30 December 2008

Happy New Year from Hong Kong!

Greetings and best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2009!

We arrived in Hong Kong earlier today and will be here probably until the wee hours of the new year. After that our next stop will be Shanghai.

This will be a longer post as I'm taking this opportunity to copy & paste some updates that I've been writing since boarding the ship. I haven't done a whole lot of editing, so forgive any errors or redundancies.

(written on 23 December)

We arrived in Laem Chabong, Thailand early this morning, the 23rd. I went up on the deck around 06:00 to watch the docking operations. Two large tugs pushed us very slowly sideways until we were very close to the edge of the wharf. Once we were within range, a member of our crew threw a weighted line to the team waiting on shore. They used the line to pull a heavy rope from the ship which was then looped over a large cleat (I'm sure that's not quite the correct word). The rope was then drawn in by the ship's winches and the ship was pulled the final few feet to the edge and made fast.

It's been an eventful couple of days since I joined the ship on Friday the 19th. I arrived dockside at the Jurong Port about 15:30 and was settled in my cabin within 30 minutes.

The ship is the Rickmers Jakarta, a multipurpose cargo vessel. She's quite large, over 190 meters long, about 630 feet. There are four large deck cranes for the loading and unloading of heavy lift cargo.

My cabin is comfortable and located on the C-deck. There are three other passengers on this trip; another American, Dale, who joined the ship in Houston and will be departing there as well, and two Germans, Dieter and Hubert who embarked in Hamburg. Their cabins are on the D-deck above mine.

Above the D-deck is the Pilot Deck. This has been my most frequent vantage point these past few days. It has a lot of open space that affords a nice view of the ship and our surroundings.

The next deck above is the Bridge. More on that later.

As I've mentioned in some earlier posts, the schedules of freighters is subject to frequent changes. I had been told that we would be leaving Singapore on the 22nd, but that was moved up in an effort to get the ship back on its schedule.

I don't know all the details, but I do know that Rickmers runs a number of ships on this route with departures about every two weeks. According to one of the other passengers the schedule has been disrupted over the past several weeks due to various delays with the end result being that some of the ships are "bunched up" along the route. This can obviously cause problems for Rickmers and the customers; it's sort of like a city bus - there's never one when you need it, but then three show up together.

What this means for me is that my original itinerary is going to change, probably several times. For instance, I now know that we won't be stopping in Korea, but we will be visiting Hong Kong after Vietnam. Also, it looks like the San Diego stop is now off the schedule.

There is a Rickmers website that has a link to updated ship tracking information; it's www.rickmers-linie.com

As of 26 December, the schedule has us arriving in Houston around 17 February and New Orleans a few days after that. We should be in Philadelphia at the very end of February with a departure date of 1 March.

Port Activity

During our time in port in Singapore the ship was a very busy place. The crew was hard at work loading and unloading the cargo.

It was very interesting to observe and I have a great respect for the crew and the stevedores who do a very tough, physical job.

Unlike a container ship, the cargo on the Jakarta varies greatly in size, shape and configuration. Lashed on deck are quite a few pieces of large, heavy machinery. The holds contain other odd-sized items and there are also some standard containers throughout.

This makes loading and stowing the cargo a bit more of a challenge. As you might imagine, it becomes important to make sure that the cargo is loaded in such a way as to optimize the available space, but at the same time the weight distribution and the order of unloading plays a major role. The crew is aided by a very impressive computer program but there are always issues with incorrect weights or dimensions.

Loading the ship is accomplished by the four large, deck-mounted cranes. There is also a fifth, smaller crane at the rear of the ship for hoisting supplies and the like on board.

On the docks, the stevedores brought the cargo alongside the ship from the long, low warehouses. The crane operators would lower the hooks over the cargo and the stevedores would attach the appropriate straps, chains, hooks, etc.

The work is physically demanding and potentially dangerous. All of the equipment is oversized and heavy. I noticed that a lot of the stevedores walked with pronounced limps.

The crews worked late into the night to finish loading and when I walked back out on the Pilot Deck on Sunday morning everything was secured for departure. It was quite a contrast to the days before with the docks practically deserted.


A little after 08:00 on Sunday we were towed away from the dock by single tug. Once clear the tug pulled us around so that we were facing towards the open sea.

We then sailed from Jurong around the southern tip of Singapore, past Sentosa Island and eastward before heading north towards the Gulf of Thailand.

It was interesting for me to see Singapore from that perspective. It was also very interesting to see the huge amount of ship traffic in those waters. Everything from huge container ships to oil tankers to small cargo vessels were visible. I can't begin to imagine the effort needed to coordinate all the movements.

