"Experiencing Life at Sea" by Polina Baum-Talmor

I recently returned from a 12 day voyage aboard a container ship. This was my third time on a ship lasting for more than a couple of days, and my experiences there could be described in a mixed way, both positive and negative. The specific ship I was on had to berth in seven different ports in less than 11 days (this is considered to be busy even in the hustling shipping industry), which could explain to some extent my experiences on board.

I enjoyed being on the ship and I enjoyed communicating with the people on board and getting to know them better in order to understand life at sea from a first hand perspective. I also enjoyed the opportunity to connect with nature to some extent by seeing the sunrise and sunset while surrounded by the vast sea. Nevertheless, despite the wonderful nature, gaining a first hand perspective of seafarers' lives included the negative aspects of working on a ship, including the constant noise and vibration of the ship, the constant activity in and out of ports, which prevented the ship’s crew from properly resting, the distance from loved ones and in general the isolation of working and living in the same place away from home.



In addition to experiencing life on board to some extent, I tried to establish my position as a researcher on the ship, in order to create the required rapport with the seafarers for collecting rich data. This was actually one of the most important reasons for my sailing. I was expecting to be treated with suspicion at the beginning of my voyage, as people did not know what I was doing on the ship and they would be naturally suspicious of my presence.  
In order to deal with the natural suspicions, among other things I did on board was spend a considerable amount of my time in the galley, occasionally baking something sweet for the seafarers, trying to get them to like me... I got to know the galley crew quite well, and tried to get to know the other seafarers on the ship as well.

I thought that spending some time with the seafarers as individuals and getting to know them, as well as for them to get to know me better, would make their suspicions go away and that we would become more familiar with each other, and that they would learn to trust me, as was the case in previous voyages I have taken. I am sad to say that I was wrong! Even after more than a week of spending time with the seafarers on the ship, I was still treated by some of them as a spy that was sent by the company to report on their behaviour.  
The most surprising aspect of my research, however, was when one of the galley crew, whom I interviewed on my last day on the ship, told me at the end of the interview: "even if you are a spy, that's okay, I don't mind because I don't have anything to hide…" So even when I thought I overcame their suspicions, I was proven wrong. 


This voyage on board was full of wonderful experiences, good-hearted people and interesting stories. Some of the experiences were more positive and others were less positive. Despite the less positive encounters, I still believe that conducting fieldwork on board a ship is the best way to collect complex and rich qualitative data, as I have managed to collect despite the hardships. Thus, I will try to overcome the difficulties and strive to conduct further data collection whilst sailing on ships.            




   "Seeking 'Fortune of the Sea'" by Conghua Xue - 1 December 2010 

Fieldwork is heart and soul of our doctoral study in Cardiff. It is a voyage of gold rush. You sail out with air, and return with solid sand – the glittering sand. Fieldwork experience is especially of great value which makes our four years stay in Cardiff justifiable, meaningful and worthwhile. I believe whenever you came across a SIRC fellow who was not fresh any more, he would give a long talk if you had time to listen…It’s a view of kaleidoscope. It is a round table of Man Han Quan Xi (Chinese Royal Dynasty Feast). It is a bottle of Champagne. If you tap its top, it would blow off…So far, are you thinking that I am going to talk something about fieldwork? That’s brilliant! In this essay, I am going to share something with you about my fieldwork experience. It would be presented in a way of interviewing, as we did in the field.

