Living In My Story
Before getting on a cargo ship to sail around the world, I needed to know what I was getting into. So I spent nine days on the Great Lakes aboard the Calumet as a trial run for my yearlong project.
I didn’t set out to make a radio piece, but I brought my recorder along just in case. To catch the ship, I went to a limestone quarry in Marblehead, OH. There I was, walking 200 feet in the air on a loading rig, just inches from a conveyor belt shuttling 18,000 tons of limestone into the belly of a freight ship. I couldn’t resist. I pulled out my flash recorder and started rolling before I even set foot on board.
When I’m recording an interview for the radio, the first thing I usually do is find a quiet place. If I have to, I unplug the refrigerator– can’t have that buzz in the background! On a cargo ship, though, there is no quiet place. On the MV Calumet, I had to embrace the noise. There was no escaping it.
The noise wasn’t the only challenge I faced. Usually when I’m doing a story, I’ll spend an afternoon in the field, then come home to log and transcribe and see what I have. If I decide I need more tape, I can always go back.
On the ship though, I was literally living in my story. Just imagine: you’re on a huge ship with 17 interesting characters and action 24/7. I couldn’t be rolling all the time, though. Not only would it be physically impossible to deal with that much tape, but I had to sleep sometime. I sure had a hard time turning off the recorder, though. My field notes from the end of Day 4 consist of just one sentence:
“If I get any more tape, I will explode.”
As a reporter, I’ve been warned not to get “too close” to the people in my story. Well, how do you maintain those boundaries if you’re living with them? The Calumet is a big boat. But it quickly began to feel like a very small world. Once the newness wore off, I started to get a taste of what these guys go through: stuck on a boat for days, with the same 17 people and no separation between home and work. I found myself wondering how I fit into that picture. I wasn’t a fly on the wall–I was obviously there.
When you get so close to your story, it’s hard to step back and see it from outside. How could I begin to explain such a foreign world to someone who’s never even seen a cargo ship? I asked the guys on board for help.
I got back to land with over 50 hours of recordings–sounds, interviews, loads of active tape. OK. Now what? After months of transcribing, sifting, and scripting, I somehow managed to cobble together a radio piece:
After months of transcribing, sifting, and scripting (and help from a patient editor), I managed to cobble together a radio piece for WBEZ Chicago’s Front and Center series.
In the end, all that annoying noise came to the rescue to help me tell the story. Listeners might not be able to picture exactly what this ship looks like, but my hope is you can HEAR how huge it is and get a feeling of what it’s like to live in that world.
I’m taking a break from Pro Tools for now–I’ve got packing to do. I board another cargo ship next week and set sail for Europe. Stay tuned for more ship stories soon here on Transom.
Allison Swaim caught the radio bug during a month-long stint as a reporter at Radio Victoria in rural El Salvador. She learned how to tell stories with sound at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the fall of 2008. Discovering radio was like getting her license. Holding a microphone gives Allison an excuse to do what she loves: talk to people, hear their stories, learn their perspectives. Allison grew up in Salisbury, NC and is proud of her Southern roots. The Midwest became a second home in her five years in Oberlin, OH. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010.