Hitching a ride to South Korea: what it's like being the only female passenger on board a cargo ship heading to Asia

From swabbing the deck to dealing with pirates, this was a cruise with a difference

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The Independent Travel

Nearly a decade ago, I Googled something along the lines of “people used to travel by ships that weren’t obnoxious cruise ships so do they still do that now?” and discovered that purchased passages were available on container ships all over the world. I swore I would do it some day and – when I was planning a trip around the world after leaving Portland, Oregon, my home of seven years, to move back to New York City – it seemed only appropriate to kick off on a 278-metre megaship, floating away from everything in the middle of the Pacific for two whole weeks.

I found a travel agency based in London that booked this sort of thing, checked it as best I could to assure my mother I wasn’t being sold into slavery, and found myself a few months later, standing on an upper deck, ready to depart for Korea.

As I approached the security booth at the port entrance gate, a little old man with a gigantic moustache leaned forward. “You working?” I found it encouraging that a young blonde lady would be presumed to be working in a shipyard, but told him, no, I was a passenger. After flipping through about one and a half pages of the “Crew List,” he came to a sheet that said, “Passenger List.” There was one name on it: mine.

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A crew member in the control room

I didn’t expect to be the only passenger on board (the paperwork said they could take up to eight), much less the only woman. The entirety of the officers (who were all German) and the crew (who were all Filipino), however, treated me wonderfully; they were simply thrilled to have a new face in the mix.

In the morning, I shuffled downstairs from my tiny cabin to the Officers’ Mess Room, where I took a seat at the captain’s table next to a super-silent and brooding older man who happened to be the chief engineer. The captain himself was a gruff, grey-haired, bearded man from Hamburg. He was on the precipice of retirement and uninterested in most of what was going on in the shipping industry nowadays. I, of course, was wholly interested in everything going on in the shipping industry nowadays. It did not make for good breakfast conversation.

As I contemplated a non-lame way to ask about the ship, the affable, blonde, thirty-something first mate burst through the door. He was smiley but still very poised and proper, tall and somewhat goofy, an excellent conversationalist. One of his favourite pastimes was teasing the captain in a rousing round of “poke the bear”, chortling at his own jokes with a funny gulping noise and grinning a huge grin whenever the captain would get irritated. Of all the officers, he was the one giddily walking into breakfast at 0800 after having already worked four hours, hollering, “GOOD MORNING!” as the chief engineer grumbled but didn’t bat an eye, and the captain muttered something as he rubbed his eyes. I just smiled and said, “Good morning!” back, though with significantly less gusto.

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Up on deck

With enough time and coffee and jibes from the first mate, though, the captain seemed to come around. I had been sitting on the sidelines, relishing the delightful banter and silently shoving buttered rolls in my mouth when the captain suddenly turned and looked at me in such a stern way I thought he was going to command me to swab the deck. “The first mate and I will be drinking beers at 1100 on “D” Deck, starboard side,” he said matter-of-factly. “You join us, yes?” Surprised by this sudden acceptance into what appeared to be a private chummy routine, I said, “Sure, sounds fantastic.” We chatted a bit more, mostly about whether or not they felt like their lives were a movie like Captain Phillips, and then the captain got up to leave. “Remember,” he said, pointing upstairs, “Beer at 11.”

My daily ritual included taking the full interval between breakfast and lunch to wander about the ship’s upper and lower decks, making a full circle from the starboard side, up around to the front at the bow, down along the port side, looping to the lower deck on the back of the boat at the stern, and back around to the starboard side. It was relaxing and somewhat thrilling to lean on the edge of the barely-there rail, knowing that on a cruise ship this same rail would be excessively fortified to prevent any shuffleboard pucks, small children, or lap dogs from slipping through the gaps. Staring down at the churning ocean below slapping the sides of the ship, we were moving incredibly fast, and no one knew where I was for hours at a time. I tightened my grip.

