Fathom Mag
Article

Man Overboard

The cruise ship as a microcosm for the modern world

Published on:
September 23, 2019
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9 min.
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The first time you stumble while walking on a cruise ship you chuckle. “Still finding my sea legs,” you say. The second time, you clutch the nearest static object the same way you might tense up at the sudden commotion caused by airplane turbulence. When that object is a stranger’s arm you smile awkwardly. The third time, you wonder if you’ve been drinking, realize you haven’t, then question what it would take to get you to step out of the boat to try walking on the actual water, and embarrassingly realize that no, the Son of God walking toward you still wouldn’t do it. You’re not Peter—and to tell the truth, you’re perfectly okay with that.

But the unspoken reality about “finding your sea legs” is that you never actually “find” anything.

But the unspoken reality about “finding your sea legs” is that you never actually “find” anything. You just get accustomed to stumbling all the time. People walking around hallways and down stairs slouch against walls, rails, and each other—all with no warning. No one finds this strange. This is how you walk now, comfortable in your own uneasiness.


The first night on the cruise ship, I instructed my friend, travel companion, and roommate for the week, Andrew, to read David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” I had read it the week before our trip in preparation and read it again once on board. 

I think Wallace had a keen eye for consumerism and its effect on people, and that essay may represent his best work on that idea. As I walked the gangplank, I prepared for a week similar to the one he described. I even discovered—to my secret delight—that we were patronizing the same cruise line Wallace had written about twenty years earlier. 

But I had a different experience—similar in some ways, but different. And I want to chronicle it here. So first, let me start by telling you that I have seen every shade of blue imaginable in both the sea and the sky.

I’ve tasted new versions of spleen, squid, and sausage and really enjoyed two of them.

I’ve seen wedding pictures snapped alongside a man sunbathing in a speedo—his body splayed out like the chalk outline of a corpse.

I’ve heard the same person sing covers of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Zac Brown Band. 

I’ve learned the names and hometowns of bartenders and blackjack dealers who know too much about the cocktails I do and do not drink and the bets I do and do not place.

I’ve been crowned the winner of a Celebrity Life Activity, a title that came with a plastic silver medal that stayed around my neck for longer than I care to admit.

I’ve seen wedding pictures snapped alongside a man sunbathing in a speedo—his body splayed out like the chalk outline of a corpse.

I’ve seen a magician goad two men into tying up his glamorous famulus, one of whom responded with too much enthusiasm and the other with not nearly enough.

I’ve lost an entire layer of dermis like a snake that has peeled off its skin.

I’ve found that the terms port, starboard, stern, and bow, which I learned on a canoe trip ten years ago, still do not have a place in my modern life.

I’ve learned that a Venn diagram of “nude beaches” and “beaches I wish had a dress code” consists of two perfectly overlapping circles. 

I’ve travelled 1,546 nautical miles with absolutely no frame of reference for the difference between nautical and land miles.

I’ve silently watched a silent disco and felt weird about it.

I’ve learned that the consumption of unlimited free ice cream is simultaneously encouraged and judged.

And I’ve overheard conversations about bigger ships, faster service, sweeter desserts, nicer rooms, prettier landscapes, cooler excursions, tastier wines, stronger cocktails, luckier casinos, breezier beaches, and altogether better times in better places with better people under better circumstances.

I’ve cruised. 

As I begin to pack while listening to the captain explain our de-boarding process overhead—I’ve only communicated with him via a loudspeaker and only twice, but I know for a fact that he is wearing aviator sunglasses right now—I remember first walking across the gangplank only a few days ago. And I wonder if my land legs are still in port where I left them.


What surprises me on the first day of the cruise is how similar cruise life is to real life. The brochures present cruising as a time to be “pampered.” It’s sold as luxury, as relaxation, as a time away from worry. But at the end of the day—literally by the end of day one—I’m consuming and comparing in basically the same manner I would at home.

