Dakota On The Dalian

Dakota Jones writes about the challenges of trying to live a low-impact life.

By on May 11, 2016 | Comments

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania there is a river. It’s a big one–big enough to support a 600-foot cargo ship called the Rickmers Dalian. This is a cargo ship that always goes east, into the sunrise, forever circling the planet in roughly 10-month intervals. The hull is an enormous green wall of metal that has DALIAN printed in letters the size of a house. The forward deck contains a clustered mass of cranes and industrial-looking stacks of metal. In the rear, though, is an eight-story building.

Inside this building, on the third floor, is the kitchen and the dining rooms. And in one of these dining rooms, which has two round tables neatly set with napkins and silverware, I am sitting awkwardly next to a man from New Zealand whom I can barely understand. He speaks so quickly and with such a heavy accent that I feel exactly the way as when speaking Spanish with someone–lots of nodding and smiling and only understanding about 60% of what I’m hearing. In fact, I have a much easier time understanding the Russian man seated at the other table. Despite his thick accent, he at least enunciates his words enough for me to understand the gist of what he’s trying to say. But to be honest, I would rather not be part of the conversation we’re having at all.

Peter is 67 and from Auckland. He seems to have read all the sailing books out there and likes to insert old-timey boat terms as if I know what he’s talking about. Though I just boarded the ship this morning, Peter actually came to Philadelphia onboard another cargo ship from New Zealand–a 24-day voyage that he refers to often and fondly. He took me under his wing from the get-go and has been good-naturedly patronizing me for our whole meal. During this meal, while he was in the midst of telling me not to “head out to the fo’c’sle” without my hard hat, the first officer came in. He’s Russian and has what I can only describe as the male version of Resting Bitch Face–something like Murderous Soviet Face. Anyway, he scares the crap out of me and after acknowledging him with a nod I resolve to stay out of his way as much as possible for the entire voyage.

Peter, however, clearly feels differently. He has been explaining to me all about life on board the ship and how to spend my time without getting in the way or into trouble or thrown overboard by a rogue wave. Stuff like: “This is a working ship, you know, and you can’t just go wherever you like. The men are working out there and the boat heaves and pitches and by god when I was on the other container ship–well, see, this isn’t a container ship, it’s actually a cargo ship and…” and so on and on and on. I have said probably 10 words during his harangue and have just resigned myself to going along with him to make things easier. So when he says, “the captain will likely allow us to go up onto the bridge and check things out, but you must be very careful to ask permission and when you’re up there don’t get in the way or touch anything or mess with the controls because this is a working ship and they’re very busy. But wouldn’t you like to go up and see them working?”

“Oh yes,” I say, thinking that yes, going up to the bridge–on the eighth story of the building where all the computers are that control the ship–would actually be pretty cool. But whenever, probably not right away, there’s plenty of time, I’ll ask in a day or two…

“Excuse me, officer?” Peter immediately addresses the Russian first officer eating at the other table, “Excuse me? Dakota here would like to go up to see the bridge sometime.”

I stare at Peter in horror. In fact, I have a nearly out-of-body experience, picturing this situation as if from above: there I am, perched at the table between a new acquaintance and a man who makes me feel like looking at him the wrong way would be just cause to throw me overboard. I’m sure I blush deeply. I look down and then raise my eyes but not my head to the officer and try to smile but probably only accomplish a painful sort of grimace, and nod my head noncommitally. “Well, only when you have time. I don’t want to get in the way. I’m in no hurry really…” I trail off lamely.

The officer smiles, and instantly his savagery transforms to kindness. “Of course you can come to bridge,” he says kindly. “We ask captain, he say yes, then you come with me. I show you bridge tomorrow.”

This response takes me nearly as much by surprise as Peter’s impromptu request on my behalf. I look up at the officer directly for the first time, and he nods encouragingly and goes back to eating. He suddenly looks like he hates his food. I say thank you and return to mine as well.


“This is bridge,” says the first officer as he shows us into the room. “It is… not interesting. Here computers. Here maps. You look at water.”

The room has broad windows that extend across the field of view for 180 degrees. Ahead and a little off to the right (“off the starboard bow,” Peter tells me) big clouds are massing in fearsome stacks. We left Philadelphia last night and by now we are far enough out to sea that no land is in sight. We are the only entity in a vast grey plain; a planet zooming unattached through empty space.

I look at the computers and try to make sense of the radar systems, which are arrayed on huge screens in stereotypical circles with a rotating arm beeping every few seconds. I’m somewhat disappointed by the “tiller”–or steering wheel–which is not a gigantic wooden wheel with pegs around the outside, but is in fact a small, smooth, black steering wheel that looks exactly like the kind you play Mario Kart with. I go into the back room and study the maps and the course that we will take across the ocean, and try to pinpoint our location using the longitude and latitude that is updating constantly on the computer screens. The bridge is both highly complex and sedately ordinary, as unassumingly crucial to our progress as the huge faceless banks of servers are to the functionality of the internet, and just as boring to look at.

“Why you come here?”

