14/4/2006 – THE TWO ITALIES

Tales of the sea

by Valeria Giordani

The Harbour Pilots and their desire to feel the city close

At every meeting with the members of the Ravenna Harbour Pilots, one feels a great desire to talk about themselves: a need to communicate with the Ravenna people, to make society feel this “world of the sea” that lives next to the city, but in a problematic historical interpenetration. The pilots are not from Ravenna, and they perceive the “cultural” difference between the city and the sea: as you know, Ravenna does not have a specific training nautical institute, it does not have restaurants and illuminated ships along the Port canal; apart from a pier and a couple of dams, it does not have the waterfront promenade of other cities. The Port is an industrial suburb. But the sea is rooted in Ravenna’s history. In its figures of fish-men. In the god of the river with crustacean claws that appear in the Arian Baptistery. Also, in the marine symbolisms, the people of Ravenna are fascinated as if it is an ancient call.

From Ravenna, crossed by boats and canals and by mosaics illuminated by the light refracted by the water, there was simply the loss of the sea, the transformation into dry land of the geography of alternating strips of land and water. A cultural break of over a millennium. But the ancient collective memory is perceived as much as the current coexistence of neighbours.

The Pilots feel these two banks between which it is difficult to build bridges. Therefore, they invite them over. They are happy to meet: they would like to tell tales and reduce the distance. In this desire to communicate, they recall the crews of the ships on which they board to take command: faces that protrude from the deck and the portholes, tens of meters high; greedy gazes of land frames and people on the dock; senses that smell the scents of kitchens and that listen to sounds of collective life, finally different from the radio and the noises of navigation; Anxiety for the mainland, for information on the place, so much so that the pilots are now the regular part of tour operators, bringing maps, brochures and indications. 

Given the shifts (the pilots’ headquarters, in Marina di Ravenna, is open 24 hours a day – 365 days a year), the invitation is for lunch, where at least two or three can meet between those entering the shift and who comes out.

Among men of action, the key to bringing everyday life out must be sought a little and teaming up helps.

The pilot Maurizio Garipoli, from Liguria, at lunchtime becomes a Teutonic and does not compromise on time: he, at noon, sinks his fork; between him and Roberto Bunicci, Venetian, pilot on watch today, there are jokes upon jokes that go back to an ancient rivalry between maritime republics. To tackle the theme of “sea culture”, we start from afar: from the earring of Corto Maltese, the adventurous-romantic character created by Hugo Pratt and loved for more than a generation worldwide.

Perhaps there are few young people who, accepting this trend today, know that it refers to an ancient maritime corsair tradition: the sailor’s fear was not that of death at sea – an eventuality that was considered probable – but that of remaining unburied. For this reason, the gold earring was a kind of insurance, the reward for those who – having found the drowned person in a shipwreck – would have given him burial on the mainland.

On the sea, there are traditions, customs unknown on land, superstitions and religiosity, a code that puts the duties of solidarity and the protection of human life first; there is a particular sensitivity that comes from being men who have shared experiences and bear the mark. There are rituals and taboos, such as that of the Rumenian sailors on the Black Sea: never start the ship with the engine astern. It isn’t pleasant. If the manoeuvre requires it, the machinists disobey, begin with a slight kick forward, then engage the engine astern: a gesture equivalent to the Neapolitan fingers crossed (literally: ‘let’s make horns’).

Rituals and beliefs

There are rituals and beliefs: rumours are circulating of a secret formula to escape storms unscathed, which an old sailor can only reveal on a particular night. There is the Equator passage, celebrated as a real baptism (water balloon) of those who do it for the first time. The circumstance is also certified, and the new citizen of the other hemisphere is given a new name, a caricatural nickname such as “Sardinia ridens”. The other hemisphere is a different world, where the water from the sink drains in the reverse direction, the winds blow inverted, the midday sun is north, and in the night sky, you don’t see the North Polar Star, but the Southern Cross; to welcome the ships are the herds not of dolphins, but penguins.