Once we were safely out of the more congested shipping channel, a small boat came alongside to pick up the pilot who had been on board. In most ports a local pilot is required to help guide the ship in and out. Getting off the moving ship is a precise exercise. A ladder is lowered over the side and the pilot climbs down to the waiting boat. We were in calm waters with beautiful weather; I can't imagine how tough that might be in more challenging conditions.

Shipboard Accommodations

As mentioned above, my cabin is spacious and comfortable. It's a double cabin but I'll have sole use of it during this trip.

It's outfitted with a small refrigerator, TV, DVD player, sofa and table, writing desk and chair, bed, closets, and a nicely sized WC with shower.

I have a single, unobstructed window that looks aft. All of the crew and passenger quarters are air conditioned. All in all very nice.

On the D-deck there is a small passenger lounge with a TV, a collection of books and some other items to help pass the time.

The other passengers and I take our meals in the Officers' Mess on the A-deck. Mealtimes are breakfast from 07:30 to 08:30, lunch is 12:00 to 13:00 and dinner is 17:30 to 18:30.

The food has been quite good and the other passengers tell me that the cook has been consistently excellent. I'm going to have to make sure I get some moderate exercise or at least pass on the additional servings.

The Bridge

As a general rule, passengers are allowed on the bridge at all times except when the ship is entering or leaving port, if there's a pilot on board, or in especially heavy weather.

The bridge of a modern ship is really something to behold. The ship is equipped with radar to indicate the presence of other nearby vessels. There is also an electronic chart with a trip computer that continually updates our position based on the GPS data.

All critical ship's functions can be monitored from this station. Engine RPM, ship's speed, ocean depth, wind speed, and so on are all readily visible to the bridge officers.

Other Stuff

It's only been a couple of days but so far I'm finding this mode of travel to be remarkably pleasant. The time scale is quite different from that of air travel; a flight from Singapore to Bangkok is only a few hours but we're taking almost two full days.

The ship is quieter than I expected. The engine noise is noticeable, but only in the background and there is a continual, slight vibration as we travel through the water. We haven't gotten away from the coastal waters yet, so I can't comment on how much we'll roll. So far it's been barely noticeable.

Christmas at sea
(written on 25 December)

A belated Merry Christmas to one and all! I apologize for not providing any earlier updates but I haven't had any opportunity to get to an internet café.

Early this morning, around 03:15 local time we departed from Laem Chabang in Thailand. According to the Captain, it is 36 hours of sailing, "pilot-to-pilot" so we expect to pull into Ho Chi Minh sometime on the afternoon of the 26th.

After Ho Chi Minh we'll be sailing to Hong Kong with a planned arrival on the 30th. It looks like we'll only have a short stay since we're scheduled to sail again on New Year's Day. I'm at least hoping to get some time on shore to see some of my friends and colleagues.

Today we will be celebrating Christmas with the crew at lunch. The Cook is preparing a special meal and I'm really looking forward to it.

Last Tuesday the local Thai agent took the four of us passengers into Bangkok for some sightseeing. We started at the Ancient City which is a sort of historical park arranged as Thailand in miniature. There are representative artifacts and replicas from each region so you get a bit of a feeling for the different artistic and architectural styles from the south to the north.

At first I thought it would be a bit kitschy, but it was actually very interesting. I think it helps that they have some genuine artifacts that were moved from their original location and reconstructed as well as some nicely done replicas of important buildings.

Afterwards we went to see the famous Reclining Buddha and then did a boat tour of some of the canals. For dinner we went to a hot pot restaurant where we met my friend, Ai. She graciously decided to join us and took charge of the ordering and preparation. Quite an excellent meal.

The agent then drove us back to our ship, stopping at a shopping center on the way so that we could buy a few personal items.

Christmas Eve was another busy day for the crew. There was a lot of cargo to unload in Laem Chabang, some of it quite heavy and bulky. I was able to watch most of the activity from the Pilot Deck and it was fun to see all of the specialized heavy lift equipment.

Once again I was struck by the sheer physicality of the work on deck and on shore. All of the equipment is oversized; it took five men to move a single lifting cable and I was informed by the Chief Engineer that the larger turnbuckles weigh in at 65 kg each.

At one point the Chief Officer and Chief Engineer were hoisted up by one of the cranes to the very top of a neighboring one. They secured the basket and then the Chief Engineer climbed out to conduct an inspection. I was told this morning by one of the other officers that this was a routine check that's done prior to certain heavy lifts.

On the way to Ho Chi Minh
(written on 26 December)

It's Friday the 26th and we're sailing towards Ho Chi Minh City. Our estimated arrival time is later this afternoon, but I'm not sure when we'll actually dock. According to the crew we sail upriver to the wharf.

