Do you know the feeling of land sickness? When you have been on a boat for a long time, when your body has become used to being part of the liquid element, constantly rocking and moving and balancing in relation to all the other bodies, big and small, connected to you through water, and then you step on land. For hours and possibly days you still feel the movement, you even see it. But it is not real. On land it is only your own weight to balance against the gravity of the planet. Land Sickness is when you can feel that the order of water is different from territorial life. The order of water - hydrarchy. Medicine tells us that women in their forties are especially prone to feel land sickness, sometimes forever, without end.
Most captains are male. In Hamburg, 99 out of 100 captains are men. In the Seamens’ Club, we mainly met men. At Hamburg Port Authority, we mainly talked to men. But then we realized how many women we had met along the way, along the shore lines and on water: Constance Hockady, Swoon, Mary Mattingly, Guiditta Vendrame, just to name a few.
Is something changing on the seas? Is there a feminism of the seas?
In the hope to reconceive and rebuild the connection between civil society and the seas we founded „Women of the Seven Seas“ – looking for more women across the globe working on and with the ocean. We built a website with stories, statements, songs, collages, interviews, films by women of the seven seas. The aim is to make women on the seas more visible and to connect them with each other – artists, activists, theorists, female seafarers. For a long time, we needed these many words to describe them. But then we found the perfect term on a YouTube channel by an officer from the Philippines who makes videos about her experience of being the only woman working on a cargo ship for months at a time. We wrote to her, but she never replied. Nevertheless, this is where we encountered the term “shefarer” for the first time and we thought it was perfect. At about the same time we got in touch with the Female Seafarers’ Association of Nigeria and their president Koni Dunyia, who are fighting for equal rights in maritime industries.
In 2021 the Women of the Seven Seas came together for a series of online meetings and a symposium. We talked between different time zones, across different oceans, connected most likely by several submarine cables. When we talked it was 3 pm in Nigeria, 7 am in Los Angeles where Constance Hockaday lives, 10 pm in Mumbai where Shaina Anand lives and 1 am in Indonesia where Nova Ruth lives.
We are at the beginning of a story from the near future. The camera zooms in from space, from an animated comic book space, that shows the earth as different sorts of maps, which are morphing into one another as we are approaching. Night. Huge waves. An island in the Pacific, a tiny dot of land in the middle of the wide open sea, threatened by floods. There are just a few houses scattered around a little beach and port. This is a training center teaching the old art of the female navigators of the Pacific, who found their way from island to island with the help of patterns tattooed on their hands. On the upper level of the building is an open bar, overlooking the disaster. Inside: Kelii and Nalanie, mother and daughter, who run the school, both with patterned hands, They are playing chess and drinking Rum. With them are two frightened tourists, a couple, with their freshly tattooed hands still in bandages, wondering: How are their new tattoos going to help them now? The Shefarers‘ Frequency, the station connecting shefarers on the seven seas, is playing on the radio.
You are tuned in to the Shefarers’ Frequency, this is your all time favorite MC Su, broadcasting from the North Sea and you are listening to a new composition by L Twills.
Nalanie complains: Oh no, Mom, is it experimental music night AGAIN? Then a big wave destroys the port structure below them and takes away the boats. The lights go off. Mother and daughter light oil lamps and inspect the damage. Kelii decides to call in to Shefarers‘ Frequency, but reaches only the voicemail: Mayday mayday, to the women of the seven seas, this is the ancient school of female navigation, South Pacific, we are going under …
North Sea, delta of the Elbe. We see a rusty oil platform and a few miles further, in the delta of the river a creaky pilot boat, painted pink. On the bridge of the pilot boat we see Su, our main character, an old version of ‘Tank Girl’, who is tricking the rattling equipment into working. A mayday message arrives on her phone while she is busy kicking the equipment. She doesn’t notice it, because she gets a call from her boss from Hamburg Port Authority.
He lets her know: Since business in Hamburg port has gone down, they don’t need to employ a pilot boat that looks like hers anymore; it is not representative, and the boat‘s safety certificate has run out months ago, ergo: Su gets fired.
Su arrives home at the oil platform. She finds Isma, her non binary grown-up child, at home. They came by to check on Mom before they went out on a mission with a gendernaut crew dedicated to the rescue of coral reefs. Su does try to live more sustainably, but she sucks at it. Isma finds fast food cartons and empty fuel tanks lying around: Burgers, Mom? Seriously? Isma explains to Su again how to operate the drinking water apparatus properly, how to do maintenance of the solar panels and how to keep the veggies alive. You could also grow algae and eat those, do you know that, Mom? They are saying their goodbyes; Isma sets off with their friends into the sunset on a solar-powered catamaran. Su doesn’t tell them that she lost her job. She climbs up to the bridge of the crane, her favorite spot, with male pinups and heroines pinned to the inside of the cabin. A laptop is mounted here, which is where Sheafarers‘ Frequency originates. She takes the mic and goes live, but she still overlooks the mayday message and just talks about herself:
Hi my fellow shefarers near and far, how is it going? Me myself and I have lost their jobs today. The old white men of Hamburg Port Authority cancelled us. The old pilot boat lost its license and I lost my temper. 20 years and that’s how they end it. I guess I’m going to become a pirate now. Your favorite MC is running out of options and out of gas. However, we don’t run out of music any time soon, so this is another new work by Lil Twills ….