To tell this tale is Chief pilot Andrea Maccaferri, engaged in the host role, who brings pasta with tomato, buffalo mozzarella, hazelnut sprinkles, and coffee to the table for a multi-regional lunch, in which you can feel the contribution of ingredients from multiple regions. Congratulations to the cook. “To our Maria – specifies the Chief pilot – precious figure of a woman of the sea, coming from a family of fishermen: despite her retirement, her relationship with the pilots is almost an adoption, and she does not miss lunch at work“.

It continues with stories of the daily availability of the pilots to crews in particular situations: such as the Islamic crew for which the time of departure showed up at sunset, the end of the fasting day of Ramadan, just when they placed large trays of chicken and dishes on the table. In that case, he turned a blind eye to the 40-minute delay on departure: the Port system requires precision and punctuality, but he let them have dinner: “I hurry up, I eat like a bird“, assured the captain by diving into a square meter tray of food.

Or the case of that ship’s captain being forced to dump all its freshwater into the sea. Seeing that bottle of mineral water offered at the request to wash hands, the pilots understood bringing the ship inside the Harbour before its schedule.

Episodes of humanity dictated by the experience of the pilots, who have years of navigation behind them and events in which they recognize those they, in turn, have to face: in this case, for Maccaferri, the moments of tension in Kau-Shung, a Port by Taiwan. A typhoon had just passed, and another had to come: the ship had the harbour door “shut in its face”. After a two-day wait and with the typhoon behind her, the vessel, a gas carrier, was able to enter. But halfway through discharging, she was asked to return to the sea. – To face the typhoon away from Port. Maccaferri refused, considering the greater danger of sailing with a ship half-loaded and unbalanced in its load. The positions had stiffened, and Maccaferri resorted to an expedient: he sent almost all the crew ashore and could object that without men, he could not even manoeuvre. The facts proved him correct: a Japanese ship that sailed sank in the typhoon with the 14 crew members: “our ship also participated in the searches, but we found nothing but a slick of oil”. He said.

Other episodes concern illegal immigrants, who can only leave the vessel at the Port of departure. Port that the ship will touch even after 18 months of navigation. During the commercial stops, they must remain imprisoned but participate in the ship’s life and moments of relaxation when navigating. Often these desperate people take risks, and there are rumours of evil captains who do not hesitate to throw the “problem” in the mid-Atlantic overboard.

Events far from Ravenna and the current activity of the Harbour pilots, but also the Adriatic – almost a lake between two shores – are characterized by variability and often unleashes unexpectedly.

Last week required efforts of flexibility: from the beautiful day (and regular manoeuvring forecasts) to the fog (manoeuvres of maximum prudence), to the rain (and faster ones) in the changing weather from hour to hour.

For Garipoli and Bunicci, it is time to get up from the table. Duty calls just a few minutes to mention the responsibility of the role. “As soon as you take the commands, you realize what you have under your hands – they say – and, evaluating all the elements, you quickly decide how to conduct the single situation. Conditions and ships are never the same; every time, it is different”. In this, experience and decision-making skills in a tight time frame are precious: it is not for nothing that a pilot has an average of 900 manoeuvres per year in the same stretch, 4500 in 5 years of experience.

But shortly after, Garipoli calls us back from his cell phone: in the background, you can hear the noises of the pilot boat that is taking him to the ship. He wants to add something about the role of the pilot, which he feels is a synthesis of the entire Port system, an element of “fluidification” and flow of practice and operations. And that is that the pilot represents both the initial and final part of the journey. It is the most beautiful and dynamic aspect of the job.

But it’s time for greetings and new invitations to talk about it again in the future. At the bend before the ferry, a large ship is passing by. One of those obscures the sun on the promenade on the pier. Its name is Vasili Belokonentko, and we already imagine the length of his route. Maurizio Garipoli, the pilot, called us a few minutes earlier at the controls. That is why we seem to see the ship already with different eyes.