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Life at Sea: Crossing the Pacific in the 21st Century


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#1 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 08:58 PM

Hey guys,

Here's a narrative of my journey across the pacific on a cargo ship. i left a little over two weeks ago, and now i'm in a pub in a small port in new zealand drinking beer and eating potatoes and wondering why the floor isn't pitching like everything else i've been standing on.

advance warning: this is TLDR to the max. i threw it together over the last two days and it ended up far longer than i'd anticipated, even with cutting loads of material. congrats if you make it all the way!


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I, having arrived at the docks in Long Beach overtaken with a headache and nausea, had clambered up the gangway with my sea bag, registered on the manifest with two Filipino deckhands, one of whom asked if he could carry my guitar case, and played it as he led me to the superstructure, making loud guitar sounds whenever he passed other seaman. And, left alone in my cabin, which was sparse and precise, I promptly threw up in the sink, christening it as ignominiously as one could hope to, and collapsed into my rack and the merciful arms of rest.

This was my whirlwind introduction to the Natalie Schulte, the German container cargo hauler I was to ride to New Zealand and Australia. When I awoke the land was gone.

Through the night the Natalie Schulte had been loaded with cargo, swung aboard by three enormous cranes spaced evenly across her deck, her entire complement of crew bustling to fasten the boxcar-like containers to the ship and to each other. We had slipped away from our birth with little fanfare. We were underway, and, for the first time in my life, I found myself at sea.

I signed on to the Natalie Schulte because I want to write a book, and a near-month’s worth of steaming across the Pacific Ocean was far and away the most adventurous solitude I could think of. Adventure – that’s the other reason I was aboard. I grew up among the pages of Moby Dick and Sea Wolf and Treasure Island, and I, growing up far inland, have longed for the sea as long as I can remember. After months of faxing documents and release forms back and forth to London, the enchanting lore of tide and tack and trade winds and breakers on the larboard bow was my reality. An unchecked giddiness overtook me as I stood topside for the first time, the deck spread out below me, bow pointed south.

But before the joy of seafaring comes its trials, and I soon realized my stomach was not accustomed to the constant pitch and roll of the ship. It hit me first during my first lunch, in the officer’s mess room; the captain, a Russian, was addressing the passengers, explaining various rules on the ship, times and restrictions, when I made the mistake of looking out the portholes where the horizon bucked and pitched. I sat glued to my chair, my eyes watering, my mouth watering, forcing myself by pure will not to hurl on the table.

I retreated to my cabin afterwards, and stayed there for the better part of the first two days, stretching out my rack and popping Dramamine every six hours. Much to my consternation, my cabin was facing aft, and on the far starboard side of the superstructure, so that my bunk, which also lay to starboard, was at the most extreme possible length away from the center of the ship; every buck and pitch of the waves was amplified thusly.

But within a few days I got my sea legs and had little problem after that. The days began ticking away, one after another, and as I religiously tracked our progress on a map from home, using a ruler and pen to mark our latitude and longitude once per day, the weather grew warm, and then balmy, and then hot. Flying fish appeared, leaping clear of the ship’s thrusting bow and soaring effortlessly across the water, the stuff of myth and legend.

Their presence signaled our proximity to the equator, and after a week at sea we crossed it. Mariner’s tradition is that one who had never crossed the equator on a ship is a polywog, and once he goes over the line by sea, graduates to the status of shellback, a distinctive and exclusive club among men of the sea. The shipping company recently banned the hazing of new shellbacks, so I missed the great production of the captain dressed as King Neptune shaving the heads of fresh shellbacks (I can’t say I’m sorry for that.)

Later that day I discovered that calamari consists of a plate of steaming purple squid, and all my newfound seamanliness went into the trash bin with curled tentacles and my appetite. It seems my stomach is still very much a polywog.

Edited by PhillyB, 01 March 2012 - 09:01 PM.


#2 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:00 PM

It was I who first spied the ship.

