16 May 2009

My Tips & Recommendations

It's a long post, I know, but I think it was the simplest way to share some of the "lessons learned" from my trip.

Please let me know if you have any questions

Tips & Recommendations For Freighter Travel From a First-Time Passenger

Introduction: A freighter trip is a different type of travel adventure. From December 2008 to April 2009 I was a passenger on the MV Rickmers Jakarta for a round-the-world journey. The trip was 126 days, covered over 32,000 nautical miles and we made eighteen port calls. This was my first experience with freighter travel, in fact it was my first time on a ship. The following few pages are some suggestions and recommendations based on my experience. While I take full responsibility for any errors or omissions, I need to acknowledge the insights of fellow passengers, especially Dale Stenseth, Clive Pool and Dr Dieter Walther. The reader is also reminded that these are observations based on a single trip, so your experience might vary considerably. Check with your agent or freighter company for specific requirements. For an account of my trip you can also check my blog, http://gklucsarits.blogspot.com

Visas: Allow plenty of time for your preparation, especially for any visas that might be required. I was fortunate in that as an American citizen I didn't require a US visa, which I understand can take some time. I obtained my China and Vietnam visas at the respective consulates in Singapore. Make sure your passport is not too close to its expiration date as most countries require at least six months validity. Also be sure that there are sufficient blank pages for entry and exit stamps. Check with your relevant authorities about how to go about adding extra pages.

Basic packing principles: Since the trip around the world takes about 126 days and the weather can vary considerably depending on the time of year I packed considerably more than I would for an airline trip. In my case I was fortunate in that I didn't have to worry about a flight since I was starting and finishing in Singapore, a short cab ride from my apartment. On the other hand I tried to pack with a worst-case scenario in mind so I made sure that I could manage my luggage if I had to interrupt the trip somewhere and fly back. To that end I carried a large, soft-sided, wheeled trunk; a large, hard-shell, Pelican case for cameras and fragile things; and an Eagle Creek backpack with detachable daypack. I had a bit of extra room, which was useful for packing the souvenirs I accumulated along the way.
Practice, practice, practice: I recommend that you get familiar with any gear you want to bring before you get on the ship. Instruction manuals can be dull reading but it's much better to be comfortable with all the features beforehand.

Medicine, eyeglasses, etc: If you have any prescription medicine requirements be sure to bring enough for the entire trip plus a reserve. Be sure to have valid prescriptions as well. A spare pair of eyeglasses is another good idea along with your lens prescription. A decent emergency medical kit along with a course of antibiotics is a good investment; check with your doctor for recommendations. I visited my dentist shortly before my trip and brought along a simple dental emergency kit to deal with minor issues like a lost filling. My strategy was to make sure I could manage until I got either back home or to a port where I could get treatment.

Fitness: Our ship was not equipped with an elevator but some larger container ships do have one in the accommodations. This can be important when one realizes the number of stairs that need to be negotiated in an average day. The meals were served on the A-Deck and the passenger cabins were on either the C- or D-Deck and there are fourteen steps between each deck. Going from D-Deck to A- three times a day for meals alone will mean 126 steps to be negotiated in each direction. A visit to the Bridge from the D-Deck is another roundtrip of 56 steps. Also, getting on and off the ship in port can be a physical challenge depending on how the gangway is deployed. In Hamburg at low tide I had to climb up a ladder to the hold cover and then walk across the gangway to the wharf. Climbing in and out of the lifeboat requires a modest amount of agility and flexibility, and one also needs to remember that container ports are not designed with pedestrians in mind so it can be a walk of a few hundred meters to a gate. On my trip it was an exception when taxis were allowed as far as the gangway.

Clothing: I was pleased in my clothing choices. The dress code on board the ship is very casual so there's no need to worry about any sort of formal attire. I'm sure there are a hundred different travel guides that give the same advice, but the key is to bring stuff that works well together and is reasonably easy to clean. One thing to remember is that you will be on a working ship and as such has lots of greasy and sooty things to rub up against. The crew did a great job in keeping the living quarters clean, but there is always the possibility of some stray grease or paint while on deck. I think a simple rule would be to not take anything you would hate to lose. Some other travel guides recommend enough clothes for about ten days and that should be adequate. The laundry facilities were shared with the officers but I never had to wait more than an hour to get anything into one of the machines. The weather along the route can vary considerably, from the freezing temperatures of Beijing in the winter to the tropical heat and sunshine of the Panama Canal. Inside the accommodations I found it very convenient to wear some closed-toe sandals as these allowed me to easily remove them when entering my own or other people's cabins while still affording a good deal of protection to my feet. Most of the crew wore sandals of some sort when not working for the same reasons. For general purpose shoes, I would look for something sturdy and comfortable, preferably with oil-resistant and slip-resistant soles. These will serve you well on deck and also on shore. Remember that the ship might be berthed some distance from a port gate and shuttle buses are not always available, so long walks are inevitable.

Laptop: If you are computer literate a laptop is a handy tool to have during the trip. Mine was fairly large and I took it mainly to work on photos but one of the smaller ones now available might be a better general choice. The ability to check email or make travel plans while in port is a good reason to bring one. Internet caf├ęs are not always available nor convenient but lots of coffee shop chains offer wireless access either for free or for a nominal fee. A good investment is a decent digital reference like the Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe on DVD; it was very handy for looking up information on all the places we visited and also as a general reference.

Camera gear: I probably went a bit overboard in this area and brought a lot of additional kit that is not absolutely necessary. On the other hand, I've had some great photographic opportunities and have been glad for the odd lens to help me get the shot. At a minimum I would recommend taking a decent pocket camera that can shoot high-quality JPEG or better yet, RAW images. Most cameras can support 8GB memory cards and those will hold about 900+ high quality JPEG images, so get several cards and shoot a lot. Shoot at the highest quality and size setting that the camera will allow. I've been downloading the images from my compact flash memory cards to an external hard drive and backing up the RAW images on DVDs. Even if you're like me and take a trunkful of DSLR gear, a good pocket camera is very handy for those times when a large camera is impractical or inappropriate. With respect to the photos themselves, be sure to edit ruthlessly. It's very easy to take thousands of photos but that doesn't mean all of them are suitable for public display. Take advantage of the uninterrupted hours on the ship to select the best to share. I burned souvenir DVDs of my favorite shots for anyone who asked.

Binoculars: A nice thing to have along in order to take in some of the many interesting sights along the way is a decent pair of binoculars. Something small enough to comfortably carry or stick in a pocket and good low-light capability would be a suitable choice; water resistance is another good feature.

Small backpack: Another useful item for shore excursions is a small backpack. The great advantage over other bags is that it keeps your hands free which can be very important when clambering on or off the ship while at anchorage or even in port.

Maps: Bring along a good quality world map to track your progress. Try to get one that doesn't tear too easily. For the various destinations I think it would be a good idea to try to acquire some decent street maps in order to save time on arrival. The problem here is the variability of each ship's itinerary, so a compromise might be buying good paper maps of the most probable destinations and printing digital maps from Google of all the others, or those for which good quality paper maps are hard to come by. Also, be sure to check the accumulated maps in the lounge since earlier travelers might have left theirs. In most cities you can get a tourist map from the local hotels.

Guidebooks: generally a good idea, but a bit challenging for the same reason it's hard to figure out which maps to bring. I bought a copy of Lonely Planet's China guidebook in Hong Kong and Dale had some guidebooks for some of the other stops, but they tend to be large and thin on detail of some of the ports we visited. One ends up paying for and carrying a lot of extra material that's not helpful. Here again I think an online solution would be best and the traveler would benefit from downloading as much information as possible from official tourism websites, Wikipedia, etc and either storing them digitally or printing them out before the trip. Even if destinations are dropped it's no great loss, and if other ports are added it's usually easy enough to get the updated information while in one of the earlier ports. Another excellent source of practical and up-to-date information is other passenger blogs from earlier trips with the great advantage of directly addressing the needs of the cargo ship passenger.