Yesterday we celebrated Christmas with the officers and crew. It was a fun party. The Cook and mess staff did themselves proud with a lavish buffet. There were roast turkeys, smoked salmon, a roast pig, spring rolls, breads, and several different desserts.

We all gathered in the crew mess which had been decorated with some simple, homemade ornaments, including a Christmas tree that was purchased in Singapore.

Lunch began around 12:30 and it was followed by several hours of karaoke and music videos. It was a really great atmosphere and a lot of fun to just relax and drink beer.

Leaving Ho Chi Minh
(written on 28 December)

This morning about 05:00 we set off from Ho Chi Minh City. This was a delay from our planned departure of 15:00 yesterday, but it seems that the cargo operations took a bit longer than expected which caused us to miss the tide.

I was on the Pilot Deck for some of the trip down the Mekong River. A large number of ships travel this river each day and it's quite a sight to see such large vessels steaming past anchored groups of small fishing boats.

Shore erosion from the wakes of these large ships seems to be a significant problem, at least to my inexpert eye. Although we were proceeding rather slowly the wave from our bow was striking the shore with some force by the time the stern had passed.

The shore visit to Ho Chi Minh was a bit of a disappointment. I had hoped for a longer scheduled stay in port, but when we arrived on the evening of the 26th we were told that our planned departure was for 11:30 on the 27th.

The other passengers didn't have visas for Vietnam and they all decided that since it would cost USD75 it wasn't worth it. I already had my visa so I took the opportunity to try to find an internet cafe where I could update the blog.

The trip to the main street (I'm not really sure where we were in relation to the city center) was by motorbike along some horribly maintained roads. When I came back to the ship by taxi I got out a few hundred meters from the gate and walked as the taxi was behind some tour buses heading back to a cruise ship and they in turn were behind some large flatbed trailers carrying cargo to our dock.

Along the main street were numerous cafes, bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Some looked rather appealing and it would have been nice to enjoy a meal and some Vietnamese beer if we'd had more time. Instead I found the internet cafe and made my earlier, abbreviated update.

We're now heading towards our next stop in Hong Kong. We're scheduled to arrive on the 30th and depart on the 1st. I'm looking forward to being able to observe the harbor lights and the celebrations from the water.

One other observation on my trip so far is that I find I've more or less lost track of the day of the week. I only realized today was Sunday by checking the calendar on my computer. I think the reason is that the rhythm of the ship is dictated by the daily routine rather than the weekly cycle to which we're so accustomed. From the perspective of the crew members the only difference is whether or not the ship is in port or at sea; aside from that their tasks are dictated by the duty roster. As the 2nd Officer explained, at sea, every day for them is Monday, and on shore during their breaks, every day is Sunday.

26 December 2008

Finally, an update!

First of all, a very merry but belated Christmas to one and all! Apologies for the lack of blog posts, but my clever plan hasn't been working exactly as I'd hoped.

Tonight I'm in Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived a few hours ago and will be leaving again in the morning. The schedule has been very hectic and I haven't had the time to update the blog and catch up on email.

This update will be brief, but I will try to provide some additional updates when we reach Hong Kong next week.

I boarded the ship on the 19th in Singapore. We sailed on the morning of the 21st to Laem Chabang in Thailand. While we were there I had the chance to make a trip to Bangkok with the three other passengers - another American and two Germans.

We departed Thailand on the 24th bound for Ho Chi Minh. Yesterday we celebrated Christmas with the officers and crew. It was a lot of fun; the cook outdid himself and laid on an impressive buffet. Everyone had a great deal to eat and there was plenty of beer and karaoke afterwards.

Overall the trip has been great so far. The pace of travel is a bit different than what I'm used to, but I find it very relaxing. The food has been excellent and the peace and quiet lends itself to lots of reading.

The schedule has been changing almost daily; there are a number of reasons for that, but suffice to say that my original itinerary is no longer valid.

Our next stop is going to be Hong Kong. We should arrive on the 30th and sail again on the 1st. I'm looking forward to seeing some friends, but I'm worried it will be too short a visit. I've also been told that we'll be offshore in the anchorage and not tied to the dock, so it might be a bit more difficult to get to town.

For future updates, I recommend using the Rickmers website, www.rickmers.com

If you follow the links to the vessels you can then scroll down the page until you find the Rickmers Jakarta; clicking on that link takes you to the tracking page. The map on the lower lefthand corner will provide you with the most updated information.

Also, one of the other passengers, Dale Stenseth, has his own blog that he updates daily via a satellite link: http://dalestenseth.blogspot.com

I have some photos that I'll try to post next time I have some internet access. My cabin is quite comfortable; small, but nicely appointed.

It's been a fascinating experience so far being able to observe the activities in port and on the water. It's a reminder that so much of what we depend on for our modern life is dependent on a lot of people doing physically demanding jobs.

