Thomas Mann’s sad but evocative early novella, “Death in Venice” contains these haunting words:
He loved the sea for deep-seated reasons: because of the hard-working artist’s yearning for repose, his desire to take shelter in the bosom of undifferentiated immensity from the demanding complexity of the world’s phenomena; because of his own proclivity – forbidden, directly counter to his life’s work, and seductive for that very reason – for the unorganized, immoderate, eternal: for nothingness”
You have to trust me; this translation doesn’t even do the original justice. Though much maligned in English-speaking popular culture as a bellowing, harsh, and clipped, German can be an immensely poetic language. Just ask the Romantics. Though Mann’s protagonist will – spoiler alert – meet his early death in Venice later on, and I’ve never felt particular kinship with him, I also love the sea.
I grew up in Germany’s South, removed from the sea by either mountain ranges or hundreds of kilometers of flat rolling countryside. The sea was never close to where I lived. But I yearned for it, always, like some yearn for wide open spaces or most of us for appreciation and love. The sea, with its freedom and wide vistas, with ships going back and forth across the horizon, always touched something inside me. It must have been the association of holiday trips from my childhood, which after a long drive to the water, frequently took us across the sea, and the wind in my hair and the power of the ship vibrating under full steam were indelibly etched into my mind as something to want and long for. I was not going to miss any opportunity to take a trip on a seagoing vessel. And luckily, summer vacation provided me with an excuse: only a few hours’ drive from our summer cottage lay Vaasa, an old harbor town. And from there, the other side of the Kvarken Archipelago, that narrowest spot of the Gulf of Bothnia, was not too far.
I booked a passage, and one cool summer morning, we set out. Our ship was going to be the Wasa Express, an old ferry built in Germany in the early 1980s. It had frequently changed names and owners, and had called home at many ports. For the past few years, the Wasa Express has made the four-hour crossing from Vaasa, in Finland, to Umeå, in Sweden, umpteen times. It is certainly not the fastest, largest, or most comfortable boat. Compared to today’s mega cruise ships that house malls, swimming pools, and multi-level theaters, the Wasa Express doesn’t look like much. Its coats of paint and jumble of signs in half a dozen different languages tell the story of its many journeys. But it was the closest I could come in 2015 to those trips of my childhood, on boxy looking ships with names like Peter Pan or Europa, or Finnjet, all long gone from these waters, and some long gone from this world. When I laid eyes on the Wasa Express’s white hull with a blue seagull logo painted on its side, I smiled.
We spent a long day on the way to Umeå, and then in the charming little Swedish university town itself, a place filled with small coffeehouses, pubs, and stores, and walkable public spaces. At night we traveled back to Vaasa, sampling from the one must of a Scandinavian ferry trip, the evening buffet in the restaurant. I could never bring back my childhood as a self-styled seafaring explorer, but I could celebrate that past. When I arrived back in my hotel in Finland, the strangely calming, familiar smell of ship Diesel receding into memory, the clanking and clunking of the resonant old vessel’s decks still echoing in my ears, I continued to smile. I loved the sea for deep-seated reasons.
Technical comments: This roll saw me using my Minolta X-700 with the spot-on metering and the now broken frame counter again. I used the 45/f2 for most things, and switched to the 28/f2.8 for some wider shots. Because that lens (as I’ve since discovered) has a scratch on its back element, the loss of contrast in the shots taken with it was very noticeable, and I could only partially correct it in post. This roll is pretty much the only roll where I used the 2x teleconverter for a significant number of images. Several shots of the sea, the harbor, and the portrait on the ship were taken with it – the latter mostly to test out if portraits would be okay with the teleconverter, and if I could continue leaving my 135/f2.8 lens at home when traveling light. It seems to have worked out ok, I’m impressed by how much the background is blurred despite the fact that the maximum focal length and aperture with the converter and the 45/f2 is 90/f4. For other shots the teleconverter does okay as well, though it is noticeably softer than the naked lens. This isn’t helped by the slow film and needing to use it wide open or almost wide open most of the time. I guess what it comes down to is: don’t rush out and get a Minolta 300-S teleconverter if you don’t have one, but go ahead and use it if you do, especially for portraits where edge sharpness isn’t all that important.