6 months at Sea
Standing on the bow of my new home and office as we sailed north through the Indian Ocean towards Indonesia on Christmas Day, the air was humid and my brain overloaded. Where was I? What had I signed up for? I was a long way from Bragg Creek and a long way from a life I had previously anticipated would be academic. Instead, here I was on a cruise ship with an internationally diverse crew and passenger base, based in Fremantle, Western Australia and part of a team conducting art auctions for a company based in Miami. As my first experience with globalization in its truest form, the water in front of me beckoned.
Over the next 6 months (with a brief 3 weeks off between contracts) the sea was my home, although not in the way I had anticipated. I had travelled by cruise ship as a young boy. I hated the feeling of being a cooped-up client to a consumer heavy industry. The irony that now I had to sell art to that trapped clientele was not lost on me. At least now I could saddle up the bar.
The majority of my days were consumed with work and sales. Also sweating. 4:45 am wake ups, gallery changes, sweating, auction room setups, breakfast, shaves, suit ups, 1 hour of yipping, selling and high energy followed by auction room breakdowns, sweating, more gallery changes, more selling, more hauling of heavy artworks and, if you were lucky, in bed around midnight. Do the same the next sea day. Also maybe sweat a little.
While busy, it was easy to think you were anywhere else in the world (save the deck heaving back and forth beneath you). On port days, however, the world was literally brought to your doorstep. One day, Brisbane. The next, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Vanuatu, New Caledonia. Did I have 1000 Francs in my pocket? Was I buying a beer for 22,000 Rupiah? For the first time in my life, I was living the reality of what a life on the water meant. Freedom for some, livelihood for many, a tragic commons for all.
What was immediately a source of amusement and novelty for me has given way to a more humbled and stark realization of life on the high seas. While my tenure in the job of Art Salesman was brief, it has taken me the better part of 3 years to find my voice and process what I saw with the realities of life at sea. I can’t do it justice here.
There is a realization one is faced with that working at sea is not the most equal nor as consistently governed by legal code as is expected on land. I came face to face with this in the form of working hours. While one is accustomed to a relatively regulated workday on land, seafaring positions tend to look the other way on that rule in return for the almighty dollar.
On the bow overlooking the Indian Ocean. If you can’t tell, humid.
A home, income or means of purveyance? Alatou, Papua New Guinea
Yet those long days at sea were punctuated by the very realization I was at sea. Feeling the ground underneath you shift and sway in the waves made you second guess that you weren’t deathly ill. Having a meal on deck and watching the horizon rise and fall from the port hole was consistently mesmerizing. It took a while but I also got used to that same rising and falling sensation while lying in my bunk below the water line, the massive hull crashing down on the surface of the sea. The sea.
An inscription on a dedication monument in the Port of Naples (or was it Genoa?) quoted one Molinari:
“The sail represents the journey, the Sea. Our sea which has been the cradle of civilization, not only theatre of clashes and battles among people but also theatre of exchanges of goods and knowledge”.
What truly struck me during my time as a mariner was the means by which that same sea connects us to one another. Truly a theatre of human interaction along political and economic lines but, perhaps more relevantly, one of cultural and ancestral ties.
A literally warm welcome. Honiara, Guadalcanal
How lucky was I to be fleeted from the sunny, hipster filled brick pubs of Fremantle to the packed port city of Makassar, Indonesia? Indeed, tendering to the island of Kitava, large swaths of the population squatted along the dirt road to sell tourists and crew alike the wooden souvenirs one could take home to claim cultural awareness. Was this their means of subsistence year-round, or a tourist-centred opportunity? This was after all, an island of the Kula Trading ring, a gift-giving economy among the inhabitants of the Trobiand Islands I had studied as an anthropology student.
It is perhaps this realization (along with the ensuing time it has taken me to put pen to paper on this topic) that coloured my choice for going to sea in the first place: to escape. I was playing at privilege without acknowledging an inherent responsibility when working at sea. You could make the case that such introspection is at the roots of anthropology as a discipline. I’ll leave that to the academics and be more relatable: such intransigence is how we have for too long treated our cradle of civilization.
We came from the Sea. We subsist off it today. In the first few weeks of your time onboard as cruise ship crew, you are taught of the lawsuits brought upon various companies for dumping bilge water into the open ocean. You are taught of the truly awe-inspiring amounts of food put to the tip that is both unfinished and untouched. Are we willing to pay this price for leisure? Not me, for one. That is the legacy of my life at sea. The transitory state of my unwillingness to see a larger problem. I’ve resolved to do something about my apathy.
A marked juxtaposition. Kitava, Papua New Guinea
Ironic expectation? Honiara, Guadalcanal
A ship graveyard along the main entrance to
Port Villa, Vanuatu
I’ve written this as an account of my brief experience on the seas as a means of expressing how travel by water enlightens ones view of our global commons. With cruise ships operating in both national and international waters, these leisure companies’ interface with the reality of how easily shady behaviour and bad actors escape our view. This vast space deserves our protection, not our blindness to its plights. So, lets get educated. Start small. Support the push for Marine Protected Areas. If you can, give a little to marine conservation and biodiversity causes. Passivity leads to inaction. I am tired of my own.
Submitted by Ben McTaggart