At sea

The Malaspina on the Alaska Marine Highway

The Malaspina on the Alaska Marine Highway

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.

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17 Responses to At sea

  1. Kathy says:

    Thank you for stopping by my blog. I, too, think that honesty is not what it’s cracked up to be and there’s much to be said for discretion.

    Lucy and Ethel were characters in an American TV show entitled “I Love Lucy”. It played in the early 1950s.

    I agree with you that traveling slowly, at sea, is the way to go.

    Also, we have friends of friends near Bellingham. They own a winery — Dakota Creek. Do you know of it? Kathy

  2. maria says:

    What wonderful voyages you describe. I have never traveled by ship, except for short ferry rides, and have never had any interest in boarding a ship for weeks. In fact, the thought of it evokes a bit of claustrophobia for me, but the way you describe your many crossings, makes me realized the hidden pleasures of what it is to take a “slow” trip.

  3. Marja-Leena says:

    Ah, you are back home! Amazing journeys described in such detail that I think you must have written accurate diaries all your life. Other than the rough cross-Atlantic trip as an immigrant to Canada, I’ve only taken shorter trips, mostly ferries and loved them all. The only time I had claustrophobia was in a tiny cabin with bunk beds for our family of four, no windows and bath down the hall, on a ferry from Stockholm to Turku, Finland – because we were trying to travel economically. Nix to that in later trips. A favourite was a short cruise on a small Finnish ship from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and back, with tours of St.P right from our dock in the middle of the city. Sure beats the stresses of flying though I’m not sure I’d like to be on a ship for three weeks. The extreme sizes and luxury of so many of today’s cruise ships actually turn me off, I prefer simpler comforts, like that small Finnish ship.

  4. Dick says:

    A fascinating account of the years when ocean travel was absolutely the thing. How relatively close those times are; how very long ago they seem to be!

  5. Rain says:

    That sounds great, like a wonderful way to travel. I have never been on a boat like that for longer than to get between Washington and Vancouver Island with various routes. I really want to go to Alaska though and we have thought of driving the Alcan one way but that presented a problem with the truck which it sounds like this would solve. Not cheap but it’d let us sample both ways to get there.

  6. Pete says:

    I come from a family who mostly like to live near the ocean but seldom, if ever, feel the need to venture onto it. My experience with it is limited to one cruise Marge and I took in February of 2002. It was something we had always talked about doing, and we had been pondering the fact that every single person who perished on 9/11 probably had a list of things to do “someday.”

    For the cruise, we decided that “someday” should be right then. It was, as you might suppose, ridiculously easy to get tickets at fire sale prices.

  7. I prefer slow travel, too. Have enjoyed your account of the trip home and your recounting sailing trips from your past. I especially like your description of the trees “like a dark fur coat..” covering the sides of the fjords…lyrical.

  8. Annie in TO says:

    I love how you describe air travel, my sentiments exactly! Teeth-gritting and white knuckles all the way! It seems like “they” go out of their way to make it yet more unpleasant with every passing year. Why on earth everyone continues to put up with it I don’t know. Your boat travels sound most interesting, far more civilized. Hope you are enjoying being back in your island home.

  9. Tessa says:

    So many voyages, each with its own story. I’ve always wanted to make a long voyage by ship, but not one of those Scarf City cruises, thousands aboard with nothing to do but eat and drink all day, that are so popular now. Still hoping to take the Alaska Ferry, though, especially after reading your posts about the trip. Glad you’ve arrived home safely to your charming little furry companions.

  10. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh I love your tales of the high seas, Anne. I’ve been on a few myself. I remember the Calais Dover Crossings and the ones to the channel islands and of course the long ones to here in Newfoundland, one is coming up to take me back to the mainland soon.
    There is something about life on a boat, the untethering from the earth so to speak and the suspension of a life lived ‘small and slow’.
    My type of living.

  11. Friko says:

    I have just spent a wonderful half hour accompanying you on your various journeys, overland, in snow and ice, as well as leisurely sea crossings.

    You have a very vivid and realistic style of writing. European travel is so limited compared to the journeys you describe; the only thing comparable is a either a river and canal cruise across the continent or a long train journey spanning it.

    If only . . . . .

  12. Hattie says:

    What a great life you have had and are still having. Your sense of romance and adventure are an inspiration.
    Makes me want to kick up my heels just to read this. I sure want to go north to Alaska on the Malaspina after reading the account of your incredible journey.

  13. I’ve greatly enjoyed catching up on your travels. Slow travel is made complex now, which is sad. I would love to visit family in New Zealand by boat – the thought of a 24+ hour flight is unbearable – but such a journey is now so difficult and expensive.

  14. Freda says:

    I’ve done plenty of Hebridean Ferries but no actual luxury liners. Friends of ours are regular cruising people, but we have tended to wander on our own with boats, caravans, tents and campervans. But I like the idea of being looked after in style. Thanks for sharing your stories, I’ve enjoyed them a lot.

  15. I love reading about your adventures.

    I’ve never been on a cruise. I’ve always been a little afraid I’d spend all the money to go on one and then be seasick the entire time. (But I have been on boats and NOT gotten seasick, so why do I worry?) More than anything, I want to visit Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully once my youngest is out of high school, I’ll have the freedom to travel more.

  16. pauline says:

    I doubt I will ever travel anywhere by sea but no matter – I have just accompanied you on your voyages. I am in awe of the way words can transport one. Your words did just that. Delightful cruises, thanks 🙂

  17. Natalie says:

    Anne, this is wonderful and your memory for details is amazing and articulate. I enjoy your style of story-telling very much.

    I too was on many transatlantic ocean liners,to and from Europe and South America, and once on a freighter from Paraguay to Rotterdam. I remember the latter quite clearly (it’s in my autobio) but the earlier voyages on those big floating hotels are a bit dim in my memory. Some photos remain though.

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