The containers were fascinating. They were multi-coloured and labelled with a dozen different companies from around the world. As the first mate described it to me, different companies rent different containers and place them aboard the ship. They’re required to tell the shipping company what it contains if it’s to be refrigerated or if it contains hazardous material, but otherwise the company has no idea what it’s moving in these containers. It was fun to try to guess what North America was moving over to Asia. A few days into the trip, I noticed some tiny brown pebbles that suddenly appeared on the deck as I was making my rounds. I’d sweep them away with my foot, but the next day they’d return. It turned out that one of the containers had not been closed properly in port and was pouring out its contents. I was curious, and (quite illegally, probably) climbed up one of the ladders leading to the open edge of the container to sneak a peek. As soon as I reached the top rung a gust of wind blew through the gap between the containers, showering me with dried lentils.

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Sarah Royal’s cabin

The containers were mostly old, with several rust spots and dings in the sides that belied when a new guy had been operating the crane in port. In some places, while I was looping around the decks, the containers were actually suspended above my head. I’d linger in this cavernous spot, just near the front of the boat where the bow began to curve forward, and hear the echoes of the clanks and clangs of metal hitting metal as the ship pitched slightly on the waves. It was a great way to rattle the troubles out of my brain. Sort of like a sensory immersion tank.

In that spot, there were patches of sunlight that would stream through the gaps between the containers overhead, so I’d post myself up on one of the protruding cylindrical posts used to tie the ship to the dock (“bollards,” in official nautical speak) and sit peacefully to zone out staring at waves. The ship was so massive, I very rarely came across any of the deckhands as I roamed around, but this time one of them found me. “Making yourself at home, eh?” he said with a huge grin. Before I could even tell if he approved or disapproved, he said, “Wait right there—don’t move.” Certainly. I hadn’t really any plans for sudden movements, sir.

He returned a few minutes later with a deck chair complete with an ultra-thick cushion on top. “This is the kind of thing you get on an actual cruise,” I said to him, dumbfounded and half-expecting him to produce a blended margarita from behind his back. He just grinned stupidly again, proud and pleased with himself for thinking of it, and said, “Hey, we don’t always work so hard—sometimes we get to relax, too.”

And indeed, he was right. After successive nights eating all meals in separate quarters—the German officers (and me, the blonde American ship guest who looked German) eating German food in the German mess hall, the Filipino crew eating Filipino food in the Filipino mess hall—the captain decided we should blend our three represented cultures and bond over something we all have in common: grilling meat and getting drunk. We decided to throw a barbecue on deck.

At 1700, when their shift ended, a bunch of the deckhands scurried about—setting up tables, posting up tarps for wind blockage, fighting over who would man the grill. I was excited to see what beer would do to get folks loosened up, especially for those who, like the chief engineer, previously were not. After a few, he began chatting with me about growing up in East Germany, and I lapped it up. “Everything was better when it came from West Germany, even when it was not,” he said in his thick accent, leaning over the edge of a railing with the most casual body language I’ve ever seen a German display. He took another swig. “I remember one time we got coffee from West Germany that was very expensive and so awful. We all pretended it was very good so as not to look stupid.”

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A barbecue on deck

I was thrilled for the opportunity to sit back and watch the others loosen up from their workdays and workmonths. After so much time at sea, this little “grill every meat we have on board and drink all the beers” extravaganza was the most normalised landlubbing event they could throw for themselves. I sat back with the captain, who was a natural observer rather than participant, and we watched the Filipino guys pass around a guitar and play successive 1990s pop radio hits. After spouting Zombie by The Cranberries and Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton, they started up with What’s Going On?  by Four Non-Blondes. I turned to the Captain next to me and said, “Uh, would you hold my drink for a moment?” and scampered over to sing lead. It’s one of my karaoke favourites. I killed. The next morning I was feeling quite hungover and, of course, it was sunny outside. I felt like a real seafarer, armed with a hammock and securing ropes my friend had bestowed to me before my voyage, knotting the ropes around the white-painted piping, pulling the lassos tight against the wind that was trying to twirl them about, clipping the carabiner closed as I tucked the parachute of the hammock tight under my arm and prayed it didn’t lift me up over the rail and overboard. Finally having both sides clipped and taut, I gently lay down in it, slouching with only six inches clearance, maybe, to the deck, and felt the sea breeze and sun hit my face hard, while I smelled the diesel fuel and heard the rumbling dull roar of the ship, with the refrigerated containers buzzing in the background. Moby Dick in hand—because what better place to tackle the high school reading you’ve ignored for  15 years—I held the corners of the pages down and suddenly remembered I was in my own seafaring story. There were 360 fucking degrees of ocean around me. I was bound for Asia.

