Dear Smitty

Our authors write Smitty, our travel editor, about their journeys

Our Travel Editor, Smitty

Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:

As far as I'm concerned, the best place to be around a cruise ship is under it. I hope this doesn't sound extreme. Let me explain.

I've taken cruises to both Alaska and Antarctica, and they were fine. Good food, great scenery, all that stuff right out of the advertising brochures. But until I got under one of these ships, I had no clue what it was all about.

This particular piece of cruising happened in Helsinki, Finland. Few Americans cruise to Helsinki, but a lot of the cruise ships come from there. The Kvaerner Masa-Yards plant in Helsinki has been building cruise ships since 1968, along with icebreakers, ferries and other large, powerful vessels.

Inside the offices of Kvaerner Masa in Helsinki, wooden models of ships' hulls are hanging on the walls. When I first saw these things I assumed that they were decorations. I soon learned that it wasn't that way at all. These models were actually critical to the shipbuilding process. Before computers, these were the scale models from which naval architects made the templates for cutting the steel plates of the hull.

Today, the design is computerized down to the rivet, so when you go out to the huge sheds where the cutting of steel is done, you see acres of steel plate stacked up, all marked precisely with big cuts and small, ready to be burned apart then welded back together into more useful shapes.

Voyager ConstructionHenrik Segercrantz, a naval architect at Kvaerner Masa, took me to the workshops where the cutting is done. In there the most striking thing was the blue light. I've seen a lot of welders over the years, but nowhere else have I seen the blue light made by the welders at Kvaerner Masa. You can't look directly at the spark at the weld because the light will burn your eyes, but I was fascinated with the blue glow around each welder as he cut the steel. Oddly, the color reminded me of the intense blue that seems to glow from the freshly broken edge of an iceberg, or the face of a glacier. It was both cool and inviting, yet for all its intensity, it was elusive, like a taste or a memory.

The blue light happened for a prosaic reason. It was there because the welders were using a mix of carbon dioxide to do their cutting. It was all chemicals, but it looked like magic.

WelderI walked through these halls of blue stars to an indoor dry dock. I'm a little familiar with dry docks; I've seen yachts hauled out for painting, and military ships in dry dock for repairs. Those experiences did not prepare me for this. The dry dock was 920 feet long—three football fields end to end—and 111 feet wide. In it was about half a ship.

Kvaerner Masa-Yards builds ships in blocks; big chunks of deck and walls that look as big as houses but turn out to be very small pieces of a ship. These pieces are swung into place by overhead cranes and welded together. When I went into the dry dock, the ship looked chaotic, with many of the blocks open to the outside, revealing pipes, staircases and other debris hanging out. It was like looking at a big animal being assembled out of parts, with tiny surgeons climbing around inside it suturing blood vessels, and attaching tendons to bone before clamping on electrodes to jolt it into life.

This ship would eventually fill the dry dock almost completely. There was no point in building the ship bigger. Ships like this, which spend part of the year in the Caribbean and part on Alaska cruises, have to clear the Panama Canal. Yet size equals efficiency, so they are as big as the passageway will permit. They are called Panamax ships. They're about 950 feet long and 105 feet wide. Kvaerner Masa actually builds ships longer than its dry dock by welding on the upper prow of the ship after it has been floated out of the dock, but it doesn't make them wider because of the limits of the canal.

"The only way they could increase the breadth of the ship," said a supervisor, "would be to decrease the thickness of the paint."

Henrik and I walked around for a while on the decks. One of the workers was using a weird thing that looked like a vacuum cleaner, except the hose led from oxyacetylene tanks, and where the suction end should have been was a little array of flames. He would rest this on a steel floor for a few seconds, heat that portion of the floor, and then move on. The application of heat tightened up the steel and took subtle ripples out so that it would lie flat under the teak decking that would later be installed on top of it.

I found this stuff interesting, but for some reason I kept wondering what it would be like underneath the whole thing. Why? Maybe because for much of the rest of the ship's life, that region would be out of reach to anyone except a diver. Maybe because it just looked as intriguing as a cave down there. Maybe because I have some kind of severe psychological disorder that likes heavy stuff. Anyway, when I asked if we could go under the ship, Henrik looked at me a little oddly but said OK.

We got there on a ladder, which went down to the rough concrete floor of the dry dock. The concrete glittered faintly from the steel grindings in its pores. We approached the ship from the stern. It rested on slender-looking concrete pillars that left just enough room between the ship and the floor so that we could walk along underneath, nearly upright.

There were lights along the base of the dry dock, but deep under the ship it was almost completely dark. The hull was painted dark blue; it was like a night sky hanging low overhead, with the last orange glow of sunset to the side. In this dark steel twilight, sheets of sparks fell sporadically from grinders and welders I couldn't see, and the air was full of crackles, hisses and clangs.

As we walked farther into the cave, we came upon a welder using a machine to make the final connection between two of the lowest blocks in the ship. The machine worked slowly down the line where the blocks joined, throwing sparks and making a spot of light that did not shine far into the huge shadow of the ship. The welder wore a mask, a protective suit and heavy gloves. He looked like an astronaut. He watched the fire with a steady concentration. He'd better concentrate, I thought. This seam had to hold.

Much later I'd be on top of a ship very much like this one, indulging in the cruise life, which seems, like many vacation products, dedicated to the production of various comfortable illusions—that the world is your slave, that you can win in a casino, that food is free and abundant, that servants are at your beck and call, that the sea is always calm. But here, where the entire weight of an unfinished ship was lifted in the air by thin pillars of concrete, and where a man and a machine worked together with a clarity of focus on a task whose quality mattered, there was nothing false.

This was a heart of industry, the place human beings have built out of rock and fluids wrenched from the earth, turned on the lathe of our minds. This was the center of our clangorous house of effort and energy, which depends on so many of the things that make us human—ingenuity, hard work, determination, organization and, above all, cooperation. For all the trouble industry has brought to the world, for all the power that seems so overwhelming, it is only a tool whose control remains in our own hands. Under the ship that morning in Helsinki, I was reminded that there is real grandeur in human achievement, which we can still use with another great human capacity, choice, to make either evil or good.


Michael Parfit

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.