A ship from the wind electricity company approaches; Captain Sergej, her casual affair of many years, arrives on the platform. He heard her talking on the radio. And she thinks that he has come to cheer her up, but after sex he tells her that the wind electricity company has finally obtained the license for a new wind farm, right here, and that the company is going to take the oil platform down soon. He leaves. Su is smoking in bed; a fuel container, which she had hastily hidden from Isma’s critical look, has been knocked over during sex – a fire is about to start.
Not far away, in the port of Rotterdam, we see futuristic, sleek architecture. We are with Captain Abebe, our other main character, who gives a talk at a conference about the development of international sea rescue teams with a much wider notion of safety and security. We learn in passing that she received her diploma at the same shipping academy as Su.
I’m honored and grateful to speak here today. It was a long way up to this point, and still, it is just the beginning. The beginning of an era, in which the International Maritime Organisation on behalf of the United Nations will work proactively towards global maritime justice and the decolonialisation of the oceans. On our first mission however, we will focus on testing the range and performance of the JUSTICE, the first of many vessels, we hope, which …
The lecture finishes, Captain Abebe rushes to get on board her newly built and highly equipped IMO rescue ship for the first test mission. On the bridge a colleague is tuning in to Shefarers‘ Frequency, just as the experimental music ends. We hear Su talking about the end of her pilot boat years. Captain Abebe says:
Do we have to listen to this whining?
Meanwhile, the fire on the platform breaks loose, the pilot boat explodes. Su escapes to the studio in the crane. Now – finally - she finds the mayday on her phone and sends it over Shefarers’ Frequency immediately:
Mayday, mayday – to the women of the seven seas. This is the ancient school of navigation, south pacific, we are going under, this land is ending. If we are to build that other land in the water, we have to do it now. To the women of the seven seas – mayday, mayday.
Su adds: And those of you in the North Sea, could you please come and rescue me, too? There seems to be a small, or actually not that small fire on my platform. I repeat: Mayday, mayday – my platform has caught fire, please pick me up, I’m 54° North and 8° East,
The IMO rescue ship picks up Su from the burning platform. Captain Abebe and Su, who know each other from the academy, are reunited, but Captain Abebe disapproves of Su‘s lifestyle, the way she hid on the oil platform living an irrelevant punk life, riding pilot boats. Captain Abebe is interested in the other mayday message from the pacific. This seems to be an opportunity to test the speed and the range of the new rescue vessel. IMO leadership gives the go-ahead for the mission. And Su decides to stay on board and sets up Shefarers‘ Frequency on the bridge.
There, Su gets a call from her best friend Zoe.
We are getting a call now from Zoe in the arctic sea. Apparently she found something there in the melting ice. So, what did you find, Zoe? We’ve been really excited up here. We found this object a few days ago in the ice, it’s like a weapon of sorts. And we think it may have been left there by Fridtjof Nansen, when he was trying to find the North Pole. It must have been in the ice for 130 years. And now that the ice is melting, these objects come to the surface again. So we tried to thaw it out, but ever since people have been feeling quite sick, we‘ve all developed this terrible cough. So, I’m going back to base again now.
Oh Zoe, that sounds creepy. Take care and keep us posted.
The crew of Zoe’s icebreaker is hastily starting the engines heading towards Alaska.
This is the Pacific coast at dawn. A monster of a cruise ship is anchored in the waters off Seattle. The ship is not as shiny as it used to be, it is more like an offshore old people‘s home, with just a few inhabitants left, folks in their 90ies and 100s in their beds. Young women from Southeast Asia work in service here. We see two of them, Cora and Lin, in their cabin, way down in the belly of the ship, waking up, making selfies for their Shefarers Insta. Life is much more boring than they expected it to be. Then a colleague rushes in with the news that many of the old people have fallen seriously ill overnight. Some seem to be on their last breath. When Cora and Lin come up on deck, they find that the captain and officers and all of the white crew have just left the ship; they watch all the lifeboats disappear towards the shore. Then a ship from the coastguard approaches and announces:
Attention, attention: this ship is now quarantined.
The weather changes. The sickness proceeds rapidly. The oldest of the inhabitants die, but the others are feeling better quickly, they seem to survive the cough. The young crew members seem to be immune. One of the old women, Sarah, starts to perform rituals of sea burial: She paints body bags and makes swimming installations with flowers. Others start to help. We hear old voices singing.
(This version of the script misses the journey of Cosmic Waves, a family collective led by a hippie matriarch, Betty, and her husband, Baz, who is actually the artist Bas Jan Ader, who disappeared on the Atlantic during his legendary action In Search of the Miraculous).
