My Year at Sea

Recalling the splendid isolation of travel by freighter

Call me Whatever. I went to sea in 1970, when I was 18, not in Top-Siders, but in steel-toed boots.

I was deck boy aboard a Norwegian tramp freighter. My pay was $20 a week, about $100 today. Overtime paid 40 cents an hour, 60 on Sundays. Not much, I know, yet I signed off after six months with $400 in my pocket. My biggest expense was cigarettes ($1 a carton from the tax-free ship’s store; beer was $3 a case). I’ve never since worked harder physically or felt richer. The Hong Kong tattoo cost $7 and is with me still on my right shoulder, a large, fading blue smudge. Of some other shore-side expenses, perhaps the less said, the better.

The term gap year wasn’t much in use then, but I’ve never thought of it as a gap year. It was the year of my adventure. I was “shipping out,” and there was romance in the term. I’d read Conrad and Melville at boarding school. It’s tricky—or worse, boring—trying to explain an obsession. Mine had something to do with standing on the ice out on Narragansett Bay, watching the big ships making their way through the ragged channel toward open sea. Maybe it makes more sense just to quote from the first paragraph of Moby-Dick:

Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … then, I account it high time to go to sea … If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

I went around the world. Our itinerary wasn’t fixed—a tramp freighter goes where the cargo is. The Fernbrook ended up taking me from New York to Charleston, Panama, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Sumatra, Phuket (then still an endless white beach with not a building on it), Penang, Port Swettenham, India, and, as it was still called, Ceylon.

The final leg—Colombo to New York, around the Cape of Good Hope—took 33 days, longer than expected owing to a Force 10 gale in the South Atlantic. I remember the feeling of barely controlled panic as I took my turns at the helm, the unwelcome knowledge that 31 lives depended on my ability to steer a shuddering, heaving 520-foot ship straight into mountainous seas. When the next man relieved me, my hands were too cramped and shaky to light a cigarette. Even some of the older guys, who’d seen everything, seemed impressed by this storm: “Maybe ve sink, eh?” one winked at me, without detectable mirth.

They were Norwegian, mostly, and some Germans and Danskers (sorry, Danes). The mess crews were Chinese. I was awoken on the first cold (November, as it happened) morning by a banging on my cabin door and the shout “Eggah!” It took me a few days to decipher. Eggs. Breakfast.

This was long before onboard TVs and DVD players. Modern freighters, some of which carry up to 12 passengers, come with those, plus three squares a day, plus amenities: saunas, pools, video libraries. If I embarked today as a passenger aboard a freighter, I’d endeavor not to spend the long days at sea—and they are long—rewatching The Sopranos. I prefer to think that I’d bring along a steamer trunk full of Shakespeare and Dickens and Twain. Short of taking monastic vows or trekking into the Kalahari, a freighter passage might just offer what our relentlessly connected age has made difficult, if not impossible: splendid isolation.

You can’t tell what’s aboard a container ship. We carried every kind of cargo, all of it on view: a police car, penicillin, Johnnie Walker Red, toilets, handguns, lumber, Ping-Pong balls, and IBM data cards. A giant crate of those slipped out of the cargo net and split open on the deck as we were making ready to leave San Francisco. A jillion IBM data cards, enough to figure out E = mc2. It fell to me to sweep them into the Pacific. I reflected that at least they made for an apt sort of ticker tape as we left the mighty, modern U.S. in our wake and made for the exotic, older-world Far East.

The crossing took three weeks. I didn’t set foot onshore in Manila until four days after we landed. As the youngest man on board, I had drawn a series of cargo-hold watches. My job, ostensibly, was to prevent the stevedores from stealing, a function I performed somewhat fecklessly. On the last day in Manila, after I’d stood a 72-hour watch, another huge crate slipped its straps and crashed to the deck. Out poured about 5,000 copies of The Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant intended for Manila’s public schools. The stevedores seemed confused as to whether these were worth stealing. By now I was beyond caring. I yawned and told the foreman, “Good book. Go for it.”

At sea in those latitudes, temperatures on the ship’s steel decks could reach 115 degrees. During lunch breaks, I’d climb down the long ladder to the reefer (refrigerated) deck at the bottom of Number Two Hold. There were mounds, hillocks, tons—oh, I mean tons—of Red Delicious apples from Oregon. I would sit on top in the lovely dark chill, munching away, a chipmunk in paradise. One day I counted eating eight. I emerged belching and blinking into the heat, picked up my hydraulic jackhammer, and went back to chipping away at several decades of rust and paint.

I remember standing in the crow’s nest as we entered the misty Panama Canal, and the strange sensation as the 4,000-ton ship rose higher and higher inside the lock. I remember dawn coming up over the Strait of Malacca; ragamuffin kids on the dock in Sumatra laughing as they pelted us with bananas; collecting dead flying fish off the deck and bringing them to our sweet, fat, toothless Danish cook to fry up for breakfast. I remember sailing into Hong Kong harbor and seeing my first junk; steaming upriver toward Bangkok, watching the sun rise and set fire to the gold-leafed pagoda roofs; climbing off the stern down a wriggly rope ladder into a sampan, paddling for dear life across the commerce-mad river into the jungle, where it was suddenly quiet and then suddenly loud with monkey-chatter and bird-shriek, the moonlight lambent on the palm fronds.

Looking back, as I often do, these ports of call seem to me reachable only by freighter. Mine was a rusty, banged-up old thing, but I suppose there’s no reason a shiny new container ship wouldn’t do the trick.