My Boat Essay

by Maria Bustillos

A view of Ullapool Harbor, with thrilling white clouds and dreamy blue sky reflected in the water, and dark, peaty hills in the distance beyond
Image: Maria Bustillos


There’s a tiny archipelago in Loch Broom in the Scottish Highlands called the Summer Isles, which you can tour via Shearwater Cruises, out of the pretty town of Ullapool. I went with my husband and three of the kids the other day. The guide for our voyage, Noel, a most interesting man, was easily located on Twitter when we got back (“Tour boat talker, beach cleaner, ex-fisher, kebab muncher. Fan of fish, sea, sleep & sun. Indy hoping. Occasionally wrong. Sick of the world. Peace. Love Spain”).

The Shearwater tour boat in action in Loch Broom
Image: Shearwater Cruises
Noel, holding forth on the dock in a light weatherproof jacket with red sleeves, a puffer vest and a dignified expression, in Ullapool Harbor
Noel, holding forth. (Image: Maria Bustillos)

The harbor is tiny and peaceful; it was a mostly cloudy day, warm for Scotland, maybe sixty degrees. We had good coffee at the Cult Café before wandering down to the dock. There were maybe a dozen other passengers gathered on board, speaking softly in different languages. We had just a couple of hours out on the water, but they were magical ones.

On deck, the wind and spray were so exhilaratingly cold and bracing that I didn’t even notice it when my fingers went numb. We saw wild ponies on the nearby hills, and there were guillemots, and delicate little baby seals so insouciantly draped on the rocks (“Sixty percent of the world’s gray seals are in Scotland,” Noel said, in between dad jokes and splendid, scholarly patter, booming over crackling speakers). Oystercatchers swooped before us. We heard stories of witches and supernatural rocks and Christian services held in sea caves. Accounts of a cruel period, the Highland Clearances. I gallivanted around on the boat, listened, and took photos, but mostly I became intoxicated by the sea, and the wind, and the looking.

Gorgeous rock formations covered in beautiful lichens and trees, on the way out of Ullapool Harbor; we saw baby seals nearby, and guillemots
Images: Maria Bustillos


Gary Shteyngart is a superb writer, but it was an eyebrow-raisingly weird decision the Atlantic made to send him out on the world’s biggest cruise ship to drink way too much and weep and pray for the moment he could get out of there (“Crying Myself to Sleep on the Biggest Cruise Ship Ever”)—weirder still, I thought, considering his cabin alone cost $19,000, when the depredations of corporate goons have very nearly wrecked magazine journalism altogether.

The World’s Largest Cruise Ship (Screenshot: YouTube)

The Cruise Ship Essay has become a genre of its own, starting with David Foster Wallace’s  “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, published nearly thirty years ago in Harper’s under the headline, “Shipping Out.” In the years since, a heap of high-octane essayists—Jonathan Franzen, Caity Weaver, Drew Magary, and Lauren Oyler among them—have embarked on various cruise ship holidays in the (so far, vain) hopes of coming at the king. Shteyngart was only the latest pretender in this long line.

There’s no denying the power of Wallace’s essay. It wasn’t just the first-mover advantage; he was writing in the better-informed, less explicitly commoditized, less politically ugly pre-internet world of 1996, and also, it came out just one month before the publication of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. It was a real on-the-threshold moment, the first sight of a comet about to streak with blinding force across the literary sky, leaving a ghostly imprint in the mind of many an ambitious writer.

The joke of all these essays is supposed to be that the reader is in on how horrible the essayist’s cruise ship experience is going to be. Ha-ha! Sending a fun-loving intellectual to go suffer among the MAGAs is not all that funny, I am now thinking; Decades later, this sneering, superior, high-ticket slumming seems just sad. Isn’t it just like going to a Pennsylvania diner to ogle at the Trump voters, only way more expensive and pointless? It’s possible that readers, and writers—and magazines, and boats, and the ocean—could go in a different direction, like human beings are going to need to, to just slow down. Scale down.

Taken together, the cruise ship essays read like an obituary for civilization. An accumulated account of the costs of “growth,” “ambition,” “progress,” of the gathering wave of the 20th century’s miseries swelling and crashing onto the hapless shores of the 21st; the endless forward-thrusting grasping self-absorbed naked impulse to get more, and more, and bigger and terrifyingly bigger and bigger still, a whole culture of greed swelling out and overwhelming every human potential, idea, and connection, until the sea is scarcely visible from the floating hotel-casino, until there is so much rich food and drink that it’s nauseating to even read the menu; until a desperately hungover Shteyngart will sob and rage with loneliness and accumulated bile and even though it’s only for a week he is utterly sick for nearly ten thousand words with the longing to be free of the zillion-dollar prison he’s let himself in for.


Most of these writers appeared to forget that the boat is on the ocean at all, because the ocean is like three stories down from where they can stand and get a decent look at it. Also they have celebrities to attend to—Paula Deen, Kid Rock, Gwyneth Paltrow. The ocean, the water, or marine life in any form, barely get a splash in; that too, I guess, is part of the joke, though I was surprised to find on revisiting it that Wallace’s essay is full of appreciation for all kinds of things on the cruise he took, including the beauty of the Caribbean (“Around Jamaica, [the ocean’s blue is] more like a milky aquamarine. Off the Cayman Islands it’s an electric blue, and off Cozumel it’s almost purple.”)

Franzen, a famous birder, describes nature lavishly, too. The celebrity he set out to meet was the rare, elusive emperor penguin, and his account of finding and seeing one is lovely. I mean, a lot of the writing in these essays is excellent, is absorbing. But these are some strikingly unhappy writers.

Wallace: There’s something crucially key about Luxury Cruises in evidence here: being entertained by someone who clearly dislikes you, and feeling that you deserve that dislike at the same time you resent it.
Franzen: Mealtimes on the Orion inevitably put me in mind of the sanatorium in “The Magic Mountain”: the thrice-daily rush for the dining room, the hermetic isolation from the world, the unchanging faces at the tables. Instead of Frau Stöhr, dropping the name of Beethoven’s “Erotica,” there was the Donald Trump supporter and his wife.
Magary: After the concert ends, the crowd scatters and I find myself standing in a war zone of crushed lime wedges, bottle caps, and shattered plastic. Beside one of the hot tubs, there’s a Heineken Light bucket filled with warm vomit.
Oyler: I felt a slight but real nausea. These things kill fragile marine life. They can emit the carbon of twelve thousand cars. It is incredibly tacky.
Weaver: I will discover a crumpled scrap covered in observations about that evening’s dinner, across the top of which I have scrawled one sentence: The world is terrifying & SAD.
Shteyngart: So these bent psychos out of a Cormac McCarthy novel are angrily inhabiting my deck. As I mewl myself to sleep, I envision a limited series for HBO or some other streamer, a kind of low-rent White Lotus, where several aggressive couples conspire to throw a shy intellectual interloper overboard.

It’s all taking place in this helpless knowledge of being inside an infernal machine that is just chewing everyone and everything up.

The central point of “Shipping Out” arrives with little fanfare in the analysis of an insidiously elegant brochure, commissioned by Celebrity Cruises from the novelist Frank Conroy; it’s an advertisement for total, perfect comfort.  

[T]his—the promise to sate the part of me that always and only WANTS—is the central fantasy the [Celebrity Cruise] brochure is selling. The thing to notice is that the real fantasy here isn’t that this promise will be kept but that such a promise is keepable at all. This is a big one, this lie. [...] But the infantile part of me is, by its very nature and essence, insatiable. In fact, its whole raison consists of its insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the insatiable-infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.

And but so. The answer is maybe smaller boats all around.