Salisbury native documents sea voyage to understand world trade

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 16, 2012

Editor’s note: Last year, Allison Swaim of Salisbury, the daughter of David and Marianna Swaim, produced a radio documentary about her experience on a cargo freighter called the Calumet. That experience inspired her to embark upon a much larger project — a year-long journey on cargo and container ships in an attempt to understand global trade. Shipping is a huge industry, but a largely invisible one, Allison believes.
Here are some excerpts of writing she’s done during the journey — reflections on things as diverse as the bonding power of music to being on the lookout for pirates. If you’d like to see the blog about her experience, “A Year at Sea,” go to and type in “Swaim” in the search box.
Oct. 12, 2011 — I fell off the map for the last two months. It’s been a whirlwind…
Back in July, I rushed to Thunder Bay, Canada, to catch my ship. But flooding delayed the trains bringing our cargo of wheat from the western plains. The Isa went to anchor in the bay, so I spent a week looking at my ship from the top of a hill… Finally, Isa docked and I was welcomed aboard by the crew: 21 Polish sailors, all guys, from 21 to 62. This ship and these guys were my home for nearly a month. After a week loading, we set off east, through Lake Superior, the Soo Locks, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Welland Canal, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River all the way to Hudson Bay.
Then came the last radio transmission, from the coast guard station at Port aux Basques, Newfoundland… “You have departed Canadian waters… have a good voyage”…
We hit the open ocean in the middle of the night on a Sunday… I woke up rocking side to side. Some cold, salty water made its way in through my porthole window before Piotr helped me seal it closed. Seven days to cross the Atlantic. We moved our clocks one hour forward almost every night. I never got sick, but I cheated — I used a scopamine patch for the first couple of days to ward off queasiness.
And then, way off in the distance, I could just make out the coast of Ireland. We had reached the English Channel. Soon we started seeing other ships… more and more by the hour … huge ships leaving northern Europe and moving out to their next destination. Two days in the channel, then a few hours through a canal and some locks to arrive… in Gent, Belgium.
Up til a week before, we didn’t know whether we’d be taking our grain to Holland, Belgium, or even Italy… so when I disembarked and waved goodbye to Isa, all I could think was “OK, now what? What the heck am I doing here?”
Turns out I couldn’t have picked a better place to land. In my two weeks in Gent, I was met with nothing but generosity and warmth. I made friends with the Maritime Police, who gave me a tour of the port and even acted as my personal taxi service a few times when I was in a pinch (you can imagine the curious looks I got, stepping out of a police car with my luggage in tow!) I met a street musician who showed me where to find the best fries in town. I found a temporary home in a community house. Having a kitchen, and people to cook and eat with, was such a gift.
I left Belgium on an inland barge named Vigilia and spent a week on board with five dudes from Holland and two cute Maltese doggies.
In Antwerp, we loaded sand from a big ocean bulker into our inland barge. I struck up a conversation with two guys up on the deck of the saltwater ship. They told me they had brought this sand here all the way from Australia. Two straight months of sailing.
We finished loading around 3 a.m. and headed south down the Rhine…past bustling cities and green pastures, power plants and loading docks, rocky valleys studded with vineyards and medieval castles. I loved being on a boat again. To me, a boat feels like home… the smell of bunker fuel, the familiar feel of steel, the constant hum of the engine… So far boats have been more home to me than land. On a boat, you’re moving. But your home moves with you. I got off a few times in Germany, only to find myself in a strange world where I didn’t know the language, didn’t know anybody… after a couple hours, I was relieved to go home to the boat.
I caught a plane from Cologne to make it to Stockholm in time for the annual WISTA (convention) — Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association. That was three weeks ago. Now, I’m still in Sweden.
