A few years back I had this great opportunity to join my husband on board his ship and travel with him to wherever the giant vessel took us. After months of running around for visas and passport issues, and innumerable phone calls, I was finally bound for the Land Down Under to join my husband in Gladstone, Australia. That was my first international flight and I was really, really scared, because I was travelling by myself, and back then I hadn’t traveled by flights much. What if I mess up something, get lost, lose my ticket, or I wind up being detained by immigration for something (which actually happened at Brisbane, though it was a mistake and the problem was resolved in no time). These questions were making me jittery even before I took the cab to the airport. My husband had painstakingly written down instructions for me to follow (I know it sounds dumb, but I was that clueless) and had specifically asked me not to roam too far away from my boarding gate.
23 hours and 3 flights later I did reach my husband and the ship safely. And the moment I saw how I was to get on board, my heart skipped a beat. Now usually, you have nice, large gangways to get on board cruise ships/passenger vessels. Merchant ships are…well…different. I was supposed to make an arduous climb up the ship’s very narrow, wobbly stairway which was made of steel, or aluminum, or some metal (I don’t know), held together with chains and ropes. It swung from side to side with every step and was only, only, a meter wide at most. Not to mention I was carrying one suitcase that weighed a little less than a tonne… oops… i meant 30 kgs, and a few other pieces (because we women like to travel in style). One slip of the foot could land me straight into the chilly ocean, in-spite of the safety net surrounding the gangway….
…And I don’t know how to swim!
Just to show you what I mean, here’s a picture of the gangway used on merchant ships I found on the internet. I have actually used both those ladders on different occasions while I was on board.
So….climb I did and I was graciously helped by a deck hand with my luggage. And there stood my husband, wearing his sooty work overalls, grinning from ear to ear. Was it love or was he laughing at my ashen face, I don’t know, but at that moment all I wanted to do was scream, “What have I landed myself into?” Ummm…quite literally!
Half an hour later the ship set sail and I had the most horrible time adjusting to its motion and to motion-sickness itself. I hail from the Himalayas (Garhwal, India) and I pride myself for the fact that winding roads do not faze me. But on board, five minutes into the sail and my up-chuck reflex was already in hyperdrive. Anyway, we somehow made it out of the port and into the open sea. Things calmed down, so did my stomach. Two days later we were just outside Hay Point, Australia, for a nearly 1 month long anchorage, and I was already bored out of my wits!
Why, you ask?
Well, life on a merchant ship can be very, very boring if you’re not working on board. Particularly for wives and children of the sailors, who are considered passengers. One would think no work and all play equals a good vacation, but this is a merchant ship we’re talking about, not a cruise ship. On a merchant ship out in the deep ocean, you have very basic connectivity. Its restricted to satellite phones and radio…sometimes, that too only on AM/MW frequency. Time just stops ticking if you’re not busy with something to do.
So, there’s no TV, no cell phones, no internet, no shopping places, no pubs-clubs or museums or friends to go to or visit. To make matters worse, the ship’s motion coupled with the weather can sometimes leave you literally with your head down the toilet. The weather is mercurial. One day it will be nice and calm, the sea looks like rippling glass, reflecting the sky and the clouds with surprising clarity, and you would think “Oh! I don’t wanna leave this ever!”, and the next day that same calm sea will defy gravity with its frothy, foamy walls of water, and while you cling onto your bed for fear of being thrown off, you’ll be cussing like a drunken pirate. We even witnessed a particularly violent night when standing up straight without the help of multiple supports was near impossible, when around 3 a.m., the door to our refrigerator was thrown wide open by the jostling of the ship, and all the contents inside flew out screaming, streaking the cabin floor, and me and my husband were running from one end of the cabin to the other to gather them all. What a phenomenal struggle it was!
So what does a single woman, surrounded by water and 22 other people do on board a merchant ship which is essentially just machinery? I raked my brains for this and that, combed the ship’s frugal library and lounge and still could not find anything to occupy myself with. I was already whining to my Husband and wanted to return home…within 2 weeks of my arrival! He just shrugged it off because really, there was nothing he could have done. I mean we were in the middle of nowhere, anchored miles out of a port with zero connectivity, apart from the satellite phones. So, I had to satisfy myself with listening to Brooke Fraser (who has since then become a favorite) and repeats of Bruno Mars on the single radio channel that our portable radio could catch.
Then I stumbled upon a wealth of e-books stored on one of the ship’s computers. And I read…read…and read…and then read some more. I must have read something like 50 books (I kid you not) during our 2 month anchorage on the Australian shoreline. Granted most of them were trash, but hey, a book is a book!
So when the reading too got boring I finally peered out of my porthole and saw the most interesting sight….
Sea gulls soaking up the Oz sun…and pooping, like seagulls do!
Even more interestingly, since the ship was at anchor and her main engines weren’t running, she would just float in whichever direction the waves would turn her. That meant that the position of the sun was constantly changing, and our avian friends aboard were constantly adjusting their positions to get the most out of their sun-bathing ritual, much like sunflowers. That got me interested enough to shrug off my boredom and take a stroll. That was the last time I whined about being bored on board. My adventures on board began from then on.
I was taught how to work a lifeboat. I learnt how to zip up an immersion suit and a life-jacket in under 2 minutes on the weekly safety drills on board (that IS a bona fide accomplishment. Try it if you think I’m fibbing). I learnt a thing or two about fishing, even though I didn’t eat fish back then. I learnt about people from other nationalities, their lives, cultures, their peculiarities. I made a lifetime worth of friends. I was treated like royalty because I was the only woman on board.
Slowly, I started loving my laid back life on board. I started noticing how peaceful it was without the constant pinging of phones and the prattle of the TV. While my reading used to occupy me during the night time, my excursions on board would keep me occupied during the day. The sunsets and the moon rise at sea were my favourite views, followed by the frothy sea in bad weather in the night-time (as viewed from the cabin’s portholes, because of course it was too dangerous to get out), and of course, new ports. I was wireless and loving it!
I realized that had I kept my head buried into my phone or my nose glued to the TV, I would have missed so much on these voyages. Like these crimson and vermilion skies…
Or these frolicking dolphins in the wild…
Or these ominous clouds…
Or this view of a Port in Australia…
Or this glassy sea-scape…
Or the rare sight of an Active Volcano in the Indian Ocean
My apologies for the bad pictures. The ship’s constant movement and machinery induced vibration made it really difficult to focus onto any particular object properly.
Around that time, merchant ships would receive daily news in the form of a text file via satellite and they always went unread in my cabin. It was as if I didn’t want to be connected to the world anymore. Sure, I missed home, but I was just as much at home on that ship which was an island for all the 23 of us on board. And the moment I started enjoying myself on board, ironically time started to fly by, and before I knew it, my nearly 5 month long stay on board was at an end. I was actually regretting my arrival back in India.
A while back I read a Nat Geo tweet that reported an alarming 71% of millennials who admitted they would be very uncomfortable in a week long vacation without connectivity. And here I was, living an absolutely blissful life with week after week of being unconnected to the world. I didn’t know who posted what, or who tweeted what, or who pinged me on which of my millionth groups. I didn’t care and maybe we ought not to.
Maybe the real vacation lies in not posing for pictures to decorate our virtual walls, but in making memories that make the vacation special for us.
Try being wireless on your next vacation. Maybe you’ll like it too.
© Pradita Kapahi, 2016.
Picture Sources: Pradita Kapahi, 2011.