I left my iPhone in my cabin and climbed the stairs to the bridge of my temporary home for three weeks: a 140,000-ton cargo ship called the A. Lincoln. It was 4am and I had no idea where we were. But I didn’t care. My screensaver was now the restless Pacific. I happily stared at it for three hours as the spangled scarf of the Milky Way faded and sunrise teased one-thousand glinting lights into the ocean. Reality had become mesmerizing; the digital world—that box of illusions that I had come to feel was stealing my life one byte at a time—had become irrelevant.
Last summer, I sold my medical communications agency and bought passage on the A. Lincoln, a vessel owned by a French shipping line, for a total break from my corporate life. The ship was carrying cargo from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, and aside from the 26 officers and crew, I was the only passenger. I left behind a desk papered with sticky-notes and piled high with spreadsheets. Clocks above me and a watch on my wrist constantly reminding me of deadlines and meetings. A glowering black Nortel phone with 37 separate keys, and an iPhone pinging with texts, voicemails, WhatsApps and reminders. I walked out on all of it.
During the negotiations leading up to my company’s sale, I’d fantasized about peace, a total disconnection from all digital demands. It hardly seemed possible. I was a business owner and parent of a disabled child. The spectre of missing that crucial text haunted me. I always felt guilty when I hit the “off” button with hours left in the day.
Freighter travel, something I’d heard about in passing years before, lets you hitch a ride with massive cargo ships. For about half the price of a cruise ship, it’s an adventurous way to connect with the marine world and get perspective, and an excellent antidote to an over-managed world. But you need time and flexibility, as freighters can leave days later than scheduled. Two hours after I signed the sale contract for my company, I googled “freighter travel” and sent an email to Sydney, Australia-based Freighter Expeditions, which arranges “unique cruising adventures” by cargo ship. The reply made my heart leap: “I can advise you that you can sail from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on July 22.”
The world is becoming increasingly hooked on digital reality and it’s hurting our ability to engage with real life. An estimated one third of the world’s population now owns a smartphone. Americans spend an average of two-and-a-half hours each day on mobile apps. Although most of us would acknowledge that our lives are better because of mobile technology, many are worried about the impact of this technology “hijacking” our brains and hurting our mental health.
Developed countries that have studied the effects of mobile use, such as the US, China, Taiwan, and South Korea, have found that cell phone overuse can cause addiction-like symptoms, including social withdrawal, cravings, depression, and impairment of normal life, symptoms that are often exacerbated by the design of apps.
To escape the slavery of my tiny, shiny screen, it seemed to me I simply needed to raise my eyes to the horizon. Freighter Expeditions made it all seem so straightforward, but still I hesitated. My daughter has seizures and developmental delay: should I really be out of contact? My son was about to leave for Bangkok for a backpacking trip. A relentless conveyor belt of obligations marched across my retina every night. Was it really possible to cover all my bases then turn off the phone? Thanks to the total support of my family and friends, it was.
The A. Lincoln’s internet connection was everything I’d hoped: almost non-existent. I finally got a connection on day six and started pounding through emails until the chief officer came looking for me to say that I’d missed a pod of 40 orcas. I stopped emailing.
The key difference between a Pacific cruise ship and a trans-Pacific freighter is that the freighter is a working vessel. There is no piped music, no calls of “Housekeeping!”, no planned entertainment. The officers and crew, 25 men and one woman, had other things to do than check up on me. Heading west, we lost an hour a day. The days blurred into one another. I shed my daily routines‚ sleeping all morning, eating chocolate almonds for lunch, and watching Star Trek all afternoon from a DVD collection I had brought on board. Like time, the borders of guilt—once hard as flint—became fuzzy.
The Pacific rolling by calmed any urge to spend time in the digital world. In addition to the sealife, the ocean provided a fascinating, ever-shifting fabric of shapes and shades, from slippery gun-metal grey to whippy white tufts on a bed of blue. A WhatsApp message from my son and a rare late-night call with my fiancé kept me connected. But within a week I’d lost the visceral need to be constantly plugged in.
This year, José de-Sola Gutiérrez, a psychology professor at the University of Madrid, published the results of a test he had devised called the Mobile-Phone Addiction Craving Scale, which compares mobile phone cravings to drug cravings. An online questionnaire set out eight scenarios where respondents couldn’t use their phones and were asked to rate their anxiety. (“Freighter with dodgy internet connection” is not one of those scenarios.) After giving the test to 1,126 people throughout Spain and comparing it to their cellphone use and other psychological measures, Prof Gutiérrez concluded that “problematic mobile phone use is associated with craving in a similar way [to] major abused drugs.”
This problem has become so bad that digital-addiction rehabs abound, and they’re catering to children as young as 13. “Life, not your device,” promises reSTART, an addiction recovery centre in Redmond, WA.
By my first week on the ship, I was confident I would ace Prof Gutiérrez’s test. I wasn’t totally screen-free: I watched movies on DVD, read books on my Kobo and edited photos on my Mac. But I did not miss checking my phone or, in fact, being online at all.
Increasingly, young people are looking for the digital-free experiences that their parents took for granted as children. My future stepson Matthew planned a trip with four friends to his dad’s lake cabin last summer and picked the group based on how they would handle life off the grid. “I didn’t want to invite people I’d have to convince of the merits of putting down their phones for three days,” he told me. Lonely Planet has advice on how to travel off the grid. Airbnb offers thousands of options to unplug, from a cable car 9,000 feet above the French alps to a Sioux teepee in New York state.
My digital detox taught me to appreciate simple experiences: wind drumming on the porthole; steam rising from the soup tureen in the officers’ mess; the miraculous shape clouds took; our first fly as we neared the Russian coast; and a seagull that escorted us for two hours in a 30-knot wind and wouldn’t quit. I was spoiled at sea, with sunset after sunset, tuna looping away into the Aleutian fog, blue jellyfish bobbing past for 30 minutes, and achingly beautiful Chinese mountains marching to the horizon.
Three months after returning from my trip, I’m back on my phone, but I’ve made a habit of logging off. You might not be able to escape to a freighter, but I strongly encourage taking a mini-break by leaving your phone at home and heading outdoors. It’s a reminder of how spell-binding the real world is, and how much the world will talk to us if we listen.
On the bridge of the A. Lincoln, two hours out of San Francisco, we were surrounded by whales. At first, just two thrilling blows in the middle distance, then two more, three, shooting misty plumes into the air, lit pink by the setting sun. To port and starboard, out in front and in our wake, the creatures surrounded us. They casually rolled their backs at us then disappeared, a fluke or two, it seemed, flipping defiantly at Silicon Valley, just invisible over the horizon.