Q. Could you please talk some about your preps work before entering the field?

A. Hao (Ok)…before I did my fieldwork, I did pilot study…in order to test the interview questions. Then, I contacted two major chemical tanker companies. I should use personal Guanxi (relationship) of course. Luckily they agreed. The third, to obtain credentials which is very important. I took a 7-full-day intensive training course, which was chemical tankers safety knowledge and chemical cargoes safety operation. Chemical shipping is much specialised. I have to…otherwise, I could not sail. The other certificates needed for sail are: seaman’s book, seafarer’s service history record book, four basic certificates (basic safety, advanced fire-fighting, proficiency in life raft and proficiency in medical care), and also health examination certificate. Luckily, I have had some of them in my early sea career. Q. Why did you study chemical industry? A. Well, if talking about chemical products in general, it is part of our modern civilised society, which has touched every corner of our daily lives…cloths, food addictives and preservatives, perfuming cosmetic…many examples. They contribute very much to better our lives, but the upstream chemical products are harmful, corrosive, toxic, inflammable... Conceivably, the safety standard of transport would be much higher, through which I could find more to write. Before, I had little idea given I’ve got some sea experience. As soon as I started, I felt fascinated with the new horizon which unveiled in front of me. You know, the tank framework was all on the deck…totally upset my mindset. I learnt a lot. 

Q. What were your major activities onboard? 

A. Data collection was certainly upmost, but you could not neglect the relationship, to much extent, depending on your personal attitudes toward them. Human was reciprocal. I did nothing about data collection onboard a ship during the first 2 to 3 days. Instead, I asked for a set of overall and safety helmet from the bosun, to participate in all their labouring activities. Also, I frequented the galley to assist chef. 

Meanwhile, I tried to meet and familiarise with all people onboard and memorised their names. The purpose is simple, to establish rapport with them. You could not collect quality data without their recognition and cooperation. My research methods were mainly interviewing, plus some complementary techniques such as observation, informal talks and document analysis with a view to apply the method of triangulation for mediating data collected from different sources. Given the fact that I was the only free man onboard, I could go around between different departments and different locations onboard, intentionally or unintentionally in sensing data. I took daily-based field notes on each of the ships.

Q. How did you maintain field supervision? 

A. Agreement was achieved in terms of the supervision in the field before I left Cardiff. Email was the major channel for the remote supervision. Each time when I started moving a step forward, the supervisors would be informed simultaneously. Before each time of sailing, the supervisors were informed and brief introduction to the sailing voyage would be given.

At the end of each voyage when I returned home from a ship, I sent fieldwork report to my supervisors, which usually included a general description to the voyage, a transcription sample, a full set of field notes (daily diary), and a few personal fieldwork pictures onboard. By doing this, the supervisors could have a panoramic view about what was happened and what was special on one particular ship. In total, I spent one and a half months onboard 4 chemical tankers sailing in the western Asian Pacific region.

Q. What are the experiences you drew from your fieldwork?

A. I think…I benefited from my pilot study, which taught me a lot. Then, supervisors’ assistance is crucial. Luckily, my supervisors had good experience in industrial sociological study and I was imparted with major tips at the beginning. Also, at the time when I was wandering, I tried to talk to people around me, particularly SIRC staff and fellow colleagues. It helped my brainstorming and landing me to solid ground. So far, it seemed that all these efforts have paid off. I collected a full load of data that gave me a great level of freedom to write whatever is needed. As my supervisors commended, I did collect good quality interesting data to develop into a PhD.

It seems that I should not ask more questions for myself in consideration of the space for publication. I hope my soliloquy could bring you with a spell of fresh gentle breeze. Anyway, if you are interested, you could approach me whenever and wherever for further talks. Before conclusion, I noticed one deficiency of this piece of writing by myself, which was what I was talking was not really about life experience in Cardiff, but the life at sea…I have to confess that I detoured a bit...However, my sole wish is that, my detoured voyage would contribute to your leeward sailing, particularly for those researchers who have a plan to sail at sea. Lastly, I also hope you could pick up a few Chinese words used within for future chitchat. Good health! 

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   "Sailing and Cardiff" by Lin Li - July 2007

Since the novice sail on board a bulk carrier owned by COSCO Dalian in 1991, I had worked more than ten years with the company progressing to be an Engineering Officer (COSCO stands for China Ocean Shipping Company and is the country’s largest shipping company). Now I am an Mphil/PhD student concentrating on a research study of seafarer-related aspects at the Seafarers International Research Centre, Cardiff University under the auspices of the Nippon Foundation Fellowship. I have left the seafaring life for a couple of years. However, there is still some nostalgia of those sailing days which confused as well as cheered me.

