21 January 2009

Tracking Our Ship

Since we'll be away from internet connections for some time I wanted to post a few reminders about how to best track our ship as we make our way towards the US.

The simplest way is to go to the Rickmers website, www.rickmers-linie.com and click on the "Schedules & Routes" tab. On this page you can download a PDF file with the most up-to-date schedule via the small icon to the right.

To see our current status, click on the world map in the box labeled "Ship Positions" on the lower left. This will take you to the Purplefinder website and the fleet details for all the Rickmers' ships.

Once you see the world map and all the labels for Rickmers' fleet, click on Maps > Asset Map on the top toolbar. On the next screen select "Rickmers Jakarta" from the dropdown Asset Name list.

You'll now see a world map with our current position indicated by a little, green icon representing the ship along with a track showing our course over the past thirty days or so. If you click on the ship icon you'll see our current location, e.g. "Proximity: Nagasaki"

You can also zoom in for a more detailed view of the current location. Please note that the Purplefinder site can sometimes be a bit slow, so be patient.

Another good resource will be Dale's website, http://dalestenseth.blogspot.com . He has a satellite phone and will be making regular updates while we're at sea.

I've added a few useful links to the left. Let me know if there are others that would be helpful.

All for the moment. Thanks to everyone who's written with their words of encouragement. I'm really enjoying this little adventure and I'm glad to have this means to share a bit with all of you.


Good morning from Nagasaki. Today is Wednesday the 21st of January and depending on how things go this might be the last post for a while. Once we leave Nagasaki, probably sometime tomorrow or the day after, it will be about three weeks before I'll be able to post again. We start our long stretch across the Pacific and our next port will be in Texas around the middle of February.

This has been a nice break from the ship and a good opportunity to see a bit more of Japan. I'm glad that Dale, Dieter and I opted to take this little side trip.

We left Nagoya after a lengthy interview with Japanese immigration officials; apparently they deal with very few entries from ship-based passengers and none at all from passengers aboard cargo vessels. The one woman agent did express some jealousy after seeing the trip brochure on my laptop.

All told it took about an hour before they issued the entry visas and then we had to make a stop at customs before heading into Nagoya. The local agent was very helpful in assisting with securing our hotel and train reservations. Nice guy, but I think he was quite relieved when we reassured him we could handle the rest on our own and he was free to leave.

For the trip to Nagasaki we boarded one of the high-speed shinkansen bullet-trains in Nagoya and rode about three and a half hours until Hakata where we transferred to a limited express train for the remaining two hours to Nagasaki.

This was my first experience on the shinkansen. Very fast and comfortable, but no indication of the speed as we had in the Chinese express train.

The last part of the trip was actually much more scenic as our express train made its way along the coast to Nagasaki. The pace wasn't as hectic as with the bullet-train and we passed through a number of interesting and scenic fishing towns.

We wandered around the central part of Nagasaki yesterday evening and it's a fairly compact city and easy to get around using their system of somewhat outdated trams. The price for the trams is right, though; just Y100 for any trip regardless of length.

Today our plan is to look at some of the other sights and I at least need to do some shopping to stock up on some more books for the long trip.

20 January 2009

Panama Canal Stuff

For those of you who might be interested, the official website for the Panama Canal is www.pancanal.com

From the front page you can see the links to the webcams for the locks.

Right now we're scheduled to go through on the 10th and 11th of February, so maybe you can watch our ship as we sail through.

More later...

19 January 2009

The Big Update

Greetings again from Nagoya. The following is an extended post from the last two weeks. I've been keeping a fairly regular journal of the trip in the expectation that I would be able to update more regularly. Unfortunately China proved to be a bit more of a challenge than I expected.


Rougher Seas
(written on 2 January 2009)

We left our anchorage off Hong Kong Island around 03:00 on the morning of the 1st. Unfortunately we didn't get much of a chance to see the fireworks show in Victoria Harbour; our anchorage was off the western end of Hong Kong Island, a little southwest of Green Island, if my map reading is correct.

