The way of the sea in Japanese woodblock prints

The way of the sea in Japanese woodblock prints

In his classic 1906 essay, The Book of Tea, Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura spoke of the philosophy of tea as “moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe”. This sense of proportion — the notion of man as being a mere part of the greater whole — contrasts with the Western humanist tradition in which human beings take centre stage. It can be found, not only in the Japanese tea ceremony (sado, literally “the way of tea”), but also in Japanese woodblock prints with a nautical theme.

In Utagawa Hiroshige’s 1857 piece, The Whirlpools of Awa (pictured above), the fishermen on the two boats on the left are but tiny, inconspicuous elements in a breathtaking panoroma of the sea and terra firma. Likewise, the great Hokusai echoes Okakura’s principle of “moral geometry” in his iconic Under the Wave off Kanagawa.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei)”, 1825–1838
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) / Art Institute of Chicago

In Hokusai’s tour de force, giant waves dwarf a diminutive Mount Fuji. No clash here between land and sea; the two are one. The artist rendered both with a wonderful palette of white, indigo and Prussian blue.  Moving in rhythm with the swell are three fishing boats, which suggests a recurrent theme in Japanese art: harmony with nature.

Harmony leads to tranquility. Viewing Koson Ohara’s Evening sailboats (Yugure no hansen), one gets the sense of a pleasing and consistent whole and a feeling of Zen-like calm.

Evening sailboats (Yugure no hansen), between 1900 and 1915
Koson Ohara (1877-1945) / US Library of Congress

The sea is the agent of both life and death, the great provider as well as destroyer. No strangers to typhoons and tsunamis,  Japanese fisherfolk respect its power and live their lives in consonance with its changing tides. Totoya Hokkei underlines this intimate connection with the sea in his woodblock print of a fisherman, a work notable for its use of just blue and green to produce a charming seascape.

A Fisherman is Struggling amid the Rocks and Currents of an Inlet of the Sea, Edo period (1615–1868)
Totoya Hokkei (1780–1850) / Metropolitan Museum of Art

For the Japanese, the sea is not just a source of livelihood and sustenance. Like all of nature, it is a dynamic, living entity inhabited by myriad spirits. The Japanese have shrines to honour certain dieties of the sea, and their nautical myths and legends are interwoven into their woodblock prints. Oftentimes, one encounters in these works a marriage of literature and art.

Ise futamigaura, 1858
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) / US Library of Congress

Recovering the Stolen Jewel from the Palace of the Dragon King (Ryugu Tamatori Hime no su), 1853
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) / Metropolitan Museum of Art

Woodblock prints by accomplished Japanese artists of the past like Hokusai and Hiroshige do more than portray the beauty and power of the sea. They provide a window to the Japanese soul and a refreshingly different way of looking at man and his relationship with the universe. One comes face to face with art that both delights and enlightens.

~Barista Uno

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12 remarkable photographs of boats in black and white

12 remarkable photographs of boats in black and white

I am deeply grateful to all the photographers who answered my call in late February for black and white photographs of boats. The two-week search yielded a good harvest of talent: some 70 entries from different countries.

Choosing the best was not easy as there were many excellent shots. Some were too small to be considered. A few photographs were quite outstanding but had to be disregarded after a closer examination. By all indications, these pictures had undergone a good deal of digital alteration — to a point where the original morphed into something else which could be categorised as digital art (a legitimate art form with its own appeal). To include them in the final list would have been unfair to the photographers who did little or no post-processing, thus effectively keeping the original photograph intact. 

This is not to dismiss the use of editing software, which comes in handy when one has to convert a colour picture to monochrome or make some adjustments to the brightness or contrast. However, adding pixels not found in the original or moving them around like tiny blocks of Lego would turn the photograph into digital art.

Here are the top 12 photographs (not necessarily presented in order) — all of them noteworthy for their originality, composition and overall impact. Click on the images for a better view and enjoy!

Untitled   © Valery Vasilevskiy

Valery Vasilevskiy from Russia wows the viewer with a photograph that calls to mind a line from James Joyce‘s groundbreaking 1922 novel, Ulysses: “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” The boat looks like it is being dragged down to a watery black hole. But the crew are holding fast —keeping their poise, unshaken by the fury of nature.