March 5— Six months ago, I set out to catch a ride on a ship. I had my recording gear, a shiny new camera, and a map of the world with a route sketched in pencil. The plan: hitch my way east around the world on cargo ships, travel the trade routes, and get the story of “global trade” from the ground (or, in this case, the sea!) Since then I’ve crossed the Atlantic on a bulker, hopped on a barge to travel down the Rhine, boarded an RORO car ship to sail from N. Europe through Gibraltar, and spent Christmas on board a tanker in the Mediterranean. I washed up on shore in Turkey, and now I’m in Istanbul, counting down the days till my next ship leaves for Singapore. In six months, I’ve learned a lot about how to tell a story. Along the way, my focus has shifted quite a bit. Here’s how:
My scope has narrowed.
I started with the enormously broad topic of world trade at sea. Once I got my way on board and into that world, I found myself less interested in the ports and the perspective from land and more and more interested in the people on board who choose the sailor profession. People for whom life is divided into “on board” and “on shore.” People who see the world from this side. Like Anti, from Croatia, who I met at Rosenhill Seaman’s Club in Gothenberg, Sweden.
“Seaman’s life” — as they say on board — is unlike any other. It takes a certain type of person to make it at sea. And I am absolutely captivated by the narratives of the people who choose this career and their unique perspectives on life. They spend most of their lives in a world that very few of us ever see, carrying the bulk of global trade to maintain reality as we know it.
Anti’s advice: “You must live it!” That’s the only way to really understand what it’s like to be a sailor. So I’ve stepped up to the challenge, racking up sea-time to experience life on board and get access to these stories.
2. I’ve become a main character.
Because I choose to “live it,” I must step into the frame and use my own lens, my perspective as a newcomer to the bizarre environment on board. This is MY sea story as much as anyone else’s. The times when I’m engaging as a part of the “scene” are the best moments; provide the most real tape. In radio school I remember learning to be a good listener, not to fill every silence with new questions and instead to wait for what my interviewee might say next. But I tend to be too passive in the field. I back off too much and try to fade into the wall.
The fact is, I’m not invisible. I am a part of it. By being there, I create the tape — by asking questions and interacting with the people and environment around me. My voice is a critical thread to pull the story together. So, I’m trying to get better about marking tape, starting each recording with something like, “OK, here we are in ______, ______ is happening… and I’m about to go find out about ______.” I try to speak a little more slowly; try to get my questions “on mic.” My questions and my presence in the tape are even more important because most often English is a second language for the people I’m recording.
[Go to to hear Allison’s recording of an excursion she took with some of her shipmates on the Isa.]
Sailors have a tough life. They spend much of their time far away from home, without everyday comforts folks on land take for granted. Yet they know better than anyone how to live life to the fullest. In my time at sea, I’ve learned to appreciate small luxuries and to take every chance to celebrate. “I have only one life.” Simple but powerful words from 23-year old Marcin, a deckhand. These words have stuck with me throughout this journey. My hope is that by living it, by sailing with these people, getting to know them and sharing experiences, I can do justice to their stories. I must start by telling my own.
March 17 — we finished cargo operation at the Maersk-owned Suez Canal Container Terminal. At 0200 hours, the Suez crew came on board: 2 pilots, 2 mooring men, and an electrician. We maneuvered from port to join the first South-bound convoy to begin transitting the canal. At 10 a.m. we arrived at the Great Bitter Lake and dropped anchor for 1 hour to wait as the North-bound convoy passed by. Then we proceeded South… At 1330 we arrived at Suez and the Suez crew left, each with a carton of cigarettes stuffed into his bag. And we entered the Red Sea… mountains in the distance on both sides (Upper Egypt to the right, Sinai to the left).
Saturday evening after dinner, I joined some of the crew who were plopped on the sofa watching a comedy show taped from TV in the Philippines in spring 2010. After the show ended, they switched on the karaoke machine and brought out a couple bottles of red wine. I never cease to be amazed at the univerality of American rock songs. Whether I’m sailing in the Atlantic with guys from Singapore, at a couchsurfing gathering in Cairo, or in the Red Sea with Filipinos, everbody always knows the lyrics to “Hotel California.”
The next day was Sunday….the only day they have extra free time and can coordinate their usually overlapping work schedules. There’s a basketball goal rigged up on the main deck in the narrow strip between the accommodation and the first stack of containers in cargo hold A. They string a net up above the starboard side railing to keep the ball from going overboard.