Books, DVDs, music: Despite the many interesting things to see on the ship and the numerous port calls there are long stretches when it helps to have something to do. I mentioned in my blog how much I enjoyed the opportunity to read without interruption or distraction, which is a pleasure we seldom allow ourselves these days. I brought a few weighty tomes with me from Singapore and since then I've added to my collection in Japan and the US. It's a great advantage to read English since most of the major international cities have some sort of English language bookstore. Another option is to download e-books and read them on the laptop or iPod or other device, like the Amazon Kindle. One of our other passengers, Clive, kindly allowed me to play with a Kindle 2 that his daughter had bought for him for the trip. I was very impressed with a lot of the features and it certainly saves a lot of space; Clive had about 35 books on his. There is a modest collection of books and DVDs on the ship, mostly donations from previous passengers. I brought a couple of DVDs with me and purchased a few more on the way.

Money: Obviously the major currencies to carry are US Dollars and Euros; shipboard expenses are all settled in dollars. If possible, get a bunch of smaller denomination US bills, like 20s, 10s and 5s. These are handy for settling small expenses on board the ship and also for some payments on shore. One option I would recommend would be to try to get a small amount converted into the major currencies one is likely to encounter along the way. As I've mentioned in other posts, the cargo ports are usually quite a distance away from the city center and the usual tourist facilities; ATMs and exchange bureaus are usually not immediately available. I was lucky in that I had a collection of bills from Hong Kong, China and Japan left over from earlier trips and this proved to be a big help in paying the initial taxi or metro fares. I wouldn't change too much, perhaps the equivalent of US$20 to US$50. Singapore is a good choice for getting money for Vietnam, China, Japan and Korea; foreign exchange bureaus are readily available and with competitive rates, but more important if you are traveling eastward is that you will know by Singapore which other countries you will be visiting. If there's any left over it makes a handy souvenir or a gratuity for the steward. ATMs are available in most countries and are tied in with the major networks like Cirrus or Plus. In Japan one needs to use the ATMs at the Post Offices or in some of the major hotels as the rest are on a different system. Major expenses like hotels were easily handled by credit card.

Electrical stuff: The current on the ship is 220v and the outlets require the German style, two-prong plugs. Most devices today will automatically handle input currents from 100v to 240v automatically so a converter isn't necessary, but it's wise to double check. A good, universal travel adapter is a must for using the different outlets one will encounter on shore. Rechargeable AA and AAA batteries were much more practical and convenient than disposable ones and more environmentally friendly. Dale brought along a multiple-outlet extension cord, which was a good idea as the number of outlets in the cabins are limited.

Shortwave radio: Originally I didn't bring my shortwave radio as it's a larger model and not really convenient. However while I was in Antwerp I purchased a Sony ICF-SW7600GR model. It has a lot of nice features normally found in more expensive radios and it's proved to be a nice addition to my gear. I'd recommend that if you opt to bring a radio look for one with digital tuning and a scanning capability. The Sony also comes with a handy compact antenna that rolls up when not needed plus a frequency guide with broadcast schedules.

Mobile phone: I highly recommend bringing a mobile phone that will work in most of the countries on the itinerary. Look for descriptions like "quadband", or "world phone" and confirm with the retailer that it will work in Japan, Europe and the US. Most mobile phone calling plans have options for international roaming and the cost, though more expensive than regular calls, is reasonable when one factors in the convenience and security. It's very helpful to have a ready means to contact the ship or the local agent in order to stay abreast of any schedule changes.

Email: If you don't already have an email account, set up a free one with one of the major providers like MSN, Yahoo! or Google. If you have a laptop with wireless capability you might be able to check email while in port. Other options for checking email include seafarers' missions and internet cafes. Make sure you know how to log on and be sure to log off and clear the cache of any public machines.

Passport photos: Bring along a couple of extra passport-size photos for visas. On my trip I only needed one for the UAE but that can always change. Nice to have as it's not always possible to find a photo booth on short notice. Another very good idea from Clive was to have a laminated color copy of your passport's information page. This is a great alternative to actually carrying your passport while on shore.

Miscellaneous stuff: Some small magnets are handy for attaching maps, photos, etc to the walls of the cabin.

Ports and Agents: Each port presents its own challenges from a passenger perspective. For the most part the agents and the ship's officers did an excellent job of making our stays enjoyable, but one needs to remember that taking care of passengers is not their primary job. On arrival it might take some time before immigration and customs formalities are completed so passengers need to be patient; it might be several hours, or in our case in Nagoya, a couple of days before one is allowed on shore. Make sure that you have the detailed information on the ship's berth; some ports are huge so you will need to know the right gate, too. Get the phone number of the local agent; you should already have the Captain's mobile number for emergencies. Be sure to confirm with the Captain when you have to be back! Remember, the ship will not wait for you.

Other information sources: Take advantage of the crew and local port captains for recommendations and suggestions on where to go or how to best get around. We were pleasantly surprised to learn about the high-speed rail link from Tianjin to Beijing from the First Officer's wife; the trip took less than an hour and cost about USD10. The supercargo in Germany recommended that we take a taxi from the port to the nearby city of Harburg and then go by S-Bahn to Hamburg; much cheaper than taking a taxi all the way into the city.

29 April 2009

Photos posted!

I've had numerous requests to share more of my photos so this afternoon I spent some time uploading about 400 to my Flickr account. You can access them by going to the following website:

George's Photostream on Flickr

I'll be adding further comments and descriptions in the coming days, but for the time being you can simply follow the link and check out different sets.


26 April 2009

Back in Singapore

Friday evening on the 24th of April we sailed into the Jurong Port and tied up at berth J5. It was my 126th day of my trip having covered a total of 31,984 nautical miles. I had visited seventeen different ports and spent all but eight nights on board.

Some of the crew assisted me in getting my luggage on to the wharf and then I had to clear Singapore immigration. The whole process was reasonably quick and the ICA officers were most polite and professional. They did have a few questions for me as I was apparently the first passenger they had ever encountered coming off of a cargo ship.

After that it was a call for a taxi and a short ride back to my apartment. I'm spending the weekend unpacking and sorting through my souvenirs. I'll probably do a few other posts with some additional photos and with my final thoughts about the whole adventure.

I hope my blog was enjoyable reading, and for those of you who might be anticipating a similar trip I trust it was reasonably informative.

More later...

Pink Gin

I meant to pass on this simple yet effective technique for preparing a pink gin that Clive was kind enough to share. It produces, I think, a more subtly flavored cocktail than the straightforward method of simply adding a few drops of bitters to a gin and stirring it around.

Take the glass you're going to drink from and pour in some mineral water; swirl it around to thoroughly wet the glass and throw it away. Next add a few healthy dashes of Angostura bitters to the glass and swirl those about, taking care to fully coat the inside of the glass. Dump out the extra bitters. Add gin.

The result is a nicely flavored drink, not overpowered by the bitters and with a very pleasing color as well.

The Final Stretch

It's my final Sunday on board and I'm starting to get ready for my disembarkation in Singapore. We left Jebel Ali on 16 April and now we're making the long, straight run to the tip of India where we'll bear east, past Sri Lanka and on to the Straits of Malacca.

Dubai was a short but interesting stop. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to stay ashore overnight but we were able to spend a couple of hours wandering around the old part of the city, visiting the Gold and Spice Souks and taking in some sights. In the late afternoon we four passengers met up in the lobby of a hotel before heading to the Mall of the Emirates. As malls go it's pretty impressive; one of the largest in the world. The main attraction is the somewhat famous Ski Dubai indoor ski slope. Pierre had decided to take advantage of our stop to get in some skiing so the rest of us wandered about the mall. The number and range of stores was impressive but not much that was especially unique or interesting; a mall is pretty much like any other mall and the brands are the same ones that can be found in just about any major city.

Some of the restaurants have large windows that look out onto the ski slope so Clive and I took a break, ordered some appetizers and a couple of non-alcoholic beers and watched.

After that we stopped by a bookstore and then went to meet up with Pierre and Diane and start our trip back to the ship. The taxi stand in front of the mall is right next to the valet parking area and there was an impressive collection of expensive marques on display from large limousines to hyper-fast sports cars.

