Allison Swaim sets off for a year at sea

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 15, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
Nine days on a cargo freighter cruising the Great Lakes might be enough time for most people to know all they want to know about the shipping industry.
Allison Swaim of Salisbury has done that — and can speak quite knowledgeably about how bulk ore is transported, how huge cargo freighters are still the most efficient way to transport bulk material, and how more than 100 million tons of iron ore, coal and limestone travel through the Great Lakes navigation system every year by boat.
Allison produced a radio documentary about her experience, which was only the first step toward a much larger project she’s embarking on now.
“I’ve always been interested in how things work, in how things are connected,” she says.
Allison was on the Calumet, a bulk ore “self-inloader” that stretches the length of two football fields. At 40 or 50 years old, it’s not considered a dinosaur by industry standards, Allison says, at least for a ship that travels the Great Lakes. Ocean-going vessels don’t last as long because of the corrosive effects of salt water.
Swaim was doing research last fall to prepare for a year-long research project on international shipping. During an afternoon visit to a ship, one thing led to another and soon she was making arrangements to take a trip on the Great Lakes.
Last November, Allison boarded the Calumet at a limestone quarry in Marblehead, Ohio, not far from Cleveland. During the nine days she was on it, she took the Calumet — which holds the equivalent of about 1,000 semi-truckloads — from Lake Erie, up the Detroit River, across Lake Huron, through the Straits of Mackinac and back and forth across Lake Michigan, talking to the ship’s crew and recording their stories with her audio equipment.
There were 16 men and only one woman,who cooked and did laundry for the crew.
“It’s a dude’s world, pretty much,” Swaim says.
Crew members often work around the clock, since time is money, Swaim explains. The pay, however, is good, perhaps $60,000 a year for eight to nine months of work.
Swaim carried her recording equipment with her most of the time and talked to as many of the workers on this floating world as she could. She had “an amazing amount of access,” she said, to all parts of the boat.
“Most people were curious and interested in what I was doing,” Allison says, although she allows they might have been thinking, “She’s kind of a nut case.”
“The guys thought it was neat that someone was interested in what they were doing. People are usually pretty open and want to tell their story; I’ve found that over and over.
“A lot of times, having that microphone gives me access. It’s amazing what you can discover just by asking questions.”
She considers the experience a trial run for her current year-long venture. She knows she will have to be more judicious with her recording for this project, since too much raw material would be overwhelming during the editing process.
“If you’re living in your story, you have to be intentional in choosing when to record,” she says.
Allison doesn’t have preconceived notions about what will ultimately be the focus of her project.
In the Great Lakes piece, she says that she didn’t predict that a crew member named Kyle was going to emerge as the main character. But as she went through her 50 hours of tape, she realized that because he was a newcomer to the rig, he provided the perfect bridge into the world.
Today — literally — Allison is setting off for another adventure, traveling around the world for a year on cargo and container ships and documenting the experience as part of a research project funded by the Watson Foundation.
She’s taking the bare minimum, including her recording equipment, a camera, computer and a few changes of clothing. The fellowship stipulates that she not return home during the 12-month period of the project.
Allison won’t be taking video and doesn’t see that hampering her storytelling ability.
“I don’t think every reporter needs to do everything,” she says. “Moving image isn’t necessarily a better medium for telling a story.”
She will use audio slideshows to tell her stories. “There’s a whole lot of power in still photo,” she says. “You can capture an image and see a moment.”
Allison, who graduated from Salisbury High School in 2006, finished her degree at Oberlin College in December with a major in comparative American studies.
She became interested in radio documentaries after she spent a semester at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies her junior year and spent a winter term working as a reporter at Radio Victoria in rural El Salvador.
She ended up staying an extra semester at college so that she could pursue an independent study in the sound art and technology department.
“I felt I’d just gotten into this other part of my education that struck a chord more than what I was doing before,” she says. “I wanted more time working with my sound tech professor.”
She then decided to apply for a Watson fellowship, which is awarded to selected graduating seniors from liberal arts colleges.
“It’s unlike any other fellowship I’ve heard of,” Allison says. They tend to be given to people who have a project they’re very passionate about, she adds.
You can hear the passion in Allison’s voice, and you get a sense that her natural curiosity, combined with her intelligence, is going to carry her quite a long way as a journalist.
Allison is boarding a ship called the Isa, which will be loaded with grain in Chicago. She’ll be crossing the Atlantic on the first leg of her journey, which emphasizes major trade routes. During the year, she plans to hit the hot spots of global trade, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and the Panama Canal — places where many ships go in and out.
Her goal is to get the story of global trade firsthand, she says. She’s particularly interested in telling the stories of the crew members, the people who actually carry out the physical process of global trade.
People of many different cultures work together on the ships, Allison says, with workers from the Philippines representing about a third of the industry’s workers. Allison is interested in how those of different cultures will interact in the environment.
The life can be difficult, she explains. Workers are away from home for extended periods of time, and if a company goes bankrupt, a ship may be stranded in port, which also leaves the workers stranded.
“I’m hoping to find those people and tell their stories,” Allison says.
Before delving into the subject, she’d never really stopped to think about how trade is accomplished, Allison says.
She was surprised to learn that about 90 percent of global trade is carried out on huge cargo ships.
“I think I would have thought airplanes,” she says. Although shipping might seem outdated to a younger generation — it’s certainly slower — it’s also much more fuel efficient and much more economical.
“It’s a huge industry, critical to maintaining society as we know it, but kind of an invisible industry,” Allison says. Even if you live on the coast, the huge cargo ships aren’t readily visible, relegated to grubby harbors not often visited by the general population.
Allison notes that trying to get access to this world as a journalist can be difficult. In recent days, access may be even tougher in the wake of a piece by Rose George in the New York Times that exposed negative things about the industry.
Allison has found support and contacts through WISTA — the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association. She even attended their annual meeting in Washington, D.C. and made valuable contacts with women interested in helping with her project.
She’s got support at home as well. Allison notes that her parents, David and Marianna Swaim, have never really expected her to “follow a certain pathway.”
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If you’d like to follow Allison Allison’s blog about her experience, go to
To see her “Big Ship Diary” segment about her experience on the Calumet, go to