Sailing on Calm Waters, Costinesti – Black Sea, Romania   © Gina Bochis

From Bucharest, Romania, comes this deftly composed piece by Gina Bochis. The motion of men rowing their boat is subtly complemented by the four birds on the left flying over the water in search of food. The picture suggests life on the go at sea., but the mood is one of utter calm — an impression reinforced by the silhouette of a huge rock near the boat.

Close-hauled   © James Hesketh

The low camera angle, the waves splashing against the boat and the pattern of taut lines in James Hesketh’s photograph combine to create a sense of great energy and tension. It makes one imagine being on board the close-hauled boat as it slashes its way through the water.

Hiding out. Hopeall, NL CDN   © Paul Seymour

The beached boat in Paul Seymour’s photograph seems unperturbed by the gusty winds and roaring waves. This is a wonderful study in contrast.

 Untitled   © Rhitzter Salillas

More than just offering a picturesque scene, Rhitzter Salillas, a Filipino cadet at John B. Lacson Colleges Foundation-Bacolod (part of John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University), celebrates the sea and marine art in a photograph with local colour. The boat sails were designed and painted by young artists in Iloilo City located 465 kilometres south of Manila.

Montijo – Portugal   © Maria Giro

Maria Giro’s photograph is a visual delight with its balanced composition and clean lines. It is a tribute to the beauty of boats and the sun and sea of her native Portugal.

Untitled   © Sandra Hunjek

Sandra Hunjek’s almost minimalist photograph has a calming effect. Although sombre and somewhat melancholic, it is beautiful like a haiku.

Untitled   © Johan Hesselbach

The sea is nowhere in sight in Johan Hesselbach’s photograph, which is remarkable for its variegated, earthy textures. It is as though the boat had been appropriated by the land and become an organic part of the terrain.

Silhouette Sailing   © Teresa Gilbert.

Dark and foreboding, Teresa Gilbert’s photograph transports the viewer to a world that hovers between fantasy and reality. It is roughly divided into two sections, the upper half serving as a kind of giant theatre screen. The cloud formation conjures up images from the American fantasy drama television series, Game of Thrones. Is it a dragon or a wolf?

The Bride and the Boat   © Debora Magliaro Sanso

Passers-by were unmindful of the wedding photo shoot in progress but not Paris-based photographer Debora Sanso. She shot this scene from a distance, creating (unexpectedly perhaps) a visual narrative that plays in the mind. The bride is facing the fore of the boat as if preparing to embark on a journey to an uncertain future.

Racing Off San Diego   © Darrall Slater

Darrall Slater’s photograph conveys the adrenalin-raising thrill that is familiar to anyone who has ever participated in a regatta. It captures, sans photographic gimmickry, the boat’s graceful and majestic movement.

Sometimes they didn’t make it home, and then the tide brought them back. The Voyage of The Sunbeam, Rossbeigh, Ireland
© Enrico Carpejugleum Higginbottom

Enrico Carpejugleum Higginbottom’s poignant picture shows the remains of the 19th-century schooner Sunbeam jutting out at high tide like the skeletal ribs of some sea creature. The swirling sea water may well symbolise the passage of time as it erodes memories of the wreck. Read more about the storied Sunbeam wreck here.

~Barista Uno

This article may not be reproduced without the express permission of the Marine Café Blog administrators. However, feel free to share it on social media or post a comment. All photographs featured here are the intellectual property of their respective authors. 

Hiring halls for Filipino seamen: why not?

Hiring halls for Filipino seamen: why not?

Over the years, I have seen every malpractice imaginable in Manila’s manning sector. Not the least of the misdeeds is the thievery involving dollar remittances from ship crews (see my blog post “Crewing agents as money changers”). It makes me want to puke and wish there were hiring halls for those seeking jobs at sea.

Maritime employers in the United States have long made use of union-operated placement centres. The US National Labor Relations Board explains how they work:

Unions that operate exclusive hiring halls must notify workers how the referral system works (and of any changes in that system) and maintain non-discriminatory standards and procedures in making job referrals from the hiring hall. You don’t have to be a union member to use a hiring hall and a union may not discriminate in making referrals based on whether or not you are a union member. It may, however, charge nonmembers a reasonable fee to use the hiring hall’s services.

