Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Report: Freighter Tour - Part 2

I've tried to describe my freighter experience in the Logbook and Photos, but I thought a video Report might really help do the job. So, I took my camera along when I went for a walk around the ship today. In addition to showing what a lap around the main deck is like, I have included brief stops in some of the common areas, the bridge, etc. For file-handling purposes, I have split this Report into two parts. Here is Part 2:

Report: Freighter Tour - Part 1

I've tried to describe my freighter experience in the Logbook and Photos, but I thought a video Report might really help do the job. So, I took my camera along when I went for a walk around the ship today. In addition to showing what a lap around the main deck is like, I have included brief stops in some of the common areas, the bridge, etc. For file-handling purposes, I have split this Report into two parts. Here is Part 1:

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Logbook: Freighter Days VII

Freighterdaysvii1Day 23 - January 27th

We made our approach to the port of Melbourne, Australia during the morning, and with the help of a couple of powerful -- and amazingly agile -- tugboats we were alongside at about noon. Right after lunch I grabbed my day pack, made my way down to the main deck and waited for the customs and immigration paperwork to be finished before being the first one to "go outside." That term has always cracked me up, but it is what every crew I have ever sailed with calls "going ashore." I think they use it to denote the difference between technically going ashore on the dock and actually going outside the port and into the local environs. Either way, the moment I was cleared I scrambled down the gangway, caught the first shuttle to the gate and inquired about getting a ride to town. The gate guard told me that the next van would not be available for about an hour, so I happily decided to walk instead. Except for it being quite hot -- and there being an annoying number of pretty aggressive flies -- the hour-long walk felt really good. I stopped by the seafarers' center but it wasn't open yet, so I continued to hoof it around the city -- an attractive place that warrants further exploration given more time -- until the heat finally wore me out. I popped into a McDonalds for a cold drink and was delighted to find it had pretty good wi-fi, so I spent some time cooling off, downloading mail, etc. and uploading new stuff to the website. After that I made my way back to the seafarers' center and found yet another delightful oasis which caters to the maritime community. With a casual, comfortable ambiance, easy chairs, big screen TV, table games, a bar, an outdoor patio, internet connection and incredibly warm, friendly volunteers -- including many moms and widows of seafarers -- it is a haven for working seamen and bums like me. I got back on the web and finished my update, taking advantage of upload times to have a couple of frosty brews and to converse with kindred spirits. Randy, Cookie and a few of the crew arrived while I was there and I set them up with a little credit at the bar. It was great to be able to buy them a few beers and have them be able to relax for a change. I took the center's 10pm van back to the port, cleared the gate, got the shuttle to the ship and checked in with the officer of the deck then headed up to my cabin and called it a night. Thus, I had a brief but very enjoyable and productive port call in Melbourne.

Freighterdaysvii2Day 24 - January 28th

Cargo operations concluded in the wee hours of the morning, so by the time I got up for breakfast we were already out at sea. It was a very "routine" day, with the exception that I noticed substantially more vibration throughout the ship. I discussed my observation with the first officer during coffee break, and he explained the situation as follows: Because the ship is headed toward dry dock in Singapore for a few weeks after this sailing is complete, all of the containers must be removed along the way and not be replaced by new cargo. We discharged many containers in Melbourne and although we took on a few that are bound for ports between Melbourne and Singapore, the net reduction in the ship's total tonnage has been substantial. As a result, the ship is riding higher in the water and the propeller is correspondingly closer to the surface of the water. This creates a surface cavitation effect that causes the ship to experience much more and heavier vibrations. It also means that we are more prone to rolling in high seas, so the ride may get more interesting as we go along. Considering that we will continue to decrease our net tonnage at subsequent ports, the ride could become very interesting by the time we approach my destination at the southern end of New Zealand! We had another beautiful sunset at sea, made more picturesque by a freighter which happened to be on the horizon.