The seas have been decidedly rougher for this stretch; in fact they've been the roughest I've seen so far. For the most part, my cabin is relatively comfortable; I'm closer to midship, so I don't sense the rolling as much as the other passengers one deck above and farther outboard. I did see a beer bottle (fortunately empty!) go tumbling from my table, but otherwise it's fairly stable. I know that the others see items sliding around much more and in fact take precautions of relocating their laptops to the floor so they don't go crashing down.

Shortly after noon on the 1st we had a New Year's celebration with the officers and crew. Like the Christmas party it was held in the crew mess and once again our Cook did an outstanding job. He's scheduled to leave the ship when we get to Xingang in about a week. His replacement will certainly have a high standard to meet.

In the late afternoon I went up on the bridge with my camera to try to catch some shots of the larger waves striking the bow. It was a dramatic sight; the bow would catch one of the larger waves and there would be a shudder felt throughout the ship. Next the cascade of water and foam would crash over the bow and off to the sides. The forces involved must be truly staggering. I've been told that we can expect larger and more impressive waves when we get to the northern Pacific in a few weeks; I'll be looking forward to that.

In the photo you can see one of the better shots. For scale, the forward crane in the center of the ship is about 19 meters (about 62 feet) tall from the deck to the top of the mast and has a maximum lifting capacity of 35 tons. It's located about 155 meters (around 500 feet) forward of the bridge from where I was shooting.

As for any seasickness, I'm happy to report that so far I've been fine. Fortunately, despite the significant pitching and rolling, it's been mostly in one plane, so it's not quite so disorienting. At least that's my theory for the moment. Our progress has been straight in to the oncoming swells, so there hasn't been much side-to-side rolling.

I'm not sure how the severity of the seas measures up; my references are limited to what I've seen so far on this trip, but the crew seems impressed with some of the waves, and according to the log entries we were experiencing Wind Forces of 9 and Sea Scales of 8 with extensive pitching and rolling. Perhaps the more nautically minded can comment on what that means in relative terms.

As I'm writing this on the morning of the 2nd the seas are noticeably calmer but still quite severe. The frequency of the larger waves has abated and there are only the occasional shuddering crashes into the bow. Our speed has been reduced to about 15 knots from our usual speed of 18 or 19.

The 3rd Officer told us that we might be able to increase speed a little later as the forecast was improving, so it looks like we'll reach Shanghai sometime around midday tomorrow.
On the way to Dalian
(written on 5 January 2009)

Shanghai was a bit of a disappointment because of the weather. We arrived on the evening of 3rd and docked at the Luojing Wharf which lies farther up the Yangtze River, just past Shanghai.

Some of you might have read on Dale's website that he'll be gone for about a week. He left the ship here in Shanghai and will be rejoining when we return. It's not a bad idea, and I've heard from some of the crew that this is a fairly common option for passengers on this route; they leave the ship on the first call in Shanghai, travel around China for a week or so, and then rejoin on the second call.

Dietmer, Hubert and I were able to get a ride from the wharf with a business associate of Dale's who met him at the dock. He very kindly dropped us at the end station of one of the metro lines so we could make our way to the city.

The weather was really quite dreary. It was cold, a little above freezing, but with a heavy fog and mist that transformed into a light rain now and again. Not the best weather for wandering around the city.

We took the metro to the People's Square station and made the short walk to the Shanghai Museum. We spent a bit of time looking at the exhibits, especially the bronzes, ceramics and currency.

Next we made our way to Nanjing East Road, the main shopping street in Shanghai. It's really amazing to see the number of shopping malls, boutiques, restaurants and so on. We stopped for some dumplings and soup as a late lunch and then walked down to the Bund.

Again, the weather made this a less than enjoyable experience. I really enjoy the architecture of the older buildings and find their collective history very interesting. Nowadays a lot of the older finance houses have been transformed to accommodate restaurants and bars but you can still imagine the old "taipans" staring out from their offices waiting for news of their cargoes.

Across the Huangpu River is Pudong and its collection of imposing edifices like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the 88-storey Jinmao Tower. On this day, however, the cloud cover, rain and mist decapitated all them at about 100 meters and imposed a gray haze on that which was still visible.

