Podcast: Writing Letters from the Pacific

It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific.  (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!)  Happily,  Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at  her kitchen table (she has three lively boys).  Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions.  Which I invite you to do.  It’s a fun interview.  Enjoy!

Photo by SSH

The Challenge of Describing Incredible Things

In one case technical — and I am NOT a techie — but the engine room tour on my first freighter voyage begged to be described.  It was sensory overload — far too many details — and without creating endless lists of things, the challenge was to make it interesting, speed it up and come to a crashing finish.  Tell me if you think it works:

The Grand Event yesterday was our engine room tour, guided by the voluble Chief Engineer, Karlo.  It was one of the most impressive sights any of us had ever seen (although hot and noisy, even with earmuffs).  From the keel to the topmost access hatch, it rises 10 stories high, and aft-to-forward takes up 30% of the entire hull – add in the fuel storage tanks along either bulkhead, and it uses up more space than the cargo hold.

Lila had the good sense to bring along a notebook, and her jottings added to my memory and a further interview with the Chief, produced some remarkable statistics.  The eight-cylinder twin-turbo-charged main engine produces 35,000 horsepower at 91 rpm, and Karlo assured us that newer ships (this one is only nine years old) can produce up to 105,000.  To convey the scale of this monster, we saw two new replacement pistons hanging aft of the engine, still wrapped in plastic, each measuring five meters high, and we were told that the 7.5 meter diameter propeller weighs 45 metric tons.

At full speed, the Louise burns 110 tons of fuel a day, on “economy speed” 70, at $350 to $400 U.S. per ton.  Depending on conditions – currents, depth, wind and weather – it takes an hour and a half to move this fully-loaded ship up to her maximum speed of 23.5 knots per hour.  That’s a lot of inertia.  I didn’t ask how long it takes to come to a full stop.

Because bunker fuel is as thick as asphalt, it needs to be purified by means of an on-board centrifuge and then heated at 145C. to the correct viscosity before it can be burned.  The sludge that remains after purification is pumped into tanker trucks in port.  No unprocessed fuel, oil, or bilge contents go into the ocean.  (Neither does sewage.)  Because of European and West Coast U.S. environmental regulations, in addition to the 3,500 tons of bunker the ship has to carry low-sulphur fuel for use in those ports, as well as gasoline to use dockside.  With her tanks topped up, the Louise has a range of 15,000 nautical miles.

In addition to the main engine, there are four diesel-run generators, producing 440 volts at 60 cycles for a total potential of six megawatts (newer ships can produce up to 6,600 volts) and a desalinization plant that produces 25 tons of water a day.  This multi-staged water-maker, which includes mineralizing and treatment with ultraviolet light, produces all the water used on board for cooling, hydraulics, plumbing and human consumption.  The Louise takes on no fresh water in port.

Impressive also was the workshop and spare parts storage, including every kind of machine tool, a huge lathe, untold numbers of hand-tools – each in its numbered slot on the walls – shelf after shelf of steel boxes filled with every kind of fitting the ship’s engineers could possibly need, paints, chemicals, and numberless drums of oil.  As Karlo pointed out, there’s no handy machine shop out here in the middle of the Pacific.  He described for us, too, all the backed-up back-up systems for running the show, all computerized and far too complicated to recount.

In that vast space amid the hellish din of so many thousands of mechanical parts moving simultaneously at high speeds, surrounded by a labyrinthine complexity of ladders and hatches, kilometers of insulated wires and pipes snaking in every direction, valves, blowers, boilers, turbines, turbo-chargers, condensers, a steering gear the size of two small farm tractors, air compressors, a seawater central cooling system, block-and-tackle for moving heavy equipment around, and a 3,300 volt bow-thruster – with that enormous, panting, thrumming monster-engine at its heart – the steel planks vibrating beneath our feet with the eternal beat of the ship, the three of us stood open-mouthed in awe.

 

Anyone who writes faces a particular challenge with sunrises and sunsets, because it is so easy to fall into the cliche trap.  How to be original?  How to make the reader share in the wonder?  Here’s an attempt:

I woke early and pulled the curtain back from the porthole in time to see the sky just pearling up before sunrise.  I quickly dressed and climbed to my usual perch on the top step to F Deck, facing aft, a little northeasterly.  It was slow in coming.  First a faint pink lined the clouds, then a golden light gradually deepened along the horizon, and puffs of cloud over the indigo water turned from mauve, to rose, to bright pink.  The horizon clouds opened to form a rose-tinged bowl, scalloped like a seashell, and suddenly the sunlight poured into this bowl like molten gold, too brilliant to look at.  I watched for half an hour, at the end of which I fully felt the blessing of this diurnal gift to the planet.

Both these pieces are excerpted from Letters from the Pacific, my first travel memoir.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017

Photo by SSH

Traveling to Write

This essay first appeared on Allyson Latta’s www.allysonlatta.com, Memoir Writing and More. Reprinted with permission.

In the roomy bottom drawer of my desk are three generations of travel journals, my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and mine.