Our trip back to the ship was mildly eventful when we encountered a some difficulty after we retrieved our passports. There's a bit of a design flaw in that the office where we had to pick up our passports was next to a gate that was barred to automobiles - only trucks were allowed through. After some confused discussions with the driver and the guard it was made clear that our driver would have to enter through another gate and then loop around to pick us up. Once he did that he started driving confidently towards what we thought was our ship until we were surprised when he stopped in front of the US aircraft carrier, Dwight D Eisenhower. There was a bit more confusion between the driver and the guards and to cut a long story reasonably short we spent about another twenty minutes driving around until we found our berth. In the driver's defense the signage within the port is pretty useless especially compared to that of Antwerp. Communication is also a challenge; everyone was speaking English, but it was at best the second language of all the participants.

The next afternoon we cast off and headed out to sea. As we exited the port and while still in the channel we passed the The Palm, the famous building project of reclaimed land laid out to resemble a giant palm tree when seen from the air. From our relatively low vantage point we couldn't see much but there did seem to be some construction going on. I believe this is the second such development, the first one being farther up the coast near the Burj al-Arab hotel. Personally I can't understand the appeal; sure, it might be a nice house, but it seems to be a bit inconvenient to get back and forth to the city and no matter how nice the house is the outside temperature might be 45 degrees C and humid with a dust storm on the horizon. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, "[t]he [Persian] gulf has a notoriously unpleasant climate."

On Saturday the 18th the crew had a combined party to celebrate the previous week's Easter holiday and this week's Orthodox Easter holiday. Our Romanian crew members; primarily the two carpenters, the electrician and one of the deck cadets; spent a lot of time in preparing some delicious dishes. They made puff pastries, several salads, some meat dishes, and colored a few dozen eggs. There was also the usual grilled fare and plenty of beer and wine.

The next few days were relaxed as we enjoyed pleasant weather and calm seas. The water temperature reached 30C, about as warm as the air. I occupied my time by editing more of my photos and burning my collection onto some DVDs for the crew and passengers.

Thursday morning found us starting our turn around the northern tip of Sumatra and heading towards the Straits of Malacca. There is a further threat of pirates in the Straits of Malacca so the Captain increased the watch. Unlike the Gulf of Aden the threat is not one of hijacking but rather robbery.

The number of ships in these fairly narrow straits is really impressive; for a while on Friday morning we were traveling almost neck-and-neck with a large Maersk container ship as she slowly passed us.


Here are some photos from the trip that I wasn't able to upload earlier:

The Suez pilot ships expect payment of some cigarettes for services rendered. One of our crew is shown here dropping a carton of Marlboros into a handy net.

Ferry waiting to cross the canal between the passing cargo ships.

While passing through the transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden we observed this Canadian warship checking out a "suspicious" fishing dhow.

15 April 2009

Quick Update from Dubai

Greetings from the lobby bar of the St George Hotel in Dubai! I'm sitting here with Clive and Pierre, enjoying a beer and trying to catch up on some postings and some emails.

We had a bit of a delay in getting into Jebel Ali and the local regulations require us to return to the ship by midnight. This is a bit disappointing, but at least we get a few hours to see the city and maybe do some skiing at the Mall of the Emirates this evening!

I've added some new posts but I apologize for the lack of photos. I'll try to post some later today or at least when I'm back in Singapore; the internet connection at this hotel is sporadic at best.

Hard to believe my trip is almost over. It's been a great adventure and it will take some getting used to the real world again. I should be back in Singapore on or about 25 April.

More later,


Jebel Ali

We passed through the Straits of Hormuz in the wee hours of Monday, 13 April. I went up on deck a few hours later, right before dawn, to observe the ship traffic in the Persian Gulf. As we approached Jebel Ali we encountered rain which was something of a surprise to me. It was also a bit of a problem for the port, too; the rain, heavy winds and decreased visibility caused the port to be shut down so we had to find a place in the anchorage and wait for our turn to enter. This happened around 09:00 on Monday and as of 12:00 on Tuesday we were still waiting our chance to enter the port.

The delay has not been uninteresting. First of all there were several dozen ships surrounding us in the anchorage; tankers, bulk cargo carriers, car carriers, etc. The radio traffic back and forth between all the different ships and the port control office made for interesting and sometimes amusing entertainment. On Tuesday morning there was some activity as a US aircraft carrier made its way into the port. I think it was the XXXX (#69) but am not sure. 

The crew kept busy on Monday afternoon and evening by fishing with hand lines off the Poop Deck. They caught quite a few small fish that the Cook prepared for dinner. In the evening I was called down to see a large fish that one of them had managed to hook but which was too big to be hauled up from the water by the line alone. Several of the crew tried some rather ingenious but ultimately futile means to lift the fish before it worked itself loose and disappeared into the night. It might have been a species of barracuda, but I'm not sure.

We are only a few miles offshore so we can see some of the buildings of the Dubai skyline. The air is quite dusty, though, so it's hard to see much detail. On Monday afternoon we were able to see the famous silhouette of the Burj-al-Arab hotel. The ridiculously tall Burj Dubai was also visible through the gloom.

Gulf of Aden

Due to the increased pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden NATO, the European Union, and a few other countries have now established a recommended transit corridor for merchant ships heading either to or from the Red Sea. There is no formal convoy system but rather a series of "groupings" based on ships' speeds. The entire corridor is about 490 nm in length with Point Alpha on the westernmost end and Point Bravo on the opposite one. Ships register ahead of time, at least a few days before their anticipated arrival at either entry point. Based on a ship's desired transit speed, e.g. 18 knots, the coalition will specify an entry time for it to enter the corridor. The ship will be grouped with others planning to travel at roughly the same speed. The goal of all this organization is to schedule the respective ships so that they are in the most vulnerable part of the corridor during the hours of darkness when attacks have been historically least frequent. Also, the warships are able to better monitor the positions of the different ships as they can anticipate their progress through the corridor.

Our entry time for Point Alpha was 16:00 local time on 9 April. The process itself was quite simple as there is no waiting around for other ships as would be the case in a convoy system. I spent some time on the Bridge listening to the radio traffic between the different merchant ships and the coalition warships and even the occasional helicopter.

Ever since our entry into the Gulf of Aden the crew have been maintaining a heightened security level and have implemented some anti-piracy measures. The most visible measure is the increased number of people on the Bridge. Normally there is only the Officer On Watch and sometimes an A/B acting as a lookout. For this segment they are joined by an O/S and a Deck Cadet as additional lookouts. No one is allowed out on deck without the Captain's permission, so everyone is restricted to the accommodations and all doors are locked.

Obviously the radar screens are continuously monitored for suspicious ships. For safety and security reasons all ships above a certain size must be equipped with the Automatic Identification System, or AIS. This system transmits key information about a ship that can be received by other ships such as the ship's speed, course, size, etc. Any ship in the area that is not transmitting this data is immediately assumed to be suspicious. In most cases these are just fishing vessels or small, local ships but their positions are noted and the information broadcast to other ships in the region.

The reality and severity of the current state of affairs was brought home by the news that Somali pirates had hijacked an American merchant ship the day before we began our transit. As I write this the BBC is reporting that the crew have retaken the ship but that the Captain is being held hostage by the pirates in a separate boat and that negotiations with US naval forces are ongoing.

There was also a bit of excitement around noon on 10 April when a Canadian warship, part of the NATO coalition, investigated a dhow towing three skiffs that had been reported as suspicious by a number of ships in the group. We were just pulling even with the dhow when the warship hailed us and asked that we alter course a bit to keep clear. All of us standing on the Bridge had a good view of the warship and the suspect vessel but I think this dhow was already a known entity since the warship just made a reasonably close pass and then returned to its patrol. I'm sure false alarms are a challenge for the coalition forces.

