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

In Case You’re Tempted . . .

A version of this first appeared on off-the-beaten-track.net.

FAQS about Freighter Travel

Documentation, Visas, etc.

It can be a long and frustrating process arranging travel on a freighter. Not that many ships carry passengers anymore, they carry fewer these days because there’s no doctor on board, and there are varying age limits. The most popular routes are sometimes booked a year or more in advance, so it’s wise to get started early. Travel to a specific destination can also be frustrating, because many shippers prefer not to book passengers for a partial voyage.

The documentation required is also daunting, depending on which countries the ship will stop in. Visas, vaccinations, release forms, contracts, proof of travel insurance and medical certificates acquired no more than 30 days in advance of sailing are some of these. Handy to have a scanner so you can sign things and simply email them back. US citizen entry requirements for other countries can be found at: abriggs.com.

Booking Passage

Fortunately, most travel agents specializing in freighter voyages are familiar with all these requirements and are good at handling things in a timely fashion. My favorite is a UK firm called The Cruise People, because they have more varied and interesting offerings. For information about what it’s like to be on a freighter, freightercruises.com is the most complete – with the caveat that I have found this agency less than responsive.  They all will require a 50% deposit to hold a booking.

Preparation

Before my first voyage, I spent hours on line looking at maps of ports and collecting tourist information for every port city, all of which I printed and took with me. This was very useful preparation, although foul weather and a nighttime arrival prevented my disembarking in two of them. Unpredictability is a watchword in freighter travel. One never knows how long the ship will be in port, and shore leave is always at the captain’s discretion.

Communications at Sea

Internet: some companies are now offering individual email accounts through their satellite connections. This is email only — no browsing is available.  There is the sat phone, but it’s expensive, and its use is also at the discretion of the captain.

What to Bring

Packing for my first voyage took me two months! I was going to be in three climates and I had to keep extending my checklist when I remembered something else I couldn’t be without. Be prepared for 220 voltage, and take enough of your prescription medications to last the whole voyage. Ships’ medical stores are pretty complete, including antibiotics, and there’s a “slop chest” for cigarettes, toothpaste and other small items, although brands are limited.  For some it may be useful to know that some companies, CMA CGM among them, now have a “dry ship” policy. This doesn’t prevent your bringing liquor on board, as long as you’re discreet about it (luggage isn’t inspected), and nobody objects if you search out liquor stores ashore.

There’s always some kind of gym equipment on board, and sometimes a ping pong table, but if you plan to do yoga, bring a mat – few cabins are carpeted.  Bring a tablet well-stocked with movies, music, podcasts and books, if looking at the ocean all day is not your thing.  Some fellow passengers have brought cell phones with international calling cards, so they can at least text home when within range of 3G service.  Don’t forget your chargers!  A camera.  The list goes on  . . . .

Money

Make sure you have an international debit card so you can withdraw local currency from ATM machines, which are ubiquitous in all the places I have visited, except on Fiji, where there are three exchange booths on every block.

Sea Sickness

Sometimes, the weather can be rough, and freighters are not equipped with stabilizers as are cruise ships, so they bounce around a lot.  Anti-nausea pills help (they put me to sleep), the but best thing I’ve found are Sea Bands, small wrist bands with a round plastic button that you position exactly two finger widths above inside of the wrist.  There’s an acupressure point there that controls nausea.  You can find these on Amazon.

Accommodations

Cabins are more than adequate, with bed, desk and chair, sofa and coffee table, mini-fridge, plenty of storage space and a private bathroom (shower only), air conditioning and a window for looking out at either containers or the ocean, maybe both.  Once you’re unpacked, you’ll feel perfectly at home.  Happy sailing!

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016

The H. S. Schubert

The H. S. Schubert

Speaking of Food . . .

I’ll never make it as a food writer, but I had fun describing the delectables on a recent freighter voyage.  Forgive me . . . I just couldn’t help sharing!  Excerpted from the recently published Journey to the Joie de Vivre.

People ask me about the food.  After my first freighter voyage, I was truthfully able to say, “Not that bad.”  Aboard the Matisse, it wasn’t quite as good, but it still wasn’t that bad.  Now, aboard the Coral, it is finally that bad.  I am eating for sustenance only and loading up on salad and bread and butter.

The salad is invariably iceberg lettuce, green or red sweet peppers, sliced red onion, unripe tomato and cucumber.  I suffered a small shock when I poured oil and what I thought was vinegar over my first salad, only to discover that the vinegar was really soy sauce.  I told the Messman I would like vinegar.  He brought me another little cruet of soy sauce.  Could it be that a Filipino Messman (he says he likes to cook!) doesn’t really know what vinegar is?  I told him as soon as I boarded about my milk allergy, and ever since then he has been assiduous about telling me he’s put a ‘little bit of milk’ in the rolls or ‘a little bit of milk’ in the mashed potatoes.  But today he asked me if I would like ice cream.  I begin to suspect he’s being impish.

The Chief Cook has a penchant for pork: Batter-Fried Pork, Steamed “Roast” Salt-Pork, Pork Slices à la Microwave and Roadkill Pork Chop.  Last night I was thrilled to find Steamed “Roast” Breast of Chicken.  The only fish so far has been Pressed Mackerel Steaks.  This morning I finally looked at the calendar and calculated that this voyage is 19 days, not 17 as I originally thought; that’s two more days on this incredible diet.  I can’t wait for Italy!

© Sandra Shaw Homer 2016

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

The Joie de Vivre Comes from Within

“I am an ordinary person with an ordinary life. Even my acceptance of ordinariness is ordinary, the undercurrent of so many ‘big books.’ Madam Bovary, War and Peace, Freedom. The mistake is always the same: trying to live the life one has in one’s head instead of the life before one, which is endlessly generous if you humble yourself to it as the only possible means of fulfillment.”  — Tennant-Moore

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

 

What does a Freighter Smell Like?

We need to tune in to all our senses when we’re writing so that readers can feel the full experience we’re trying to describe.  In writing about a container ship in Letters from the Pacific, I was able to use most of them. 

 

In over a month, there has only been one occasion when we had the wind at our back doing more knots than the ship. The Captain assures me this happens only rarely. It creates a vacuum in front of the superstructure that sucks engine fumes right into the air-conditioning intake, and this makes your cabin smell like the inside of a gasoline pump. I awoke to this one night and lay awake for quite a while wondering whether I should call somebody to tell them the ship would explode if anybody lighted a cigarette. I opened my porthole to let in some fresh air but, since my cabin faces forward, the air outside smelled the same as the air inside. Eventually I assumed that, if there really had been a problem, somebody would have sounded the alarm, and I went back to sleep.

* * *

It takes a while not to be alarmed by the smells on board. There are places where you can smell the heavy, oily fumes of diesel; whenever anyone is painting – a constant battle at sea against the ever recurring rust – the chemical smell of the anti-corrosive paint permeates the superstructure; and just outside my cabin, at the head of the stairwell, I get occasional puffs of bottled gas wafting up from the Galley just like smoke up a chimney. A freighter is a noisy, dirty, smelly beast. I wonder how they hide all this on passenger ships.

* * *

There is the sweet smell of salt on the air. And, with the moon not yet risen, there is a foreign country of constellations in the sky.

* * *

You can smell the tropics. Out on deck in the dark, the stars faintly winking on and off as low clouds stream invisibly across the sky, there’s a new, heavy warmth to the air. I feel it on my skin, taste it in my nose; it’s humid, soft and kind.

© 2013, Sandra Shaw Homer

Photo by SSH

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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