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.