I'm not sure what is the best solution to this crisis. Obviously the coalition forces are having an impact and the establishment of monitored transit corridors is a step in the right direction. However, as I've noted in earlier posts, the ocean is a really, really big place and it's just unrealistic to think that every square meter can be monitored all the time. A further challenge is one of identification; just because a vessel is identified today as a harmless fishing vessel does not mean it won't be used for a pirate attack tomorrow. Historical approaches, e.g. hanging pirates until we run out of pirates or run out of rope, don't enjoy the same level of social and political approval as in years gone by. There are also additional risks in escalating the level of conflict as the pirates so far have been pretty good in not harming their hostages; this might not be the case if the risks increase.

On a more pleasant note, I was on the Bridge right before sunset on Friday when one of the lookouts called my attention to a small whale that was spouting off our port beam. Clive, Pierre, and some of the crew were there as well and we watched it swim for a few minutes. We only saw its spouting and some of its back, so I'm not sure what type of whale it was. On Saturday morning we were well clear of the piracy threat and there was a palpable sense of relief among all on board. The waters off the coast of Oman were very pleasant; we had our usual Saturday muster drill, after which we watched an ocean-going tug towing a barge with a couple of gantry cranes on deck and spotted a few whales blowing not far from our side. In the evening, during a beautiful sunset behind the Omani coast, we spotted some dolphins taking advantage of our wake to leap to astounding heights. I'm sure there's some biological reason for their leaping, but it's obvious they look for the ships' wakes to act as launch ramps.

Red Red Wine

Back when Dale was on the ship he had purchased a "red wine" from the ship's slopchest that turned out to be something more of a wine-like product from Indonesia. Our assumption at the time that since "wine" was about the third-listed ingredient it was some sort of marinade or cooking wine. Unaware of the earlier controversy surrounding this "Columbus Red Wine", Clive bought two bottles shortly after coming on board. Once he realized it wasn't what he expected he was a bit upset at having bought two bottles. Nonetheless he and I decided to try it one evening and see just how bad it was. To our pleasant surprise it wasn't undrinkable; it was a very sweet, dessert-type wine flavored with fruit juice. It was a bit thick, but Clive opted to dilute it about 1:1 with some sparkling water and this had a very pleasing effect, the end result being a very tolerable aperitif. 

So, Dale, if you're reading this and you're able to find a bottle of "Anggur Buah Marah" at your local wine merchant, try diluting it with some sparkling water and maybe add a dash of bitters for a pre-prandial tipple.

The Red Sea

Early Monday morning we entered the Red Sea, which would take us about three and half days to traverse. The weather was warmer but not unbearable with the breeze. The seawater in the Red Sea is some of the hottest in the world and the ship's gauges registered temperatures of 27 degrees C.

For the most part we saw very little ship traffic despite this being one of the world's busiest waterways. We did see the occasional yacht in the distance and several smaller freighters moving up and down the Arabian coast. We have heard that ship traffic through the Suez Canal is down significantly due to the combined effects of the overall economic slowdown and the pirate threat in the Gulf of Aden. In the latter case, many ships are opting to avoid the area entirely and are making the longer journey around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope.

On the 7th we stopped in the early afternoon and drifted for about twelve hours. The Captain opted to do this so as to align our arrival at the beginning of the safety corridor in the Gulf of Aden with the start time for ships traveling at 18 knots. The safety corridor is part of the worldwide response to the pirate threat in the Gulf of Aden. The coalition has established a recommended pathway for ships passing through the area and while there are not actual convoys in the traditional sense, there are groups of ships that are loosely organized based on their sailing speeds.

Suez Canal

We transited the Suez Canal on Sunday, 5 April. We arrived at the northern terminus of Port Said very early in the morning and began sailing through around 06:00 as the third ship in a convoy of six. Like the Panama Canal the Suez is too narrow to allow simultaneous two-way traffic so there is a series of convoys in each direction.

The activity around the entrance to the canal is quite hectic with pilot boats running back and forth and lots of small fishing boats heading into the Mediterranean. Apparently Marlboro cigarettes are an important currency with the Suez pilots; one of our crew had to go down the gangway to deposit a carton in what looked like a purpose-built and ready net held out by one of the crew of the pilot boat.

Traveling further we now encountered the ferries that go back and forth between the banks of the canal. Each one was full of cars, trucks and people and they waited rather impatiently for the much larger cargo ships to get out of the way before heading out before the next one arrived.

The next task was to secure a small mooring craft to our side. The mooring boat is used to carry the lines to the shore in the designated waysides where we have to wait for the northbound traffic to clear. The mooring boat, a small motorboat with two men on board, pulled alongside and matched our speed before securing a towline. Then one of our crew lowered the #4 crane over the side and the two men affixed their boat to the hook before one and all were simply lifted into the air. 

We passed from Port Said and very quickly the landscape changed from that of bustling port city to one of open fields, small shacks and farms. The starboard, or western side of the canal was much more cultivated with irrigated fields while the eastern side was mostly just barren desert. Our convoy proceeded steadily along, passing numerous military watchtowers, presumably for the security of the canal.

Shortly after 10:00, about 50 km from Port Said and shortly after passing the Al Qantarah Bridge, the canal splits into two channels separated by a low, sandy island. Our convoy went to the western, or right side channel where we all moored  to await the passage of the northbound convoy. This was where the mooring boat came into play; it was lowered to the water and the crew took the lines from the stern and made them fast to some bollards that were positioned along the shore of the little island. Accompanied now by a third member who also came on board earlier, they physically dragged the heavy hawser up the sand. Safely secured, the Pilot left the ship and we all settled down for a few hours' wait. We were told that we'd be moving again around 16:00. The Captain and some of the crew took advantage of this break to get some much deserved rest having been up most of the night and all morning with the maneuvering.

Around midday the activity on board turned to commerce as a small bazaar opened on the poop deck where the crew of the mooring boat set up shop to sell a variety of souvenirs, clothes and toiletries. I bought a couple of tacky nicknacks, probably overpaying as these guys were masters of haggling. 

A little later I received a call from the 2nd Officer, Nicu, who was standing watch on the Bridge, to let me know that we were about to be passed by one of the largest container vessels in the world, the Edith Maersk. She was part of the northbound convoy that was passing us in the opposite channel. The sight of these large ships passing is a bit surreal as the channel itself is barely visible so it looks almost as if they are traveling across the sand. Having seen quite a few large container vessels these past few months I was still impressed by the sheer bulk of the Edith Maersk. She's 390 meters long, or more than twice the length of the Rickmers Jakarta and has a beam of 56 meters, double our width. Putting that in a bit of perspective, those dimensions are the equivalent of more than five acres. She was followed immediately by her somewhat smaller sister vessel, the Skagen Maersk, coming in at a slightly more modest 347 meters long.

Sometime after 16:30 our new Pilot appeared and we and the other ships made ready to resume our passage. The lines were cast off and we began to pick up speed on our way to Suez. I watched from the Bridge for a while as we passed some towns and cities and some larger resorts at Lake Timsah. There is a layer of dust and I suppose smog that hangs over the land, so the sunset was a rather dull event. The sun slipped down into the haze as a glowing orb in a dusty sky before disappearing below the horizon. I continued to watch for a while before heading down to my cabin for the evening.

The Meditteranean

We sailed from Genoa on the evening of 1 April after loading a wide variety of cargo including a yacht destined for Jebel Ali. Genoa was an interesting city although we only had a few hours on shore. The old houses and palaces seem to cover every available plot of land and edge their way up the surrounding hills. The streets are a warren-like maze of dark alleys opening up on small piazzas. Many of the buildings have interesting facades and small balconies but the general feeling was one of being a bit too crowded. Many of the apartments opened onto alleys that were less than two meters wide and very dark as sunlight only occasionally found its way through.

2 April was a picture-perfect day on the water. The sky was almost cloudless and the sea was very smooth. In the evening after dinner I went to the forecastle and saw a couple of small dolphins swimming our way; they headed almost straight for our bow before disappearing off to the side.

