All Aboard for an Adventure in Inequality

ANTARCTICA - 2013/11/30: Tourists at Yankee Harbour, a small inner harbour on the south-west side of Greenwich Island in the South Shetland Island group, Antarctica, with cruise ship Seabourn Quest in background. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

To satisfy his wanderlust, Devin Murphy worked on a series of cruise ships to see the world and learn more about it. As he reports in this fascinating piece at Outiside, what he didn’t bargain for was a free education on the deep disparity between the poor and rich, the haves and the have nots, not only in ports of call around the world, but aboard the vessels upon which he served.

I’m an American who grew up surrounded by comforts that were delivered to me by ships like these—ships that I’d never thought about.

As the summer wore on, my hands became ribboned with cuts from barnacle shards caked into the rope fibers, and I got accustomed to the insults of the assistant engineer, who often tipped over into psychotic rage when I did something wrong. He spent all his free time reading biker magazines and smoking in the dark next to the engines, a patron saint of hatred.

Meanwhile, day by day, I really began to appreciate the passengers. Whether they were recent retirees on a dream trip or industrial business owners leveled by the beauty of the wilds, it was humbling to share in their awakening wonder.

I also got a better sense of the oddity of life on a boat. One time the captain called me to the bridge and told me to man the controls while he went to his cabin. I was 20 years old, steering a cruise ship through the night. It was so exhilarating that, when the captain came back, I didn’t notice at first that he was carrying a full-size test dummy with a long black wig on it. He began dancing around and humming to the doll.

“Um. Sir? What are you doing?”

The captain opened the wing station, sang, “Time for us to part, my love,” and hurled the doll overboard. He blew a kiss to the back of the ship, then called into his radio, “Man overboard.”

He shot a red flare into the sky, and I slowly turned the ship to start our impromptu man-overboard drill. The doll looked so much like a real person that I felt a wash of fear about one day being alone on the waves, drifting off into the cold unknown.

During our return trip from Antarctica, the Drake Passage—the expanse of ocean between Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands and Cape Horn—thrashed the ship around. The hotel executive, feeling sick, went to his cabin and left an Excel spreadsheet open on a computer we shared. It showed what the international crew members were paid, and their low compensation—far less than minimum wage in the U.S.—stunned me. I was able to save much of what I made. These men, who worked with kindness, effort, and attention to detail for 12 hours a day, six days a week, and up to nine months at a time, were being exploited, and they had to send money to families back home. The reality of the flag of convenience became clear.

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