She lay, broadside facing us, on the horizon at the two-oh-clock position relative to our heading, precisely due west. I had been scanning the horizon for nearby Starbuck Island, and with a naked eye detected a slight protrusion where sky met water. I grabbed a pair of binoculars and focused them. Sure enough.

“There’s a ship!” I called, when I realized neither the captain nor the second mate on watch, both of them in the bridge, had spotted her.

“Where!” the captain practically shouted, his accent thick with excitement, lunging for a pair of binoculars, with a sense of urgency I had yet to witness from him. “Ze pirates?”

He said it as a question, not an identification, but still my heart leapt with excitement. He switched to Russian, carrying a quick, heated conversation with the second mate, who rushed to a chart. Making a brief notation thereupon, he strode to the radar screen and scanned the system. He zoomed in, and the ship, which had appeared as one of many scattered clouds in the immediate region, now sharpened on the screen into an articulate yellow smear.

The ship narrowed, visually, and I could see her bow. “She’s setting a course bearing down on us,” I opined, my opinion mattering nothing, I was certain, but it seemed like a properly nautical thing to say.

The end of it was when the second mate identified it as a Chinese fishing vessel, far from the pirate-infested privateer I secretly hoped for. Regardless, my fun was had, and I secretly harbored a satisfaction for spotting it before anyone on watch, and for eliciting such an animated response from our captain.

Captain Aleksei Domilov, I soon learned, was a seaman on a submarine in the Russian navy for three years. I place him in his mid-forties, though he could pass for thirty-five, bearing the look of a man who ages well. Short and stout, he is as steadfast as the harsh Siberian north from whence his father came, he himself spared of it by a childhood in Turkmenistan and The Ukraine.

He sat down in the mess room at lunch one day, espousing opinions on every topic imaginable.

On America: “I go to America, and ze vimmen, zey are very fat, ze fat, it comes out in ze new places, here and here and here.” And he made bulges with his hands, plastering his body with imaginary lumps of fat in arbitrary places.

On China: “China, zey are huge, zey are dangerous. Ze Ah-zee-en, (Asian)you see, szinks differently zhan ze vesterner. You go to China, zey are fast, industrial. Zey are all like ziss, zey vill take over ze world.”

On Russia: “Russia, she is ze fahking mess. I serve three years,” (at this he held up three sausage fingers emphatically) “in ze Navy, on ze submarine, I serve my country, and I vill not pay ze taxes. I refuse to pay ze taxes. Because you see it is ze, ah, how do you say, ah, ze upper leaders, ze politicians, zey are corrupt, it is ze fahking Putin, everyzhing in Russia is too expensive, you can kill one hundred people and if you have a million dollars you can buy your way out of it but if you steal a fahking cup of ze shugahr,” (he picked up the pepper shaker and shook it emphatically) “you vill go to jail for ten years if you do not have ze money. I zhink it is very bad for Russia in a few years, it is bad now and it vill get worse…”

The rest of the crew, while interesting in their own rite, have yet to, individually or as a whole, surpass their captain in terms of color and saltiness.

The first mate, or first officer is the modern term, is in every way the captain’s opposite. Solemn and evasive, he sticks to himself; as the officer on night watch, he is rarely seen anyway. He wears sunglasses at night. He is the only Filipino among the officers, which probably explains his solitude, as he is segregated from the Filipino crew by his rank, and segregated from the officers by both daylight and language.

Viktor, the second mate, is friendly enough, his grasp of English extensive even if his pronunciation isn’t perfect. He often speaks of his life back home in Ukraine, and when he finds something funny a fit of explosive laughter rumbles from his mouth.

The third mate, Dmytro… he is seldom on watch in the bridge, and I do not see him as much as Viktor. Early on in the voyage I came into the bridge and he, the only officer on watch, was fast asleep in the navigator’s chair, head propped up by a listless arm. He snapped awake suddenly, and, upon seeing me, made a great show of organizing charts and checking the heading and looking the picture of duty.

