In his debut book “The Passenger,” San Francisco-based veteran travel writer Chaney Kwak takes the reader along for an incredibly wild cruise ride aboard the Viking Sky during an epic storm in March 2019 not far from the Arctic Circle.
Subtitled “How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship,” “The Passenger” — which blends maritime history, astute observations of the human condition and eloquent commentary — is often hysterically funny. Readers may want to purchase several copies: one to keep, highlight and reread, and others to give to friends.
Carrying 1,373 passengers and crew, the luxury Viking Sky ship suffered calamitous engine failure when pummeled by 50-foot swells and 45 mph gale force winds off the coast of Norway.
Twenty-seven hours of purgatory followed with several guests being evacuated by helicopter in frightening, potentially catastrophic conditions. And there is Kwak, traveling alone on assignment, as we travel writers most often do, watching it all unfold.
Kwak’s keen observations, deeply personal introspections and witty, erudite prose make the book a veritable page turner. Kwak deftly combines the external ever-present high seas high drama he is experiencing firsthand and inextricably intertwines it with his long simmering internal ones. They’re all forced to the surface as Kwak wonders whether he — and the other 1,372 souls on board — will end up below the surface.
Having written several dozen cruise stories in this column and elsewhere, much of what Kwak wrote in “The Passenger” deeply resonated for me.
For example, “And there’s no loneliness greater than the kind you feel when you’re surrounded by hundreds, thousands of others.” This is very often the case, especially for those of us away from home working for long stretches of time, at least before the pandemic. However, for many leisure passengers, especially solo travelers, cruising is enjoyable specifically because they can be among others as much or as little as desired.
One thing Kwak beautifully does in “The Passenger” is to dispel some myths of travel journalism in general and reporting on cruise travel in particular; the good, the bad and ugly.
While Kwak is exceedingly generous in sharing his personal truths surrounding his family, relationships and struggles, throughout the book he is also truly hilarious. Without a doubt, Kwak is precisely the kind of person one can only hope to be seated next to pretty much anywhere.
In recounting the 2012 deadly Costa Concordia disaster off the Tuscan coast captained by the blatant coward Francesco Schettino — who had slipped out of his uniform and jumped ship while passengers drowned — Kwak noted that “he’s still serving prison time, where, I imagine, he has significantly fewer wardrobe options.” From my perspective, I’m pretty sure any shade of orange at all will do just fine.
When Kwak states that he writes for readers several income brackets above his own, he reminds us that, “Hell has no fury like a First World traveler slightly inconvenienced.” Indeed, I’m sure William Congreve meant to write precisely that in 1697 because, well, women scorned are a piece of cake compared to entitled travelers. In fact, that may be a gospel truth.
Musings in “The Passenger” made me ponder my own reporting travails aboard cruise ships.
In July 2015 while reporting from a large passenger ship in the Okhotsk Sea between Japan’s Shiretuko Peninsula and Russia’s Sakhalin Peninsula, the ship apparently got in the way of an unexpected and intensely strong typhoon.
There never seemed to be a risk of a mayday call as with Viking Sky — at least not one that passengers were aware of. However, bearing witness to flying deck furnishings, crashing dishes and passengers struggling to move about without bumping into walls or falling on stairs due to severe listing for 24 hours, certainly brings mortality considerations front and center while working in inhospitable waters thousands of miles from home.
It matters not a whit if one loves cruises, hates cruises, is a never cruiser or a wanna-be cruiser. Simply put, if you’re looking for a great read, look no further than “The Passenger.”
The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship
Written by: Chaney Kwak
Published by: Godine
Note: Kwak is slated to appear with Daniel Handler in a book launch on June 8 at Green Apple Books on the Park.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and the author of the award-winning travel memoir, “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at vagabondlawyer.com.