The setting sun illuminated the sky and highlighted the shape of Stromboli Island and its active volcano. As we were approaching we could see some slight wisps of smoke and steam from just below the crest but as night fell we were able to see some actual eruptions. Every few minutes there would be a small explosion of bright red lava which would send sparks and glowing rocks down the side. Most of the eruptions were small but there were a few larger ones that looked very dramatic. All of us passengers and a few of the crew enjoyed the view from the Bridge as we sailed towards the Island, passing only a few miles from shore.

Once we were past Stromboli and the sun had completely set I trained my binoculars at the stars. It was a brilliantly clear night and with only the light of a quarter moon the sky was simply choked with stars. I don't think I've ever seen more at one time before. In a way it's sad to think that I'll not have that view when I return to Singapore and the city lights will hide all but the most prominent stars; now that I know there are so many out there I will miss them.

31 March 2009

The Trip So Far

30 March marked my 101st day on this trip; hard to believe so much time has passed since I first boarded the Rickmers Jakarta back in December at Singapore's Jurong Port. Back then I remember looking at the 3-month calendar on the wall that took us up to February and I could barely imagine how far ahead that was not to mention April. Now that I'm down to my last few remaining weeks I'm amazed at how quickly the whole trip has gone. Tomorrow we'll arrive in Genoa and then head towards the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and on to Jebel Ali, which will be my last port before returning to Singapore.

Genoa will be my 17th port and I'll have put over 24,000 nautical miles behind me, not including river passages. All but eight nights have been spent on board the ship. The longest distance between ports was a little over 10,000 nm from Nagasaki to Galveston and took a total of 24 days, from 23 January until 15 February with the Panama Canal transit along the way. Philadelphia to Antwerp was a comparative stroll of less than 3,500 nm.

I think I will wait until after Jebel Ali to start preparing myself mentally for my return to normal life. It will take a bit of getting used to.

On to Genoa

The trip from Hamburg took us once again through the English Channel. On Thursday afternoon we saw our sister ship, the Rickmers Seoul, heading towards Antwerp. I took a few quick photos as she passed. In the late afternoon we were treated to the view of four large container ships traveling alongside and across our path. Fortunately there was plenty of sea room for all of us, but it was still quite impressive to see so many large ships steaming more or less side by side. Two of the containers outdistanced us; they appeared completely immune to the waves that buffeted us from time to time.

Observing some of the smaller craft one quickly appreciates the benefit of being on a fairly large ship. While we certainly notice the effect of the waves the voyage remains fairly smooth and uneventful. I can only imagine how difficult it must be on the smaller vessels which suffer more from the effects of winds and waves but also have the further unpleasantness of suffering longer as they tend to be slower.

In the early morning hours of Friday we entered into the Bay of Biscay where we encountered contrary winds and swells. The ship was rolling heavily in the night and the Captain ordered a change of course taking us more eastward into the Bay. Instead of a straight line to the tip of Spain we made a more indented course and over the course of Friday morning we navigated back towards our waypoint at Tenerife. Each change in course brought about a fair bit of roll in the ship. I was up on the Bridge for a while and the roll indicator showed that we occasionally exceeded ten degrees of list to each side.

Compared to the veritable traffic jam of ships we saw yesterday today the only craft we saw was a small sailboat a few miles off our starboard. Once again I'm struck by the emptiness of the ocean; there are no other ships visible on our radar and our AIS system shows the nearest ships being more than sixty nautical miles distant.

On Saturday our course changed and we were treated to some very smooth sailing as we had the wind coming from our stern; we also saw more ships, presumably approaching the Strait of Gibraltar. After breakfast I was relaxing in the bar, listening to the BBC and watching our progress through the large forward windows when I saw a killer whale off our starboard bow. It was swimming towards us but then made a quick U-turn and accompanied us for a few moments before disappearing below the water.

Since it was Saturday and we were at sea we had our regular lifeboat drill in the afternoon. The crew also had their additional practice in firefighting and oil spill control. The Captain scheduled a grill party for the evening to give the crew a bit of a break after all the hard work and long hours in Antwerp and Hamburg these past few weeks. I helped a bit by preparing some roasted peppers and onions.

Early Sunday morning we passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean. I woke up too early due to a miscalculation on the start of the summer time and went back to sleep before we transited the Pillars of Hercules. Diane went up on the Bridge for the passage and was able to make out some of the features of Gibraltar in the predawn light. The rest of the day was extremely pleasant with mild temperatures and fairly smooth seas. Sundays are usually a bit more relaxed when the ship is at sea and lunch is something to look forward to as Joel grills steaks to order and there's ice cream for dessert.

Monday dawned promisingly but the weather deteriorated a bit and it was appreciably cooler and more overcast by midmorning. We passed Mallorca right around breakfast time but with the sun not fully risen it was mostly a dark silhouette with some scattered lights. In addition to the cargo and fishing vessels which have been fairly common we've also seen a few sailboats in the distance. Our trip became a bit rougher as we crossed the Sea of Lions where we were faced with some strong winds and waves breaking over the bow. A couple of the crew members were drenched when the waves and spray poured over the port side. The sheer force of the waves never ceases to amaze me; the shudder when we hit a larger wave head on is felt throughout the ship and the volume of water thrown up on both sides would probably fill a good size pool or two.

On Tuesday we arrived in Genoa. We docked around 11:00 and Diane, Clive and I took a taxi to the center of the city for a day of tourism. The weather is wonderful and it will be a nice break before the next long stretch to Jebel Ali.

It looks like my return to Singapore will be delayed a bit. The most recent schedule has us arriving on 22 April, but I believe that will slip some more.

23 March 2009

Arriving in Hamburg

The trip to Hamburg was comparatively short and we were favored with clear skies and smooth seas. We reached the pilot station about 20:00 Friday and commenced our long trip up the Elbe.

I was interested to see our maneuvering in the port area so shortly before 02:00 on Saturday the 2nd Officer called me to let me know we were approaching the Koehlbrandbruecke, or Koehlbrand Bridge. I made my way to the ship's bridge in time to see two tugs join us, one at the stem and the other at the stern. With their assistance and that of the two pilots on board we were guided under the center of the bridge.

It was a close fit and it was obvious to see how important the timing of such maneuvers were given the fluctuations in the tides. Once we were clear of that bridge we proceeded a short distance further within the port until we reached a turning area. The two tugs pivoted us just about 180 degrees until our stern was pointing down the channel leading to our berth. The turning was very smooth, but there is something strange about having a 192 meter ship spinning about.

Our stern now pointing in the right direction, the two tugs guided us down the narrow channel. The clearance to the berths and their barges on the sides was measured in meters and even cranes for loading and discharging cargo were pulled in and made fast to some of the buildings to allow for the free passage of the larger ships. The channel was also quite shallow. Most of the time we had less than three meters beneath our keel, and on some stretches barely two.

The narrowest part was still to come as we reached the Rethe Lifting Bridge. Not only was it a very snug fit for our ship to pass between the two towers, but the bridge itself was on an angle to the channel which meant that the tugs had to wait until the last instant before adjusting the ship's angle so she would slip between the bridge towers and underneath the raised roadway. The Captain later mentioned that it is actually a more challenging maneuver without winds or currents as there is nothing resisting the movement of the ship. This means each action of the tugs needs to then be counteracted to prevent momentum from moving the ship too far in any one direction. Of course all of this took place in the space of a few hundred meters; it was only the constant movement back and forth of the tugs as they aligned us for the passage that gave any clue to the difficulty.

We continued our backwards journey to our berth at the Wallmann Terminal. Since it was now about 03:00 I opted to return to my cabin and go back to sleep. I was very happy to have been able to watch these maneuvers as it's something that we normally take for granted. I was overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the port area with its many channels, wharves and cranes for all the different products that make their way through the port. Given the narrowness of the passage I can only imagine the effort required to simply coordinate and manage the ship and barge traffic.

21 March 2009


It's Saturday, 21 March and I'm sitting in the Starbucks across from the Rathaus trying to catch up on some email and post a bit on the blog. We arrived early this morning after an incredibly smooth and pleasant sail from Antwerp. I'll post more in a day or two on the transit along the Elbe to our berth in the port; I wrote most of my notes at 02:00 in the morning and can't quite make sense of them at the moment.

