When I sailed on merchant ships I’d often find myself in the middle of the ocean. Which seems like a pretty peculiar thing to actually state because it’s not that big of deal to any modern day sailor to find themselves in the middle of the ocean.
The notion of “in the middle of the ocean” is the part I am trying to emphasize here. The ship that particularly comes in to memory for me was a big RO-RO vessel that carried BMWs and minicoopers from England and Germany to the East Coast of the United States. RO-RO stands for “Roll-on, Roll-off”--- it’s basically a big floating parking garage with a loading ramp that will lower when the ship gets to a dock, then like ants marching back and forth, the longshoreman would parade the cars on and off the ship. It was quite a site to see thousands of cars and people stomping back and forth, lashing the cars down, then piling on to a beat up pick-up truck or wood-wagon to go back to shore and drive more cars on the ship.
The reason I mention all of this is because a RO-RO vessel is different than most other ships in the merchant marine fleet these days. The bridge (where the captain and mates navigate the ship) is up forward along with the house (where everyone lives on the ship). I was an engineer, and the engine room is all the way aft on a RO-RO, so, unlike most ships, the engineers usually had to trek outside on deck to get to and from the engine room.
This walk was symbolic to me; it was kind of a mental prep right before going into battle with these gargantuan machines that kept an insanely large piece of steel floating and moving across insane conditions that one encounters in the middle of the ocean.
The ship itself is essentially a huge hunk of steel. Now, I know the physics behind why some things float and why some things sink. It’s purely a solution one can deduce from modern physics and mathematics. It should make sense. But it’s one of those things that makes perfect sense on paper, but when you see it in action, it’s a thing of majesty and mystery. When you are looking at a ship that weighs thousands of tons, it’s hard to just sum up, “Right but at least it doesn’t weigh more than the weight of the water it is displacing...amiright?!” The fact that a ship can float is rad.
The diesel engine on a ship this big is a huge slow-speed internal combustion engine. The engine in your car operates similarly, it is probably a 4-8 cylinder engine that spins at very high speeds. To put it in perspective, your whole car could fit in one of the cylinders of this ship’s engine. The auxiliary machinery (like the oil system, fuel tanks, and electricity) that surround the engine and make it spin properly take up the major portion of the aft end of the ship. The fact that a ship can sail across the ocean safely through storms and rough seas is REALLY rad.
Lastly, the daily walk to and from the engine room from my cabin gave me time to think about all of this. (When you are on a ship in the that takes two weeks to sail across the Atlantic ocean and only receives emails twice a week, you have time to think about a lot.) I’d often make time before or after work to sit on a ventilation pipe and soak in a 360-degree panoramic view of nothing but blue. Endless views of blue water and blue skies. These views would be here, even if my ship were not. The amount of blue, coupled with the knowledge that I was sitting on a steel box in the middle of the ocean overwhelmed me sometimes. To describe it with words like “vast,” “immense,” “sweeping,” or “immeasurable” wouldn’t really give an accurate description of how insanely small I felt looking all around me. The blue represented this insanely vast part of the world that was once unable to be explored. Once it became explorable, it took hundreds of men to man a ship the size of the one I was on; and it took 2-3 months to cross the same body of water. Now, I sit on top of a huge machine in a box floating across the water with enough free time in between my watch duty to think about ideas like this; and I think that is REALLY REALLY rad.
The “blue” unexplored parts of my life have since changed, but the notion hasn’t.
Interview by L. Valena
Can you tell me what you responded to?
The original prompt was a picture of a flag with a long-legged bird. It was blue on one side, green on the other, and white in the middle. The prompt said it was the flag of Bait/Switch nation. This was around Thanksgiving, and I kind of rushed a piece over. In that piece I had a line that seemed to resonate with you. You just said to pick this up from there, and roll with it. And I did. I described a scene from my shipping life.
When you sent in that first piece, you said that you weren't really happy with it, and that's why I kind of pushed back on you.
The first piece I sent over just described the flag, and described the colors.
Right. And the line that I pulled from that was "the blue represents the vast unknown of things yet to be explored." So that line was your jumping-off point for for this piece. Tell me how you started once you had that point to jump off of.
I've always had a personal relationship with the ocean- I think everyone does. Growing up in Massachusetts on the Cape, I was always close to the beach, and around boats down the canal. I went to school for Marine engineering, and shipped out in the merchant marines for a bit. So I've always had a different relationship with the ocean, and the fact that for four years of my life I was just out somewhere on a ship. The craziest thing about being on a ship is this feeling that at some points would overwhelm me. Thinking about how you'd go up on deck, and on clear days you'd just see blue everywhere. It's just this wild, captivating sight. You can probably see it on boats if you go far enough offshore, but I don't think it's quite the same thing. You see a whole, panoramic view of this really calm ocean, and you have this crazy contrast with the sky. Sometimes it's even hard to make out the horizon line. You can block out everything else from your vision, and just see these two shades of blue divided by a thin line. It's a surreal sight to see. I stopped shipping out in 2014, and it's been awhile since I've experienced that, but it's always resonated with me.