The Natalie Schulte carries four engineers. Jari is their chief, an enormous man, the only Estonian aboard, and arguably the friendliest soul aboard. Oleksandr and Yury are the second and third mate, each the precise opposite of the other, the former with the height and build of a linebacker and the latter with the build of a telephone pole. Yevgen rounds out the list as the ship’s electrical engineer.

The crew is all Filipino, most of them in their twenties. They are often busy with tasks out on the deck, among the cargo, and below deck, so it’s not as common to see them. Antonio, the messman, is the sole exception, he being present during every meal to bring it out.

Besides myself, the Natalie Schulte carries with her four other passengers: Tom and Kendal, two retired oceanographers from Los Angeles, Geoff, an active oceanographer testing water samples during the voyage, and Lemoine, a Parisian bound, ultimately, for Indonesia.

It is quite a complement of human beings with which I sail.

#3 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:03 PM

Nine days into the voyage we had a barbecue, an event celebrated once on every crossing of the Pacific. The crew cordoned off one side of the poop deck, covering the descending stairwell with a board to make an extra table, and filled the open spaces with more tables, long benches, and an enormous makeshift grill. A vast barrel stood in the middle of the scene, filled to the brim with canned beer, and the table next to it, once empty, was now covered in trays of raw chicken, beef, pork, and several milkfish wrapped individually in tin foil.

The bosun’s mate slipped a CD into an old stereo, cranked the volume up as high as it would go, and hit play. Vast heaps of meat cooked on the grill, and we, on the starboard facing west, were cooked by the waning rays of a merciless tropical sun. Everyone was in attendance – even the introverted first mate – for a portion of the party. The Filipinos sat clustered in a group aft, towards the back of the ship, and the officers in a long line together several feet away, occupying the benches.

How many beers I consumed I shall decline to say; but when the CDs stopped in the stereo, and the talk had died down to idle chatter, and the sun had disappeared in a spectacular show beneath the horizon, I, at the behest of Captain Tomilov, pulled my guitar case from under the table and pulled it out. A roar of approval rose from among the ranks, a round of applause, and eager requests.

To our mutual delight, the Filipino crew knew every word of every song I could play, and the officers knew most of them. And everyone sang along, loud and out of key, so that my own voice was usually drowned out. All I had to do was lead. I started with Green Day and rolled through an entire concert worth of songs, from Radiohead to the Eagles to Oasis and Nirvana and the Chili Peppers and more (including a Fountains of Wayne song called “Sink to the Bottom,” arguably an inauspicious omen among superstitious seamen.)

The crowd ate it up. Filipinos and officers met, arm in arm, belting out lyrics and clapping the beat. "Yellow Submarine" was the biggest hit of them all. It became a long, drawn-out affair. I changed the lyrics part way through so that the chorus went:

We all live on the Natalie Schulte
The Natalie Schulte
The Natalie Schulte
We all live on the Natalie Schulte
The Natalie Schulte
The Natalie Schulte


I strode back and forth across the deck, belting out the lyrics, missing a chord occasionally, but in the din nobody could possibly hear the guitar in the first place. “Filipinos!” I bawled, and they took up the chorus, swaying in unison with the roll of the ship. “And Ukranians!” I cried as they finished, shifting forward, where they sat, and in their thick accents they began, all bashfulness long ago cast overboard.

“…aaaand the Filipinos! The Ukranians were louder that time! …Natalie Schulte, Natalie Schulte. And Estonians now, that’s you chief engineer! We all live on the Natalie Schulte, Natalie Schulte, Natalie Schulte!”

“Louder, Filipinos now! We all live on the NATALIE SCHULTE” (here I began to shout) “the NATALIE SCHULTE, NATALIE SCHULTE!” And, with a fist thrown skyward, “YEAH!” so that the song, roared by the crew and officers in unison, a dozen fists in the air at a beat, went:

We all live on the Natalie Schulte, -YEAH!
The Natalie Schulte, -YEAH!
The Natalie Schulte, -YEAH!


