The Passenger: Voyage of the Darned

(Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay)

We’ve all had a brush with our mortality at some point in our lives.

I remember standing by the edge of a neighbor’s pool, when I was quite young. Some little imp went running by and, perhaps thinking he was being funny, pushed me into the deep end of the pool.

I was such a little thing; how was it possible that I could sink so quickly? A leg swam by, and I tried to grasp it but missed. Then – nothing but blackness – until I found myself back on the cement by the pool, with a disembodied voice telling me that I was going to be okay.

But I wasn’t okay. Inside that swirling vortex, sinking like a stone, the dark reality that death was close by and waiting to snatch me away from my carefree existence at any moment – was way too much for my young mind to comprehend.

In “The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship” (Godine, June 2021), author Chaney Kwak shares his encounter with the grim reaper.

My near-drowning lasted mere moments; Kwak’s potential watery demise stretches out for hours, as the sea plays cat and mouse with the Norwegian cruise ship, Viking Sky.

The Viking Sky, as some might recall, ran into a very bad storm, taking on water and nearly sinking, in March of 2019. The ship listed helplessly for some 60 hours. A few lucky souls were airlifted to safety, but the majority were stuck on board, as rescuers themselves became imperiled in the midst of the storm’s power.

One of the passengers on board was travel writer, Chaney Kwak.

The Passenger book cover (Courtesy of Godine)
The Passenger book cover. (Courtesy of Godine)

While Kwak has written many travel articles, The Passenger is his first book, and it is very entertaining. He invites us along on his cruise from Hell, and we get to enjoy a kind of schadenfreude, as we become voyeurs to Kwak’s unfolding disasters, both onboard the ship and in his personal life.

I have always thought of memoirs as a sort of travel guide to a person’s innermost thoughts and being. In this sense, The Passenger does not disappoint. I love when a writer can make me laugh out loud and then just a few paragraphs later, sober me up. Kwak takes a crack at mastering this skill of crafting joy and tears out of the same happenstance and succeeds in many places.

As he faces the ever-increasing possibility that the ship will sink – and most of the passengers and crew along with it – Kwak connects with his family, and the news of the ship’s peril, through his cell phone.

“Sitting on the floor, scrolling through Twitter, I see people chiming in with their half-informed beliefs about what must be happening on board – and I’m perversely comforted. This is familiar territory, and I can use any normalcy I can get. Hell, I’d give anything to go back to the boredom of just a few hours ago.

Then my heart sinks. I see tweets of ‘thoughts and prayers,’ Americanese for resignation and inaction. That’s when you know you’re royally [screwed].”

Another perverse entertainment for me personally, is Kwak’s bemoaning of what the writing industry he loves is morphing into.

“As the print media entered the current ice age, we’ve watched the craft we’ve worked years to hone – respect for our subjects, thoughtful composition, careful editing – become almost worthless in favor of the lightning speed of social media.”

As a 6’3”, 39-year-old gay Korean travel writer, Kwak has his own unique perspective to impart, and for the most part, he has a natural talent for story – and truth- telling.

Kwak shares his personal issues and relationships with us, and we can observe how he is changing on the inside because of what he is experiencing around him. In addition, Kwak conducted interviews with rescuers and crew members and juxtaposes their recollections of the drama with his own.

In the end, encountering potential tragedy – and coming out the other side mostly intact – can change us in profound ways.

“Water may erase everything without a trace, but it also spares the most random and undeserving among us, like duty-free perfume samples.

It can also spare people who are grateful for a second chance, like me.”

I highly encourage you to read The Passenger.

It’s a great beach read. You just might not want to bring it with you on a cruise.