I look up. The first officer is looking at me curiously. The other officer on deck is looking too, and also Peter, who is on the other side of the room, standing well clear of the equipment and clearly disapproving of my close inspection of everything. I’m taken aback by such an abrupt question, but honestly I was waiting for this to come up. From the second I got onboard I could tell that passengers are rare, and Peter and I have been regarded with a sense of confused amusement by all the officers and crew. I can understand. They work on this ship and have no choice but to spend months at a time onboard, but they would never use what little free time they have to travel like this across an ocean. It would be a waste of time and money to them. We must seem completely out of our minds to them.

But I am determined to be completely honest with them, no matter how silly I may sound. So I tell him, “I am here to travel to Europe in a more environmentally-friendly way. I want to take a boat across the ocean so that I can try to protect the planet.”

The first officer grins at me and looks around at the others. “This not environmentally-friendly ship,” he says, still grinning. “We use heavy fuel. Much worse than plane fuel.”

My confidence wilts immediately. They think I’m a stupid American who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The fact that I don’t understand the chemical differences between heavy fuel and jet fuel makes me believe that they’re right. I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I try to stick to my story anyway. “Yes, but this boat is traveling across the ocean whether I’m here or not. Airplanes only fly if people buy tickets for them.”

“Airplanes will always fly,” he responds. “You save money and fuel on airplanes.” And he turns away, shaking his head. Though he’s kind about it all, and continues to show us different parts of the bridge, I escape as soon as I can.

We must have been up there longer than I thought, because by this time we have reached the edge of the storm I saw earlier. As I head downstairs the boat starts to roll dramatically from side to side. I slip on the stairs and barely catch myself on the railings, then have a hell of a time walking in a straight line down the corridor to my room. My head is bursting with thoughts.

Planes will NOT always fly, commercial planes at least, unless we buy tickets to them, I think bitterly. I did my research, I know what I’m talking about. I know too, have known from the start, that this is merely a moral victory. He’s right that cargo ships use heavy fuel, and that heavy fuel is horrible for the air and the water. He’s right that airplanes use less fuel and time to cross the ocean. My defense is what I said earlier, that this ship is going to go to Europe whether or not I am onboard. Airplanes are not. So I am denying the airline industry the benefit of my business; I am voting with my dollars to use alternative methods of travel, and I still get to go on my trip. They’ll probably laugh, I think, I’ll never convince them. But it means something to me. The ship’s movement starts to make nauseous, and I go lie in my bunk and brood.

Climate change. Greenhouse gases. Ocean acidification. Glacial retreat. As a mountain athlete I feel a direct responsibility to take care of the landscapes I get paid to share, but everything I do seems to have an impact. The futility of this attempt crashes over me like the waves crashing against the ship. Even if everyone in the world stopped flying and wanted to use cargo ships, that wouldn’t work because there aren’t enough cargo ships or space on them. They’d have to start running passenger ships again, and then the question of whether boats or planes are more efficient (or less destructive) would come up in exactly the same way. Maybe planes really are the best option. I can hardly stay still in my bunk for the rolling of the ship by this point. Maybe the absolute best option would be to just stay at home. Maybe I shouldn’t be traveling at all. Honestly, maybe the best way to protect the environment is not to exist at all.

But I don’t want to die! I can do a lot more good alive than I might save in resources from dying. No matter how much good I do, I will never change the world or anyone else’s mind. But the things that I do–and the values that drive them–can make a difference in my life, in this one little life that I can control. And that matters. It has to. Every little bit counts. I have to believe that or none of this has any purpose. This is what I’m doing, and I have good reason to believe in it, and I resolve to continue to believe in it. My projects are worthwhile, my values meaningful, and I can combine them in a way that will allow me to be proud of my life. I sit up on the edge of the bed and resolve to be more confident. The shaking boat throws me back down. I sit back up.

Later, at dinner, I ask the cook if I can have my meals without meat. I don’t explain that this is because of the environmental impact of meat production, but he looks at me with about as much contempt as if I had. I sit there with my back straight and say thank you. I’m proud of myself for doing what I believe in whether or not anyone else agrees. So proud, in fact, that I decide to more or less impinge my beliefs on everyone around me. For the next five days I turn the tables on Peter and harangue him with the long-term health benefits of running long distances; I stare down the officers and explain in minute detail the spiritual beauty of seeing the sun rise and set on a single run; I corner as many crewmembers as possible and lay into them for not reading enough books. I have a long conversation with the cook about his responsibilities to his family and why he shouldn’t leave them at home alone for nine months at a time, and I tell the third officer that his sandals are ridiculous and he really shouldn’t even think about going outside without wearing Salomons. And you know what? Everyone loves me. I’m the most popular guy onboard.

Okay, maybe I just don’t talk about it with anyone else for the rest of the trip. I keep my values inside myself, gleaming like a talisman from an Indiana Jones movie. And this makes a difference for me.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

For those of you who make active choices to live low-environmental-impact lives, are you struck by some of the same challenges that Dakota describes?

Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.