Crossing the Tasman Sea Aboard a Cargo Ship

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While I was cycling and talking to many climate activists in NZ, I decided that I want to avoid flying, if at all possible, to reduce my environmental footprint. If I’m traveling to collect stories about water and climate change, I might as well do my best not to add to the problem while I’m at it.

I did some research online about how to cross the Tasman Sea by boat––it’s one of the wildest stretches of ocean in the world weather-wise, so sailing was out––and found that a German container shipping company, Hamburg Süd, takes passengers. It’s expensive, though––about US$200/day.

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It wasn’t until I cycled all the way up Arthur’s Pass, one of the biggest hills in New Zealand, that I had an idea. If I could be brave enough to get all the way across a continental divide on my loaded bicycle, then I could most certainly be brave enough to ask people for help to get me aboard that cargo ship.

That night I went on Kickstarter and set up a funding page. I would write poems and letters and postcards from the ship to people who helped me out. I was so nervous. My support network (including folks I had never met before but who believed in my project) came out in full force. In a day and an hour I had exceeded my goal.

So, what is life like on a cargo ship? Bumpy, that’s for sure. Even a massive ship like the SPIRIT OF SHANGHAI is still subject to the pitch and roll of the Tasman Sea. Everything vibrates constantly on account of the engine whose propeller is as big as a house.

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The ocean feels vaster than I could have imagined: horizon every which way, so many subtle gradations of blue. The weather was relatively calm for two days, but on the third day we caught the outside of a low-pressure system that churned up the waves. I was instructed to keep all of my things locked up in the cupboards of my cabin in case the weather went wild.

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The captain is Romanian and one morning over breakfast he told a story about two pirate boats that chased his container ship in the Persian Sea. Fortunately the water was flat and his ship was able to outrun the armed pirates––only nearly, though. The container ship was cruising at 21 knots and the pirates at 20 knots. The chase lasted for two hours before the pirates gave up.

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Loading up at Auckland. Fact: no one on board knows what these multicolored containers carry!

Ships are funky social spaces. There’s the obvious: you can’t leave. Crewmembers work 8-month contracts, seven days a week; officers sign on for 4 months at a time. The clock leaves little room for spontaneity. I know ya’ll know this about me already––I thrive on spontaneity.

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We have assigned seats at mealtimes, which is perhaps my least favorite part of the whole ordeal. I sit next to the one other passenger, a 33-year-old bible man from Melbourne who doesn’t believe that women should work outside the home. As you can imagine, we get along like a house on fire! Sometimes I wish he would shut his mansplaining trap and find a nice, solitary corner of the ship in which to study his bible, but I am a polite story collector and so I listen & nod and pretend to be very interested in my split pea soup. He also has the annoying habit of finding me in the late afternoons and asking: “What are you doing?” It is obvious that I am writing, bible man. Can you not see the pen moving across the paper? Needless to say, I will not miss him.

Alex, the chief officer, is much more pleasant to chat with. He’s Russian and one night after dinner he brings me a bowl of New Zealand chocolate ice cream from his personal stash. While we eat he tells me the story of two huge, unexpected waves that came during his time at sea––one that swept all the cargo from the ship (fortunately there is some kind of release mechanism that will unlock the towers of containers if the ship rocks side to side at more than a certain angle, otherwise the whole ship would capsize!). The second wave caught him and his crewmates unaware. It was a gorgeous, sunny day with next to no swell, and the crew was enjoying the breeze through the open portholes in the dinning room… and then WOOSH, here comes this massive wave, soaking everything, leaving a few centimeters of water on the floor. Alex laughs and sits back on the couch with his hands above his head, remembering. The next day Alex gives me a handful of Jolly Ranchers, “for sea sickness.” I haven’t been seasick, but it is a sweet gesture.

I am the only woman onboard the SPIRIT. The 21 crew members are mostly from Mayanmar, though the captain is Romanian and the Chief Engineer is Russian. The Chief Engineer loves conspiracy theories and won’t stop talking about the USSR and the beauty that is huge American cars.

Part of me wishes that there were another female or an American here so that we could have that false pretense of commonality (gender / nation) as a conversation starting point.