That's about all I have time for at the moment. Apologies again for being such a miserable correspondent, but I'll do my best to keep you updated and provide a more detailed report in the near future.

If I don't post anything beforehand, Happy New Year!

18 December 2008

Pirate Updates and Schedule Changes

This morning I received another form to sign from my booking agent, Hamish, in which I was to acknowledge that my trip would take me through some pirate-infested waters and the company would not be liable for any ill befalling me.

I suppose there is some element of risk to this whole venture, but I figure that statistics are on my side. Despite the increase in incidents around Somalia, it still only represents a small percentage of the ships that actually transit those waterways. Obviously I'm happy that more nations are taking a more serious approach to the problem, so all in all I figure that my risk is fairly modest since I won't be in those waters for a few months.

In other news, it looks like I'll be departing Singapore a little sooner than I expected. As I mentioned, the original schedule, at least as far as Singapore was concerned, had been pushed back a few days. The update I received from the company was that I would be departing on the 22nd.

This afternoon I confirmed with the local agent that the ship is berthing tomorrow morning, Friday here in Singapore, but instead of leaving on the 22nd as I had been told it is now scheduled to depart around 18:00 on Saturday.

This is good news since it looks like we'll be getting back to the original timeline I posted earlier. On the other hand it means I need to get everything done by tomorrow afternoon.

My plan is to go to the Jurong Port sometime around 15:00. I hope to get settled on board and then have the first half of Saturday to take care of any last minute issues.

According to the agent, departure formalities such as immigration and customs clearance need to be completed about two hours before the scheduled sailing.

Hard to believe I'm only about 48 hours from the start of the trip.

14 December 2008

Basic Freighter Travel Information

A few people have requested information on freighter travel in general and how I arranged my trip in particular.

Once I decided that I wanted to do this type of a trip I began searching on the internet for information. The first place I checked was The Internet Guide to Freighter Travel.

This was a good starting source for background information and links to other helpful sites. I then made a general query through FreighterTrips.com and received a response from Mr Hamish Jamieson of the Hawke's Bay Travel Centre & Freighter Travel (NZ)

Hamish was a great source of information and he patiently answered all of my questions.

As some of you may already know, most modern container ships spend very little time in port. Here in Singapore the turnaround time for even the largest container ships is measured in hours rather than days. Some passengers prefer these types of ships as they spend more time on the sea; I on the other hand was interested in the "heavy lift" ships that dealt more with project cargo and therefore usually spent a couple of days in each port.

Hamish's recommendation was the "Pearl String Voyages" offered by the MCC Rickmers line.

With all that information in hand it was just a matter of planning and scheduling, making the payments and getting the documents in order.

I hope the above is helpful. Please let me know if you have any specific questions.

One Week To Go - More Or Less

The time is going quickly and I have about a week left before my trip commences. On Monday I'll check in again with the local port agent and get a confirmation on the ship's schedule. Right now we're looking at a departure date from Singapore of 22 December.

My preparations are pretty much completed. My landlord generously agreed to a two-month extension to my current lease. Originally it ran through the end of May, but we agreed to extend it through July to provide me a bit more time to get reorganized when I return in late April.

This weekend I've been making some last minute purchases and starting my packing. Fortunately I'm pretty well equipped from other trips.

The rest of the week will be occupied with all the mundane little tasks, like canceling my cable, getting cash for the trip, prepping my apartment, and probably one or two important things I've completely overlooked.

On a side note, I was suffering from a minor respiratory infection last week but the antibiotics have cleared that up nicely. The biggest inconvenience was the associated fatigue.

04 December 2008

Ticket In Hand!

I received my ticket this morning! The ship is scheduled to arrive in Singapore on the 19th of December and depart on the 22nd.

Hard to believe that's only about two weeks away. I actually think I'm pretty well set, but no doubt I'll realize I overlooked something critical at the last minute.

More later...

02 December 2008

Some Amazing Technology

We do live in amazing times. I was checking out some sites for tracking ships at sea and came across a few that might be of interst to those of you who have expressed an interest in following my trip.

Probably the one with the easiest interface is www.marinetraffic.com

For those of you who think this stuff is just really, really cool, you can zoom in to different ports and even track specific ships. You can register for free and then you can receive alerts on the movements of specific ships.

I'll be traveling on the Rickmers Jakarta (MMSI: 538001921); there are some other sites as well, so you can use that information to see which works best. I'm still playing around with some of the other sites and I'll report back if I find anything better.

As you'll notice, coverage around a lot of the Asian ports is a bit thin. Therefore you won't get any updates for the beginning and end of my trip. However, coverage around the major ports in the US and Europe is fairly good, so I'm hoping you'll be able to get more up to date information on my port calls.