For decades the Cervia steam tug has been a permanent and prominent feature of Ramsgate Harbour, captivating visitors with her rich history and unique mechanical features. As a working vessel, Cervia has sailed the world and has risen to fame for being the very last commercially operated steam tug. Since her decommission the vessel has remained at Ramsgate Harbour in an un-seaworthy condition, despite the incredible efforts of her restoration volunteers.
In 2011, Filipe decided to embark on a journey that would bring the Cervia back to life sonically. Over the course of a year, Filipe travelled the world and worked with past crew members in an attempt to gain a detailed understanding of what the vessel sounded like when she was functioning. What Filipe discovered was just how reliant on sound the crew was; they depended on rhythm of the engine, the flow of steam, the sonic codes of the horns and whistles. The whole boat and its’ components are a complex variety of sonic experiences.
Like the engine itself, Filipe’s installation is a finely tuned and synchronised sound work, meaning that each sound and it’s origin has a cause and effect. For example, if the boiler burns hotter, all the components attached to it expand sonically; from the engine cycles increasing to the sea running under the Hull rising in velocity. You can literally hear the bubbles under your feet and the wind through the windows above.
This work has been created as a tribute to the individuals that dedicated their lives to working on the Cervia, both when she was a working tug and through her dormant years at Ramsgate Harbour.
This piece is ultimately about highlighting the ways in which sound was depended on by the individuals who worked on board the Cervia. For these crew members sound was a prominent part of their day to day working life. Although this sonic aspect was often perceived by the crew on an almost subconscious level, the misinterpretation of sounds, rhythms and/or tones could be the difference between life and death on board a working tug of this kind.
Deep within the bowls of the ship, there is little visual connection with the outside world. Working crew members would have spent a vast amount of time in the boiler room and engine room; hours without even stepping out on deck, without tasting the sea air or seeing a single wave. As a result, their awareness and dependance of sound was extremely heightened. Whilst researching for the work, I talked to various ex-crew members who would describe their experiences with sound. One of the most poignant and reoccurring accounts was how the sound of the aft cabin would help the crew rest - the sound of the prop shaft and propeller beating under the floor was almost hypnotic.
Sound was also a key aspect in communication out at sea - through coded whistle blasts, vessels would send sonic signals to other tugs and ships informing and/or requesting certain manoeuvres. These blasts not only served as a dialogue between ships, they also became a good way for working crew members to gain an understanding of how the tug was manoeuvring. Misinterpretation of these blasts could have much more serious consequences, and on the 25th October 1954, this was a contributing factor in the devastating accident that led to the Cervia sinking, taking the lives of 5 of her crew members. The Cervia was towing a Cruise Liner out of Tilbury Docks, when a miscommunication led the tug into a compromised position and she was dragged side ways, at which point she sank in around 30 seconds.
Beyond highlighting sound as function, this work also aims to showcase the acoustic qualities of the space itself - towards the end of the piece I manipulated the sounds that were once created by the vessels components in to an immersive sonic composition, which eventually transforms the whole boat into a musical instrument.