Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Tales from the river to the ocean

Brest Maritime International Festival
I am currently living in Atlantic Wharf on the banks of London’s Thames, and September’s Totally Thames festival is in full swing. This timing is a perfect opportunity to make connections; London and Dalmatia; the Atlantic and Adriatic; industry and artistic endeavour; environment and exploration. It is clear that we can learn from those who spend their lives on and around water. Teamwork, effective communications, information sharing, and contingency planning are all essential.

There are common challenges faced by maritime industry workers everywhere. They talk about difficult journeys, and hard and dangerous occupations. They describe changes in climate and environmental devastation. They battle with the elements and place their lives in the hands of trusted colleagues. And spend a lot of time away from friends and family. Those who make a living from the sea/river have a symbiotic relationship with land-based support. Without it, many individuals would be unable to leave port to earn money, which would be disastrous economically.

This pooling of community resources and a determination to face the impossible is powerful to behold. Combine that with an artistic vision and you get incredible results. Launched in 2014, Totally Thames is an annual month long season of arts and cultural events, inspired by the river's rich industrial heritage, and environmental future. In comparison, people living on the Dalmatian coast have a parallel maritime history. Their language and music, applied arts, and practical talents have their genesis in a seafaring culture.

I met the inspirational Croatian explorer and cultural ambassador Tonka Alujević on Hvar, Croatia last month. A decade ago she had a vision to buy, artistically restore and sail/paddle a 2.86m long ‘guc’ – a traditional wooden Adriatic boat – 550 nautical miles from Narbonne to Brest. She was assisted by Ars halieutica, the Croatian island of Vis’s cultural institution for maritime research. Her beloved tiny ‘Pol oriha’ (half walnut) connected Dalmatia’s ship building and seafaring expertise with that of the Atlantic. As she said, ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’.

Tonka and her partner navigated the inland waterways of France, taking in the River Seine and Paris. Under the watchful gaze of a pilot ship, like the Owl and Pussy Cat of the poem, they entered the Atlantic Ocean and reached Brest without mishap. The Brest International Maritime Festival occurs every 4 years to celebrate ‘boats of all sizes and shapes designed and built as part of mankind’s endeavour to conquer the sea’. And they gave their smallest participant the largest welcome. Their incredible journey took just under two months.

I wanted to share Tonka’s story with eXXpedition. This all-women crew – of sailors, scientists, artists, journalists, filmmakers, adventurers, psychologists and educators - were going to tell us about their epic Round Britain 2017 mission aboard S/V Sea Dragon. Sadly the discussion event was cancelled. Their voyage was as inspiring as Tonka’s so I still wanted to mention it here. The scientists on-board were collecting data, footage and findings to add to the worldwide data set of plastics and toxics in the ocean. 

Their interests coincide with the environmental research of Split’s Oceanographic Institute, as well as the concerns of Dalmatia’s small scale fishing industry. Plastics are reported as causing safety issues in ports and harbours. In coastal areas dependent on tourism, they need to engage with local people, holiday-makers, media and politicians about the problems. One thing is certain; ocean pollution is going to have a profound impact on us all.

From the river and sea, to inland continental cities, where is next month going to take me?

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