In the afternoon, all crew cleared their cabins of alcohol and anything that could be remotely construed as porn — booby calendars, any movies with a naked scene. They stuffed it into bags to lock up in the bond store. In Jeddah, the morality police will come on board and perform a tough inspection. Anybody caught with this type of material will be slapped with a major fine (we’re talking thousands of USD) and the ship will be blacklisted.
Last night I joined some of the Romanian engineers for ping pong in the rec room. I was rusty at first, but after a few hours my skills were coming back. Last night it was hot inside, even for me, and ping pong had us sweating. I opened my cabin window to let some air in while I slept.
March 19— I wake to a sandstorm. We shut off the engine and drift outside of Jeddah to wait for the weather to clear up. We continue drifting all day, no news from port control. At night, oiler Jefferson rigs up a light at the aft of the ship and lowers it 5 meters down to hang a few feet above the sea water. He brings out a fishing line and bait for squid and teaches me his technique for squid-fishing. Pretty soon, we can see red squid swimming a few meters below the water, attracted to the light. In two hours, we’ve caught ten. Well, Jefferson caught ten. I pulled the hooks out of their tentacles, though. We’ll give our catch to chief cook. Maybe tomorrow we’ll eat fresh squid for lunch.
March 22— We sail towards the southern mouth of the Red Sea, approaching the High Risk zone for pirate attacks. In the morning, the deck crew rigs up barbed wire at the aft to protect from pirate boarding attempts. The sides of the ship are lower at the aft, or back part of the ship, so this is the place where pirates could try to climb on board. Bosun and deck fitter fasten fire hoses on both sides of the deck, ready to switch on to deter attacks.
In the afternoon, all crew report to the bridge for a drill to discuss safety precautions in the High Risk area. Switch off all lights at night, draw the curtains on the windows. All doors locked, nobody on deck without a walkie talkie. In case a suspicious craft is spotted, the engine must be ready to accelerate to full speed. And if pirates make it on board, all crew will go down to the engine room to a room called the “citadel,” ready with 3 days supply of food, water, and medical supplies.
We enter the pirate risk area at dusk. Visibility is poor, 2 nautical miles at most. On the bridge, extra officers are on watch—more eyes to keep lookout. Binoculars to look out ahead, at sides, behind. Eyes glued to the radar to look for any small ship without an AIS tracking device.
Ship traffic gets heavier as we approach the narrow mouth of the Red Sea—Bab El Mandeb. Beyond this straight is the Gulf of Aden. 2nd mate Joe spots a dot on the radar. Is it a ship, or a wave? We go outside to look around and see if we can spot a tiny craft. Nope. Nothing. The wind is so strong it almost blows my headphones off. Because of the wind, the sea is rough and swells are high. Our ship is big, so we barely feel the waves.
This is bad weather for pirates in small boats, though, so it’s good for us.
April 2 — On the ferry crossing from one side of the Suez canal to the other. Port Said is on the left. At right, a tanker enters the canal from the Mediterranean.
The Suez Canal is a crucial point in the maritime trade route between Europe and Asia. It’s a major shortcut for ships that would otherwise have to pass all the way around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Ships pay dues to the canal administration for each passage but they save big on time and fuel. Passing from Bombay to Rotterdam via the canal, for example, ship companies save 66 percent.
Port Said lies at the most northeast corner of Africa, where the north entrance to the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean. This is actually the spot where the Statue of Liberty was designed to stand. She was originally sketched as an Egyptian woman, wearing traditional dress of flowing robes. Her torch was to represent Egypt “carrying the light of Asia.” It was 1869 and the Suez Canal had just opened as a passage for ships trading between East and West. But the Egyptian king decided the statue was too expensive, as so many resources had just been spent to construct the canal. Instead, Port Said ended up with a much smaller statue of Ferdinand De Lesseps, the French engineer who laid plans to dig the canal.
Allison Swaim graduated from Oberlin College in December and became interested in radio documentaries during a stint as a reporter at Radio Victoria in rural El Salvador.