On the ms Amsterdam, en route from Fiji to Samoa
November 25, 2005

Working as a guest lecturer on a Holland America cruise ship in 2005, I found myself mesmerised late at night by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. As I stared out into a seemingly infinite blackness, I felt both physically insignificant and spiritually enormous. Walking out on the ship’s deserted deck in the middle of the night, after nearly everyone else on board was in bed, became a nightly meditative exercise for me.

As the search  for missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 rolls into its fifth week, I’ve been remembering what it felt like to be on a ship, bobbing in the middle of the ocean, so detached from the rest of civilization. Before I worked on that ship, I didn’t fully comprehend how vast our oceans are. 

Lots of people are wondering how we could just lose a 777 airplane like this — and considering today’s technologies, it’s a reasonable question. But now that we have lost it, the fact that nobody can find it makes perfect sense to me. 

Here’s the blog post I wrote on board the ship, very late one night in 2005:


I’m a night person. I love being awake late at night when I know nobody is going to bother me. I love flying home from Europe after a season of tour guiding, and not fighting my jetlag. I go to bed at 4 p.m., when it’s already 1 a.m. in Europe, and then wake up in the middle of the night, sitting alone in front of the fireplace and listening to the stillness.

cruise-ship-holland-america-deck-2005I’ve found a new night routine on this ship. Late at night, maybe 1 a.m., after the restaurants and bars have all closed and all the other passengers have gone to bed, I walk outside and stare out at the blackness.

My state room is on deck three. Deck three is also the level of the ship where the deck wraps all the way around the ship. In daytime, the deck always has motion – other passengers doing laps around the ship. Three and a half laps equals a mile. But late at night, deck three is my private deck. The ocean is my private ocean.

The ship plows through the water, throwing waves to the sides. The water never stops moving. Never. The sound of the ship’s waves is constant, yet constantly changing. Each slice of time, each millisecond, has its own shape in the water.

The Pacific Ocean is littered with thousands of ships, yet I could circle deck three until sunrise, and probably never see a single one of them. That’s how huge this ocean is.

My vision extends maybe 20 feet into the blackness. There is no endpoint, no defined place where it all stops. I stare into nothing. I can’t tell what is out there. I can’t see where the sea and horizon meet. I feel incredibly small.

As we sail closer to the equator, the humidity is growing heavier, like a warm, wet blanket that weighs me down.

At 1:30 a.m., I hear a voice behind me. It’s Seth, an American who lives in Tokyo. His brother is a guest lecturer on the ship. He had been up in an abandoned bar, at the only time of day when he could practice on the piano there.

I tell him what I’ve been thinking about – about the smallness.

“This entire ship,” he says, “is just a speck in the ocean.”

He is right. And I am just a microspeck.


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Published on Saturday, April 5, 2014

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