Living In My Story

July 7th, 2011 | by Allison Swaim | Series:
Boarding the ship in Marblehead

Boarding the ship in Marblehead, OH.

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:

Photo of recording coal as it pours into the hatch

Recording as coal pours into the hatch.

“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.

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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.

Other posts about Allison’s Journey

2 Comments on “Living In My Story”

  • Allison
    You are doing what I have wanted to do for a long time, and still might do. I have had a web site at for about 18 years and have visited many ships over the years, and taken a ride on a couple, but am still waiting for my salt water ship to come in (and then go out). I would like to somehow include stuff about your trip on my web site; I would be particularly interested in pictures u might post. I would be very interested in pictures and stories u might post about ships that have been to Duluth; maybe a ship that is carrying cargo from Duluth that u happen to get on. Etc etc etc
    At the top right of the page, there is a button to push to see pages devoted to one ship. There are about 550 pages (ships), all of course about ships that have been to Duluth.
    I also maintain a web site at which is a schedule of ship traffic for the port of Duluth.
    And I have a 15 minute live radio show on Thursdays at 8:15 in KUMD (103.3; (public radio from University of Minnesota at Duluth); would love to somehow get u on that show when u are out in the ocean or someplace interesting; again, particularly if u are on a ship that has been to Duluth.

    That is enough for now; I look forward to following your journey

    Ken Newhams

  • Allison –
    I’m delighted to learn that you are undertaking this great adventure and I look forward to keeping up with your story. As you are making your way across the globe, I hope you will consider visiting some of the centers for mariners in ports around the world. As a member of WISTA I was delighted to see you made the connection with that great group and as the Executive Director of the Seafarers’ Center in Port Everglades, FL –I’m always pleased to hear of another instance where it strikes home with someone that 90% of the commodities that make our lifestyle possible are brought to us by seafarers. Your perspective and your stories will help tell the tale of the hard work and difficult lifestyle of the seafarer.
    Our center, like our sister centers across the globe,has as its mission the goal of offering refuge, resources, renewal and respect for visiting mariners who journey far and for long periods of time away from home and loved ones. I was glad to see your reference to the cacophony of life on a ship and to ‘living where they work’ — a challenging dynamic for anyone and a clear indicator that you are already getting a taste for the unusual life/work environment of the seafarer. The seafaring life can be complex and challenging for those who undertake it. It can also be both professionally and personally rewarding. I’m certain you will see and hear about all of these facets during your journey. It’s important and valuable to tell the story of the seafarer and I applaud you for it. Can’t wait to hear more! Fair winds and following seas. Lesley Warrick, Executive Director, Seafarers’ House at Port Everglades, FL, USA.

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