Between Hokkaido and Unalaska on the CMACGM Almaviva

When a foghorn sounds deep at sea, it has this atmospheric reverberation through the moisture it aims to penetrate: and yet in it there is a resolution of its indistinct context of wind and waves and motions moving forever forward, a rolling, soft tone such as those you imagine on nights which are too quiet, too far from activity, and the mind plays to itself suspicions of presence: such a sound is a foghorn, deep at sea, lost in mist of leaden limbo where, as evening continues to descend as it does now, there is an evenness that is eerie as the sky merges with the sea, the horizons between each blurred by the same gravity which pulls the condensation far overhead down upon the glazed windows you peer out, facing it all, facing this enormity, which in this limited visibly seems somehow all the more enormous for the inability to see in it any distinction, to see that vanishing point on a clear horizon which is mortally humbling, somehow feeling to be a defect of the organic character of the one who leans forward, inches at a time, as though the view could be improved by doing so.

The boat sways as you sleep. Rolling, pitching, even in its heavier chop the oceanic action against the hull has a slow, gentle brutality to it, a sensation on your back of sliding downhill, of the hiccoughs of a plane dipping between thermals. You still call it a boat, think of it as such in your mind as well as when awkwardly attempting to encapsulate the experience and desire of the doing of it in words which cannot encircle the vastness of it in mundanity, as though its 330-meter length had anything in common with the sub-ten foot rowboats of childhood memories on Lake George, or the barely supra-ten feet of your father’s friend’s powerboat which you’d lull yourself meditatively on, long before you knew what ‘meditatively’ meant but nevertheless partook, chin resting on the wooden gunwale thocking over the repetitions of cresting waves until you saw a look of horror on your mother’s face as she sat beside you and with a grasping hand fluttering with some combination of protest against the boat’s rhythm and her own panic she’d cup your face with a white cloth and then you’d see that your lips had become cut and bloody and that’s why you tasted heat and salt on your tongue.

You’d go into town for nightcrawlers, wriggling in something like soil though always like soft pebbles it was rather than the homogeneous smear of likeness you’d get from the earth itself when you’d excavate creeksides with the edge of a muscularly cupped hand. There was a cafe by the very last stop and wonderful though it was every time you’d all stop there for a bite to eat you wanted to be there already, at the lake, in the cabin, chasing fireflies in the lightness of a starlit evening whose dark never seems to fully descend in summers as far north as the lake. Crickets, and cicadas, probably. A concrete jetty big enough to let down the battered blue rowboat and its bleached oars that sat in oarlocks that never looked rusty but never stopped squeaking no matter what attention was paid them. Her as well, with the long black hair and face like an opal oval and eyes like they carried within each of them an opposing horizon forever featuring a sunset which shone back from the dark of her irises. All these images, and more, when you think of the ocean, and this vessel, this endlessly thrumming gargantua.

It rolls, the boat, with the waves. You feel them as you walk down the corridors as a drunk might and you’re glad you’re not drunk and passed on the opportunity to deny yourself the pleasure of alcohol from the slopchest during the previous evenings’ once-weekly opening about an hour before dinner; you feel it on your back, in bed, and as you sit and read pitched back in a chair that clips to the desk in front of you for weather far fouler than the gusting sheets that catch you broadside fifty nautical miles south of Hokkaido as you clear the last protrusion of land for the next three thousand miles into truly, genuinely deep and open waters. 

But, ‘ship’: you hang onto that word for the naval destroyers and battleships you have seen only in film. Decommissioned vessels in shipyard mausoleums aiming at edification do not count – not when the bores of the shore guns are sealed up with concrete, when its guts have been emptied. The ironic juxtaposition: the grander term only for vessels experienced from afar and in fiction or distant documentary, seen in the flesh as only the fossil of a machine can be, and yet not the towering would-be skyscraper which drives itself at 73RPMs of a propeller two pickup trucks in diameter with twelve enormous cylinders driving forty thousand horsepower of diesel determination. You’d be right to correct your nomenclature: this is a ship, one that would fit three football fields end to end on its decks, were they clear of 14 stories’ worth of stacked CoreTen steel containers, and there’d be room for spectators and concessions, to boot. So when this ship rolls with the waves, you know there’s serious motion in the 40,000 metric tons of cold, saltwater displacement that only lies all the heavier on its dead-and-dry weight of 110,000 metric tons. Its empty weight. Such a thing isn’t so easily moved.

Two of the three windows of your cabin are secured by four spring-loaded bolts, each well thicker than your thumb and you wonder what sort of seas they’re fixed to keep out. On nicer days you’ve aired out your cabin, of fumes of gasoline that crept in through the ship’s main air exhaust unit while refueling in Shanghai over two and a half overly long but still meditatively palliative days spent watching cranes far larger than even your ship sling up forty-five foot containers up and down, swinging and clanging and thundering into and down from stacks higher than any apartment building you’ve ever lived in at the rate of one a minute at best, though Hong Kong was slower with an equal measure of quiet in commensurate respect. On days like this, though, the rain does come in sheets, you’ve never seen it quite like that before, never mind peninsular monsoons and afternoon thunderheads in the American west and so forth – this is different, chilly, and underpinned by swells from below that the ever advancing ship crashes against hard enough to send the whitened break a good fifteen meters out from either bow.