Tomorrow I'm taking advantage of our time here to visit some old friends and then we'll be departing either Monday evening or more likely Tuesday.

I hope everyone is enjoying their weekend. Here's another sunset, this one from Antwerp. Enjoy!

Lengthy Stay in Antwerp

We arrived in Antwerp during the early morning hours of 12 March and we will be staying here about seven days in order have some repairs done to the two heavy-lift cranes. Once the cargo was discharged the ship was taken "off hire" so that the sheaves could be replaced on the two cranes.

The sheaves are the large wheels or pulleys on which the cables travel. A contractor for the crane manufacturer is on site to handle the task and by Friday evening they had erected a scaffold under the #3 crane and removed the lifting cables. A total of ten sheaves were replaced; like so much of the other equipment on this ship, they are massive pieces of metal. Each one weighs about 465 kg and is 1.65 meters in diameter.

Once all the repairs are completed the ship will be back in service and the crew will load the outbound cargo and we will be on our way to Hamburg.

On Friday I made a short trip to Antwerp to see the sights and take a few photos. The weather was a vast improvement over Thursday's and Dieter and I left the ship about 9:30 to make the walk to the bus stop, about 30 minutes away. One aspect of freighter travel is that passengers often find themselves disembarking at busy cargo ports which are a good distance from the city centers and distinctly lacking in any resources for transporting passengers. Sometimes it's a long walk just to get to the gate; if one is lucky there might be a shuttle bus for the port workers like in Shanghai. Here in Antwerp the gate was only a short walk from our berth but then it was a good walk along a busy road until we reached the bus stop. On their return the previous day, Dieter and Clive got quite wet from the road spray of the passing trucks, but on this trip the weather was very pleasant.

Once we reached the city center we spent some time walking about and admiring the architecture. The central railway station, built in 1905, is a great example of the blending of the old with the new; a domed central entryway with marble columns and ornate windows leads to the thoroughly modern departure area. This blend of different styles is also quite evident on the surrounding streets where it almost seems as if each building represents a different era. Ornate, turn of the century facades stand side by side with glass and steel exteriors and somehow this eclectic mixture presents a pleasing symmetry. Large areas of the city center are pedestrian zones and the shops and brands are much the same as one finds in any major international city. There are plenty of winding side streets where a wide range of offbeat and specialty boutiques can be found.

At one point we noticed a gathering crowd near a police car and some barriers that appeared to indicate some sort of crime scene. Walking in that direction we were startled to see on the ground what can only be described as massive, meter long bird droppings. Apparently we had stumbled upon some sort of art exhibit as the central figure in this exercise in street theater was what appeared to be the sheet-draped corpse of a gigantic bird. The creature's feet were pointing up in the air as if it was lying on its back and all around there were indications of a somewhat gruesome and messy crash. In addition to the aforementioned excrement there was also a good deal of material that was supposed to represent some blood and guts.

The crowd was milling about at the perimeter of the "police line", most taking pictures or trying to figure out exactly what was being represented. There were also a couple of police officers who I assume were part of the play but also on hand to keep order and a few people with some high-end video equipment who were recording the whole scene, no doubt for their senior art seminar.

I have to admit that I walked away somewhat confused. I'm not sure of the purpose of the whole exercise; was it some protest against animal cruelty or a reminder that we should be thankful our cities are not infested with two-meter tall birds with droppings the size of coffee tables? Obviously my ignorance is more a reflection of my bumpkin-like innocence and lack of sophistication than a criticism of the motives or intent of the artists.

Perhaps in response to the city's many famous beers and venues in which to drink them, Antwerp provides strategically placed pissoirs for the relief of the gentleman who finds his bladder at capacity. While this is no doubt convenient, I was struck by just how exposed they were.

12 March 2009

Across the Atlantic

We left Philadelphia on the afternoon of 3 March after a day's delay due to the storm. The trip down the Delaware River in the evening was uneventful and we had a nice sunset to see us on our way.

Overall the passage was relatively smooth. Like our earlier Pacific crossing we were able to keep between the harsher weather systems and enjoy comparatively pleasant weather. On our second full day at sea I was on the Bridge and the Captain pointed out the mists passing over the water. It looked like the steam one would see rising on a lake in the early morning. This was due, he informed me, to the convergence of the Gulf Stream with the Labrador Current. It dissipated after a short time as we made our way further eastward.

The ship has been rolling a good deal more than previously due to the ocean swells to our stern and this has been a cause for some minor discomfort among passengers and crew alike. It is a long, slow motion from side to side with a maximum deflection of about ten degrees from the vertical. A few people have difficulty sleeping and that, I think, is somewhat due to where their bunks are located; in my case I'm closer to the middle of the ship so I don't notice the roll as much, but those on the outermost cabins have to deal with a more pronounced movement. At lunch it sometimes requires a bit of caution when eating the soup as it tends to spill over the side of the bowl if one has too much. The actual motion sickness is another inconvenience but so far no one seems to be too adversely affected. I think the biggest problem is when one is inside a cabin or a hallway without any view to the horizon and the motion that one senses doesn't correlate to what one sees. Actually, it feels a lot like when one tries to walk after a little too much to drink and finds that one's feet do not cooperate as readily as one expects. Suffice to say it's a prudent measure to make good use of the handrails in the stairway and the grab-rails along the corridors.

In addition to being uncomfortable for the residents on a ship, severe rolling presents risks to the cargo and the ship itself, so the Captain ordered that we make a modified transit towards the English Channel. His colorful description was that we would take a course like "a pissing ox." Unbeknownst to me, oxen apparently don't halt in their travels when they need to urinate and the back and forth movement of the associated extremities creates a zigzag pattern in their wake as they walk along. We would follow a similar zigzag pattern to counteract the swell, turning a few degrees to the side of our course and then back again after a few miles, sticking basically to the course but making the necessary deviations to avoid the worst of the swell. The net effect is one of less severe rolling, at least shorter periods of it interspersed with brief intervals of comparatively smooth sailing. Naturally this will add some distance to our route, but not too much as the deflections are minor, only a few degrees from the most direct course. For the officers on watch they need to spend more time actively navigating and making the necessary corrections in order to find the best heading.

We advanced our clocks almost every other day on the passage as we had to make up five hours between Philly and Antwerp so I found myself feeling the effects of this "boat lag" as we approached the English Channel. I think this was mainly due to the set meal times, especially breakfast, where I had to make a bit of effort to go downstairs when I would have preferred another hour or so of sleep and didn't feel quite right until after a few cups of coffee.

One highlight for me during the passage was a tour of one of the heavy lift cranes. During a period of more moderate rolling the Chief Engineer very kindly gave me a tour of the inner workings, and letting me climb up to the operator's cabin. The interior of the crane tower itself is very impressive from the massive turret gear and 76mm diameter heavy-lift cable to the computer controls and hydraulic systems. The climb up and down the ladders was not too bad although some of the openings were rather cramped; there's not a lot of wasted space.

Ship traffic in the English Channel was very busy as we passed through. The watch officers and their lookouts were constantly keeping an eye on surrounding vessels, both visually and on their radar monitors. It's during these times that the officers really earn their pay. The 2nd Officer showed me how he used a simple line of bearing to a ship approaching from our beam to quickly determine whether it would pass in across our bow or our stern, or if we were on a collision course. It's a much more interesting way to learn geometry than anything I remember from my school days.

It was during our passage up the Channel that we crossed the Prime Meridian at 0 degrees longitude and returned to the eastern hemisphere. I was up at the forecastle with my GPS unit and was able to get a lucky shot of the screen just as we passed 00 deg, 00 min, 00.0 sec.

Finally, we were treated to a brilliant full moon for our evening passage. I tried to take some photos but couldn't really do the image justice.

03 March 2009

More Than Halfway!

