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.

Across The Pacific

I'm writing this as we sail along the Pacific coasts of southern Mexico and the countries of Central America on our way to Panama. It's been over sixteen days sailing since we left Nagasaki and I thought a summary of the whole experience would be more interesting than posting all of my daily entries over that time.

My first impression is that the Pacific is huge. I know that sounds a bit simple, but the true scale of the place really becomes evident while sailing all the way across. During the whole passage I only saw three other ships; two car-carriers heading back to Japan and one other ship on its way from Hawaii to Los Angeles. On most days there wasn't any indication of another ship within a hundred miles.

After a day or two of somewhat rougher seas when we left Japan, the weather was extremely pleasant. Earlier in the voyage some of the crew had expressed their concern that we might encounter some heavy weather across the Pacific based on their previous passage; this is fairly common during this time of year. We were able to take advantage of a favorable break between systems that allowed us to sail in almost preternatural calm.

We did encounter some rougher seas for the better part of one day as we passed along the Mexican coast. According to the Captain this is to be expected in this part of the ocean; there is a strong wind that comes from the northeast through this corridor. There was some spectacular spray as the waves hit our port bow and washed over our gangways.

In planning the routes the officers make full use of all the technology available to them and one of these is a commercial weather service that provides recommended routes based on long-range weather forecasts. In our case, they recommended a modified rhumb-line to great circle route that took us farther south than a true great circle route would have. The difference in distance was negligible and the calm seas and clement weather were of great advantage to the crew.

With respect to life on board, the pace of work while at sea is much more regular than in port. In the latter there is always much work to be done in a very short amount of time and operations continue around the clock. In contrast, the workdays at sea impressed me as being much more routine and predictable. The Chief Officer took full advantage of the fine weather in setting out the work schedule for the crew. Under the direction of the ship's Bosun they spent many days in catching up on all the required maintenance and repair tasks. There was a lot of scraping and painting but also some high-wire work when a few of them went aloft to grease the cables of the ship's heavy lift cranes. They started at the top of the crane tower and then worked their way down the length of the cables with the aid of some bosuns chairs and carabiners.

The officers kept busy with their tasks as well. It seems like the paperwork never ends but at least the multiple days of uninterrupted, smooth sailing gave them the time to get caught up.

As a passenger I found the two-plus weeks to be extremely peaceful and relaxing. Dale, Dieter and I spent considerable amounts of time on the Bridge poring over the charts, tracking our progress and counting off intermediate milestones like the crossing of the International Date Line back on the 28th of January. It was interesting to observe the topography of the ocean floor, especially around the Hawaiian Islands ( we noted that Google Earth has a new service for exploring the ocean floor; I think we'll all be checking that out first chance we get ).

I spent considerable time reading and working on some photographs. On most days I enjoyed watching the sunset from the Pilot Bridge and woke up early a few mornings to catch a particularly promising sunrise. One night, off the Mexican coast, I was treated to the sight of a pod of dolphins swimming by and crossing in front of the setting sun; I doubt Disney could have orchestrated a more picture-perfect ending to a day.

Another treat that we so rarely see nowadays on land was an unimpeded view of the night sky. In the middle of the ocean, far from any competing light sources the constellations display their true brilliance. The other night the almost-full moon was so bright that it was casting shadows on the deck and even I could identify some of the more prominent stars and planets. Watching a full moon set on a mirror-smooth sea just before dawn was another great moment.

Besides the dolphins, of which we've seen quite a few these past couple of days, including a few swimming right under our bow, we've also seen our share of seagulls and flying fish. The seagulls worked very cleverly with the ship in their pursuit of food, such as flying fish; they would take advantage of the ship's passage through the wind by gliding along in our port side wake and then diving full-speed into the water to snag a meal. It's impressive to think how sophisticated their vision must be in order to see their prey below the surface and be able to catch it while accounting for refraction of the water, the movement of the prey and their own dive. Sometimes two or more would make a simultaneous dash towards the water only to have one or the other break off the pursuit and pull up at the last instant.