I felt a bit sorry for the photographers who take pictures of the out-of-towners with the Pudong skyline as a backdrop, and for all those who were visiting and could only see a collection of indistinct shapes across the river.

We were impressed with the amount of barge traffic on the Huangpu. It was quite a sight to see a steady line of heavily laden coal barges steaming upriver four abreast with an equal number of similar vessels coming in the opposite direction.

Thoroughly chilled, we started to make our way back towards People's Square via Fuzhou Road. We made a quick stop in the Foreign Language Bookstore and glanced inside some of the many shops specializing in paper, brushes and other calligraphic supplies before retreating to a coffee shop.

After a short break we made our way back to the metro, rode to the end station at Fujin Road and caught a taxi back to the wharf where we hopped on one of the shuttle buses that took us back to the ship.

This morning we cast off about 06:00 and are now heading back down the Yangtze on our way to Dalian. I'll be checking on our arrival after the Pilot has left the bridge.

A few hours outside Dalian
(written on 6 January 2009)

I'm writing this at about 09:00 local time as we sail steadily towards Dalian. The weather has cleared very nicely and we're enjoying some sunshine, although the air temperature is around freezing and the water temperature only a little above that. I'll have to make sure to bring my immersion suit with me for our next lifeboat drill.

We're scheduled to arrive in Dalian around 14:00. I'm not sure yet what the plan will be once we arrive, nor how much time we will have in port. I understand that we'll be berthing a good distance from the city, but I'm hoping to be able to get to an internet cafe and update the website and check any emails.

The next two weeks or so will be very busy. After Dalian we head to Xingang and then back to Shanghai. The schedule right now has us departing Shanghai on the 16th when we'll head to Nagoya and then Nagasaki before beginning our long trip across the Pacific. We're scheduled to depart Nagasaki on the 23rd and then it will be about three weeks before our next call in Freeport, Texas, right before Houston.

I'm hoping that I'll be able to provide some further updates from Japan, but as you can see from my recent posts, internet access hasn't been as readily available as I'd hoped given our short stays in port. Just a reminder that you can follow our progress by going to the Rickmers-Linie website ( www.rickmers-linie.com ) and checking the most recent schedule. Also, Dale will be updating his blog via his satellite phone, so you can get additional updates from him at dalestenseth.blogspot.com .

The time in port is extremely hectic for the crew as they are fully occupied with the loading and discharging of cargo. It's a tough job because they are under constant time pressure to meet the sailing deadlines. In some ports, because of the tides for example, a missed departure will put them at least a half day behind schedule. Of course their work is complicated by delays in cargo reaching the ship, or cargo arriving in the wrong sequence for loading.

Impressions of Dalian
(written on 7 January 2009)

It's late afternoon and Dieter and I just returned to the ship after having spent the day in Dalian. We left the ship this morning after breakfast and were driven into town by the local port agent and his driver. On leaving the port we had to report to an immigration checkpoint at the main gate. The security was much higher than what we experienced in Shanghai and the agent explained that it was because the port belonged to the Chinese military. In many ways the whole atmosphere was very reminiscent of the days of driving through the former DDR. The uniforms are similar, along with the dour expressions of the guards.

After we left the immediate port area it was about a 30 minute drive to the city itself. We were dropped off on a side street near the main center of the town and given explicit instructions to be back at that same spot by 15:00. Properly briefed, Dieter and I began walking down the main thoroughfare.

Dalian is rated as one of China's "most livable" cities. It certainly makes an impression on the visitor. There are plenty of new hotels and shopping malls, and construction of office blocks and new housing is booming. It will be interesting to see the impact of the current world economic challenges on places like Dalian; whether Chinese domestic consumption will be able to offset the decline in US purchases.

The weather was a huge improvement over Shanghai. It was below freezing as evidenced by the ice on some of the streets, but there wasn't any wind to speak of and the sun was shining brilliantly, albeit somewhat filtered by the perpetual haze that seems to hang over most cities in China.

After walking a bit we stopped for coffee at Starbucks and I tried to update the blog, but for some reason I was unable to add any new posts. No doubt the authorities have designated me as some sort of subversive and are doing everything in their power to avoid the truth from coming out. I'll have to try again when we get to Xingang or Shanghai, but I'm sure no later than one of the stops in Japan.

