Crossing the Pacific by freighter
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Filling the hours
The Copenhagen is large and complex, so everyone is busy keeping her running smoothly. That is, everyone except me, who is contractually forbidden from doing any sort of work. I must therefore employ all manner of activities and pastimes to fill the 25-hour days.
In anticipation of this abundance of free time, I brought a box of blank stationary with me, onto which I handwrite florid personal messages of gratitude to the teachers and colleagues who had a hand in my recently-completed doctoral dissertation. I also brought a tattered paper copy of my family tree for digitization—a snore-worthy task under normal circumstances, but relatively thrilling in the middle of the Pacific. When I’m tired of climbing the family tree, I might read or watch a movie. I use the on-board gym every day when the sea is calm, but not during rough weather, since the weights have a tendency to tumble about, quite literally, like a loose canon. Every morning at 09:00, the captain walks into the gym with an uncharacteristically-friendly “helloo” and weighs himself on the bathroom scale placed there for that purpose—a rather pointless exercise, as the needle oscillates by five kilograms or more as the ship rocks.
I spend most of my time in my cabin, and to introduce variety into the space I sometimes push the furniture that isn’t bolted to the floor into different configurations. Once I tried closing the vestibule curtain in an attempt to make the room feel cozier. This gave me the uneasy feeling that the curtain was concealing some Lurking Presence, such as a bilge-monster, or a coiled kraken tentacle, or some other nautical danger. After an hour of sidelong glances I tied back the curtain.
My camera and laptop computer are essential companions. I spend many hours taking photos, writing (including these blog posts), tidying up some loose ends from home, and experimenting with making amateurish home videos. It makes me wonder what this journey would be like without the vast store of entertainment available on electronic media.
Before boarding the ship, I imagined a raucous party. In this dream, Bavarian 1L beers slosh in massive glass tankards, themselves sliding like loose cannonballs up and down the bar as the ship heaves from side to side. Insults are traded, and an inevitable drunken brawl breaks out. Tattooed fists pummel a scarred face as Horace and Bernice watch horror-stricken, their spotted hands clutching anxiously to their pleated khaki trousers. A loud crack as the door bursts open—The room freezes—Enter Captain, eyes narrowed, corners of lips curled into a dark scowl, fury barely contained—Sailor wipes streak of blood from nose—Captain hauls brawlers out of room. The party gradually resumes, music restarts, more beer is opened, et cetera, and the two sailors are never seen again.
Of course, nothing of the sort actually happens on board the Copenhagen. Most of the German officers are incorrigibly boring, more concerned with ticking checklists and taking measurements than drinking and brawling. The Filipino crew, however, are a social bunch, and on Saturday night I am tossed a beer as someone races down the staircase. I follow into the recreation room.
We talk, drink beer, and sing karaoke. These sailors have been at sea for seven months; they count the days until they are relieved by the next crew of Filipinos and can finally return h
ome to their families. During a rousing rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me”, everyone joins in, and a strobe light is simulated using a flashlight. The room grows quiet as I sing Michael Bublé’s “Home”, tears barely concealed in their eyes.
Into the tempest
As we approach Japan, the wind begins to blow, first in bursts, and then in a strong gale. I go on deck to photograph the sprays of seawater that are flung up by the bow of the ship as it plows through the churning water, but I must retreat back inside as the swaying motion of the ship threatens to toss me off my feet. Fog descends, and a sill of ice crystallizes around the portholes. I watch from the bridge as the storm worsens, the forward lights of the ship fading into the haze, the windows lashed by rain. My camera almost slides off the desk as the ship lists to one side. That night, I can’t sleep because of the howl of the wind. My body is tossed unpredictably from side to side as the ship pitches and rolls.
Such storms are typical in the north Pacific in winter, and it quite within the capabilities of the Copenhagen to withstand them, but I still can’t help imagining disaster. In Neal Stephenson’s novel Quicksilver, set in the year 1713, the protagonist Daniel Waterhouse crosses the Atlantic in a trading vessel, and speculates on his own death by shipwreck. Excerpt below.
Click here to read Neil Setphenson's take on shipwreck
Act I: The hero rises to clear skies and smooth sailing. The sun is following a smooth and well-understood celestial curve, the sea is a plane, sailors are strumming guitars and carving objets d’art from walrus tusks, et cetera, while erudite passengers take the air and muse about grand philosophical themes.
Act II: A change in the weather is predicted based upon readings in the caption’s barometer. Hours later it appears in the distance, a formation of clouds that is observed, sketched, and analyzed. Sailors cheerfully prepare for weather.
Act III: The storm hits. Changes are noted on the barometer, thermometer, clinometer, compass, and other instruments—celestial bodies are, however, no long visible—the sky is a boiling chaos torn unpredictably by bolts—the sea is rough, the ship heaves, the cargo remains tied safely down, but most passengers are too ill or worried to think. The sailors are all working without rest—some of them sacrifice chickens in hopes of appeasing their gods. The rigging glows with St. Elmo’s Fire—this is attributed to supernatural forces.
Act IV: The masts snap and the rudder goes missing. There is a panic. Lives are already being lost, but it is not known how many. Cannons and casks are careering randomly about, making it impossible to guess who’ll be alive and who dead ten seconds from now. The compass, barometer, et cetera, are all destroyed and the records of their readings swept overboard—maps dissolve—sailors are helpless—those who are still alive and sentient can think of nothing to do but pray.
Act V: The ship is no more. Survivors cling to casks and planks, fighting off the less fortunate and leaving them to drown. Everyone has reverted to a feral state of terror and misery. Huge waves shove them around without any pattern, carnivorous fish use living persons as food. There is no relief in sight, or even imaginable.
—There might by also be an Act VI in which everyone was dead, but it wouldn’t make for a good opera so Daniel omits it.
Nine days after leaving North America behind, I spot a seagull drifting off the starboard side. Land is near. We are passing south of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, though I can’t see it through the fog. Early in the morning two days later, the Korean flag is raised, and we dock in Busan. The stair is lowered, and I touc
h down in Asia.
Part 1 | Part 2
Coming soon: What is the food like on a freighter?