Along the Costa Rica/Panama coast we were accompanied by a contingent of about fifty seabirds that used our masts as resting perches as they waited for the flying fish to dash out in front of our bow. The water was very smooth so when a school of flying fish took off it was easy to see. They would dash out en masse, flitting just above the water. The birds would dive in pursuit, sometimes catching them in mid flight and other times diving after them into the sea. It's amazing how far the flying fish can travel through the air; some of their flights seemed to be in excess of one hundred meters.

I saw two turtles crossing our path, although I'm sure they were buffeted aside by our bow wave. I wonder what they think when they see a ship bearing down on them? According to one of the crew they just pull in their heads and pop up in our wake where they continue on with their journey.

The day before our Panama Canal transit the Captain decided to take advantage of the time we'd won coming across the Pacific. We stopped the engines and drifted with the wind and the currents from about 13:30 until 02:30 in the morning. The crew took advantage of the calm weather to finish some tasks and we passengers just enjoyed the type of weather you normally only see in travel brochures.

Overall it's been a long passage, but the time has passed reasonably quickly for me. I can honestly say that I never felt bored for a lack of something to see or something new to learn. We're all looking forward to our transit through the Panama Canal in a few days and after that our next port call in Galveston before heading to New Orleans and Houston.

Food On Board

I've made some passing references to the high quality of food on board so I thought it might be helpful to provide some more details to give a more complete picture.

There are three dining areas on the A-Deck; the Officers' Mess, the Crew Mess and the Duty Mess. The Crew Mess is the largest and consists of some long tables with chairs for the crew. The men serve themselves buffet style from large serving dishes. The Duty Mess is next to the Crew Mess and this is just a smaller dining area for the crew where coveralls and work boots are allowed.

The Officers' Mess is where we passengers take our meals. It's a nice sized dining room with two round tables. In the middle of each table is a rotating circular plate on which are placed the condiments and all the smaller plates of cold cuts, cheeses, bread, etc that accompany most meals. Five or six people can eat comfortably at each table.

The kitchen itself is the responsibility of the Chief Cook, Joel. He joined the ship in Xingang when our previous cook signed off. Joel is responsible for preparing all of the meals for everyone on board, twenty six crew and three passengers. His day starts around 06:00 with preparations for breakfast and continues until the final cleaning of the kitchen after dinner.

He is also responsible for ordering the provisions for the voyage and preparing the menus. He has to take into account the length of time at sea and the number of meals he needs to prepare. Using some guidelines he prepares a list for the Captain's approval after which the groceries and supplies are purchased and brought on board.

His kitchen is well appointed with cooking and prep surfaces, ovens, sinks and refrigerators. The grill and stovetops are mounted on gimbals to keep everything horizontal despite the rolling of the ship and all of the countertops have raised barriers to keep pots and pans from sliding off.

Meal times on the ship are fixed; the only exception so far has been for parties. Breakfast is served from 07:30 to 08:30 and consists of numerous options: eggs to order, sausage or bacon, an assortment of cereals, breads, jams, jellies, usually fresh fruit or yoghurt. Lunch is usually the most substantial meal consisting of a soup followed by a main course of a meat and vegetable, usually with an accompaniment of potatoes in some form or another and is served from 12:00 to 13:00. Dinner is served from 17:30 to 18:30. Coffee and tea are available at each meal along with water and fruit juices. The crew also has twenty-minute coffee breaks at 10:00 and 15:00.

Overall the variety and quality has been excellent. We benefit from the fact that the ship has ample storage space for provisions; there are several walk-in freezers, refrigerators and chillers on the Upper Deck.

The risk to the passengers is that it's very easy to eat too much as the portions are reckoned for the crew who spend their days actually working. I've noticed that some of my clothes seem a bit snugger after a little more than a month at sea; perhaps it's just the salt air causing them to shrink.