One afternoon up on the bridge (the navigational center of the boat, also the highest point in the stern) Alex tells me that the ship if flexible; if it were not flexible, it would break. In rough seas you can see the hull move up and down and side to side, waves of motion propagated throughout the metal.

The night skies are sumptuous. One morning I wake up just before dawn and look out my porthole window to see stars on the horizon, bright and free––stars kissing the wingtips of the sea. I roll over to write and return to the window ten minutes later to a faded, more defined blue sprinkled with vanilla pinpricks of celestial bodies. The sky over the ship and its containers feel porous, ancient. Like worn jeans are a map to the legs that worn them. Even with the ship’s uncompromising routine, the onward surge of hours and their assigned tasks, I have the feeling that anything could happen. The water could slosh through. We are at mercy of our aqueous environment.

I’m coming to think of the ship as a dinosaur. It certainly roars and rumbles like I imagine a prehistoric creature would. On board a cargo ship you rock and roll and tumble, let me tell you.

Every day at 11am Alex fills up a pool in the gymnasium. It’s a small, sloshy affair––sea water, the lot of it––that he empties before lunch at noon. I almost jump in but decide it would be even more improbable and ridiculous to try running on the treadmill that is affixed to the floor next door. I make it for five minutes, swaying slightly with the lateral motion of the boat, before one large-ish wave almost knocks me sideways and I decide to gracefully give up. I settle for a one-woman dance party to the tune of Fly My Pretties in my cabin. Moral of the story: running on water is quite difficult. Dancing is only slightly easier.

In my last eight months of travel I have been learning to laugh at myself. This jaunt across the Tasman Sea is no exception.

I can report with great certainty that I have no sea legs to speak of, and that my propensity to bump into stationary objects while aboard the SPIRIT OF SHANGHAI is, in fact, quite funny. I am, however, very proud of my stomach for staying steady throughout the trip.

One of the crew, a big, burly guy from Myanmar who works in the engine room, called me “strong” at dinner one night. I smile and flex my muscles. Me, one woman on board a ship of 21 working dudes (and one temperamental Austalian bible man), a woman who spends her day reading and writing and trying not to walk into stationary objects?! Fuck yeah I’m strong!

The SPIRIT OF SHANGHAI is 833 ft long and can hold 3630 containers, each the size of a tractor-trailer’s load. My bicycle is tied up with rope in a room used by extra crew during crossings of the Suez Canal.

Today I saw three rainbows over the ocean. I’m coming to believe that beauty is out there if only you have your eyes open to it.

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And then there was the trip’s end––approaching the harbor. If I look over my shoulder I can see the glimmering lights of the Sydney skyline, a welcome change of scenery after so many days of waves. The city looks massive. Then again, the Tasman Sea is larger. I tumbled along to the tune of massive waves for three days.

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If you’re thinking of traveling aboard a cargo ship, here’s what you should know:

  1. It’s going to be more expensive than flying. See above: about US$200/day. I got around this obstacle by crowdfunding my passage.
  1. Get in touch with the shipping company a few months in advance of when you want to leave.
  1. Be flexible. The original ship that I was going to take, the ANL BINDAREE, was moored unexpectedly off the coast of California due to a mechanical problem and so I had to rework my travel dates by a few days and take the SPIRIT OF SHANGHAI instead. The shipping company will be accommodating, just know that cargo ships can be unpredictable things.

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  1. Bring your own entertainment. Days are long, and it’s best if you have something to occupy your time. I wrote constantly and read heaps.
  1. The food on board will be meat and potatoes fare (or, more standardly: meat and French fries). If this isn’t your jam, know that you can bring your own food on board, so long as you eat it all or dispose of it before you disembark in a new port.

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  1. It’s essential that you bring a good sense of humor along with you, seeing as you will most likely be stumbling into stationary objects for days on end.

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  1. If you train your eyes to look at the ocean, you’ll see the most fascinating things. I saw five rainbows in my three days on board, plus many birds I don’t know the names for. They’re brave things, birds, crossing all that distance without rest!

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