Why not have similar hiring halls in Manila and the central Philippine port city of Cebu? Abolishing the crewing agencies, an idea many Filipino mariners would probably welcome, is out of the question. They are too entrenched commercially and politically to vanish into thin air. The hiring halls could be operated along the following lines:

1. The hiring halls shall be run separately by the Associated Marine Officers’ and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP) and the Associated Philippine Seafarers Union (PSU), which are both affiliated with the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Foreign shipowners may play a role in their operation depending on the agreement with the local unions.

2. First-time applicants at the hiring hall shall be interviewed by qualified HR staff with sea experience. If necessary, they shall be asked to demonstrate their competence in accordance with the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978 (STCW).

3. Shipboard jobs from various employers shall be allotted to registered, duly certificated applicants according to a set order based on rotation or seniority.

4. Dollar remittances shall be paid to the account of the seamen’s families in US currency (no more cheating on the foreign exchange rate by unscrupulous manning agents).

5. The unions shall maintain employment records for each individual, including any behaviour issues reported by employers. This should encourage seamen to act professionally at all times so they can maintain their union membership.

6. The hiring halls shall be vetted by representatives of ITF London, say every three years. Hiring hall personnel found to engage in any form of malpractice (e.g., favouritism and accepting bribes) shall be dealt with promptly by a disciplinary board to be formed on an ad hoc basis by the local ITF affiliate.

The potential benefits to seamen cannot be gainsaid — amongst other things, an end to agency-hopping and greater confidence that their rights will be protected by the union. However, I foresee one problem aside from the manning agents trying to blow the proposal out of the water.

AMOSUP operates the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific. That would place the union in a clear conflict of interest. Even so, the hiring hall concept is worth looking into. Some things have got to change for the sake of all those who toil at sea.

~Barista Uno

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A return to seafarers’ rights and other themes

A return to seafarers’ rights and other themes

I have been contemplating the future of Marine Café Blog like the solitary figure in the early 1860s painting, Meditation by the Sea (pictured above). Should I write again about seamen’s rights and other nitty-gritty maritime issues? Or should I just focus merrily on marine art and culture as I had announced in October 2018 and reiterated in my March 2019 post?

After a good deal of vacillation, I finally decided to return to the themes that had earned the blog its popularity as well as its notoriety. Not least amongst them: the commodification and never-ending exploitation of those who work at sea. Readers of the blog can now expect occasional — and, as usual, bold — commentaries on such issues even as I try to highlight the role of art, photography, music and literature in the world of shipping.

Not everyone will be happy with this decision. For nearly a decade that it has been in existence, Marine Café Blog has gained a shipload of critics for calling a spade a spade and refusing to kiss ass (as many in the maritime press do). On the other hand, there are readers, including active and retired mariners, who see the blog as providing a voice for the voiceless.

I take encouragement from these readers and the Italian poet and novelist, Cesare Pavese (1908 – 1950), who wrote: “In the mental disturbance and effort of writing, what sustains you is the certainty that on every page there is something left unsaid.”

~Barista Uno

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Boats on camera: an invitation to photographers

Boats on camera: an invitation to photographers

There is something about boats that has beguiled photographers for more than a century. The photo above from the Australian National Maritime Museum dates back to around 1928. It shows sloops racing on the choppy waters of Sydney Harbour.

As part of Marine Café Blog’s efforts to promote maritime culture in general, I am inviting photographers — both amateur and professional — to join our search for outstanding black & white photos depicting the world of boats. The best of the lot will be featured in the blog that they may delight and inspire readers worldwide.

Guidelines for photographers

1. You may submit a maximum of three digital photos, each with a minimum width of 1280 pixels. They must be your own and not someone else’s work. DEADLINE is on 10th March 2019. Email your entries to:

2. The photos can depict any type of boat but must be in BLACK & WHITE ONLY. A caption or title would desirable.

3. Photos will be selected according to originality, composition and overall impact.

4. The 10 or 12 best photos will be featured in the blog with proper credits given to the photographer.

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