Traveling Solo

My Container

by Rob Long
Photo by Rob Long.

To get away from all distractions and focus on his deadline, a Hollywood writer sends himself to the other side of the world on a bleak shipping container ship ... without WiFi. Talk about dedication to the craft.

SHANGHAI – A couple of years ago, I spent most of December on a container ship, heading from Seattle to Shanghai, across the roof of the Pacific. Bad weather to the south forced us to hug the Alaskan coast, slip through the Unimak Pass, cross over into Russian waters, then drift south, battling ten-meter swells, into the Sea of Japan.

It was bumpy. And rough in spots. And cold. Huge expanses of water. Snowcapped mountains barely visible in the stormy mist. Snow falling on whitecaps, which is really something to see. I grew a beard. It came in alarmingly grey.

In other words, a voyage.

I did this because this is what it's come to: I'm a writer — what I'm supposed to do is write. But what I really do is email and have lunch and go to meetings and scribble notes and talk about writing — in other words, I'm not really a writer, I'm portraying a writer in a movie, called, I'm afraid, "The Writer Who Goes Broke." Or something worse, although I'd rather not think about it. I'd rather come up with a different title.

So I put myself on a container ship - you can do that, you know: You just contact one of the three or four agencies that broker spots in the rather nice (but Spartan) cabins that all of these big container ships have and book yourself across the Pacific, or the Atlantic, or through the Suez and over to Asia — anywhere you want to go, really, as long as you're not particular about what you eat (you eat with the officers, who are mostly German, mostly German-ish food) and as long as you don't need much entertainment — well, any entertainment. What you do is stare out into the sea, and when you're done with that, you write.

And I wrote. A couple of projects I've been meaning to finish, polish, get started. I was a flurry of productive, beard-growing, coffee-drinking work. It's amazing how much you can get done in one day, when the iPhone doesn't work and you can't get email and no one's sending you tickles or pokes on Facebook.

It's also more than a little shaming. I know writers who will drive to remote wilderness areas for a week, and I know some who check into rustic hotels to finish a project. I even know one or two who rely on that mythically unattainable thing called "self-discipline." But I don't know any who have gone to the extremes I went to, putting themselves out to sea, surrounding themselves with thousands of miles of ocean, just to get away from email.

What's worse: It worked. I finished a script I've been wanting to finish for months. I outlined a new project and started work on it. And I came up with another project to pitch when I get back. Three weeks into the voyage, I looked myself in the mirror and congratulated myself.

And then, one night, late, asleep in my cabin — propped up on one side by pillows to keep from tumbling out of bed during the pitch and yaw of the high seas — I heard a familiar sound. Like a bell. What was it? I know that sound! A chime, a bell, a...text message.

A text message?

We were sliding through the narrow pass between Hokkaido and mainland Japan. The iPhone had connected. It began to chime and ring and buzz and hop around the desk getting the two weeks' worth of voicemails and emails and texts, downloading Facebook updates and Twitter messages, and I sprang out of bed like the sick addict I am, scrolling and emailing and texting and calling and checking the Variety website for news about the entertainment industry, and in general taking the two weeks of Zen-like detachment and total focus and tossing them away so I could find out who had friended whom on Facebook, and which holiday film releases were doing better than expected.

Through my cabin window, I could see the lights of the Hokkaido coast slipping by. They were thick when the phone started chirping, but now I could see them thinning out, getting fewer and farther between. We were passing through, into the Sea of Japan.

The phone went from four bars to three, then to two, then one. Mainland drifted away, but I kept tapping, kept sending useless signals: thanks for the funny joke, will call when I get back, on boat to Shanghai, FYI got this today, can't make it sorry am on a boat, weather cold, dinner when I get back?

And then, nothing. No service. But I didn't give up: I kept bouncing around the cabin — maybe over here? No. Over here? If I hold it this way? If I press it against the glass? Junkies will ransack their hovels, searching for a few grains, a forgotten packet of whatever they're jonesing for. That's what I did, in the Sea of Japan, at three in the morning. For cell coverage.

And I sat in that cabin in my underwear, holding my iPhone, thinking, "This is what it's come to?  Look at yourself. Look at yourself."

I may need to find a longer voyage next time. Crossing the Pacific, apparently, isn't enough.


Book Passage on Your Very Own Container Ship (Travltips)

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