Last Tuesday Jerry and I sat in our small but comfortable cabin (“Stateroom”) sipping Malbec, nibbling cheese and crackers and looking out the window at any passing lights. It was only 5:30, but completely dark, since we were on Alaska time on the Ferry Malaspina. As we were being transported slowly towards our home on an island near Bellingham, WA, I remarked, “This is the civilized way to travel.”
Then I started remembering my childhood trips, across both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, on board ship, and a couple I made as a young adult again across both oceans.
Every trip is different. When I was 6 years old I sailed to Europe with my aunt on board the Normandie, a luxury ocean liner, and though we traveled 3rd class even so I was dazzled by her elegance. I think there was a class lower than 3rd, called steerage, that was pretty minimal in comfort. After we disembarked at Marseilles we traveled by train to Italy where my grandmother lived. This was just before the war began, in 1938.
My next ocean voyage, when I was 13, was across the Pacific to New Zealand. That trip was aboard the MV Denbighshire, an English freighter, which carried 24 passengers. I was with my mother, step-father and 3 year old sister. We had a big, bright cabin with two upper and two lower bunks. My mother and I had the upper bunks. Every morning at exactly 6:30 there would be a knock on the door and morning tea would be delivered by a Chinese steward. My stepfather tried to stop this practice, but the steward’s English was not sufficient to the task.
The voyage took 3 weeks. Every day was sunny. I spent my time on the deck, watching the flying fish, lulled by the waves, dreaming of growing up. The ship was trim and pretty. As she cut through the ultramarine water trailing a wake of white froth, a group of Chinese sailors, with bare torsos and brown cloth loosely wrapped around their waists and legs moved slowly around the ship applying orange rust preventing paint to the railings and sides. Sometimes they scrubbed the decks. Then they covered the orange paint with white paint, and then they began again with the orange paint.
In the afternoons at about 5 o’clock the passengers and one or two officers gathered in the bar for cocktails. Of course, I was too young to drink alcohol, but since we were in the middle of the ocean there was no prohibition to my presence in the bar, and I liked to listen to the grownups talk. It was 1945, just after the end of the war, but there was talk of possible mines in the water, and watch had to be kept for them from the bridge. The ship had a doctor, a Czech refugee from the Germans who had a dark, brooding look about him. There were hints that he had been tortured. He had formed a ship-board liaison with a dark-haired woman, not young, who spoke with a heavy accent. I heard my parents talking about them and I was very curious. I thought a lot about romance then.
The trip took 3 weeks, and would have been longer, if there had not been urgency because of an imminent dock strike in San Francisco that the shipping company was trying to avoid. I got to know a young (17) midshipman called Colin during the voyage. I liked him, and though he was not nearly as interesting as the ship’s doctor, I was pleased to be asked by him to the movies when we got to Wellington.
We sailed back from New Zealand the next year on the Monterey, a Matson Line boat which had been used in the war to transport troops and was at that time being used to carry war brides from New Zealand and Australia. The ship was full of young women and babies, all traveling to a new life in a strange land. The Navy was in charge, but the Matson Line had started to reintroduce some of the amenities of the pre war ocean liner; lots of food, but minimal entertainment — mostly movies, bingo and dancing. I was 14, and had a mild flirtation with a young soldier who was going home from the war in the Pacific.
The next time I traveled across an ocean I was grown up with 3 children (daughters, 4 and 7, and son, 8). San Francisco to Hong Kong was the voyage, on our way to Burma to join my husband, a visiting professor at the University in Rangoon, who was supposed to be teaching political science but was, in fact, completely idle because political unrest in the country had shut down University. The year was 1961.
Again I was aboard a Matson Line ship, the Matsonia, a one class liner in her full glory as a luxury service, but still, transportation rather than simply a cruise. The children loved it. There was daily “camp” on board with many planned activities. My son cried when it was over and we had to disembark in Hong Kong. There were 2 dinner services; my kids and I ate at the earlier one, and I often found myself at the table of a good looking young officer named Peter Engles. I was flattered to be romanced by him (what else is there to do on board ship?) but the children were a good excuse to be unavailable in the evenings.
My last ocean voyages took place 12 years later, in 1973. I sailed from New York to Cannes on an Italian liner, the Michelangelo, 3rd class, with 2 children (daughter 11 and son 9 months) and my 2nd husband who was on sabbatical from his position as philosophy professor at the University of South Florida where I was working on a PhD. The ocean liner as a form of transportation was on its way out by that time. There was little attempt in 3rd class at elegance and both the cabin and dining room service were on the seedy side. Traveling with a baby is generally not fun. My 11 year old daughter loved it, though. We came back from Europe on the Normandie — not the one I had sailed on as a child — that one burned up in New York Harbor in 1942. This was a new ship named for the old one. It was a difficult trip. I do not get sea sick, but the weather was rough and the baby and his father were sick. My 12 year old daughter had flown home ahead of us with her 18 year old sister a few weeks before.
The Malaspina is a far cry from an ocean liner. But it has a pleasant cafeteria with acceptable food, the crew is friendly, the bar is welcoming. This is slow travel in a world where travel is supposed to be fast. Airplanes are fast (if you don’t count the hours spent in traffic to the air port, waiting for check-in, for security checks, for boarding, for baggage, for taxis or buses, in traffic once again to leave the airport.) If one has the wherewithal for business or first class, flying can be reasonably comfortable; otherwise, every trip is bracketed by the teeth gritting tight discomfort of economy class, where a selection of bad movies is offered to pass the time and where sullen flight attendants hawk inedible food.
I’m for slow travel. I like the even slogging along of the vessel, steady as she goes, occasionally rolling with the swells. It was raining as I wrote this. We were passing through Canadian waters; mists were filling the inlets of the fiords, blurring the outlines of trees that cover the hills and mountains like a dark fur coat. Friday morning we were in home territory. We drove off the Malaspina, stoped at the grocery store for a few days supplies, got a latte and a New York Times, crossed Hale’s Passage on the little Whatcom Chief, came to rest in our house with all its comforts and greeted our two poodles who were ecstatic to see us. Home.