My grandmother’s are strictly reportorial: “Spent entire day in my room with diarrhea. Missed tour of Santa Maria Novella.” My mother’s style is livelier and more descriptive: “Went to Les Halles at 3 AM and had some onion soup, along with a couple of glasses of brandy, and then irresistibly bought an entire crate of the most beautiful peaches.”
For years my mother kept the ship’s logs as she and my father knocked around in small yachts. These make pretty dry reading — position, wind, currents — but every once a while something interesting happens, the anchor dragging in the middle of the night, the dinghy painter separating mysteriously from its cleat, and these call forth my mother’s seemingly endless talent for limericks, small bright “literary” moments of sheer entertainment.

My own journal style has tended to follow my mother’s and I have found that describing things adds immeasurably to the pleasure of travel. I never wrote specifically for entertainment, however, until I took a forty-nine-day freighter voyage around the South Pacific.

“But what are you going to do all day?” my friends asked.

“Write about it, of course. You want to be on the mailing list?”

And as I sailed along I set about writing my first full-length travel manuscript, Letters from the Pacific: Forty-Nine Days on a Cargo Ship.  The original idea had been simply to describe what was happening and send it back to friends and family in installments whenever I got to an Internet café in port. But very early in the voyage it became clear that I was taking this trip for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with adventure, and I started working on a parallel journal, my feelings opening up in the presence of all that wide, wild, empty ocean.

I began to discover the power of memoir — and the fact that travel, removing yourself bodily from your daily life for extended periods of time, offers a wonderful opportunity for reflection and truth-telling.
It also offers the perfect chance to practice one’s writing.

Description:
Cruising along the north coast of Honduras at 257˚, west by south, at 11.5 knots, winds so light that the sea looks wrinkled like the skin of a pachyderm. A torpid haze hangs over us, deadening the light, turning the nearby Bay Islands into amorphous humps rising out of oblivion.

Characterization:
The Captain’s Dinner Diatribe tonight wound up with, “Media, politics, all just a circus.” He took a forkful of salad and then looked at us both intently over the rims of his glasses. “Like the Romans — give them bread, give them circus. Keep the people happy.”

“But, Captain, you’re so cynical!” I protested.

“And the world is not cynic? What about Iraq and the so-called weapons of mass destruction? Three days after invasion they are saying, no weapons of mass destruction. That is not cynic?”

I countered, “The western powers were supporting Saddam Hussein for years. I would call that invasion hypocritical.”

“And what means hypocrite?” Rodolfo and I were obviously expected to wait for the answer. “Hypocrite, Greek, it means actor.” And he lifts his hands from the table, palms up, in that international gesture, What more to say?

Humor:
The morning after my first night in the room, I reported to the Signora the foul emanations of sewer gases from the bathroom. Unable to sleep, I had sniffed around until I identified the shower drain, no doubt squeezed into the old building without a trap. I threw a towel over it and went back to bed. The Signora told me that “these smells always occur in the bad weather,” and then she suggested that next time I use a wet towel. I recognized in her insouciance about the plumbing something wonderfully familiar, and it felt just like home.

Reflection:
It’s incredible to me to be passing Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in my transit to Malta, these places having been nothing more for me than bad news in the daily paper. Now the shadow of the coast, sometimes visible, sometimes not, haunts me, because I know I’ll never go there and its mysteries will remain forever locked in the realms of fantasy and horror. Incredible also are the stars; we are somewhere around the thirty-ninth parallel, not that far south of where I grew up and lived half of my adult life. Could it be that this is the same nighttime sky?

Travelling is a little like losing your identity; everything familiar that defines who you are is gone and you open up more fully to your surroundings, emptying yourself of the quotidian so as to fill yourself with the new and strange. In such open-hearted states experience becomes more intense, and this lends great power to the pen. Somewhere I read a quotation that I wish I could ascribe: “Great stories happen to the people who can tell them.”

Someone asked me recently where I ever acquired the dream of freighter travel, and I couldn’t pinpoint it. I love the ocean, certainly — many happy times spent on small boats, and the romantic idea that must be hidden away in some nook in our culture, of climbing on board a freighter and writing a book, destinations be damned. And I had always loved tales of ships and the sea. If you have read any of that rich literature (Conrad, Melville, Dana), you know that there’s plenty to describe out there in the middle of nowhere: people, conversations, subtleties of relationships in close quarters, movements of the ship, weather, and the ever-changing sea and sky.

One freighter voyage was not enough, as it turned out, and my latest voyage took me to Europe. While the first had not been at all about destinations (more like jumping off a cliff), the second one was; there were a few people I wanted to see and things I felt I had to do before a looming major surgery that might have made any future such trip impossible. Facing my increasing physical disability made this trip a great deal more poignant, and I determined that it would be an active search for the joie de vivre.

So this time I was writing with a special purpose, and that was to focus on all the things that gave me joy: the vivid colors of a fishing boat in Malta, the first taste of a seafood ravioli on the Italian coast, the silky perfection of a Michelangelo sculpture, sharing a day in a remote Alpine village with the family of a dear friend, holding my sister’s hand in Paris as we both felt the tones of an 18th-century cello pierce our hearts … There was all this and so much more, and I realized that writing about it helped me to find what I was looking for.

Excerpts from the unpublished travel memoir, Journey to the Joie de Vivre

©Sandra Shaw Homer, 2014

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