It sometimes feels as though there’s no one out here with you. Empty halls bereft of conversation. No one lingers on the decks to smoke, or watch the horizon, or chat, even in port. You catch forty-five minutes of conversation with a septuagenarian from the south and an Australian who still remembers enough Tagalog from his early youth that he can hack it a bit with the few crew you do see now and then, chiefly the steward whose job it is to mind you while you’re on board, albeit in a politely absent way which engenders the sense of being a bit of a bother for him. So you make your bed, you wash down your ow sink. You rinse and dry the two glasses that are presented on white linen in your room (said room being more spacious than any apartment you’ve lived in before, with not one but two couches and a coffee table chained to a steel indent in the carpet, which seems of the high-pile kind that would stand up to a good lengthy service life full of industrial-strength washings should its circumstances come to warrant), one for wine, one for water, or highballs, or whatever else prefers volume to the presentation of being perched on a standing stem. You take our your recycling, semi-religiously, like an American Catholic takes note of holidays for service. You launder your clothes. 

You can’t always sleep, and it’s not the coffee that keeps you from it, you’ve been careful to mind your intake, in time, in volume, two or sometimes just one in the morning following sometimes breakfast at 7 or croissants at 10 or lunch, which generally serves as breakfast and which comes in three courses and has been nearly all protein with an impressive helping of vegetables, making you wonder if scurvy’s reputation is somehow so ground into the nautical mindset that however simpler it is to avoid in the days of global produce shipping and near-perpetual refrigerated storage timelines ever more effort will go into avoiding what has become whatever the utter contraposition to ‘inevitable’ is. 

Sleep or not you do try to move, though going about the deck isn’t the simple departure you thought it might have been when you were booking the trip. It requires the boots you’ve stowed by your door and a hard hat, though down there 7 stories down on U deck the working crew doesn’t always wear them, though they seem religious about hi-vis vests over the ubiquitous boiler suits that are prohibited just about anywhere on the ship that isn’t already covered in grease and the flakes of soot that tumbles down from the main engine’s exhaust, perched all the way atop the cathedral, yes, they call it that, one floor higher than the navigation deck, flaking out like a campfire, in some ways. In others, just a reminder that the hellfire that makes all 110,000 metric tons of steel beneath you tremble and rumble. 

You overdid it on the cheese and wine for the first couple of days. A year on a strict budget will do that to you, even moreover coming from a country where a wedge of bleu would set you back a good ten dollars and a decent chardonnay at least that plus half over. Even then though you’d try to move, since the strolls on U deck are a bit of trouble and you hate bothering the bridge, which you’re obliged to let know if you’re out and about. So you’re going through routines in the gym and you’ve decided after seeing some snippet of something a friend once sent you ages back that you’re going to do 250 squats a day in addition to the shadowboxing and weights that you do out of something that’s half-self hatred and half-self betterment, and you’re feeling stronger and even a bit lighter but you decline to make the treadmill of part of your day and you don’t mind the empty pool, the water outside being frigid and the same that’ll fill it when you’re out in clean open waters, and it’s of some disappointment that there isn’t a sauna but so many little points of the reams of paperwork that came before the trip are al but just a bit off, looping south of Hokkaido instead of Honshu for example and like such example all basically without great impact, since it’s the away-ness of it all you’ve come for, and you’re glad even that the only keyboard you can really type on is the one in front of you, ie not the one linked up to a tri-daily satlink to pass off handshakes and emails to some server somewhere, since typing on a French keyboard has been downright maddening, shifting for a period, exchanging a’s for q’s and searching for commas and other basic punctuation marks that you’d thought were at least as central to other Western languages as English. 

The away-ness is good but sometimes hard to sink into and terrifying to sink into all at once. You’ve brought ambition, might have overdone it on that just as you did with the wine and cheese and it’s making you tight the way the wine and cheese has made you soft and it’s not always so easy to get over the spiritual inertia that keeps your eyes on flickering images, films, books, texts you’ve read and continue to read and peruse while keeping your own words inside of you as you’ve done now for so long, trained yourself you have, to keep quiet because being attentive is how you approach that mythical point of knowingness whereupon finally you’ll know enough to finally speak and say something worth another’s attention, worth gracing an attentive ear. That point which seems to always recede into the future the more you read and watch thinking you’ll catch something that’ll be crucial to whatever it is you want to convey to an unseen other as you record and write and play and strum whether silently or singing or musical out here on the frigid and swelling Pacific, which seems rather misnamed as the sheets keep the ship rolling as it lumbers doggedly along. 

Counting the pages you’ve read, a goodly number, for just the past two weeks given the sheer volume of films you’ve stuffed into your thoughts. Nothing but time, out here, time that’ll let you hone your edges should you be willing to bear down on whatever metaphoric whetstone will keep you keen, the same time that’ll let you go soft, let you go dumb and dark and happy with frenetic ad fantastic self-indulgence of the entropic sort. Funnier how it’s easier for you to commit to running five miles in sweatsticky summer nights than it is to commit to an equal time spent at the page, on the keyboard. Thoughts are heavy things, and mercurial, chasing them moments after they’ve changed, it’s the thinking that’s got to stop, and there’s the rub, thinking being in its own way every bit like the sheeting monsoons outside and are you the weather or are you the driving ship in the storm? It’s hard to know and since knowing is what keeps you still and unmoving it’s also the thing that’ll arrest your initiative and that’s why it’s easier to run and hit the bench and its weights or knock at the heavy bag until your hands are wrung and twisted and tingling with blood and raw sensation. Things that are as weightless as a notion are notoriously hard to move, might as well push a feather against a lazy breeze and keep a straight line while you’re at it. No gravity in such things.

So you roll with the ship, you let it guide your legs and you let your muscles balance against its motions, and you let your words be the waves and the wind and the sheeting rain and you let them pour down when they come. And you’ve still so many miles yet to go.