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.