 

On the lower deck, right at the stern of the boat near the rudder, I found a spot underneath an exposed staircase and looked down at the water over the railing. This was as close as I could be to the water on this vessel—it was maybe two or three meters down, I thought, now that I was measuring like a seawoman the rest of the planet. I leaned on a post to be able to keep my hands warm in my pockets, having dozens of random thoughts float through my head and pass right by without consequence. I really couldn’t recall when last I’d had the time for that luxury. Suddenly, I spot some tiny dolphin fins jumping in the distance. “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have them come very close to the boat while I’m standing in this spot,” I say out loud to the ocean, as talking to one’s self is what you do when you’re standing alone on the back of a bellowing ship. “Or even better, if it were a wha—” I nearly fall backwards as a giant puff of blowhole water roars up right in front of my face, and slowly, a heartbeat later, a massive sleek, dark grey body slides upwards in the same spot, hanging at the surface for a few seconds as it arches back downward, showing its dorsal fin just before it dips back below. I was so taken aback by my apparent manifestation that I nearly tripped trying to scamper towards the stern to see it do its thing two more times. And then that was it—the boat moved on, she was out of sight. I blinked a few times, frozen. I felt like I was on drugs.

Much of my experience on the ship could be likened to drugs, really: staring at the swirling waves too long and then turning to look at the floor or the steps or a container made me feel like I took psychedelics, like my whole reality became a lava lamp for thirty seconds. There were times when the rocking and pitching of the ship went past the point of “noticeable” and became “I feel thoroughly drunk when I’m walking”. Conjuring a fucking whale seemed fairly typical.

If I ever need to feel like I’m not doing enough career-wise, I can sit back and wistfully think of the ship’s mechanic, who was only 19 and already knew more about seafaring and engineering than I ever will in this life or the next. He and I chatted on “E” Deck after dinner at sunset as the boat glided through the still waters of the Aleutian islands of Alaska. “When the ships go through pirate areas, the company makes rules—we cannot fight back, and we cannot have weapons,” he told me, preemptively sharing stories he felt would pique my interest. After silently appreciating the lack of pirates in the Pacific, I asked him if they did anything different themselves when they were in those pirate areas. He thought for a moment, then replied, “Well…we put the fire hoses over the sides, so if they try to climb up we can spray them back down, if that’s what you mean.” Hundreds of years of fighting pirates and that’s what we’ve got.

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The view from the writer’s favourite spot

We stared a while in silence as Alaska passed by in the golden glow of the sunset. I commented on how glorious it looked, how protected. He stretched his arms out to the sides and remarked, “Yes—you can only see this from the sea.”

After weird time and space mindfucks, like going to bed on the 31st and waking up on the 2nd after  we passed the international dateline, or having left Canada and sort of been in Alaska while ending up in Korea, my final day at sea came.

Today is the last day of slow moving for a long while, I thought to myself, and it was just as well. The uber-slow doesn’t suit me for too long. But the pacing of the decks, the staring at the greasy, rusted metal hoisted up to hold the dingy containers, the getting lost in the thousands of folds of waves—I was able to suspend my disbelief for a bit and pretend I existed back in the slow travel days, starring in my own movie of sorts. I laughed to myself, imagining writing a script about it at some point and delighting in the amount of blonde Germans I’d have to hire.

While packing up my cabin and shuffling through a variety of papers from the desk, I came across the ship company magazine. Right on the cover, so carefully and intentionally placed that I can’t believe I didn’t spot it before, it said: “Life writes the best scripts from reality.”

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