The trip to board my first ship alongside a China port was not long from my hometown – Dalian. One night bunk trip on a train was relatively short in comparison with days of train travel within China in 1991. After following the other few signing on seafarers to go through the procedures of the Customs and Border Control in the next morning, an agent of inadequate help gave us the berth number of the ship and left us to find it. I did not feel comfortable when I was in the accommodation area on board the ship the first time since all I picked up was noise. The worst thing was when the ship voyaged heading to Hokkaido, Japan the next day. Because the ship was a carrier of 7500 tonnage, it swung a bit harder in the not very bad weather we confronted through the voyage of five days. From the first voyaging day onwards in five days until the ship got alongside a port in Hokkaido, I had been assigned to wash piles of separation discs of the two purifiers in the mornings and afternoons of the five days. The smell of diesel detergent coupled with the swing of the ship only wore my nerve and the gut feeling of vomiting never stopped attacking me as I stood by a large diesel vessel busy scouring and brushing the discs in a temperature of about 45 centigrade in the Engine Room full of loud noise from engines. I did not ask why it went on like that as I was first in a completely strange environment. I told myself by heart to never work on board ship if the work as a seafarer meant just washing those dirty oily discs all days on board. I understood afterwards that the bunker barge which has just had its annual repair in a shipyard had its bunker tanks cleaned by using cotton yarns, and went to serve its first bunkering for the ship I first boarded. The trivial yarn residue suspending in the bunker when agitated by the swing of the ship could easily and quickly block the spaces between the separation discs of the purifiers. Therefore, dismantling and disc washing of the abnormal purifier would be entailed.

Conversely, I forgot all the five draconian days of my first virgin voyage as soon as I walked on the streets of the port city in Hokkaido. This first voyage started to transform me into a seafarer and since then the seafaring career lasted for more than ten years. During the rest of my service for the COSCO Dalian fleet, all the ships I worked on were large oil tankers which do not swing too much even in relatively bad weather.

Apart from completing the jobs on board ships during my contract terms, I mostly enjoyed the time ashore. The Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful place to relax lying on the sand. The pilgrimage to the Giant Jesus Statue on top of Corcovado offered me a bird’s view of the whole of Rio de Janeiro. Walking down the ancient streets in Sao Salvador, Bahia where the original Carnival was developed pulled me back to picture the Carnival parades with music and dancing. The leisure life of the people on the isles in the Caribbean Sea is just amazing to me inhabiting on the continent to never achieve their ultimate relaxation. The troubadours’ tenor voices with their accompaniment guitars in a restaurant in Havana, Cuba really moved me with great joy. A lot more of these kaleidoscopic ashore experiences and various cultures have formed a kind of life I had dreamt of in my childhood.

After having anchored my life in Cardiff for almost ten months, my nostalgia of sailing comes back again. But the life in Cardiff mostly teaches me a lot of intelligence which I endeavour to grasp as fast as I can with quantity and quality. I have passed all twelve essays of the first year of coursework since the feedbacks were out for us to collect in this month. Now I am full ahead at sea to reach the deadline of my two chapters for the progress review, which is the hope for taking on the grant for the third year of PhD study I have been chasing.  However, there was a bit of a shocking feeling when I returned from an eight day visit to Switzerland which started immediately after the submission of all my essays at the end of May. Without the lecture schedule to guide my everyday life on campus, I am suddenly on my own for whole days through weeks, and months in future. Hopefully, the homework delivered by my supervisors to build a bibliography for reading on my subject will save me from falling. I thus resumed sitting in front of the computer and coming to and from libraries. As a result of completing that task, I have successfully adapted myself into another form of Cardiff life which entails more freedom and is enjoyable. Furthermore, I am expecting my family on 2nd August 2007 to live with me in Cardiff through my term of study in this country. 

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