After four years at art school I was sick of New York, my fantasy was to work on a ship: a healthy outdoor life, travel the world to exotic places, meet interesting people.
So I signed on a Danish tramp-steamer, that’s not as romantic as it sounds, it’s just a ship that goes where the cargo is, no fixed route.
After a couple of months, we stopped at Paranagua in Brazil, it was a small port so there were a couple of dozen ships in a queue waiting to unload.
We had to anchor offshore in a current running at about 4 knots.
We had to wait a week, we had to stay on the ship, we couldn’t even go ashore.
The first mate wanted me to go over the side and paint the hole where the anchor chain goes in, I forget what it’s called.
First they lowered a plank over the side, just that, a single plank for me to sit on, 18 inches wide and ten feet long with a rope at either end.
Then they gave me a paint-roller on a fifteen-foot pole.
(The reason for the fifteen-foot pole is that the bow of the ship is about 100’ high and it curves in by about 20’ at the bottom. So, as the rope for the plank goes straight down, I’ll be at least fifteen feet from the ship.)
Then you go over the side onto a rope-ladder, no wooden rungs, all rope.
A rope-ladder looks easy when you see it done by experts, but I was a landlubber.
When you step on a rope-rung it wraps itself round your foot.
Then you’re clinging onto the rope trying to get your foot out so you can get it onto the next rope-rung, meanwhile swinging in mid-air above a fast-moving current without a life jacket, and I couldn’t swim.
And as you try to get off the rope-ladder and onto the plank there’s nothing to hold onto, and the plank bends under your weight as if it’s going to break.
So, on a bendy plank in mid-air with nothing to hold onto, I had to manoeuvre the fifteen-foot-long roller into the paint can, every movement makes the plank swing back-and-forth.
And I have to balance the end of the long heavy roller while I try to paint the side of the ship which is fifteen feet away.
Of course, as soon as I touch the side of the ship Newton’s Third Law of Motion kicks in: action and reaction are equal and opposite.
I touch the ship which pushes the plank away and as it swings I’m about to fall off.
I’ve got nothing to hold onto so I grab the plank, which means I drop the roller and the pole.
Now I’m hanging in mid-air above a fast-moving current that will carry me out into the Atlantic with no life jacket, and I can’t swim.
Eventually I make it back onto the rope-ladder and climb back up to the ship.
When I make it back to the top, my first thought is, “Fuck this for a game of soldiers”.
The whole thing wasn’t what I thought I’d signed on for.
I’d been doing this for months, I thought working on a ship would be a healthy outdoor life, travel the world to exotic foreign places.
But actually it’s like working in a boring, dangerous factory 7 days a week.
Except you live in the factory for weeks at a time, so you can’t go out at night, and then eventually you might get one day of shore leave.
There isn’t time to explore the culture, meet the people, learn the history; there isn’t time for anything except to get very drunk, very quick.
This wasn’t my fantasy, but I had convinced myself that working on a ship would be so much more exciting than living in a big city.
That’s when I learned that fantasy doesn’t have any bearing on reality and after a few months I couldn’t wait to get back to New York.
And I learned the wrong fantasies are when you run away from something, instead of running towards something.
Unless we get complete with where we’re at, we take our discontent with us wherever we go.
Which is why they say in est training, about jobs, relationships, anything: “It’s not okay to leave until it’s okay to stay”.