Traffic in Dalian, like a lot of cities in China, is a bit of an adventure. For pedestrians, a green light means they need to run quickly across the street since taxi drivers seem to be uniformly colorblind. Red lights seem to be taken more as a recommendation than a command by most drivers, so it's the brave or foolish person who trusts that an oncoming vehicle will stop simply because the light indicates he should.

The number of high-end automobiles was pretty impressive considering everyone here is at least nominally a communist. German marques seem to be the preferred choice as we were constantly dodging Mercedes, large BMWs and latest model Audis. VW was well represented along with Buick and one aging stretch Lincoln Continental. We also saw one Ferrari as we were driving back to the ship. It didn't have any license plate, but I suppose everyone who needs to know is aware who the owner is.

Wandering down some of the side streets I indulged in my weakness for street food. The first stop was a woman selling skewered tofu, fishballs, and mushrooms that were cooked in a soup of boiling chilies; really very good. Next stop was another woman who was selling what I think was squid and onions cooked in a batter on an iron mold, sort of like a waffle iron, but open on the top so she had to constantly rotate them as they cooked. The finished dough balls were a little smaller than golf balls and very hot, but also quite tasty.

My third course, so to speak, was skewered meat (pedigree uncertain) cooked over coals by a pair of Muslim Uighurs in a food stall along one of the open air markets. It was somewhat similar to the Malay-style satay, but I have to admit that at least one piece of meat was pretty much inedible. The rest wasn't too bad, albeit a bit chewy.

Our final challenge for the day was to track down a medicated salve at a pharmacy. Our first problem was that we didn't have the faintest idea how to identify a pharmacy. In one shop, that may or may not have had what we needed, the salesgirl presented us with a bilingual phrase book to try to identify what it was we were looking for. Regrettably the phrase book was Russian-Chinese, so that wasn't much help. Luckily we passed by a foreign language bookstore where we were able to look up "pharmacy" in an English-Chinese dictionary and ask the sales staff for some assistance. A very helpful young lady kindly took us into the street and pointed us towards a pharmacy a short distance away.

The pharmacy staff was most helpful and patient with us as we tried to explain what it was we were looking for. Finally, after examining all sorts of ointments, plasters, creams, etc we found what we hope we were looking for. The English translation is promising, but it still remains somewhat mysterious.

We wandered around some more before heading back to our rendezvous. Due to an error on my part, we were some distance from where we thought we were, and it was already 14:45. Taking my cue from Blanche DuBois, I was able to rely on the kindness of strangers to point us in the right direction and we were able to hustle back and meet our driver right on time, give or take a minute.

Approaching Xingang
(written 9 January 2009)

The pilot is on board and we're moving steadily towards our berth in Xingang. The sheer number of ships in these waters is truly impressive; looking out to the horizon from my cabin window I can see at least fifty cargo vessels.

A short while ago the Captain drew our attention to a capsized ship off our starboard. We went to the Pilot Deck and saw a large, Chinese cargo ship lying on its side in the middle of the shipping lane. He was rather dismissive of the crew's competence to allow such a thing to happen.

According to the Chief Officer the ship will be spending about two and a half days in Xingang to discharge and load a lot of cargo; we're taking on more than 4,000 tons.

It's almost 11:30 as I write this and we've just tied up at the dock. The usual procedure for securing the ship to the dock is that the tugs slowly push the ship into position and then when the ship is close enough a member of the crew throws a weighted line to the team waiting on shore. This line is attached to the heavy rope used for mooring, called the hawser. The docking team pulls the hawser ashore and loops the end over one of the bollards, the heavy protrusions that are spaced evenly along the dock.

In the other ports there were usually four or five shore crew waiting at each end of the dock as we pulled close. Here in Xingang, however, there were only two guys at the stern end (couldn't see what was happening at the bow) and they didn't appear to be very confident in what they were doing. Normally, once the lead line is thrown, the shore crew grabs it and quickly pull the hawser towards them. While some of the team make the hawser fast on the bollard, the others work to loose the lead line and get ready to pull the subsequent mooring ropes from the ship. These ropes are very heavy and difficult to handle especially when they are wet and the weather is as cold as it is today.

