THE IRON QUEST - Part I
The men an the sea
It could be a beach like any other, but this one seems to be haunted as dozens of iron skeletons lie there. It's a ship graveyard. Giants corroded by the wind and sea saltpeter rest asleep in the shallows of this beach that stretches for more than 2 kilometers. It looks like the setting of a post-apocalyptic movie where the sea waters have receded and left all the ships lying on the ocean floor.
There's a sense of desolation and sadness in the air as you admire these behemoths that once braved countless gales on the open sea and now lie, silent and helpless, on this deserted beach. You can just hear the waves licking sweetly at the cove, but at times you seem to hear wails coming from the huge iron carcasses, like pleas for help. It's the wind blowing through the gutted hulls and the small holes opened by the rust that slowly digests the iron.
The true story about the origin of this graveyard is uncertain and depends on who tells it. The fishermen, who are the only ones who retain the collective memory of this place, are divided in their explanations. Some say the ships were towed to this bay because they were abandoned in the entrance channel to the port of Luanda after the companies that owned them went bankrupt. Others claim that it was the sea currents that dragged them to these sandbanks and the cost of removing them discouraged shipowners from recovering them. Still others claim that some of these ships were deliberately run aground by their crews at night to unload weapons for the civil war that raged in the country between 1975 and 2002.
Whatever the true story of this place and of each of its ghosts, over dozens of years the carcasses of these sleeping giants have been battered by winds and rains and the corrosion of seawater. Powerless to defend themselves, they succumbed to the rust in a slow agony, which undermined their hulls and opened up huge holes that let you see their insides and exposed the huge engines, now inert and silent. Some have broken in half, opening the way for armies of crabs that quickly invade their corners in search of food brought by the tides. Their fate is sealed. Slowly and inexorably, these monsters are diluting in the calm waters of the bay, releasing the iron oxide as if it were the last shred of blood still running through their veins.
As an act of mercy, the slow agony of these giants has been abruptly halted and their final death will come sooner than expected. A few years ago, the fishermen who prowl the bay and dare to challenge the submerged wrecks that often break their fishing nets, remembered to collect loose pieces of iron and started selling them to metal-collecting companies for recycling. A lucrative business has sprung up selling pieces of iron stripped from stranded ships. The news reached the ears of the Chinese, who quickly seized the areas of the bay where the most desirable carcasses lay, leaving the most dilapidated and half-sunk wrecks for the fishermen who had meanwhile been seduced by this sort of iron fever.
The crabs, which were the only life that used to frequent these rusty metal carcasses, are forced to retreat early in the morning, when the beach buzzes with a frenzy of men and machines preparing for a feast of sorts. As if they were predators devouring the carcasses of dead animals, they painstakingly shred the hulls of stranded ships to harvest the coveted metal.
Meanwhile, in the far corner of the bay, where only half-dead carcasses remain, a dozen men on small motorcycles with a trailer arrive on the beach from the nearest village. Unlike the Chinese, these men work using only their bare hands and arm strength. It is not about making a profit from the iron business, but about their survival and that of their families. They have no cranes or tractors and constantly have to improvise ingenious solutions to get the large iron plates out of the bowels of the ships, while battling the waves that invade the hulls when the tide rises. A heavy hammer and a blowtorch, carried to the wreck on a raft made of pieces of styrofoam covered with a fishing net, is all they need. The fragile raft also serves to transport those who can't swim, but who have to overcome their fear of venturing out to sea every day in order to get to work.
Everyone who works here has well-defined roles, like a finely tuned orchestra, and help each other. The work of cutting the iron on the ship's carcasses is dangerous and requires a lot of skill and courage. Years of slow corrosion of metals in this bay have turned its waters dark and created a thick silt bottom that hides sharp pieces of iron. It's easy to get cuts and wounds from the submerged debris and the edges of the hulls that can result in tetanus or infections which take months to clear up. Nevertheless, the youngest work barefoot and do not use any hand protection.
Once the iron plates weighing hundreds of kilos have been separated from the ship's skeleton by the men who specialize in cutting, they are thrown into the water to be carried to the beach. In the water waits another team, the one that will take the pieces to the beach. They all dive at the same time to lift one end of the plates and turn it until it falls back to the bottom of the sea. They repeat this movement as many times as necessary to overcome the approximately 100 meters that separate them from the beach. Once they reach the beach, the group, already tired from the effort made in the water, still has to lift the heavy pieces by force of arms and place them on the small motorcycles that carry the pieces to the warehouse.
The end of the day is eagerly awaited by all. It has been another day of intense and exhausting work in the bay, shredding pieces of the giants and diving endlessly to lift the heavy pieces of their flesh. It seems the sea has become an ally of the iron skeletons and is not willing to give them up easily. Exhausted, the men abandon the beach, that slowly reclaims the silence of the approaching night, as if responding to a final call of truce from the sleeping giants.