Your At-Sea Writer’s Retreat

I’ve created a wonderful writing room for myself in our new home, complete with a spacious mango-wood desk, matching bookcase, and a dangerously comfy chaise for reading. Twenty-by-sixteen inch reproductions of some classic book covers, printed on wood, adorn the walls. As does twelve square feet of bulletin board and six more of white-board, each garnished with notes, a timeline, and admonitions-to-self about my work-in-progress. A Post-it bearing chiseled Sharpie ink shouts the theme of my novel in my face, a map to help me in avoiding tangential rabbit holes. A framed copy of the article I wrote for Adventure Cyclist hangs near the window, reminding me that, yes, I can be published outside of the video game genre—and that, yes, my wife and I took one hell of a trip. Yet this sanctuary I’ve created is not perfect, it’s still my home. Beyond the white door lies a house full of temptations and chores—and a kitchen in which I must cook my own meals with food I must go to the store to get. It’s close, but it’s no writer’s retreat.

When one hears the words writer’s retreat, they often think of a cabin in the woods where solitude and nature combine to pump the creative juices in a way unattainable in a modern home. We think of Thoreau and Salinger hammering out manuscripts in their spartan New England isolation chambers. I, too, thought that this was what I needed when I rented a cabin in the Methow Valley years ago, only to discover what I now believe is the most important aspect of a true writer’s retreat. It’s not isolation or nature or a lack of television, though these things can help, but the simple luxury of having all your meals prepared for you. And on a schedule.

My wife and I hit the fast-forward button while cycling around the world and booked passage on a cargo ship from Piraeus, Greece to Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia. For nineteen days the 333-meter MV Hatsu Crystal was our home. We crossed the Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the entirety of the Indian Ocean before entering the congested waters of the Strait of Malacca between Sumatra and Malaysia. I wrote over 50,000 words during that trip, an entire NANOWRIMO’s worth of content in two-thirds the time.

A Typical Day

I woke every morning well before six o’clock and would pad my way down to the darkened Officer’s Mess, my sticker-clad travel mug in hand, to secure my first of several mugs of hot water. Back in our cabin a spoon and a large cannister of Nescafe awaited my return. Our cabin, the Purser’s Suite, was far bigger than all but the priciest and most luxurious of berths aboard a cruise ship. With the bedroom door closed to not disturb my sleeping beauty, I took my space at the lengthy desk along the port-side wall of our living room and worked uninterrupted for 90 minutes each morning, pausing only to admire the sunrise. I would soon hear Kristin milling about, but another desk in the bedroom meant we could work in separate rooms. She had recently read Susanna Kearsley’s brilliant novel The Winter Sea and was attuned to the needs of the at-work writer and their hermitic predilections.

Breakfast was at 7:30. Sharp. The four passengers, ourselves and two elderly Europeans traveling separately, had neither choice in what, nor when, we ate. We arrived on time, ate the heavy meal placed before us by the smiling Filipino steward, and left. “The Officer’s Mess is not for socializing,” the burly German Captain instructed us on our first day at sea.

We were back in our cabin by eight o’clock and there, for the next three hours, while my wife read or journaled, I continued to work on the outline for my WIP. My only break was to occasionally walk back down the half-dozen flights of stairs for another batch of hot water or to step outside for a jolt of fresh—but stiflingly hot and humid—air. At 11:25 I would hit pause on whichever of the three classical music playlists I had the foresight to download for offline play, and we would make the journey back to the Officer’s Mess for lunch. By noon each day, I had already ingested a day’s worth of calories and gotten nearly five hours of writing done.

I brought my notepad and pen with me to lunch and, thanks to the two other passengers speaking amongst themselves in German, would continue jotting down ideas and reminders as I ate.

I spent the afternoons reading. I read storycraft books like Story by Robert McKee and over 200 pages of Story Grid blog posts that I copied/pasted into a Word file before boarding the ship. I also read the fascinating Monsoon by Robert D. Kaplan, a geopolitical look at each of the nations along the Indian Ocean’s coast. And several other books and essays as well. Reading books related to storycraft would often trigger an idea and by the end of each day I would often have numerous scraps of notes scattered about the desk, waiting to get incorporated into my outline come morning. I’d punctuate the day’s writing and reading efforts with an occasional dose of video games. Again, pre-installed ahead of time.

Every few days I took a break from working on the novel to write a blog post or two, such as the ones about First Sentences I posted on this site over the last two weeks. Or the more detailed travel-oriented ones I wrote for Two Far Gone about our voyage across the Indian Ocean and brief visit to Sri Lanka.

Dinner was at 5:30, quite early for us, but usually tasty and mercifully less filling than lunch. We’d eat our dinner and chat sparingly with our fellow passengers if the Austrian woman was willing to translate. Otherwise, I’d often stare off into space, dreaming up conflict for my protagonist. We’d be back in our cabin within thirty or forty minutes. Once there, we’d return to our reading and writing until 9 o’clock, at which time we’d usually find a DVD with English sub-titles to watch in our cabin. The ship had a library of hundreds of DVDs, most of them German and poorly labeled, all scratched from lack of care.