Freighterdaysvii3Day 25 - January 29th

We arrived and moored in the Port of Botany Bay near Sydney late in the morning and did the usual routine. As the port workers began getting ready to conduct cargo operations, we waited for Customs -- "The Man" -- to come onboard and do the seemingly ridiculous amount of paperwork that is involved in clearing the ship's cargo form import and us for shore leave. A little after one o'clock we got the word and scampered down the gangway to catch a shuttle van to the front gate. Hedi and Aldo -- the Swiss couple -- were leaving the ship for good to begin their Australian vacation in Sydney, so they set about arranging a taxi to their hotel. Charlotte and I were joined by a few lucky crew members heading out for the afternoon/evening and inquired about options for places to go and transportation to get there. We were informed that we could walk to the nearby seafarers' center and catch their regularly scheduled van service into the city, so we marched about a mile in the blazing Australian sun and heat to a very modern facility that had all the comforts including excellent air conditioning. When I discovered that the center's internet connection was very high speed, I decided to skip the four o'clock van into the city and catch the next one at six. I bid my colleagues farewell for their journey into the city and settled down for some much needed quality time online, quickly becoming so happily engrossed in catching up with everything that I missed the six o'clock bus! Realizing that the eight o'clock bus would get me into the city too late to do any quality exploration, I decided to alter my program and explore the suburb near the Port instead. After a nice little walk I found a great little pizza place to have dinner then went back to the center and finished up some online stuff. Just before closing time at ten-thirty, I packed up my gear and started wandering back to the dock, laughing to myself that although I hadn't made it into Sydney I'd still had a very enjoyable and productive port call. I missed a turn on the way back -- it's amazing how different things look at night that they do during the day -- so I had a much longer but very nice walk in the much cooler night air. Finally finding the gate I needed, I had a chat with the guard on duty who turned out to be from Ushuaia -- small world! -- and we compared notes about how that little city of which I am so fond compares now to when he left it twenty years ago. In due course, the van arrived and shuttled me to the ship where I was checked aboard and in my rack by about midnight.

Freighterdaysvii4Day 26 - January 30th

I've mentioned that there is a lot of waiting involved in freighter travel, and today was a good example. Although our shore leave didn't technically expire until noon, there really wasn't enough time to try to get into the city and back. The seafarers' center wouldn't be open again until one o'clock, so that wasn't an option either. Thus, I stayed on board and conducted a dockside version of the "routine" while watching a couple of the main cargo holds being completely emptied. It was obvious that we were going to be even lighter than before and when I made a humorous comment to the Captain about looking forward to a "lively" ride going forward he said, "Yes, I know. We take on fuel because of this!" Sure enough, I found an oiler alongside which pumped 1200 tons of fuel into the ship's tanks. This won't completely counteract the reduction in cargo weight, but it will certainly help keep us from getting too high in the water. (By the way, you may be interested to know that -- according to the Chief Engineer -- the ship burns about 28 tons of fuel per day. By my rough calculation, that's about 7,000 gallons per day and must be a staggering gas bill, even for heavy bunker fuel!) Cargo operations were concluded mid-afternoon and we set out for a "routine" evening at sea.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Logbook: Freighter Days VI

Day 17 - January 21st

Today was another completely "routine" day at sea. We have crossed the southern tropic and are in more "active" seas. We are also in heavier winds which makes walking the deck more dangerous -- it's slippery in many spots, plus there are numerous obstacles and ladders -- so the officer of the deck has been disinclined to allow us out. As a result, I have been reading even more and have rummaged through the ship's eclectic collection of DVDs to find a few titles worth watching. For me -- as self-entertained and accustomed to "alone time" as I am -- this lengthy freighter cruise remains delightful. My fellow passengers also seem to be holding up well, but I will caution that if you are someone who needs external stimulation and/or interaction this may not be a great mode of travel for you.

