Aaron Saunders, the life of a cruise writer
3 March 2015 • Ships have interested me for as long as I can remember. In fact, I owe my ship-obsession to a chance family vacation through the interior of the Canadian province of British Columbia when I was about ten years old. We had stopped for the night in the small town of Three Valley Gap; an unremarkable little village nestled along the Trans-Canada Highway. To complement this experience, we stayed in an equally unremarkable little Motor Inn that, curiously, had a giant mural of the RMS TITANIC painted on the wall of their swimming pool.
I’d never seen the TITANIC before, but I recall dragging my parents into every bookshop that had any sort of books on ocean liners for the rest of that vacation. Over the next five years, I set about pestering them to take my sister and I on a cruise; where it went mattered very little. I just wanted to get a taste of what it would be like to step aboard a big ship.
In 1998, I got my wish, and together with my parents and sister, we flew to Vancouver to board Norwegian Cruise Line’s recently-stretched (and renamed) NORWEGIAN WIND. From the first second I stepped off the gangway and onto that promenade deck, with its tacky blue no-slip coating instead of teak wood, I was hooked.
Over the years, I moved to Vancouver to embark on a career in film. I enjoyed it; for nine years, I edited nearly three hundred different animated programs for kids that are now seen around the world. But every day between May and October, when the ships were in, I made the five-block walk from our offices on Howe Street to go look at the cruise ships down at Canada Place. I’d walk extra-quickly so I’d have nearly 45 minutes of uninterrupted solitude of watching the port operations, looking on as the first guests embarked on their journeys to Alaska, and so that I could smell that “ship smell” – an odd mix of air conditioning exhaust, sea air and bunker fuel. If you’ve ever stood by a ship at dock for more than a few minutes, chances are you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Whenever I wasn’t working, I was cruising – to Mexico, the Caribbean, Alaska, Northern Europe, Canada & New England – I was hooked. My disposable income, it turns out, really was disposable: as quickly as it came in, it went back into cruising.
At this point, you might not be surprised to learn I switched careers to become a full-time travel writer. It happened quite accidentally, and took off unexpectedly. I found myself having to choose between animation and a career that was increasingly taking me to sea more than I ever dreamed of. It was the easiest decision I ever made, and one I have never regretted.
When I first started writing about cruises, a few things surprised me: most of my fellow travel writers had never wanted to take a cruise, or intended to take one. They all wanted to be foreign correspondents for CNN or Reuters, doing “serious journalism.” Personally, I think they all wanted to be spies in the grand tradition of John Le Carre or Alan Furst. But not me; I was the outlier in that ships were my passion; the writing was just a byproduct of that obsession.
I’ve been doing this now for six years, and I have loved every minute of it. I have been fortunate to see places I never thought I would see in my lifetime. I have sailed aboard ships I could only have dreamed of, and perhaps most importantly, I have met wonderful people around the world who share my passion for ships, the cruise industry, and the hospitality industry as a whole.
But this isn’t a career that is all smiles and sunshine.
For as beautiful as it is, so much time spent at sea is the executioner of relationships. Back in 2009, when I first started doing this, I swore to my then-girlfriend that this career choice wouldn’t leave us in its wake. But as the trips piled up and became more exotic and farther away, the cracks appeared, magnified by distance. We made it four more years before it fell apart.
I’m not alone in the Gathering of Failed Relationships. I’ve met many friends and colleagues with bitter breakups and divorces behind them. Of course, it’s not impossible to maintain a relationship – airline pilots, astronauts, flight attendants, cruise ship workers and numerous other professionals have careers that take them away from loved ones frequently. But let’s just say that this career has a tendency to accelerate their demise.
There is also something inherently selfish about being a cruise writer. So much of it is done alone that you become used to indulging in your own passions and interests, which can be quite rewarding. But, in doing so, you can gradually lose the ability to travel well with others. You’re used to doing everything how you want, when you want. It’s the curse of the experienced traveller.
The other thing that genuinely surprised me is how I related to my family and friends. My family are big cruisers and travellers, which helped greatly. But I found myself at a loss when I’d meet a good friend of mine in Vancouver for coffee on the odd breaks between trips. “So,” she’d say to me, “where have you been this time?”
She was just bugging me good-naturedly, but it still feels selfish to rattle off the list of places I’ve been. People do want to hear where you’re going and what you’re doing and where you’ve been, but not to the degree that cruise and travel writers get. Most people plan one or two trips ahead; I have a dozen on the books for 2015 that are all in various stages of planning. So the question, “where to next?” becomes a very loaded subject.
As wonderful as the cruises are, it’s not all cocktails by the pool. There’s meeting sessions to attend with key personnel, interviews to conduct, experiences to miss out on – particularly where photos are concerned. I love taking photographs, and I have done some insane things to get the shot – like setting my alarm for 2:30 a.m. to catch the sun coming up, or hanging off the end of a zodiac boat in crocodile-infested waters in Australia. I usually photograph public rooms very late at night or early in the morning to get as few people in the shot as possible, and I spend an inordinate amount of time wrestling with the internet.
The thing that really grinds me down, though, is the flying. Ask any frequent business traveller if he or she enjoys flying, and they might tell you that they do. But quiz them on the endless parade of security lineups, passport checks, and boarding queues gone wrong and you’ll quickly see it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.
Then, there’s the missed connections. The mechanical delays. Ticketing problems. Crummy airport hotels, bad in-flight meals, movies you’ve seen a million times when you’d really just prefer to have never seen them at all, lack of sleep, jetlag, constant colds and illnesses, food poisoning (only once), seasickness (twice), and a cocktail of antimalarials, vaccinations, and visas.
But these moments are tempered by watching whales breach in Antarctica during a snowstorm at midnight. Seeing the sun rise over the Mekong. Watching elephants roam free in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Sipping Gluhwein in Germany at Christmas.
I started this career for the ships – and I still love them. Big ships, small ships, new, old – they all have something unique to offer us. I always like to think my job is not to rate them, but just to show you how many different options there really are, and why you should care. Why you should want to take that ship you think is too small for you, or why you really need to give that 5,000 passenger behemoth a chance – or not. Why you should go to that place you never dared dream to, or explore that which is off-the-beaten path.
The most unexpected benefit, though, are the people I have met. People often ask me if I’d ever consider quitting this job and consider not writing about ships. My answer is always the same: no. But not because of the ships. Much as I love them, I can do without the ships. But I can’t do without the friends I’ve made – and continue to make – along this incredible journey.
The life of a travel writer is complicated, messy, and decidedly imperfect. But it’s my imperfect life, and I love it for that. This may not be an easy life, but it sure is an adventurous one. And why not grab it by the reins and own it?
I am a ship on the ocean – and I can’t wait to see where the currents will take me next.Mike met Aaron in Antwerp
Aaron Saunders is the founder of From the Deck Chair, which he started in September 2009.
His first book, Giants of the Seas, was published in 2013 by Seaforth Publishing. His second book, Stranded, about the sinking of the Princess Sophia in Alaska, will be published by Dundurn in Fall 2015.