A Low-Tech, No-Frills Escape

The biggest advantage and disadvantage of being on a cargo ship is the lack of Internet. On the one hand, this eliminates a major distraction and time-suck from modern life. It is amazing how much more productive we can be when unable to check email and social media. On the other hand, any spur-of-the-moment research, fact-checking, or instinctual alt-tabbing over to is impossible.

We made our way to Piraeus from Turkey several nights before the planned departure in case there was a  change of schedule (we ended up boarding a full day early) and I spent that time downloading complete web pages I might need in my research. Scrivener has the ability to import complete web pages—saved as an MHT file (whatever that is)—right into the project binder. I used this feature extensively to save Wikipedia pages relating to all manner of topics about my characters and settings. Even now, at home, I continue to import any websites I reference in my research, just to have it all in one place.

Additionally, as I alluded to above, it’s also a good idea to pre-load an assortment of music, podcasts, videos, or games onto your computer before you leave.

Passengers and crew are able to purchase snacks and beer & wine, among other beverages and toiletry items from the ship’s store at unbelievably fair prices. We had a case of German beer, two cases of sparkling water, and multiple 2-pound bags of Gummi Bears in our room at all times. Hard liquor was prohibited.

If you’re like me, then you are never far from a mug of coffee or tea. Though the Steward did serve a mid-morning and midday coffee service which we never attended, I wasn’t about to risk being unable to have a mug of coffee whenever I so wanted. My wife and I packed two large cannisters of Nescafe and several boxes of tea for our voyage. It was a smart move. Though hot water was available at all times in the Mess (and the Steward did eventually bring us an electric kettle), the coffee situation was a little bit more complex. It was better to just have our own supply of instant.

As for entertainment, there was the ship’s library of DVDs, the games we brought with us on our laptops, and the card games we had been playing for nearly two years of travel. That’s about it. My wife walked ten laps around the ship’s main deck each day. I would often accompany her for a few laps but would soon get bored and return to my books. I’ll mention that the ship did have a “fitness center” and hope my use of air-quotes says all you need to know about that. My exercise generally consisted of the 112 stairs it took, round trip, from our cabin on F-deck to the Officer’s Mess on B-Deck.

Where To? How Much?

Cargo-cruising is not new, but it is gaining in popularity. That, combined with the limited occupancy aboard each vessel (generally no more than 8 passengers per ship), means you should begin booking your trip no less than six months out. A Google search for “freighter-travel” or “cargo-cruising” will lead you to many booking agencies and helpful websites. A couple of things to keep in mind: not every location allows port-calls (we weren’t allowed off the ship when we stopped to unload cargo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia) and some routes are round-trip only. Also, the shipping companies are reluctant to allow elderly passengers and those over 65 years old may be required to provide multiple doctor’s notes and sign extra waivers. These ships have no doctor on board, nor are they likely to make an unscheduled stop for a health emergency.

Cargo cruises, including your three meals per day and weekly cabin cleaning (no turn down service here!) generally average 100 Euros per day, per person based on double-occupancy. So, figure $120 per day, per person, including fees and your post-voyage tip to the crew of a case of beer (plus transport to and from the ship). Cost depends on the length of your trip, the shipping company you are sailing with (I recommend sticking to the major European-flagged companies), and the popularity of the route.

Freighter travel is not cheap. It is, as you may have figured, more expensive than a budget accommodation aboard a cruise ship and also lacks the entertainment and quality/abundance of dining options. Don’t compare it to the cost of a cruise. Compared to the price of a writer’s retreat, the cargo ship seems downright cheap. Writer’s retreats featuring workshops and group events generally exceed $120 per day before you even factor in lodging and food. Some lodging-only ones—the romanticized cabin in the woods—are every bit as expensive and you’re still stuck cooking your own meals or dining out.

Still, because the duration of the cargo cruises tend to be between 14 and 60 days in length, the cost can add up. There is also a need to be flexible and be accommodating to last-moment changes of schedule and delays. This is definitely not something for those with tight vacation allotments. But how much is all of that productivity worth to you? 50,000 words in three weeks and three books read was a good chunk of work. And I got to transit the Suez Canal, visit Sri Lanka (briefly), and make my way to Malaysia in the process.

More Information

For more information about freighter-travel, consult the blog posts I wrote here and here for a more detailed summary of our time at sea, how we booked our voyage, and photos of the ship. I hope you enjoyed this post. If you have any other questions about freighter-travel or have a suggestion for other unique writer’s retreats that include meals and lodging, be sure to let me know in the comments.

Lastly, I’m considering organizing a small group writer’s retreat aboard a cargo ship in the future. Leave a comment below if you’re interested.

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