Boat Lag

About every other night we've advanced the ship's clock another hour and we'll continue to do that as we cross the multiple time zones on our way to the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal at Balboa. In his round-the-world TV series, Michael Palin mentioned this phenomenon of "boat lag" that comes about from these ongoing time changes, how it was tiring because almost each day you had to wake up an hour earlier. It's kind of like going through Daylight Savings Time changes for two weeks.

I was curious as to how the crew managed this, whether one watch was shorter each night they adjusted the ship's clock, but it was explained to me that they advance the clock by twenty minutes during each of the three, four-hour watches at night so each watch is shortened by an equal amount.

Helpful Reference

Before leaving Singapore I was lucky to stumble across a very helpful paperback: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, edited by I.C.B. Dear and Peter Kemp, ISBN: 978-0-19-920568-4. In addition to being a first class reference book with all the expected definitions and illustrations of shipboard equipment, it's also filled with many biographies of interesting explorers and navigators plus histories of famous ships and accounts of many overlooked nautical events. It's very well cross-referenced and indexed and it's provided me with a great many hours of enjoyable and educational reading. It's been a terrific adjunct to the first-hand information the officers and crew have so generously shared.

Lifeboat Drills

In a short while we'll have one of our regular muster and lifeboat drills. We have these at fairly regular intervals and as passengers our roles are fairly simple; show up at the mustering station on the A-deck with helmet, life vest and perhaps the immersion suit; after all are properly accounted for proceed the C-deck and clamber into the Free Fall Boat (FFB). In the event of an actual emergency, follow the instructions of the Chief Officer.

As you can imagine, safety is a paramount concern of all on board since assistance can be a long time coming. In most cases, the crew is dependent on themselves and they need to be prepared for a wide range of eventualities.

The Free Fall Boat is our emergency escape mechanism in the event we would have to abandon ship. It's a rather futuristic looking, fully enclosed, safety-orange colored craft mounted on an angled launch at the aft end of the ship. I've seen identical or similar craft on most of the other larger cargo vessels we've passed.

Since the rear hatch is conveniently located right outside my window I can easily see the dimensions painted on its stern: 7.4 meters in length, 2.66 in width and a height of 1.07. Into this small space there are seats for 36 persons. The majority of the seats are arrayed two abreast down both sides of the boat, facing aft towards the entry hatch. The craft is pointed nose downwards at a fairly steep angle, about 45 degrees, to facilitate its launch, so entering it is like walking down a steep stairway.

The seats are in two levels, with 31 of them on the lower level and facing essentially "up", or back towards the entry hatch, so it takes a bit of agility to swing into our assigned places. Each passenger and crew member has an assigned seat. The seats are very snug and equipped with a four-point, seatbelt-type harness that we need to secure. The idea being that in the event of a real emergency we would drop backwards into the water from the launching mechanism and the harnesses would keep us from bouncing around and injuring ourselves. A rough estimate is that it's about an eight meter drop from the nose of the craft to the waterline.

There are also five seats at the rear of the craft perched above the lower level seats with one facing forward. This is where the craft's driver, normally the Chief Officer and the officers would sit. From the outside they are in a raised cupola about a third of the length of the whole craft. The boat is equipped with a motor and outfitted with communication and signaling equipment. There are also emergency stores of food, water and first aid equipment. Each member of the crew is trained in how to launch the FFB and start its engine.

Once the officer in charge of our drill is satisfied with our performance we unhook our harnesses, being careful to leave them arranged so that they are readily accessible for the next drill or real emergency, and then we climb up and out the hatch and back onto the deck. We've also been briefed on the operation of the rescue boat, the launching of the life rafts, and the operation of the emergency generator. There is a lot of emphasis on safety and emergency preparedness on board since help can be a long time coming.

This is pretty much the end of our drill as passengers; the crew then usually continues with various firefighting and rescue drills or a procedure review.