In our daily lives we’re always trying to get as much as we can from this existence—carpe diem, am I right? That same experience only intensifies on a cruise. The general attitude is that “You’re only on the ship for a few days, so enjoy it while you can!” A phrase I hear often is, “bottoms up,” which, if you ignore the painful irony, points to the most obvious example of compulsory consumerism: the onboard drink packages. 

What surprises me on the first day of the cruise is how similar cruise life is to real life.

The list of people who pitch me on drink packages include two men at the check-in line, the woman who checks my passport, one man on the land-locked side of the gangplank, three people who wait on the other side, two separate bartenders, and six waiters/sommeliers/chefs/attendants who visit my dinner table the first night. All this occurs before I see my room. You haven’t faced peer pressure until you’ve been caught paying for your second drink when infinite alcohol could be yours for a measly $450. When I inform a particularly pushy barman that that would require me to have upwards of seven cocktails a night, he responds, “And why wouldn’t you?”

Now, I’m no teetotaler, and I have no issue with anyone who purchases a drink package. There are certainly worse ways to spend money on a cruise ship (these options include, but are not limited to the TAG Huer store on board, the gift shop selling half-size Pringle cans for ten dollars, a teeth-whitening consultation, acupuncture, botox, the art auction, or any on-shore bus tour of any kind). What I do harbor disdain for is the way in which consumption is forced upon me.

Yet, while I resist this impulse, is that really so different from normal life? Isn’t consumption forced on us in similar, albeit more devious and subtle, ways? My social media accounts give me advertisements for exactly what I want—exactly what I want. My friends talk about the new car, the new house, the promotion, the vacation, all of it. And I participate in those conversations freely and voluntarily. So, what makes the cruise ship feel different?

It’s funny that you can get so close to forgetting that you’re on a boat. Every once in a while, you can convince yourself that you’re not in the ocean, but only for just a second.

The answer is all around me: the ocean.

It’s funny that you can get so close to forgetting that you’re on a boat. Every once in a while, you can convince yourself that you’re not in the ocean, but only for just a second. Kids splash in pools, couples eat meals in romantic alcoves, casino lights flash, waiters bring me my first, second, and third entrée, the comedian/magician/singer/songwriter performs his act and personifies the phrase “master of none,” and at the end of each day I sleep in a plush twin bed. All of this happens on . . . a . . . boat.

But there is still this tiny thing that always stays in my periphery no matter where I stand on this behemoth of a ship. Granted, I don’t see it in the theater, or in some of the hallways, or in the quieter bars in the center of the ship. But it’s always there, always reminding me of where I am and where I’m going—like the way small towns use cemeteries as landmarks.

And whenever I do manage to forget about the ocean, I accidentally walk by a window and suddenly feel my stomach drop. This occurs not from seasickness but from the realization of how much I don’t know about what swims underneath me. 

The ocean is huge. Like, so big. It’s like, you know how space is above us and it’s, like, completely incomprehensible? The ocean is like that except it’s blue and it’s a lot closer. The stars in the distance are pretty. I mean, a clear night where you can see all the stars is beautiful, absolutely, but the ocean isn’t like that. It’s scary. All the time. I’ve stared at the ocean in a pitch-black night and a fluorescent bright day and felt terrified both times.

And I’ve found that floating on a boat in the center of the ocean is the emblem of dread. Cruise ships are so nice. They have amenities for miles, the kindest staff, fun entertainment, good (but not cheap) booze, interesting people, etc., etc., etc. But they can’t keep the ocean away from you. Which is interesting because I slowly realize that going on a cruise has more in common with bungee jumping, skydiving, free soloing—or any other activity that taunts death—than it does with, I don’t know, sunbathing or whatever. 

Death is right there—both in a literal threat of, “If I fall over this rail, I’m dead,” and also in a much more sobering, existential, “I’m a small human being on a big planet” kind of way.