I'm writing this post in the Barnes & Noble in the Neshaminy Mall outside of Philly. We arrived last night and will be sailing tomorrow around noon, which is a bit of a change from the schedule. Originally I had hoped to make a trip to Allentown to see my father and some other folks, but the weather and sailing schedule conspired against me.

For those of you who are keeping track, I passed the geographic halfway point on my trip in Norfolk. It's just about the exact longitudinal antipode to Singapore, give or take a few minutes. I checked my calendar this morning and today is the 72nd day of the trip and I have about fifty or so still to go. I can honestly report that the time has gone by very quickly and I'm very much looking forward to the next phase.

From Philadelphia we'll sail to Antwerp and then to Hamburg before stopping in Genoa and then transiting the Suez Canal. After that it's through the Red Sea and on to Jebel Ali in the UAE, which is the last scheduled port until I disembark in Singapore.

I'll do my best to post some more updates and photos while in Europe, but for the time being I'll leave you with a shot of a sunrise from our berth in New Orleans

Heavy Lifting in Norfolk

We arrived on schedule in Norfolk on the morning of the 28th. As expected, we made excellent time along the coast as we were able to gain considerable speed from the Gulf Stream. The usual working speed of the ship is about 19.5 knots, but we were able to consistently travel at 23 knots or a little more with the same engine speed. Our arrival was a bit embarrassing to this American as we had to wait about twenty minutes for the ship to be made fast to the wharf. This wasn't due to any technical difficulty, but rather to the intransigence of the dock crew to so much as touch a mooring line until 10:30, apparently because of some work rules. Instead of quickly securing the ship the two mooring teams stood next to their cars and talked, occasionally holding up a cell phone to indicate to the pilot and our crew that they would make no effort until the appointed time.

The Rickmers Jakarta is a heavy-lift cargo ship and as such is equipped with four cargo cranes, two of which, the No 2 and No 3 cranes, have a maximum lifting capacity of 320 tons each. The advertised maximum lift capacity of the two of them working in concert therefore is 640 tons. There are only a limited number of ships worldwide with this capability so the business of transporting heavy objects around the globe is a lucrative one for Rickmers. Here in Norfolk we had the opportunity to observe a tandem crane operation to load a large generator destined for Singapore.

Preparations for the lift began before our arrival. The object to be lifted, a generator manufactured by Siemens in North Carolina, was waiting on a track alongside the berth, cradled in a specially designed rail car. The weight of the generator was 340 tons, so it would require the use of the two cranes to safely bring it on board.

When working in tandem the usual crane hooks are removed and each crane is then attached to opposite ends of a large spreader bar. Cables are then slung from the spreader bar and used to secure the load for lifting.

Every aspect of this operation is challenging due to the sheer size and weight of the equipment involved. In order to remove the usual crane hooks the crew first placed specially designed cradles on the deck. Once these were in place the large hooks were lowered into the cradles which would serve to keep the hooks secure and upright once they were removed from the pulley. The size of these hooks becomes obvious when seen on deck and surrounded by the crew. Each one is almost as tall as a man and weighs several hundred kilos.

In order to release the hook the crew needs to remove a large pin which itself weighs many tens of kilos. This was accomplished through the use of sledgehammers and brute strength, abetted by some clever use of the smaller crane hook. Once the securing pin was loosed the pulley assembly and counterweight were attached to one end of the spreader bar. The process was repeated with the No 3 crane but only after the crew had finished installing a number of H-beams on the floor of the No 3 port-side hold. These beams would serve as a base for the generator to spread the heavy weight over a larger area.

It was very interesting to watch the preparations and we were impressed by the thoroughness and patience of the crew. This was all done in what can charitably be described as miserable weather; cold and raw with a steady rain and occasional sleet. There was also considerable time pressure to complete the lift during daylight so that we could depart for Philadelphia that night.

At approximately 16:30 all the preparations were complete and the spreader bar was lifted by the two cranes and positioned over the generator with the lifting cables dangling from shackles that themselves weigh about 120 kg each. The two crane operators need to work in perfect harmony to control the spreader and ultimately lift the cargo as each crane functions independently. The two operators, the ship's Bosun, Roderick and one of the more senior A/Bs, Joey, executed their tasks flawlessly.

The lift itself was slow and methodical. Once the spreader was over the generator the cables were affixed to the lifting points along the sides. With a barely perceptible motion the two cranes began to take on the weight of the load. As the cables tightened the ship tilted slightly to port but the Chief Officer compensated for this by transferring ballast water to the opposite tanks. Once the generator was lifted to a height sufficient to clear the ship's rail it was moved on board by the two cranes and lowered into the waiting hold. Unfortunately I wasn't able to observe the final descent as our view was blocked by the hatch cover.

Once inside the hold there was still much work to be done to secure the load for the long trip to Singapore. Obviously all cargo needs to be properly secured to prevent damage to either it or the ship while in transit, but one can only imagine the potential threat that such a large load could represent. Fortunately there are extensive guidelines on exactly how such loads need to be stowed, and the crew makes use of all manner of securing devices such as chains, cables, welded stays and lumber. The cranes also had to be restored to their usual configuration, so the earlier process was reversed and the hooks reattached and all was made secure for departure.

Heading to Norfolk

We left Houston early afternoon on the 24th and began our next leg to Norfolk. The Houston Ship Channel is narrow and both banks are heavily built up with all manner of refineries and processing plants. Entering the Gulf of Mexico by Galveston we sailed through the oil fields which are quite a dramatic sight in the evening when lights on the oil rigs highlight the horizon. The passage through the oil fields is simplified by the use of designated fairways. These are recommended passages for ships to use when transiting the area as oil rigs are normally prohibited from being anchored within them.

Once we were clear of the oil fields we turned due east and started our passage towards Florida. We are passing within a few miles of Key West and depending on visibility we might just be able to see the lighthouse. Cuba is a few more miles off our starboard and out of sight.

As we round Florida we will pick up the current of the Gulf Stream which roughly parallels the east coast of the US. This is not the most direct, straight-line route to our destination, but the advantage of the favorable current will shorten our sailing time by a few hours. Once again I'm impressed by the calculations that are required to navigate a ship efficiently and economically from point to point. Starting from the basics of distance to be traveled and latest possible time of arrival the Captain and his officers need to consider the prevailing winds and currents plus the latest weather forecasts and then factor in what is the most efficient speed they need to run the engine to meet their goal. Contrary winds and currents can be overcome to some extent by speeding up the engine, but this has the consequence of burning more fuel. In the case of our Panama Canal transit, the Captain ordered a faster speed at the beginning of our Pacific crossing so as to ensure our timely arrival at Balboa. The cost of the additional fuel was minor compared to the potential cost in time and money of missing our reserved transit slot.

23 February 2009

Houston, Texas

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon in Houston and I'm taking advantage of the wireless in the Seafarers' Center to catch up on some news. I've been amazed at how little I've missed knowing about what's going on in the world.

Tomorrow afternoon I'm looking forward to a visit from my brother, Dave, who is driving down from Dallas. He has a few small items for me and I have a bottle of some dubious Chinese whiskey for him.

Yesterday was busy as Dieter went to meet his wife at the airport. She had flown in from Germany and the two of them are enjoying a great American road trip to Philadelphia. She'll be flying back to Germany and Dieter will rejoin the ship.

Dale signed off yesterday after having completed his circumnavigation with and extra visit to New Orleans thrown in. It was great having him on board; he was interesting company and I'm sure others will be missing his daily satellite updates.

This afternoon or tomorrow we're scheduled to welcome a new passenger here in Houston. We've also heard that we'll have new passengers joining the ship in Philadelphia and Hamburg, so it will be a full complement through the Mediterranean.

18 February 2009

Our Ship in the Panama Canal

I'm indebted to one of the followers of this blog for this photo. It was a screen capture from the the high-resolution camera at the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal website:

Unfortunately I can't see any evidence of myself in this shot, but I believe you can just make out two white-shirted figures on the port side of the Bridge Deck. These would be the Captain and First Officer who were out there with the Pilot guiding the ship through the chambers.

