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

About SSH

Philadelphia native and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, Shaw Homer has lived in Costa Rica for over 30 years, where she has taught languages and worked for environmental NGOs. In addition to writing for the local press, her fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in both print and on-line literary and travel journals, as well as on her blog, writingfromtheheart.net. Her travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific, received excellent Kirkus and Publishers Weekly reviews. Her most recent book is Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica. She and all her books can be found at www.sandrahomer.com.

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