Death is right there—both in a literal threat of, “If I fall over this rail, I’m dead,” and also in a much more sobering, existential, “I’m a small human being on a big planet” kind of way. I spend a lot of my free time out on the deck. The waves I see will travel back and forth across the entire ocean ten million times, and I will live once. I see them from behind the minimal safety of the rail and am amazed at their size, their pitch, their foam, their speed. They rise up to look at me and shrug. Humans have no bearing in this sea of vastness.

It doesn’t matter how many martinis I drink or how dry I make them—if anything, the martinis only make everything worse—the threat of the ocean does not go away. And I don’t even think it means to be threatening. That’s just how it is—like an assassin shrugging his shoulders as he peers through the scope. The ocean doesn’t exist to intimidate you, but its existence can’t help but do just that.

Still, I’m not against trying to distract myself. When Andrew wins the blackjack tournament on the second day of the cruise, we take the $350 in promotional chips and slowly gamble them into $300 of real money. Then we spend the next few nights turning that money into -$40. And it’s a great time.

We see shows, we enjoy dinners with fascinating people from all over the world, we make new friends, we laugh at bad jokes, we watch A Star Is Born at two o’clock one afternoon, and we genuinely have a good time. For a while, honestly, it feels like normal life. I mean, we’re essentially doing the same things we would do if we were on a land-locked vacation—eating, drinking, and generally enjoying ourselves.

But that’s the thing: this isn’t a land-locked vacation. There’s still an unspoken deep blue presence that you have to acknowledge at some point every day. This is where the cruise ship offers me the first truly valuable thing: perspective.

When I go through my day-to-day life, I don’t think about death. I mean, who does? The idea of existing never crosses my mind on a typical weekday. And I bet that’s probably true for most of us. We don’t think about existing. We just do.

The ocean doesn’t let you get away with that. You can fill your mind with whatever distractions you want—cruise ships have plenty of those. You can eat and drink and fill yourself with infinite things. But you have to look at the ocean. Amidst whatever it is you choose to spend your time doing on a cruise ship, you still have this massive expanse of unrelenting water and never-ending skyline reminding you of your true size.


My favorite icebreaker question that I ask other people on board the cruise is what would you do if you fell overboard? I know it’s not a great question, certainly not one people want to be asked as they enjoy their second helping of ice cream, but I was curious. Think about it.

What would you do if you fell off the back of a cruise ship and found yourself floundering in the middle of the ocean, God knows how far from land or a sailing vessel of any kind? Would you lay on your back trying to float for as long as possible, hoping for a miracle of the smallest probability? Or would you swim in any direction, embracing the distraction of having somewhere, anywhere, to go?

What would you do if you fell off the back of a cruise ship and found yourself floundering in the middle of the ocean, God knows how far from land or a sailing vessel of any kind?

On the last night of the cruise, Andrew and I sit on our balcony sipping full-price cocktails and watching the sun disappear. It’s a more romantic setting than either of us cares to acknowledge. In the distance, a ship full of containers travels parallel to us, and we return to the dilemma of finding ourselves overboard for the umpteenth time.

I insist I would swim. The idea of having an activity and goal to occupy my mind would keep me alive psychologically, I say. We gauge the ship at two miles away (both of us remain baffled at the concept of a nautical mile), and we debate if we could intercept the ship and be saved. This is less a question about physical strength and endurance but more about the human will to survive.

As we realize we would have to swim along the extended hypotenuse of a triangle to meet the ship at its future location, we begin to have doubts—both about our ability to swim that far and our understanding of basic geometry. After a few more minutes, we notice the ship getting smaller and understand that it’s not moving directly parallel to us but at an angle that takes it farther away. Within an hour the ship disappears into the horizon as if it has fallen off the side of the earth. 

The weight of our own morbidity is heavy, the size of the ocean terrifying, the drinks in our hands not reassuring. I still haven’t found my sea legs.

J. D. Wills
J. D. Wills graduated from Baylor University in 2015 and currently works as a freelance writer while studying at Dallas Theological Seminary. You can read more of his writing on his website.

Cover photo by Peter Hansen.

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