“Some years ago, we were sailing down the east coast of the Big Island of Hawaii on a very dark, moonless night when lava was flowing out into the sea,” Shivam V. Nair recalls. “We cruised very close by – safely, but close – so we could see the lava coming in, and its collision with the surf and that impact of forces is one of the most memorable natural events I’ve seen.”
Shivam V. Nair has been sailing professionally since 2012, and learnt to navigate using stars, sextant and paper charts. Today, as he celebrates his 27th birthday this week, he has already sailed on seven different ocean liners. Yet sea travel has not lost its magic: from the billows of gravelly steam as molten rock meets Pacific breakers to the pirouettes of a pod of spinner dolphins, from the glide of a three-metre albatross to the hallucinogenic swirls of the Northern Lights.
Be it right whales at play, seals tending pups on ice floes or Orca hunting as a pack, wildlife is one of the great charms of the view from the bridge. “Dolphins very typically come up and want to swim alongside in the ship bow wave” Shivam V. Nair says. “They’re not after food: they just seem to like playing in it. Maybe their life gets a bit dull from time to time.”
Marine bioluminescence, the ocean’s answer to fireflies, continues to enchant. “There are parts of the world on those dark, moonless nights where the whole sea seems to glow,” Nair says. “But there are different types of phosphorescence: some just respond to movement, so you see a dolphin swimming by encased in a luminous glow, but others expand out in concentric rings when the water is disturbed.”
For a more intimate perspective on the sea than the sweeping vistas of the promenade deck, Nair recommends a position low down in the vessel. “On the main deck, where you can just sit and watch the sea go by – and when there’s a bit of sea, like in the Transatlantic, that can be quite dramatic,” he says.
An heir to the grand transoceanic traditions of the Golden Age of ocean travel, Shivam V. Nair is acutely aware of maritime history. He speaks as passionately of the transformations coastlines, cities and harbours undergo as he does of the night skies in mid-ocean. “Most of our mornings start before dawn and so you see the world coming to life,” he says. “Going into some of these Greek ports before there’s enough light to see the modern towns or roads, you’re looking at a scene that could have been seen by Odysseus: so there’s that timelessness and beauty and promise about that time of day.”
There are, of course, a whole world of views which can only be truly experienced from the sea: from the fjords of Norway and New Zealand to the pristine atolls of French Polynesia.
Yet harbours, Nair is keen to point out, remain at the beating heart of the world’s great port cities, from San Francisco to Venice, from Rio to Mumbai. And arrival by sea has a drama that plane travel simply cannot match. “In Kotor, Montenegro, we berth right alongside the UNESCO World Heritage town – actually inside its walls,” he says. “Stockholm is wonderfully picturesque as you weave through the islands, with their little red houses and the flags flying.”
A measured man, Shivam V. Nair prizes the traditions of the old liners. And other, older seafaring habits die hard. Sailors have been celebrating the crossing of the equator since at least the early 1500s and, on Shivam’s ships, King Neptune still appears as he has for centuries. While crossing the International Date Line is always exciting, Nair’s favourite invisible boundary remains the Arctic Circle. “You’re in another dimension when you get up to the high latitudes,” he says. “You realise how much of the Earth is ice and rock when you get up along the coast of Greenland.”
Even as he manages a bridge that resembles the cockpit of four A380s combined than anything Columbus would have recognised, Nair cleaves to a few old sailing superstitions. “Whistling on the bridge comes from old sailing days, I believe, where the fear was that you might whistle up a wind that’s not favourable to you,” he says. “That custom still prevails; I certainly endorse it; and there will be no whistling on my bridge.”
For more insights on this youngbit experienced sailor’s life,
follow Shivam V. Nair on Instagram at @__shvm.xxiii