A Soft-Adventure Shipwreck

In which our heroine saves people from a sinking ship. Sort of.


in Archive


As the ship sank I smirked. At the time I thought it wasn’t appreciated by the panicked crew members and passengers I was assisting onto rescue boats, but I couldn’t help it. Each addition to the drama — the arrival of a Coast Guard chopper overhead, the slight tilt of the ship toward Alaskan glacial melt, and, especially, the donning of the orange mobility-retarding life preservers — confirmed a suspicion that I was, in fact, the butt of some sort of cosmic joke.

That summer I landed a job as a steward on a small ship called the Wilderness Adventurer that carried sea kayaks for seven-night, soft-adventure cruises in Alaska’s Inside Passage. I turned out to be a pretty bad waitress and a slow cleaner of rooms.

The sky was never totally dark in June, and at night I would talk to Kelly, my roommate from Kansas who called passengers “hon” and “sweetie” and cleaned rooms at a diet pill-fueled pace. We spent the nights looking out our window and saw brown bears and black bears, waterfalls, sea lions, dolphins, glaciers, and whales. We almost never slept, Kelly because of the diet pills, and me because I was nervous about not being good at the job. When we did sleep, our dreams were weird and about Alaska, the ocean, and the kitchen staff.

I got better at my job. As the naturalist informed passengers about whales over the intercom every day — Whales are mammals, and the closest living relatives to hippos — I perfected fast hospital corners. Whales breast feed their young. I learned to fold the edge of the toilet paper in guest rooms into a symmetric triangle like it was my habit. Whale milk has the consistency of cottage cheese. I became proficient at cleaning shower drains of gray hair in a single scoop.

I was still not a good waitress, but the cook, April — who the stewards were afraid of because she yelled — decided when we changed rooms the following week that I would be her roommate. She didn’t yell at me. For fun she let me use a blowtorch to burn the sugar on top of 100 ramekins of crème brûlée.

It got better. I was allowed to go sea kayaking when there was an odd number of passengers. I made $1,000 in tips one week, and I heard that once the ship was fully booked we would start to make more than that every week. April told me the Northern Lights were coming soon and that they were green and other-worldly and that I was going to love them.

That’s about the time the ship hit a rock in the hull of the boat and took on water. The boat started to sink. The engineer and other crew members with expertise scrambled in the hull full of water and electricity to save the $14 million-ship from capsizing, but I didn’t know it at the time. I gathered with the kitchen boys and other stewards on the deck of the ship and we talked for a while about how dumb you feel with a life preserver on. We gave our necks a break and let them rest on the preservers.

Then a crewmember came over the loudspeaker and told us we could go to our rooms and get our wallets and nothing more before evacuating. It suddenly seemed clear the ship was going down. I grabbed my wallet and my camera. Then I was told to assist passengers as they boarded other ships.

And that’s where the smirking started. Most people were panicked, but I noticed that about every 15th person who caught my hand smirked a little, too. We had different ages, genders, and classes, and maybe we were just smirking because we were the strongest swimmers with the highest body fat content, but for some reason I suspected that these people, the kind of people who smiled while their ship was literally sinking, were the kind of people who always believed on some level that their personal ship was sinking. I suspected that when reality finally paralleled our personal narrative, we couldn’t help but smile because we were finally able to confirm our suspicions that we were, in fact, the butt of that cosmic joke. That was my suspicion anyway. It’s possible other people were smirking just because they thought life preservers were inherently funny.

Anyway, we evacuated pretty close to our order of seniority, which seemed like a cliché. I boarded a small fishing boat. The boat was all crew and they were quiet because some of them knew exactly what was going on in the hull of the boat.

The boat took us to a ship, and the ship took us to a dock, and at the dock we were picked up and taken to a lodge in Glacier Bay National Park operated by the same native-owned company who ran our ship.

The crew, me, the other stewards and kitchen people, who struggled to use the language of ships — starboard and port — sat on the deck and ordered Long Island Iced Teas, and talked about what was in our rooms. April impersonated herself frantically trying to decide what to take from her bunk. She had just ordered a box of mail-order underwear from Seattle, and she wanted to take it with her. She also had a set of congo drums, so she was conflicted about which to take and ended up without either one of them.

“Aughhhh my congos, aughhhh my panties…” she said.

“You can get new bongos,” I said.

“I said congos.”