Anyway, it appears that the shore crew didn't pull the hawser fast enough and now one of the lines is looped under one of the cushioning bolsters. They were attempting to release it when I decided to retreat to the warmth of my cabin. It's brilliantly sunny today; the sky is crystal clear and a brilliant blue, but the air is quite chilly, especially when standing on the exposed deck.
The Forbidden City
(written 11 January 2009)

It's mid morning and we're just pulling away from the dock in Xingang. It's another clear, cold day with very little wind and an infinitely blue sky. We're on the way to Shanghai for our second call; maybe the weather will have improved since our earlier visit.

Yesterday Dieter and I spent a few hours exploring the Forbidden City. On Friday afternoon, after we docked, we decided to head to Beijing for a day of sightseeing. Friday evening the local agent arranged to have us driven to the train station in nearby Tanggu where we boarded an express train bound for the Beijing South Train Station.

The train turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was a very modern, high speed express train, very similar to the Japanese or French versions. On the way to Tianjin we reached a respectable 160 kmh, but on the stretch to Beijing we went as fast as 332 kmh! The whole trip of about 160 km was finished in less than an hour at a one-way ticket price of RMB70 (about USD10).

Arriving in Beijing we opted to stay at the Hao Yuan Guest House based on a recommendation in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The hotel is in one of the rapidly disappearing "hutongs", the narrow alleyways and low houses that used to dominate the Beijing landscape. Our rooms were very comfortable and opened on to the outer courtyard, immediately behind the main gate. There was a second, inner courtyard to the rear of the hotel surrounded by some larger rooms.

The hotel is very conveniently located in the Dong Cheng District of Beijing, quite near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We spent some time wandering around one of the major shopping streets and pedestrian zones before opting for dinner in a Muslim restaurant. After that it was a very cold walk back to the hotel.

On Saturday morning we set off for the Forbidden City right after breakfast. It was a fairly short walk and again we were treated to some excellent weather. The temperature was below freezing, but the sky was crystal clear and not a hint of wind. After entering from the eastern side we first made our way to the main gate which opens onto Tiananmen Square beneath the iconic portrait of the late Chairman Mao. There was a chaotic but cheerful bustle as families lined up to have their photos taken all under the watchful eyes of the numerous military and police security guards.

Making our way back inside we bought our tickets and rented some automated audio tour guides and entered the Palace Museum itself. This was the former residence of the imperial families of the Ming and Qing dynasties along with their myriad of servants, aides, advisers, kitchen staff, factotums, consorts, concubines, eunuchs and other assorted hangers-on.

The scale of the place is overwhelming and as one proceeds from the respective gates, through the courtyards and on to the various halls, one can't help but imagine what it must have been like for those granted access to the emperor for the first time. The audio guide and the various plaques on the structures did a fair job of explaining the significance and purpose of each building, but there also seemed to be a lot of energy expended on ensuring the proper pecking order within the walls of this city. The commentary at the various Eastern and Western Palaces was replete with accounts of infighting, intrigue, tragic deaths and continual toadying for favor and perhaps relocation to a more favored accommodation.

Most of the exhibits were rather modest and after a while the different palaces started to look strikingly similar. Perhaps one reason was my complete lack of familiarity with many of the referenced personages and their respective places in history. I started to get the distinct impression that most of the residents of the Forbidden City occupied their time with rather frivolous pursuits and intrigues interrupted only by a myriad of imperial rituals and obligations.

After having our fill of culture and history we spent a few more hours wandering the streets and neighborhoods surrounding the whole Forbidden City complex before making our way back to the shopping district to buy a few souvenirs. Finally we caught a taxi to the train station and bought our tickets for the return trip to Tanggu.

