explore round the ship. Beyond the covered section of deck, towards the stern of the ship, I find the disco where some serious Korean dad dancing is in full spate. It looks as scary as it sounds. Discomfited, I walk back to the central lobby. Someone has vandalised the message board. On boarding, I’m sure we were told we would only have to face 1.5 metres high waves. Someone has removed the decimal point. Now I’m worried.
It’s the second day on board and we are approaching the Korean coast. Three naval ships sit motionless on the surface of the water watching our approach. As we move nearer to the port a fourth vessel is despatched to keep an eye on us. I’m not sure what they are expecting. The crew have already put two Wanted posters up offering duty free discount on any purchase made if the derogatory poster of North Korea’s leader is presented at the till.
We have to leave the boat for a few hours while it is prepared for the next leg to Japan. I agree with the crew that we can leave our cases on board as we are not changing rooms. In the terminal I present myself to the tourist information desk and ask my usual ‘What can I do in 3 hours?’ question. We are encouraged to visit the caves near the centre of town so I ask the advisor to write the names of the caves and the ferry port in Korean on a piece of paper. Then I go looking for a taxi.
Whether in business or real life, I always like to have a clear exit strategy. I can only fully commit to where I am if I know I have a surefire way of getting out of there as quickly as possible. So we visit the caves, walk round Donghae town centre, eat unreasonable amounts of pizza and then get a taxi back to the port in time for a few more souvenirs to be bought. We’re back on board ship just in time to see four people on the quayside roll up a sign saying “Have a great next trip with DBS ferries.”
The Zest Bar empties. There weren’t many of us there, but now we’re on our own. S thinks he’s heard an announcement about dinner. He also tells us he thinks he found a dining room yesterday evening. Now he tells me. I talk to the information desk staff, at the same time retrieving another fully charged device, and buy tickets for dinner. We track down the dining room.
As the boat is noticeably quieter after the stop in Korea, the buffet is not the cut and thrusting event that was described to me. The buffet is half full and half edible. For the members of my party not keen on fish or oriental cuisine, it’s a very limited affair. For the first time in my life I get to use metal chopsticks. Then we retire to the Zest Bar again and play cards with M, a young male Slovakian on his way to a train conference in Tokyo.
Having pocketed the key to our dormitory earlier in the evening, we have no trouble accessing our beds later on. The dorm is hot and stuffy and gets worse as the night goes on. After a fitful night’s sleep we risk the breakfast buffet and it’s not a good choice: nothing to drink and only a local version of Frosties that suits my early morning palate. Not everyone feels the same though. The Russian girls return to the dorm with dozens of packets of seaweed in micro-thin layers of gelatine. Yum.
Two days on board. The sea has been like a mill pond. I feel like a crusty old sea-dog with a pair of fully functional sea-legs. Our train journey to Japan is almost complete.