“Whatever, congo-bongo.” I had never had a Long Island Iced Tea before. “April, say congo-bongo, congo-bongo, congo-bongo. Say it fast; it sounds funny.”

A kitchen boy we called Crotch-Rot, who worked the other seasons in New Orleans, said, “I knew this was going to happen, man. I have never trusted ships.” He was one of those people who I think believed he was the butt of a cosmic joke, but you could tell by how low he wore his baseball cap over his eyes, and the way he flung dishes around the galley that he thought the joke was mean. He smoked with his good arm on the deck. His other arm was just a little bit smaller and a little bit gimpy.

“Aughhhhh my congos, auhhh my pantie…”

“What’s in a Long Island Iced Tea?” I asked.

“It was a huge piece of metal floating on water. It was bound to happen,” said Crotch-Rot.

We all faced the water in Bartlett Cove.

That night we were put up at a B&B with floral cabin décor. But we were shady seasonal people and we were out of place. We made phone calls to our friends and family: “Guess whose ship just sank?” Then we went to a house party at night and I rubbed Crotch-Rot’s back, and the dishwasher Slim Shady’s back, and anyone who sat in front of me out in a field. Workers from the lodge with no authority to say it told us we would not lose our jobs. We would be moved to another ship or allowed to come work at the lodge. Several people told me there was “really good weed” at the lodge. April told me they made minimum wage at the lodge. It never got totally dark.

The next day we flew to Juneau in a little plane. Without any warning, we — the passengers and crew — were dropped off at a big box home-and-garden store on the outskirts of Juneau and given 15 minutes to purchase necessities. Some people grabbed grocery carts. It was a completely frantic shopping spree. With crew and passengers we totaled 100 people, and most were running in the isles.

I spent a few minutes contemplating the stitching on some underwear, but then Kelly arrived in the intimates section and selected sleepwear for her basket without taking it off the hangers. “Snap out of it, sweetie,” she said. I noticed she had gum and magazines in her basket, and I doubted those were necessities. I picked out two pairs of black cotton underwear, three pairs of socks, a pair of one-size-fits-all cargo pants, plaid sleeping shorts, a toothbrush and travel toothpaste, two sticks of powder fresh deodorant (they came wrapped in buy-one/get-one-free plastic), and a T-shirt that said “Good Luck Chinese Food.” It was baby blue and I didn’t know when I bought it — because I didn’t have time to try it on — but it showed my midriff.

That night the crew members who were not being investigated by the Coast Guard got dressed up in our new clothes, and went out to one of the only clubs in Juneau and watched an entire fleet of Navy boys do the Cabbage Patch on top of two local Inuit girls. It was a hideous spectacle, but I couldn’t look away.

In the morning the crew met in one of our hotel rooms for a discussion about our future. There wasn’t enough room to sit on a bed, so I sat on the floor. I sat by Slim Shady, who was still wearing his black-and-white checked kitchen pants. The shopping spree must not have gone well for him, either. It was explained to us that when the tide was up, the ship was almost entirely submerged in sea water. When the tide was down, the ship looked as if it had run aground because it was perched on the rock we had hit.

“Kelly, Emily, rooms like yours…your stuff is gone.” I looked into my lap. I could see my new black underwear, which were higher cut then my cargo pants, my white belly, and my “Good Luck Chinese Food” shirt. I didn’t really care about the stuff. I imagined my scratched and overplayed CDs sinking to the bottom of the inlet, and it kind of felt like a relief. I just didn’t want to lose my job. It was explained that some crewmembers like the deckhands were still working with the Coast Guard to prevent the ship from capsizing, but it was hazardous work, and they needed more help. I raised my hand when they asked for volunteers, but I was told to put my hand down. They wanted men.

Finally, after days of discussion and speculation following the wreck, it was announced that about half of us were going to lose our positions. I flipped a coin with Slim Shady, to see which one of us got to keep our job. I chose heads.

Our ride for the airport left in a half an hour. I asked for a flight to San Francisco, although I had originally been flown up from Seattle, and no one gave me any trouble. I filled out my insurance claim form pretty accurately — I’m not sure why.

While I was waiting to leave, I sat on the dock and drank from a bottle of vodka and thought about how beautiful Alaska was. A senior crewmember sat down with me. As I took a swig of vodka, he thanked me for being so calm and professional at the time of evacuation.