Dakota Jones’ slowboat to Advanced Week.
By Dakota Jones.
You’d think that looking at nothing but water all the time would get boring, but I look at other things too. I look at my books and my phone and a journal and also this enormous cargo freighter that I’m on, which is unbelievably complex and endlessly fascinating.
Actually, I’m not entirely sure if “cargo freighter” is the correct term for this ship. The other passenger onboard — a genial New Zealander who knows a lot about ships and likes to give me unsolicited advice on how things work onboard — told me otherwise within minutes of us meeting. I referred to this boat as a container ship and he immediately launched into, “Oh no, this isn’t a container ship. Those are much bigger. This ship can carry containers, but it does loads of other stuff too, loads.” Incidentally, I spend a lot of time looking at him too, trying to decipher what he’s saying. He speaks so quickly and with such a heavy accent that I only understand about half of what he says. All in all, it’s a bit of a relief to just look out at the water and think.
The water exudes a kind of calm power, like a man who knows his strengths but keeps them to himself. It is dark blue-green and heavy looking, as if it’s neither liquid nor solid but some kind of membrane between this world and another dimension. It rolls up and down ceaselessly as far as the eye can see. The waves level out in the far distance so that the horizon is a perfectly flat circle all around us. The surface of the water is forever shifting and changing in a thousand different patterns, but the membrane is almost never punctured naturally. The surface remains taught. This boat, however, is not natural, and it shatters the surface of the ocean like a meteorite hitting the Earth. The engineers who designed this vessel did a good job; with just one propeller, this boat that must surely weigh millions of pounds is propelled forward as ceaselessly as the waves, but more apparently purposefully. We leave behind us a long road of frothy turbulence, marking our path for miles back.
“This,” Kerry the New Zealander tells me, “is a working ship, you know. You can’t just [unintelligible] as you please. You have to [unintelligible] before you go roaming about the deck or they’ll [unintelligible] until you don’t know which way is up.” Talking to him is like speaking to someone in a language I’m pretty good at, but don’t quite have the hang of yet. I rely pretty heavily on body language, and while he speaks I submit meek little “wow”s and “oh really”s to sound engaged. Interestingly, I can understand most of the officers and crew better than I can understand Kerry. An interesting fact is that the working language on the boat is English, yet Kerry and I — in other words, the only two people onboard who are of absolutely no help to the functionality of the ship — are the only two people who have English as a first language. The officers all come from eastern Europe. A series of certificates on the wall outside my room tells me that there are two Ukrainians, one Romanian and a Russian guy in charge of the ship’s operations. I had to rely on the certificates to tell me this (and the cook, who is really on my side) because I sure as hell am not about to ask them myself. Perhaps it is a cultural thing to seem surly and serious, but these guys look pissed off all the time. I have received no indication that these men want anything to do with me. They’re perfectly fine with me being here so long as I stay out of the way and don’t talk, but that’s it. I would be perfectly happy to acquiesce…if I didn’t feel it my duty to learn everything there is to know about this boat. As it is, they’re going to have to open up sometime, because I have 12 days to get in their ways until they talk to me.
While the officers are a bunch of reticent Europeans, the crew could not be more different. They are all Filipino, quiet, obsequious and kind. They speak varying amounts of English and when they laugh at me I get the sense that it’s good-natured and that they just laugh at everything. I don’t think they get many passengers onboard, so I was a bit of a surprise to them. But they took me in anyway. They wear orange jumpsuits and hard hats and from my perch 7 floors above the main deck I see them going about their inscrutable purposes, climbing ladders, descending ladders, wrenching on things, carrying spools of enormous rope around. I saw a guy walking around with a chainsaw yesterday. We made eye contact and he looked confused at something, but then I smiled and he just smiled back and went on his way.
Life aboard ship is simple so long as I can entertain myself. We don’t have wifi or cell service while at sea, so I can’t stress myself out over “work”. I just ride my bike in place and read and write and try to get myself to stretch regularly. There’s a lounge area with some tables and couches and a television that will play DVDs. They gave us three movies to watch: 3 Nicolas Cage movies in Chinese, and what appears to be a Navy Seals recruitment video. That’s ok — I’d prefer to watch the ocean anyway.
The water is uniform in every direction , yet never the same twice. It engulfs even this boat that is by far the largest machine I have ever been on. In the distance while at sea are boats even bigger — great container ships with thousands of crates on them. But in the vastness o the ocean even these are swallowed up. They look like bath toys. The surface of the water is impenetrable. It’s hard to imagine that there’s much beneath us. But once I do get my mind wrapped around the incredible depths above which we float, I get nervous and retreat, preferring to see the water as a surface again, rather than a membrane. The 2-dimensional scale of this place is big enough; I’m not ready to comprehend the 3rd dimension just yet.
All this in just two days. Ten to go. What will happen next?