Another great day at sea as Geoff Dyer joins the crew of US warship

Essayist Geoff Dyer spent two weeks on board a US aircraft carrier in the Gulf. His fiction-fuelled insights have been published as a book

Among the deadly bombs, 10-gallon tubs of army grub and ocean-ruling technology, something moves. As the USS George HW Bush wades through the Gulf's waters in 2011, one civilian on board stoops to avoid clunking his head. Deep down in the bowels of the fortress boat, which is at times 30 miles off Iran's coast, is writer Geoff Dyer. He has a dictaphone in one hand, a pen and paper in the other, and a nautical mile of knots in his stomach.

Dyer has flown in from Bahrain to the world’s largest aircraft carrier. His presence has been brokered for a writer-in-residence series conceived by philosopher Alain de Botton, whose idea references “the many places in the modern world that we do not understand because we cannot get inside them”.

With a photographer, his job is to observe and write a book. For two hungry weeks (Dyer’s verdict: the food was dire), he encounters the force of the US military and shakes his writer’s hand with the fighters’ fists that pack the navy’s punch. Those fists belong for the most part to smiling and friendly faces.

“Yes – it was a very, very happy ship. The larger mission of America they believe in absolutely,” he says.


“We didn’t get into heated arguments about whether George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was a good or bad thing.”

Daily contradictions
Dyer has a playful and profound vision of daily contradictions and rhymes. Talking to a woman below deck about drug-taking misdemeanours, he writes her early life was "the perfect illustration of a phase"; others on board believe they have "the safest most dangerous job in the world"; and the empty ship prison is "so small that it felt strangely full of itself".

At sea with military linguistics, he writes in his metal cabin, which rings as an amphitheatre of alienated words. Did he find the jargon soothing?

“Yes, at teatime each day, the captain would give his address and there would be the same formula of words declaring ‘another great day at sea’. And there was a lovely coda later when you got a broadcast over the main circuit of the day’s prayer just before lights out – that was the circuitry that really bound the ship together.”

Dyer raced against time to record his daily experiences. “Every spare moment I had, I would be back in my room writing up my notes because one incredible experience would immediately be overlaid by another . . . Each day comprised 1/14th of my experience. And an event-packed day could have been forgotten just by virtue of the events crammed into it.”

In the opening pages he conveys the terror of touching down on a floating postage stamp at 140mph and stopping in a single second. He writes of three metal ropes or “traps” that ensnare the plane. Rather than jam on the brakes, the pilot accelerates – for failure to be “trapped” would mean sliding across the deck into a watery grave. The final pages have him catapulted back in the air, fearful of the force breaking his collar bones.

Participant observer
With the brilliantly bellicosely surnamed Chris Steele-Perkins as photographer, Dyer was a bug in the belly of this metal beast. Did the crew see him as a leech?

“Hah! There probably was a sense I was wasting people’s time, but if they did feel like that, they very politely kept it to themselves . . . There was one quite high-ranking guy I was next to at a dinner [at the captain’s table] – he approached my stay with quite a degree of scepticism. There is a tradition whereby the journalist will arrive and blend in and be incredibly nice to everyone – but then stitch them up in print.”

His “safest most dangerous job in the world” idea refers to soldiers’ and sailors’ personal safety, rather than their output as cogs in a killing machine aimed at other flags.

“All of the killing goes on somewhere else. While I was on board, they were flying missions over Iraq and taking off fully laden with ordinance. But they were returning with that ordinance. All the missions were patrolling, reconnaissance and protecting convoys – aid convoys, actually – so no violence was unleashed while I was there.”

Perhaps the violence is all implicit: by not making these points directly is he making them all the more forcefully? “That is a very generous observation.”

In one of Steele-Perkins’s shots, Dyer is up on deck, thin and pale among a half-dozen hefty, shades-wearing soldiers. He is squinting in the Saudi sun, shielding his eyes (seemingly saluting), a tall Stanley Laurel of a man among muscular Oliver Hardys.

Inactivity of war
Through dozens of offbeat onboard encounters, Dyer offers a literary rendering of the inactivity of war.

“I thought I would have participated more socially. I was looking forward to the social life in the bar after people finished their shifts so I was somewhat disappointed to discover there was no bar.”

And no ping pong either?

“Yes and that was something I was really willing to participate in and triumph at.”

Another Great Day at Sea by Geoff Dyer is published by Visual Editions