On to Japan
(written 16 January 2009)

Our second stop in Shanghai was brief and highlighted by the arrival and departure of passengers and crew. Much to our collective disappointment, Hubert had to return to Germany, cutting his trip short about halfway through. It was for medical reasons; nothing immediately serious, but with the long trip across the Pacific ahead of us it was deemed the prudent thing to do rather than risk more dire problems a long distance from anywhere. The Captain and the Rickmers team in Germany plus the local agent made arrangements to put him on a flight to Frankfurt. Dieter and I accompanied him to the airport where we saw him through the safety checkpoint.

Dale rejoined the ship after his excursion to Xi'an to see the terra cotta warriors. You can read his account at his blog. It sounds like a great trip and I'll definitely have to make plans to visit myself someday.

There were also a few crew changes at Shanghai; our 2nd Engineer, Electrician and Steward all signed off and headed to their respective homes. Their replacements arrived shortly before our sailing. Our Cook had signed off a few days earlier in Xingang; so far his replacement seems to be doing a good job, but some of the crew seem to think he's not quite up to standard yet.

Today is a beautiful day to be on the water; smooth sailing with some high clouds. We're scheduled to arrive at Nagoya this evening but won't berth until tomorrow. We've also been informed that the Japanese immigration authorities don't work on the weekend so Dale, Dieter and I will be stuck on the ship until Monday. This is disappointing as we had been looking forward to some time on shore. The Captain has been in contact with the Nagoya agent to see if any other arrangements are possible, but right now it looks like our time on shore might be limited to a short visit on Monday. Hopefully we won't encounter similar difficulties in Nagasaki.

It's hard to believe how fast the time is passing. I look at this document and realize it's been over two weeks since I last posted anything and a full month since I first came on board. It's been a great trip so far with a nice combination of new things to see and do along with plenty of quiet and free time to read, write and work on some photos. The port activities are interesting to observe as is the daily rhythm of life on a ship at sea. Since there really isn't a workweek, I've pretty much lost track of what day it is; as the 2nd Officer said in a good natured way, "At sea, every day is Monday, and at home every day is Sunday."

Yesterday I received an updated schedule which has us transiting the Panama Canal on the 10th and 11th of February. If anyone is interested I believe there is a live webcam of the Canal where you can watch the ships. You can follow our progress and position via the Rickmers website or one of the other ship tracking services; I'll be sure to stand on the Pilot Deck as we make our way through.

We're scheduled to arrive in Houston on the 17th and depart on the 21st, followed by New Orleans (22 - 24 Feb), Norfolk (27 - 28 Feb) and Philadelphia (28 Feb - 4 Mar).

Nagoya Update
(written 18 January 2009)

Unfortunately the earlier information we received was correct; we haven't been allowed on shore here in Nagoya as the immigration offices are closed on Saturday and Sunday. This has been a minor disappointment, but we have been able to spend some additional time observing the very efficient Japanese cargo operations.

Compared to the other ports I've seen so far, Nagoya is almost frighteningly clean. The tug that nudged us up to the pier looked as if it had been freshly painted that morning and the entire dock area is continually being swept by the workers. It's as if they are fundamentally unable to accept any untidiness in their work space.

I watched the crews unloading what appeared to be aluminum ingots from a ship tied up behind us and it was a veritable ballet of fork lifts and trailers. The ship itself was very impressive; a purpose built craft with massive gantries spanning her entire deck and a semi-automated crane rig that allowed the crew to offload sixteen pallets in each load and place them on the wharf for the battalion of forklifts.

This morning at breakfast Dale, Dieter and I decided that we will leave the ship tomorrow morning and travel to Nagasaki by train. It seems to be a better plan in that it will give us a bit more time to explore Nagoya and also Nagasaki. We're scheduled to go to the immigration offices here in Nagoya early tomorrow. After that we'll make our way to the train station and the tourist information office to see about train and hotel reservations. Our plan is to spend Monday night in Nagoya and then travel to Nagasaki on Tuesday. It's about six hours by train so this we should get to Nagasaki by Tuesday afternoon. Right now our ship is scheduled to depart Nagasaki on Thursday the 22nd, so that should give us the better part of one and half days to explore the city.

Greetings from Nagoya!

Apologies for the lack of posts; I wasn't able to update from China, but tonight I'm in Nagoya with a decent broadband connection. I'll post a longer update from the past two weeks in a few hours.