by Niall Doherty

Quick announcement: My new book, The Cargo Ship Diaries, is now available for pre-order. Click through for a full money-back guarantee, pay nothing until the book is published, and get a sneak peek at the first two chapters.


My last views of Asia come from the bridge of this beast. Sun setting behind Mount Fuji, a full moon rising soon after, doing its best to rival the redness. As we creep out of port I think back along the trail, picturing a face that made each place memorable. An old friend in Dublin, a promise in Bucharest, love on the River Kwai, my two guides in Hanoi… And to think: the entire Americas still await.


I ask if I can give it a try. Sure, they say. I hand a cadet my camera, ask him to record the spectacle. I have to lie on the floor, get in legs first, then stand and pull the rest of it up around me, ducking back down to get my head in proper. I feel a bit like a retarded starfish when I finally get everything buckled and zipped. But hey, at least my orange ass can now survive 48 hours in freezing waters.


Won’t you be wicked bored, they said. Not a chance. Into a nice routine now. Breakfast first thing, then straight into 3-4 hours of writing, happy with how the book is coming. After lunch I take a nap, then spend about an hour studying Spanish. I usually have some free time after that for reading or working on another project, then an hour of exercise before dinner. Top it all off with a cuppa cha and a novel before bed.


I like the pace of life out here, a thousand miles from soil. There’s a calm to it, with no emails to answer, no appointments to keep. The only thing I have to do is show up at mealtimes and get fed. Other than that, my time is all my own. Although I’ve goals to work towards, I’m trying to leave myself plenty of space to relax, to read a book, to think a while. It feels right. No urgency, no scarcity.


They have a closet full of DVDs on board, and a hard drive packed with movies and TV shows I can access. But I’m a little scared to dip a toe in those waters. I’ve got a really nice rhythm going with my reading, writing and exercising. All it would take is an episode of something breezy to get the lizard brain whispering: Hey Niall, why don’t you take a break? An hour or two won’t kill you. Or even a whole afternoon 😉

My last evening in Asia, with Mount Fuji in the background

My last evening in Asia, with Mount Fuji in the background


It crosses my mind that I may disappoint these people. They’ve all been very nice and accommodating. The captain invites me to drink with the officers and sets up tours so I can see the inner workings of the ship. The cadets take time to explain all that’s happening around me. Everyone offers a smile and a handshake. But none of them know I’m writing a book about all this, and I have no intention of telling them.


Today was Friday. As was yesterday. We’ve crossed the international date line, somewhere north of the Hawaiian Islands right about now. Since I set out from GMT, I guess this means I’m halfway home. But I can’t say I’m thinking of it like that. Looking ahead to these next eighteen months in the Americas, I see another lifetime of experiences and relationships, a whole jumble of journeys, rather than the second half of one.


La primero Momento en español, por que no? He estado estudiar cada día por una hora, más o menos. Escucho a podcasts y tengo algún aplicaciones en mi iPhone para ayudarme. Tengo un libro de verbos también. Sin embargo, no estoy usado nada pero mi cerebro mientras escribo estas palabras. Espero que puedo practicar un poco en México cuando llegaramos la semana que viene. Quesería hablar más con otras personas.


Sundays are sleepy at sea. I’m invited to lunch at the main table, a seat beside the captain, and everyone enjoys wine and beer before disappearing for une sieste. I’m left chatting with the cadets after a quick tour of the kitchen, learning all about the crime problems in Marseille and accents in Transylvania. Later I stand in front of a mirror for two hours and rip through five razor blades.


Eleven days now on the ship, eleven days offline, eleven days atop a gentle earthquake. I’ve been spending more time on the bridge, paying a visit every morning to watch the sun come up. The captain handed me a maritime dictionary at dinnertime, complete with diagrams and illustrations. I leafed through the whole thing in an hour, can finally tell a bulkhead from a bulwark.

In the belly of the beast

In the belly of the beast


I’ve gotten a lot better at knowing when to push, and when to go easy. Like today, coming in ten percent down on my ten-minute row compared to yesterday. I would have beaten myself up about that a year or two ago. Now I can appreciate that I gave it all I had, even more so than the day before, distance be damned. I earned kind words from that inner voice, not tough love. Saving the latter for another day.


I’ve been writing for about three hours every morning. I start with two free writing sessions to pump out the raw material, then go from there. It had all been going pretty smooth until today, trying to write a chapter about my time in Iran, finding it hard to convey how humbling and heartfelt the experience. But I’ll grind it out. My job is just to show up and do the work every day, whether or not my divine, cockeyed genius decides to clock in.


Ionel comes out to join me. The longer we look up, the deeper the spectacle. Ursa Major appears vertical here, he explains, as opposed to horizontal in Europe. He also points out Orion’s Belt and Jupiter, familiar with them all. “In the China Sea we sometimes encounter algae in the water,” he says. “If the moon is out the algae glows green when it scatters and lights up the whole ship. It is very beautiful.”


One more day at sea, then we hit Mexico and I’ll have a few hours off the ship. I’ve been studying up on my Spanish and hope to practice a bit as I wander around Manzanillo. I’ll challenge myself to approach and converse with at least five different strangers, and see if I can engage one for twenty minutes or more. Social skydiving in a foreign language. We’ll see how it goes.

Mid-Pacific sunrise as seen from the bridge

Mid-Pacific sunrise as seen from the bridge

In the comments below, let me know which of the above Momentos is your favorite. Which can you relate to?

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P.S. If you want to see more photos of my cargo ship trip, click through and like the DtR Facebook page. I’ll be posting a ton of pics there tomorrow.