Destination 2017: Savannah

It’s about six o’clock on a hazy July morning. Seven miles out in the Atlantic off the ribbon of the Georgia coast, I can barely see Tybee Island, with its picture-perfect lighthouse, hovering to the west like a mirage in the oblique light of dawn. I’m on a small boat motoring alongside the MSC Lisbon cargo ship. About 20 feet above me, a crew member, his face coated with grease, drops lacquered wooden slats strung along two thick ropes, a ladder design unchanged since the 19th century, against the steel hull of the Lisbon. He beckons me to climb up to a black hole in the side of the ship.

Later, Trey Thompson, president of the local river pilots’ association, with 25 years of experience guiding cargo ships up the Savannah River, will show me a picture from six or seven years ago. In it, the ladder is cut in two places and hanging by a thread after 12-foot swells caused the pilot boat to surge upwards and slam against the cargo ship. About halfway up, Thompson dangled, hanging on for dear life. He says that the mortality rate for pilots who fall into the ocean while attempting to board a cargo ship is upwards of 90 percent.

Not great odds. But the ocean is calm today. I climb up the ladder without incident. Safely through the hatch in the side of the ship, up a short metal ladder and through another hatch in the floor, I’m standing in a long, curving hallway that stretches both left and right into the distance, perhaps the length of a football field. A lone figure in an orange jumpsuit comes running toward me.“Bridge?” he says.

I nod, and we’re off again, almost at a jog. Down the hallway, then a quick right into a cavernous room with giant, groaning machinery towering above—the engine room—then a few quick turns to an elevator, which goes up until we are 10 stories high and emerge onto the bridge. Captain Piotr Lach, a short, stern fellow, and his tall and equally stern first mate greet us. They offer coffee, with apologies that they’re out of espresso after a long voyage from South Korea through the Panama Canal. They’ll resupply in Savannah, their first port of call, when they offload their cargo.

Scroll to Top