Back at the IMO vessel Justice, the relationship between Su and Captain Abebe, both on the bridge, is at its lowest point. Open conflict, as –again– Su is cheering Lin and the Cosmic Waves for their plan and their bravery, while Captain Abebe is alarmed: The cruise ship might create an underwater oil hazard. She is also concerned for the young crew of the ship, abandoned by the authorities, without a proper captain and influenced by the Cosmic Waves:
A rescue mission is not a party, It doesn’t mean that everybody is jumping in to be rescued, too!!! When are you finally going to wake up and take responsibility in the real world, Su.
Su is on the defense: Why come down on the movement trying their best?
Captain Abebe: Which movement are you talking about? You people and your imaginary movements.
Captain Abebe calls a friend in India, the female boss of a hell of a beach, where old cruise ships are dismantled. The Indian expert and Captain Abebe explain to the cruise ship crew and the Cosmic Waves how to tear the systems apart. Wild welding sessions follow, crew and Cosmic Waves work in mixed teams of two or three, - more sparks of all kinds. Time is running out, the engines have to go full speed, while crew and Cosmic Waves are dismantling stuff, flirting with each other and making out over the excitement and the danger. The fuel is going down while they make their way across the Pacific, parallel to the IMO rescue vessel going west from Cape Hoorn at high speed. Zooming out, we see that their lines are going to cross at the island.
Meanwhile on the island: Roles are reversed. Now the tourists are playing chess and drinking rum, while Kelii and Nalanie are on the rooftop scanning the horizon with binoculars. The storm is gone, the waters are calm. The cruise ship and the IMO rescue vessel come into sight.
Showdown at the coral reef:
The cruise ship is pretty much out of control. Fuel has just run out, but the ship is going at high speed. They can‘t maneuver well enough to make sure not to run down what’s left of the island. The IMO rescue vessel comes sideways. Captain Abebe looks at Su:
So, are you the world‘s best pilot captain, or what? Now you can try and clean up the mess you created.
Su orders the Cosmic Waves to surf their two halves of the raft into position as bumpers, while the IMO rescue ship is taking the cruise in tow. At some point, they all together manage to turn the cruise ship around swiftly, 170 degrees exactly, to fit into the trench in the sea floor. Kelii and Nalanie from the roof top offer crucial help with positions. Su is parking the ship, the lower decks are cut open by the rocks on both sides, water is rushing in, the upper decks stay dry, the ship comes to a grinding halt, it is swaying dangerously from one side to the other, but then stops in a somewhat skewed middle position. Captain Abebe takes over Shefarers‘ Frequency and reports what happens live.
This is Captain Abebe of the International Maritime Organization speaking to you from the bridge of the Rescue Vessel Justice. I report on an imminent rescue maneuver happening this very moment at the Ancient School of Female Navigation, which due to rising sea levels is about to go under…
Around the world people who are tuned in are listening up when they hear Captain Abebe speak: The Indian boss of the shipwrecking beach; Zoe, who survived the cough with a tea pot in a port in Alaska; Sergej on his ship in the North Sea, drinking; a tomboy on the beach of Benin, Westafrica, who is just learning how to build one of those HUGE wooden boats they make there. We see how they are contemplating setting sail with that new boat to join the new archipelago.
Captain Abebe ends the live report and calls a first safety briefing on deck of the cruise ship. We see the Cosmic Waves building a bridge from trash that reaches towards the roof terrace of the former resort; Nalanie and the tourist couple are coming across. We see all the people - Captain Abebe and her IMO crew with protective masks, Cosmic boys, Cora, Lin, Sarah, crew and remaining inhabitants of the cruise ship, Baz and Betty gathering on deck for the first safety briefing. Captain Abebe greets everybody in the name of the IMO, and there is a feeling that this improbable assembly could be the start of something. Then Captain Abebe realizes that Su - of course – is missing from the safety briefing. Where is Su? We see her and Kelii in the open bar surrounded by the ocean and connected to the cruise ship by the bridge of trash. From this perspective the cruise ship, half sunk and askew, looks magical in the setting sun. Su takes the mic and speaks her final words on the Shefarers‘ Frequency.
We are here to stay, and you are all welcome. We have to – well, sleep now – meanwhile you will listen to the new album of Lil Twills.
Sue and Kelii light up a pipe and start to play chess. In the last light they see another boat appear on the horizon. It is the solar yacht of the gendernaut coral reef rescue team with Isma and their friends on board.
This piece has been writtenn in collaboration with the Female Seafarers of Nigeria.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Bas Jan Ader, In Search of the Miraculous, center spread for Bulletin 89, published by Art & Project, Amsterdam (August 1975). © Estate of Bas Jan Ader / Mary Sue Ader Andersen, 2016 / The Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York, courtesy Meliksetian | Briggs, Los Angeles.
Supported by Kulturstiftung des Bundes, the Fonds Darstellende Künste with funds from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media within the program NEUSTART KULTUR.