25 hours a day, 6 days a week

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Written aboard the MV Hanjin Madrid, part of our Year of No Flying

Almost every day of our trip from Seattle to Yokohama by sea lasted 25 hours. Traveling westwards, we gained an extra hour every time we traveled a time zone, 1/24th of the planet. We'd head down to dinner at the mess, and there would be a big sign on the door: "RETARD 1 HOUR TONIGHT."

I made a practice of setting back our clocks every night at 10:00 pm. In fact, I even set an alarm to do it. It beeped at 10:00 pm, and I changed the clocks back to 9:00 pm. An hour later, it beeped again -- it was 10:00 pm again. I quickly learned to delete the automated alarm after I'd reached it the first time.

I wish I could say that we did something amazing with that extra hour every day, but we didn't. Sadly, it just blended into the copious quantities of free time we had. For those who don't have it, an extra hour of free time every day is an unimaginable luxury; but for us, on a ship for a week and a half without hard scheduled tasks, it made no difference at all.

Unfortunately, you only get 25 hours a day going westwards. Coming back the other way, you end up advancing your clock as you go, losing as hour at each step, leaving just 23 hours a day. The difference between 25 and 23 hours may not have made much difference to us, but according to crew members we spoke to, they definitely noticed the difference.

I've read that it takes the body about a full day to catch up with an hour's time difference. Fly from San Francisco to New York on Monday, and your body will have adjusted to New York time by Thursday. When it comes to minimizing jet lag, ships beat planes hands down, by traveling at the speed of the body's natural adjustment to time differences.

And then Friday disappeared. On a Wednesday afternoon, an officer informed us that, by the way, Friday would not exist. We'd just skip ahead from Thursday to Saturday, losing a day as we headed toward the International Date Line. Oddly enough, we'd be losing our day some ways before we actually hit the date line. It turns out that we'd normally have lost Saturday, instead of Friday -- but the crew works a shorter day Saturday, and would be unhappy seeing their day of (relative) rest suddenly vanish. Shipboard time would be modified accordingly.

This was my first experience with shipboard time, an idiosyncratic timezone floating through space, applying only to a tiny band of sailors (and us). Officers on the bridge were incredibly aware of time at local ports and UTC, but shipboard time ruled every important part of our lives -- work times, meal times, and occasionally, social event times. So far away from everything else, it made little sense to hew religiously to arbitrary external requirements. Time is ultimately for the people.

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Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.


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This page contains a single entry by Anirvan Chatterjee published on September 26, 2009 9:04 AM.

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