Freighterdaysvi1Day 18 - January 22nd

The ship's clock was advanced again today and I finally had a chance to inquire of the Captain about his program for the "clock thing." It turns out that I was correct, he has been "getting us ahead" but there is a little more to the story. We have been on a southeasterly course since we began, but in a few days when we reach the southwest coast of Australia we will turn due east. When that happens, we will be going through a few time zones on a daily basis. The Captain does not like to change time every day and he does not want to change the clock on the day or the day before that we reach port. So, he has been advancing the ship's clock on a regular interval such that we will be "on time" for Melbourne two days before we get there. This has worked out to an advancement every other day, and I have to report that it has been a bit grueling -- kind of like two weeks of mild jet-lag. The first couple of shifts weren't too bad and it feels like you are acclimated to the new time, but as the clock keeps marching forward, you're just not sleepy when the clock says you should go to bed. As a result -- and I am not alone in this -- you can't get to sleep at night, you wake up at odd hours and can't go back to sleep, then you are dog tired when you have to get up. It took me 18 months to advance nine hours on The Voyage, but I have advanced another nine hours in just 18 days! The good news is that you occasionally find yourself wide awake and standing on deck in the middle of the night, just in time to catch a really good shot of the moon. As the "clock thing" continues, I will keep you up to date on the experience.

Freighterdaysvi2Day 19 - January 23rd

A couple of days ago, I mentioned something about the wind and its impact on our being able to get outside and walk the deck. Since today was another totally "routine" day, I thought I'd add a little more about the "wind thing." Two important concepts to keep clear are "true wind" and "relative wind." True wind is basically what you feel if you are standing still and it is the combination of the speed of the wind and the direction that it is blowing. Relative wind is what you feel when you are standing on a moving vessel, and it is the combination of the true wind plus/minus the speed and direction of your vessel. For the past week, out true wind has been 20-30 knots from the southeast, sufficient to generate the moderate white caps you see in the photo. Now, add to that the fact that we are traveling southeast at a speed of about 20 knots and you can calculate that our relative wind has been in the 40-50 knot range. Being out in that kind of wind is challenging enough, but when you add the slippery spots that are inevitable on the steel deck of a working ship plus the many steep ladders between decks you have a dangerous situation for anyone who feels like taking a walk. We have also been in a area of ocean with moderate swells, and these have had the deck pitching and rolling to a greater degree than you might think of for a ship our size. Put is all together and you have a recipe for disaster, and good reason why the officer of the deck says "You no walk today, okay?" So, now you know about the "wind thing."

Day 20 - January 24th

We are now well into a "zone" that I am finding fascinating. You know by now that the "clock thing" has us all a little bit whacked out on our sleep. You also know that the "wind thing" has kept us indoors. Today I noticed something that seemed like the culmination of a trend I have noticed over the past week or so, and that is the absence of fresh food at mealtimes. I checked out my observation with Cookie, and he confirmed that the fresh vegetables are long gone, the meat is now all frozen and the "long life" fruits -- like apples and oranges -- are running out fast. He knows that I have enough experience at sea to have been expecting this development, so with his typical Cookie grin and a wave in the general direction of my fellow passengers still sitting in the mess he said, "Now we see who is really sailor man, yes?" I laughed so hard I practically spilled my coffee! I'm not worried, though, because my fellow passengers are all good sports and we will be making port in Melbourne in just a few days. If Cookie isn't expecting a resupply of fresh food, I will find out if he plans to do any shopping on his own. If so, you can bet that I will try to join him in that experience. If not, I may just do a little shopping of my own! Also, we have reached the point where the crew has run out of new movies to watch. They have completely exhausted both their own and each others libraries, and last night the Chief Engineer asked me if I had any movies on my Mac. I explained that I have only three of my favorites that I keep "on file" but will be happy to share them with him (and obviously with the entire crew as well). I'm reasonably sure that they will enjoy "The Razor's Edge" and "Immortal Beloved" but I wonder how they will take to five-hours of "Pride and Prejudice." I will also try to see if I can plug my Mac into the TV in the salon and show my last season of "24." Like I said, we are well into the long-time-at-sea "zone" and it is a fascinating experience. By the way, the ship's clock advanced again this afternoon and at this point I don't know what time it is!