And so it was that under the powerful hypnotism of music that the crew and officers together became enchanted with its beat, now quite amiable, shifting from segregated sections to intermingling fraternization of the cheerfullest kind; dancing, singing, stomping, clapping.

I, proud to be the arbitrator of this frothing merriment, bowed at the end, out of songs, to a rowdy cascade of applause, and retired to my cabin, out of songs, hoarse, happy, and dismayed that I had only completed three pages on my book that day.

The barbecue party,by all means, was a success.

#4 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:03 PM

Life at sea has become a routine now, full of odd habits and rituals that mariners so often adopt, and as we approach the northern island of New Zealand in a stiff westerly wind, my days are peacefully similar, as though I will be on the great ocean for another month.

I rise at 0730 for breakfast, and take a ritual morning constitutional around the ship, starting aft and walking forward, always along the port side, stopping under the enormous platform of cargo to watch the sea boil and foam against our hull, and stopping again on our bow to watch the water in its last moments of tranquility before it is smashed by our prow, and then returning on the starboard side, around the stern, watching our bubbling wake. And, having completed this circuit, I climb the stairs to the third superstructure deck, shower, and begin working on my book.

Lunch is at 1230, and I usually sit on a bench on the fourth deck for an hour afterwards to read, until 1400, at which time I go topside, to the bridge, and take note of our coordinates on the GPS system. This is my favorite ritual. Back in my room I spread a large world map, brought from home, over my desk, and use a small ruler and pen to mark our latitude and longitude and thus track our progress.

A few more hours of writing follows this, until dinner at 1530, which is always a lively affair, and I often read more on the deck after dinner, and from sunset until 2100 or so I write. Then it’s lights out, and I am lulled to sleep by the gentle pitch of crest and trough.

It is a timeless life, a good life, a life of salt and spray and the fellowship of men. This is life at sea.

#5 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:06 PM

I will be back the Natalie Schulte tonight around 2100. We'll steam north, around the north island, and into the Tasman Sea, which, according to weather reports, is currently getting mauled by antarctic storms from the great Southern Ocean. so it will be a shitty couple of days of it.

#6 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:11 PM

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the view from atop the superstructure deck



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views conducive to writing



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bigass ropes up in the bow. these suckers tie us up at our berth in port



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sunset near the equator. and this is a shitty sunset. most of them were spectacular, and for whatever reason my camera was elsewhere when i watched them.

#7 Frash Brastard

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:11 PM

did you see any of those rubber duckies that have been floating all over the oceans since the early 90s

#8 mmmbeans

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:12 PM

can't beat that.

#9 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:14 PM

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after i crossed the equator, and graduated from polywog to shellback, a celebratory cigar was in order. my midsection is indication that we are fed well and i haven't touched the gym.



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tracking my progress on a map i brought from home. simply doing the math on my phone and calculating the distance between degrees has been remarkably precise.



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the barbecue concert. lol.

#10 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 09:25 PM

did you see any of those rubber duckies that have been floating all over the oceans since the early 90s


no but after that barbecue i floated a few rubber duckies of my own

#11 Hawk

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 10:18 PM

cool poo man...read every word!


every great story needs sex though...you holding out?!!!!

#12 pstall

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 10:33 PM

holy bandwidth batman. naw man...very very cool.

#13 PhillyB

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 10:39 PM

cool poo man...read every word!


every great story needs sex though...you holding out?!!!!


25 men on board... not sure what kind of sex you're looking to hear about :eek:

#14 Squirrel

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Posted 02 March 2012 - 12:01 AM

25 men on board... not sure what kind of sex you're looking to hear about :eek:


The kind he likes. BTW great read.

#15 Kevin Greene

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Posted 02 March 2012 - 12:28 AM

You're a fine story teller.
Time to look deep into Jimmy Buffett's library of songs.
Nothing else will do.


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