Mapping A Route

Next week, I board a cargo ship and set sail on a yearlong adventure. My plan? Circumnavigate the globe by ship. Spend time in port cities en route. Document global trade from the perspective of people who carry out the actual, physical process.

You’re probably thinking “Whoah whoah whoah, you’re doing what?! How’d you come up with that crazy idea?” Well… one thing leads to another…

I grew up in a small southern town with railroad tracks right through. I became curious about how transportation networks and trade routes shape places. In college, a course called Globalization Politics got me thinking about how trade interlinks global economies.

Tracks cut across my hometown of Salisbury, NC. (Photo by Jon Lakey)
Tracks cut across my hometown of Salisbury, NC. (Photo by Jon Lakey)

I’ve never thought of myself as a water person, but a family trip to St. Croix last summer changed my mind. I spent a day on a sailboat with two old brothers who shared hilarious sea stories. When I came home, I added “learn to sail” to my to-do list.

Last fall I had the opportunity to apply for a Watson Fellowship. I wanted to create a project for myself. So I brainstormed and wrote down all the things I wanted to do. Go to China. Learn to sail. Find out more about global economics.

When I read on Wikipedia that over 90% of the stuff we get from overseas gets here on huge ships, I was floored. Sure I knew “everything comes from China,” but I’d never stopped to think about how it actually gets here. I’d never even seen a cargo ship before.

So I picked up the phone, called the Cleveland Port Authority, and started asking questions. I went up to the port to meet the Eemsborg, just in from the Netherlands. I boarded the ship to talk to the captain and crew. I pulled out my map and said I wanted to sail around the world. They examined the route I’d penciled in while I scribbled down their advice. Avoid the North Atlantic in the winter. Look out for pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Ready to board the ship. Marblehead, OH.
Ready to board the ship. Marblehead, OH.

Over the next few months, I learned everything I could about the world of cargo shipping. I scoured the internet. Called up shipping agents and marine surveyors.  I even joined an organization called WISTA– Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association –and went to the US branch WISTA meeting in DC. I found out there was a whole micro-world of bulk shipping right in my backyard–on the Great Lakes– and I took a nine-day trip on a bulk ore ship as a trial run for my Watson project.

Well, I got the Watson fellowship! Now, I’m getting ready to set sail. I’ll go back up to a port on the Great Lakes, board a saltwater cargo ship, and this time head east through the St. Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic. I’ll spend this year traveling the trade routes to get the story of global trade firsthand. I’ll be posting tape, text and images all year here on Transom. Stay tuned.

Other posts about Allison’s Journey

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  • Ann Heppermann

    7.11.11

    Reply

    You are my hero.

  • Diane Hope

    7.11.11

    Reply

    Hi Allison – what a great idea! And a great adventure. If you suffer from seasickness – I can highly recommend the ‘Scopoderm’ patches that you wear behind your ear. Also if you don’t have one – you might want to pick up a Rycote zepplin windshield kit for your mics at some point – as, from experience, recording out on deck can be nigh on impossible without that.
    Bon voyage!

  • jake warga

    8.18.11

    Reply

    Allison,
    Sounds like a fun time. I took a cargo ship once, and some tips if it helps: bring sweets, they might only have nutella on board. Women are bad luck to have on a ship, don’t take it personally. Don’t push buttons, no matter how tempting, can really piss off the first officer who is often German. Wear the lifevest in bed if you can’t sleep in rolling seas, keeps you from turning over. No one will talk with you, company policy, so good luck. Learn ‘man overboard’ in Tagalog.

    Bon Voyage.

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