Yeah, that sounds very surreal, and so separate from 'normal' existence. Like it's on another planet.
I tried to describe it in the piece, I was trying to do that as efficiently as possible, without actually saying to the reader "You wouldn't believe that this could be seen!" Coupled with the thought of being in the middle of the ocean, with no one else around you (except everyone else on the ship). It's cool- it was kind of a 'me against the world' kind of thing, but not in the sense that there was any combat. You were manipulating your environment to how you wanted it to be. There's no war there, there's no 'me against the world' in that sense. But there was me as an engineer, putting certain things to use to get an otherwise strange hunk of metal, carrying other hunks of metal, from one place to another.
Like feeling your own power?
Sure. But there was no sense of dominance, just a sense of being one with your tools and your world.
It's like a self-contained unit that you were a part of, and you had limited stuff to work with, and you have to put everything you've got into getting what you need from those things.
Yeah. Within the confines of that physical planet.
So you would take this walk every day across the deck. Were you alone when you would do this? Were there other people?
We'd usually do it as a group. There were shifts of engineers going down to the engine room. But sometimes I'd hang back and enjoy the solitude.
That meditative moment you describe is just so opposite to my concept of what it would be like to be on a huge ship like that. I have just never considered that there would be moments like that- I think that's kind of an unknown aspect.
I think that's why I was working so hard to efficiently describe it. It was a profound experience. Everyone has their own unique story that they want to tell, and this is definitely part of mine.
So this memory came from the idea of the vast unknown of things yet to be explored. Do you think about the ocean as a literal place to be explored, or is it more a reflection of your own mind/human experience?
As humankind we were once in a place where we didn't know how to use these tools or our brains to get across the ocean. I kind of related that exploration to things that we think are permanent. Who was the first person who decided to build a boat and go as far as they could go? That must have been so crazy, because most people saw land as this permanent boundary. It was just a blue vast area to be explored. If you think about areas of the ocean that we have explored, it's really nil.
It's wild when once in a while, when some scientific paper pops up about an animal in the deep sea that nobody has ever seen before- like some huge prehistoric beast. It is so interesting- those invisible boundaries that humankind keeps finding and crossing.
And what's next? How do I push that a little bit? How do I fit into that? It's never just one person, it's usually more of a team effort. We really have to work together as a species to cross those boundaries.
It seems like the first step is just to find the line- that's almost the craziest part of all. To just see a boundary, even though it's subconscious. Because as you said, we really assume that it's a permanent state of affairs until someone asks 'why?'.
But there's usually a lot of things that lead up to someone saying 'why?'.
What else do you want to say about this piece?
I guess I'm trying to branch out a little bit more. Most of my work is first-person narrative, and I'm trying to branch out of that a little bit. I strive to connect with my reader with a personal experience.
You've participated in this project twice now- what new wisdom do you have?
Without sounding too corny, there is alwys a place you can always go. This was a second degree of writing- it took two prompts to inspire my piece. Even if you think you don't think have anything, just roll with it, and do what you can do, and then bounce it off someone else. Not everything is going to stick, but I just think it's important to not exclude anything. After kind of a brainstorming thing like this, I think it's important just to get whatever you're thinking about out on paper as fast as you can before you forget it.
I agree- I think there is some magic to actually writing something down.
Even if you think it's just totally rushed, or crap- how many times do you sit down and write something you're not happy with? I'm reading Steven King's memoir On Writing. There's this really cool story about his first best seller. He talks about how poor he was, and he was just hating going to his teaching job. He has this awesome description of what he saw his life to be. He wasn't proud of it. So he sat down and tried to write Carrie from two different ideas, and he crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. His wife found it, and said '“no, you're onto something”. Carrie is about a possessed girl, and his wife helped him to write from the female perspective. That's what pushed it to the number one best seller. He got a call from his agent, and I'm going to butcher the numbers here, but he thought he was going to get paid $2500, and it was actually $250,000, and he and his wife just cried. It's Steven King at his finest writing- telling a story about how many failures he had.
We all have to keep those things in mind, and never give up on our deepest, truest dreams.
Call Number: M16VA | M19PP.haBlu
Billy Hafferty is usually found eating nachos. Pre and post nacho eating he might also be seen running trails, riding bikes, or writing about any and all combinations of the three. His life goal is to convince Lou Bega to release Mambo #6.