At the rear you can clearly see the orange colored Free Fall Boat I wrote about earlier. For reference, my cabin is directly behind the upper portion.

Almost all of the white structures you see on our forward decks have been removed. They were windmill components that were offloaded in Galveston.

Some Additional Photos

Here are some additional photos from the past few weeks that I thought I'd post with a few quick comments:

This shot was taken through one of the rope guides in the bow of the ship as we were passing along the Mexican coast. I was in the forecastle trying to get some shots of the birds and flying fish when I heard a loud splashing noise right beneath me. I looked down to see a number of dolphins swimming along in our bow wake and the noise was from them leaping out of the water and crashing back. I only got a few shots before they left.

I've mentioned the beauty of the sunrises and sunsets and here's nice example of the former. This was taken as we crossed the Pacific and were heading towards Panama. The shot is of some clouds and their beautiful colors just as the first rays of the sun struck them. For those of us who live in cities simple sights like this, or the star-filled night skies are a rarity that we seldom have the chance to truly appreciate. I wish I could post a photo of a cloudless night sky so you could see just how many stars really are out there.

Here's what the sunrise looks like from the Bridge on a Pacific crossing. We had really excellent weather all the way from Japan to Panama and I was fortunate to have the crew call my cabin to alert me when the sunrise looked particularly promising.

Here's a shot from the sunset in Nagoya, Japan. I have a few sunset shots from the Pacific but most of them were not so interesting as we had a large number of mostly cloudless nights.

New Orleans

We arrived in New Orleans in the very early hours of Tuesday morning. After breakfast, Dale, Dieter and I decided to take advantage of some promising weather to head into the city. This proved to be a bit more difficult than we expected.

On reaching the gate we were informed by the local rent-a-cop that we were not allowed to leave unless we were escorted by a person holding a "TWIC card." For those of you not part of the transport or logistics industry, the TWIC card is the latest thing to make our borders safe; it is the Transportation Worker Identification Credential and is soon to be required by just about anyone who works within a secure area on a port. Anyone without this new credential who has business in a port area needs to be escorted by someone who has it.

Like so many large-scale programs, this one was implemented without all the details having been thought out. Right now, according to some of the workers I've spoken with, the real losers are the ships' crews who can't leave their ship without an escort. This can be a bit disheartening for people who've spent the better part of a month at sea and just want to get to Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

I'll leave that rant for now. The TWIC program won't be implemented in Houston until mid April so I'm hoping things will go smoother there.

We were finally able to leave when one of the cargo agents kindly arranged to escort us. The amusing part was that when we got to the gate there wasn't the slightest check of us or our IDs.

In the French Quarter we took a bit of time wandering the streets and observing the pre-Mardi Gras preparations, mostly the delivery of staggering amounts of beer. This was my first visit to the Big Easy so I enjoyed just taking in the sights.

After lunch and some book shopping we decided to spend the night in the city instead of returning to the ship. This was due to the potential complications and expense of getting back to the ship and the likelihood of similar difficulties if we tried to get return to the city on Wednesday. We got a very good deal on some rooms just a few blocks from the French Quarter.

Dinner was excellent. We went to a one of the smaller, friendly restaurants down one of the side streets, the name of which escapes me right now. The crowds of conventioneers and regular tourists were quite modest so the streets and restaurants were full and lively without being packed. I'm sure that will change next week when the drunken revelers descend for the big celebrations.

16 February 2009


It's Sunday morning in Galveston and Dieter, Dale and I are enjoying some coffee while I check email and post some blog updates. We docked early this morning and the crew is busy offloading the windmill parts that we picked up in Japan. This will be a short visit as we are scheduled to sail for New Orleans later this afternoon.

We should have some more time in New Orleans so I'll try to catch up on correspondence then. I hope you enjoy some of the pictures and I'll plan on adding some more in the coming days.

Panama Canal Transit

We passed through the Panama Canal yesterday, 11 February. The whole transit took about twelve hours from when we left our anchorage until we reached the open water of the Atlantic.

Our passage started very early with the Panama Canal pilots and crew coming on board about 03:00. The crew was on board to handle the ropes and cables that are attached to the "mules" - small electric locomotives on either side of the locks that pull the ships through and hold them steady in the chambers.

After a very slow passage through the anchorage and past the other ships waiting their turns we passed under the Bridge of the Americas around 04:30 and headed to the Miraflores Locks. The lock system is very interesting, especially when one considers that it has been in operation, essentially unchanged, for about 95 years. There are three sets of locks, the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks on the Pacific side, and the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side. Ships approaching from either direction need to be raised 26 meters to the level of the Gatun Lake and then lowered again the same amount when they reach the other side.

At each lock there are two channels for ships. The ship chambers are 33.53 meters wide and 304.8 meters long which limits the size of ships transiting the canal to a maximum width of 32.3 meters and a length of no more than 294.1 meters. Our beam is 27.8 meters, so we had a bit of space on each side. The "Panamax" container ships, so called because they are built to the absolute maximum capacity the locks can manage, fit inside the chambers with only inches to spare on the sides.

At each lock the ships enter the specified channel and wait their turn to move into the chamber. At Miraflores we entered the chamber, the gates closed behind us, and we waited until the water level raised us up to the entry level for the next chamber. Ahead of us, another ship had left the second chamber and was moving into the Miraflores Lake. We waited until the water level in the vacated chamber was lowered, then the doors to the second chamber were opened and we were moved forward with the help of the mules, our engine, and a tugboat behind us. Again the doors behind us closed and the water level was raised while the level of the chamber we just left was lowered to wait for the next ship.

Transiting from the Miraflores Lake to the Gatun Lake was accomplished at the Pedro Miguel locks. Here there is only one step and the process was basically the same as before. We approached the channel, two of the shore crew rowed out to pass the lead lines for the cables, the cables from the mules were made fast by the Panama crew on our deck and we were pulled and pushed into position before the chamber was flooded and we were raised upward.

Once we passed through the Pedro Miguel locks we made the slow journey along the Gaillard, or Culebra Cut, a 13.7 kilometer long, narrow waterway that leads to the Gatun Lake and was excavated from volcanic rock and hard clay. Throughout the entire trip one of the two pilots was on deck directing our helmsman and guiding our passage. On this narrow section he would make use of a series of waypoints on shore which used a light system to ensure he was on the correct course; if the light showed green, he was correct, white or red indicated that a correction was necessary. At the exact moment, taking into account the currents and our ship's length, he would issue the rudder and engine commands that brought us safely and smoothly around each turn.

Next we passed into Gatun Lake which was created by the damming of the Chagres River. This part of the journey was about 38 kilometers long and took about four hours to complete. Here we saw the first of the ships making their way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Due to the capacity of the locks and the narrowness of the Gaillard Cut it's necessary that the traffic in both directions be carefully managed to ensure the safety of the ships. The traffic passing from the Atlantic has to be timed so that the last ship from the Pacific has exited the Gaillard Cut before the first ship from the Atlantic has completed its journey across Gatun Lake.

According to the the information provided by the Panama Canal Authority brochure, the daily capacity of the Canal is 38 ships, which at the time of printing they were hoping to increase to 45. I'll have to check their website for the latest figures. Regardless, it is a complicated system of timing and coordination to maximize the throughput. The average, total transit time, including time at anchorage, is about 18 to 24 hours. In our case the company had booked a specific time slot for our transit at considerable additional expense. It was important that we arrived on time as re-booking can be costly and time consuming, so we had burned a little extra fuel across the Pacific to guarantee our punctuality.

We arrived at the Gatun locks right on schedule at around 12:30. Here we did the reverse of the process at the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks in that we entered the chambers and were lowered to the next level. The Gatun locks contain all three chambers, one after the other, so the ships drop an impressive 26 meters in a distance of about a kilometer. It was quite a sight to glance to our stern and see a huge container ship high above us in the first chamber.

From start to finish, the movement through the Gatun locks down to the Atlantic took almost two hours. On our way through the final channel at Limon Bay we saw a couple of caymans on the shore. Shortly after that we were in the waters of the Caribbean Sea.