You Must Live It


Six months ago, I set out to catch a ride on a ship. I had my recording gear, a shiny new camera, and a map of the world with a route sketched in pencil. The plan: hitch my way East around the world on cargo ships, travel the trade routes, and get the story of “global trade” from the ground (or, in this case, the sea!) Since then I’ve crossed the Atlantic on a bulker, hopped on a barge to travel down the Rhine, boarded an RORO car ship to sail from N. Europe through Gibraltar, and spent Christmas on board a tanker in the Mediterranean. I washed up on shore in Turkey, and now I’m in Istanbul, counting down the days till my next ship leaves for Singapore. In six months, I’ve learned a lot about how to tell a story. Along the way, my focus has shifted quite a bit. Here’s how:

1. My scope has narrowed.

I started with the enormously broad topic of world trade at sea. Once I got my way on board and into that world, I found myself less interested in the ports and the perspective from land, and more and more interested in the people on board who choose the sailor profession. People for whom life is divided into “on board” and “on shore.” People who see the world from this side. Like Anti, from Croatia, who I met at Rosenhill Seaman’s Club in Gothenberg, Sweden.

Listen to “Live Like You Want to Live”

“Seaman’s life”–as they say on board–is unlike any other. It takes a certain type of person to make it at sea. And I am absolutely captivated by the narratives of the people who choose this career and their unique perspectives on life. They spend most of their lives in a world that very few of us ever see, carrying the bulk of global trade to maintain reality as we know it.

Listen to “We Must Sail”

Anti’s advice: “You must live it!” That’s the only way to really understand what it’s like to be a sailor. So I’ve stepped up to the challenge, racking up sea-time to experience life on board and get access to these stories.

Photo sitting on the bank of a creek
We sit on the bank of a creek behind the liquor store to celebrate the surprise of finding Polish beer here in Canada!

2. I’ve become a main character.

Because I choose to “live it,” I must step into the frame and use my own lens, my perspective as a newcomer to the bizarre environment on board. This is MY sea story as much as anyone else’s. The times when I’m engaging as a part of the “scene” are the best moments; provide the most real tape. In radio school I remember learning to be a good listener, not to fill every silence with new questions and instead to wait for what my interviewee might say next. But I tend to be too passive in the field. I back off too much and try to fade into the wall.

The fact is I’m not invisible. I am a part of it. By being there, I create the tape– by asking questions and interacting with the people and environment around me. My voice is a critical thread to pull the story together. So, I’m trying to get better about marking tape, starting each recording with something like, “OK, here we are in ______, ______ is happening… and I’m about to go find out about ______.” I try to speak a little more slowly; try to get my questions “on mic.” My questions and my presence in the tape are even more important because most often English is a second language for the people I’m recording.

Here’s an example from my very first day on my first ship, Isa, in Thunder Bay Canada. After dinner, a bunch of the crew “went shore,” and so I went with them. The van from the seaman’s mission gave us a ride from the ship in to town, and dropped us off in the Walmart parking lot. So here we are in Walmart…

Listen to “The Search”

After a 15-minute trek down the highway, we finally get to the liquor store.

Listen to “Mission Accomplished”

And cut. After that, they forced me to turn off the recorder. “C’mon, Alooshka. Enough work for today.” So I put away the gear and enjoyed the moment.

Sailors have a tough life. They spend much of their time far away from home, without everyday comforts folks on land take for granted. Yet they know better than anyone how to live life to the fullest. In my time at sea, I’ve learned to appreciate small luxuries and to take every chance to celebrate. “I have only one life.” Simple but powerful words from 23-year old Marcin, a deckhand. These words have stuck with me throughout this journey. My hope is that by living it, by sailing with these people, getting to know them and sharing experiences, I can do justice to their stories. I must start by telling my own.

More sea stories to come here on Transom. Stay tuned.

Other posts about Allison’s Journey


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  • Jim



    What a great project! Allison you have the drive – no count you’ll do very well. I’m sure I speak for many when I say I’d love to hear more. Be safe.

  • Effie Stewart



    Dear Allison,
    Hope you are having fun…..if you are traveling by yourself, my hat is off to you…truly an adventure. Having traveled by myself to wild and wilderness areas, I learned that the best stories or the ones that are worth reading about or listening to, are the ones in which the writer appears so insignificant, so humble, and so out of the way…..there is not a whole lot of “I” One knows the writer is writing yet it is not about the writer at all.
    Best of luck in staying safe and humble,
    Effie Stewart

  • Beffie Cook



    Absolutely amazing! Would it be OK for us to use some of this in the Salisbury Post?

  • Laura Herberg



    Allison – I think you are talented and you are going to tell some amazing radio stories. But my biggest inspiration from you is that… I can’t think of any other way of saying this… YOU’VE GOT BALLS. How many of us maybe have talent and great ideas but say to ourselves, “I’ll work on that story next month” and then never get around to it? We sit in our rooms and dream about the great radio we’re going to tell but do scarcely more than a vox pop. Okay, maybe it’s just me. But the fact that you boarded that cargo ship with little more than some radio equipment and a map is absolutely inspiring. Like, you’re my new hero. It sounds like you’ve already learned so much about how to tell stories in ways that you never would have learned if you just stayed home. You’re learning because you’re doing. I’m sure it’s not simple to pin point… it’s probably just something that burns inside of you… but I’m hoping you might be able to explain what went on in your head and in your life between the time you came up with this idea and the moment that you boarded that first ship. How were you able to motivate yourself to make this a reality? And what fears, if any, did you have to overcome? Thanks so much lady. I can’t wait to hear more about your story at sea. Until then, “Nostrave!”

  • Jay Allison



    Love that tape from Anti. I hope we’ll get to hear more from him eventually.

  • Neal



    I love it! Keep those posts coming!

    Looking forward to hearing of the canal, Suez, and the Red Sea.

    Thanks for being our eyes and ears on a journey we could only dream about.

  • Evan Hahn



    Hey Allison,

    Im not sure if you are checking these comments. But I am currently living a similar experience to you. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer living in a small country in Africa named Lesotho. I have been traveling around and recording interviews with people on all sorts of subjects. I think I could really benefit from some of your experience. Can I e-mail you and talk to you about your experience?

  • mama



    Finally, I got to hear every piece. I really love reading your writing….. hearing the recorded pieces you’ve shared…. the whole experience. Like I said before, we tiny bream in your little pond of Watson groupies are so excited to see that wriggling worm on a hook too big to catch us, but big enough to keep us coming back for more. I love you, Bugalini/Deniz/Allison.

  • Karen Schaefer



    Allison, this is terrific! So glad to hear your voice again and to know your project is coming along. Keep us posted!

  • matt



    World traveling is always an eye opener, im currently in the Philippines and got my eyes on India next.

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