Requiem for a Little Red Ship

Travel Stories: Abbie Kozolchyk never understood why anyone referred to ships as though they were women. Then, long before it sank in Antarctica, she met the Explorer.

12.05.07 | 11:33 AM ET

At first I thought I’d woken up with post-Thanksgiving dementia—some sort of morning-after corollary to the traditional food coma. But no. By my fifth or sixth re-reading of Richard’s e-mail, I concluded that I was perfectly, lamentably lucid.

“News”—the too-terse subject line—foretold the following message:

November 23, 2007

Hi. If you have not already heard…you will soon…a cruise ship hit ice and was abandoned, will most likely sink…on the Antarctic Peninsula this morning. The ship was the Explorer…I am safe and well…we were on scene with a larger vessel for the evacuation of all passengers and crew safe and well to the larger vessel. A sad day down here…but all are well.
R x

A biologist-guide whom I had befriended in Antarctica four years earlier—when I was on assignment aboard Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour—Richard knew I’d be a head case when I saw the first sketchy reports from the Bransfield Strait that morning. Not just because my knowledge that he was working in the area guaranteed I’d presume him dead (I descend from two carriers of the assume-the-absolute-worst gene), but because he knew I loved the sinking ship at the center of the looming media storm. God, did I love that ship.

She was, after all, my first.

Until the M/S Explorer took me from one end of the Amazon River to the other in May of 2003, I was an expedition cruise virgin. In fact, the closest I’d come was the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, circa 1979. And with all due respect to Captain Jack Sparrow, I defy anyone to top a two-week float through the jungles of Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

The truth is, you can’t. Not without copious quantities of scarlet macaws, pink dolphins and silver piranhas. And Werner Herzog-issue mists every morning. And tiny stilt-borne villages on the edges of flooded forests. And dugout canoe armadas populated entirely by the K-12 set.

A typical day aboard Explorer on the Amazon went as follows: After waking up to the dulcet tones of the expedition leader’s piped-in voice, you would immediately look out the window to verify that yesterday’s crazy jungle-scape hadn’t been some sort of hallucination. Sure enough, the solid-green imbroglio—all fronds, vines and leaves—was still there, accessorized with the aforementioned vaporous ribbons. With Team Photosynthesis present and accounted for, you would proceed to breakfast in peace, then onto the day’s first landing: perhaps a village visit, forest hike or piranha-avoidance swim. Next came lunch, siesta and landing number two (see options above). Finally, there were cocktails and dinner, followed by hours of lounge lizardry for anyone so inclined.

No, this was not your average trip. Or at least not mine. And while the transport itself may seem secondary to the proceedings, the Little Red Ship (as she was known to her countless loyalists) was, in fact, a central character.

Yes, I used the word “she,” though the whole boat-as-woman thing used to bug the hell out of me.

Hypocritically, I was always a car anthropomorphizer—egregiously ascribing all sorts of personality traits to, say, the rhapsody in pleather I drove in high school. But using “she” in reference to anything you could dock struck me as painfully J. Petermanesque—unless, of course, you had just pulled in from the North Sea with a wild beard, a Connery-grade accent and a mental jukebox of a thousand sea chanteys.

But then I met the Explorer—a ship that out-girlied me by far—and I instantly understood why only feminine pronouns would do.

Painted a shamelessly cheery red (“Candy Apple,” in nail salon parlance), she was a diminutive thing, favoring intimacy above all else. Sliding easily into the remote, narrow waterways that her big sisters could only dream of, she lived to put you face to face with wilderness,  and any inhabitants thereof. If other ships were like general admission tickets, the Explorer was the all-access pass, one that—in Amazonian terms—meant entry into tributaries, forests and villages that most cruise passengers never saw.

But she fostered just as much intimacy onboard. When 100 strangers are thrust into close quarters in the middle of an endless jungle (or ice field, for that matter), a funny thing happens: warp-speed bonding (or God forbid, the opposite). And while I admittedly bristled at the occasional passenger—not least, the woman who demanded to know why the Amazonian villagers “looked so clean,” as though they were violating the terms of some implicit Savagery Package—I also made dear friends on that trip.

Principally staffers (the exception being the captain’s daughter, who happened to be onboard at the time), these were the people I drank, blabbed, sang and danced with every night in the Explorer’s tiny lounge. And while I like to think that we would have befriended one another in “the real world” had we met there instead, you can’t beat tight space and prolonged isolation for breeding solidarity.

Since saying goodbye at a Peruvian dock almost five years ago, my Explorer friends and I have traveled together, met all attendant significant others, stayed in one another’s homes—and now, gaped collectively at the demise of our original bond. 

The day the Explorer hit fatal ice, my inbox flooded with lamentations. But the most haunting was one I’d had around much longer: It was an elegy written five years prematurely, when everyone thought the Explorer was going to retire soon after our Amazon trip. Though G.A.P. Adventures wound up buying and refurbishing her, a resident naturalist wrote a song before that news had broken.

He concluded with these lines:

She was a Grand Old Lady when she went into retirement
And her sailing days were done,
More modern ships remain, with TV and videogame,
But they never will be so much fun.

Of course, I don’t love that a ship exactly my age was deemed a “Grand Old Lady” and—at least temporarily—put out to pasture. Still, I take odd comfort in knowing that she lived a full life. And though she wouldn’t have wanted this to be the final chapter—who would?—may she nonetheless rest in peace.

Abbie Kozolchyk is the author of National Geographic's The World's Most Romantic Destinations, as well as a magazine writer/editor and frequent contributor to World Hum.

2 Comments for Requiem for a Little Red Ship

craig of 12.08.07 | 9:20 PM ET

According to Yarns of the Sea, Legends, Myths, and Superstitions: Although women were considered to bring bad luck at sea, mariners always use the pronoun “she” when referring to their ships. Whether its proper name is masculine, or whether it is a man o’war, a battleship, or a nuclear submarine, a ship is always referred to as “she.”

This old tradition is thought to stem from the fact that in the Romance languages, the word for “ship” is always in the feminine. For this reason, Mediterranean sailors always referred to their ship as “she”, and the practice was adopted over the centuries by their English-speaking counterparts.

One source suggests that a ship “was nearer and dearer to the sailor than anyone except his mother.” What better reason to call his ship “she”?

MaryAnn Woolf 01.04.08 | 6:46 AM ET

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this remembrance of a lovely trip made years before, and of the good time aboard the ship.  By the description given, she was a “grand old lady (or girl)”. It is sad to hear that “the old girl” would not be sailing any more.

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