The rhythms of shipboard life

We sailed out of the Baia de Todos os Santos on the evening of Sunday, February 9, with spectacular views of the skyline of Salvador and the islands of the bay. Ahead lay a nine-day voyage to Cape Town. By now, I had become accustomed to the daily rhythms of teaching (if not the time changes).

The 12th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

It was a full-time occupation, with classes, preparation, reading, grading and office hours. I found myself constantly moving between classrooms, the cabin and public rooms, hunting for places to hook up my laptop. Because of the confined space, working in the cabin was difficult but if I set up in the Union or out on deck, I was constantly interrupted by students stopping by to talk. I tried to designate office hours, but on a ship you’re essentially on call all day. 


After three weeks at sea, we had developed our sea legs. The first skill you learn is to walk with your legs spread further apart than normal, as if you just got out of a saddle. This prevents you from losing balance as the ship sways from side to side. You do not lean on doors, because they may swing back suddenly, catching whatever part of your body is protruding. At mealtime, you carefully arrange your plates and glasses, so they don’t fly off the table. Everything on the Universe Explorer ship seemed to be slightly askew. The floors and decks sloped down to the port and starboard (for drainage) so wherever you sat, you were usually leaning to the right or left. In the theatre, where I taught every morning, a sudden sway would send the stage curtains rattling across the runner, suddenly and dramatically obscuring the screen, only to swing open again a moment later. There was nothing to do about it, except to laugh or silently curse whoever was steering the ship. 

My day began with breakfast at 7:00, then an 8:00 class—Theories of Propaganda on A days, Media Criticism on B days. This was followed by the Global Studies course, required of the whole shipboard community. It was an introduction to the history, geography and culture of the next country to be visited, in the broader contexts of colonialism, globalization and other issues. In terms of preparing the students, it was essential, but logistically it was a challenge.  Students and faculty were packed into the Union, the largest room on the ship, and three classrooms with a video feed. Some students were likely still sleeping in their cabins, but there was no way to take attendance. If you showed up late—as I often did because there was only a five-minute break between classes—I had to step over sleeping students to find a spot on the floor (all seats were taken by 9:45). After Global Studies, I found a couple of seats with a sea view and held office hours. After lunch on A days, I sat in on a class on the economics of development, then taught Communication and Development. More office hours were followed by the hallowed happy hour in the Navigator’s Lounge, above the bridge with sweeping views of the sea ahead. This was the only place reserved for faculty and staff and it was a pleasant relief from the daily bustle of the Union, dining halls and classrooms. During the day, you could stop by for coffee or tea, read the international news digest and the Dean’s memo. At 17:00, the bar opened, and faculty and staff relaxed before dinner. There was plenty to do in the evenings—Community College, where faculty and staff shared their interests and hobbies, student dances and talent shows, and movies on TV. Some nights were “pub nights” when students could buy beer or wine (no spirits). 

 For the first seven days of the voyage across the South Atlantic, we were blessed with pleasant weather, calm seas and a favorable wind and current. Two days out of Cape Town, we hit what one ship’s officer described as the “African rollers.” We were happy to disembark in Cape Town and be on dry land again.

Next week: Operation Hunger, Cape Town