Day 21 - January 25th

After resisting the urge to take a nap all day yesterday, I went to bed last night at about 11pm and read for a while before falling easily asleep before midnight. That's the good news. The bad news is that I was wide awake again at about four this morning, so I read for a couple of hours before going down to the galley/mess to get coffee and goof around with Cookie and Randy as they did their morning routine. The clock will be advanced another hour today -- that will make twice in two days -- in preparation for our arrival in Melbourne, so who knows what my internal clock will be like. I saw the Chief Engineer at breakfast, and the first thing he said to me was that he had watched all nine hours of the movies I gave him last night. Like I said, we are in a "zone." We had another boat/safety drill later in the morning, and this routine has reached the point where it consists entirely of putting on my life vest and safety helmet, grabbing my survival suit bag, going down six flights of stairs, walking around to the muster station, checking in with the officer in charge, receiving a pleasant "Thank you for coming" -- like I had been invited to a party or "something like that" -- then turning around, climbing back up to my cabin, taking off and stowing my gear. Poor Charlotte was so tired this morning that she said she laid out her safety gear before going back to bed after breakfast then let the safety alarm wake her up in time to complete the drill. I'm aware that it may sound like I'm making a big deal out of the "clock thing" but it really does take a toll on you as the hours continue to advance over such a long time.

Day 22 - January 26th

Last night, a few of the officers and passengers gathered for a little celebration of Francis' -- the electrician's -- birthday and we had a nice time together. As you may recall, I am the only native English speaker on board and sometimes the different second-language accents -- Romanian, Polish, French, Swiss, Filipino and Chinese -- are hard for me to follow. It's funny, but at times they all seem to understand each other better than I do and at others they seem to miss each other completely. All in all, our communication works very, very well and I am certainly delighted to be able to understand any of it, especially considering that I might have been on an all foreign language ship! A little after midnight I hit the rack, went right to sleep and woke up in time for breakfast. A good night's sleep for a change really felt good. We had no clock changes or safety drills today so I was able to enjoy a completely unstructured day at sea, making the most of it by spending a couple of hours this afternoon doing a little repair work on a cable for one of my computer accessories. I joked with the Chief Engineer that I did some "underway repairs" today, to which he smiled and said, "Me too!" He is a real character and I enjoy him. We are scheduled to arrive in Melbourne midday tomorrow for a port call of unknown duration. I am hoping that we will be able to go ashore and that I will be able to find an internet connection for at least a couple of hours. Accordingly, I have spent some time this evening organizing my material -- and myself -- for efficiency to get as much stuff posted tomorrow as possible. You'll soon know if I was successful!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Logbook: Freighter Days V

Day 11 - January 15th

Today was completely routine with not a thing of note. Seriously, all I did was read, walk the deck, watch "24 - Season 3" and eat. Freighter life at sea is just right for me!

Freighterdaysv1Day 12 - January 16th

Only two things of note today. The first is that the ship's clock moved forward another hour, yet again in the afternoon. Cookie is bummed, but we enjoy our conspiratorial winks. I'm not sure, but I think we must be ahead of the actual clock by now. Perhaps the Captain is accelerating us so that we will be better acclimated by the time we reach port in Australia. I don't know, but there's something going on with the clock thing. I'll keep you posted! The second event of note is that we crossed the equator this evening, already my third crossing so far on The Voyage. It was the first crossing for my fellow passengers, and although there was no "initiation ceremony" for them, we did all gather together with Randy and Cookie for a small celebration to watch Aldo's GPS count down to zero, toast the crossing and have some good laughs.

Day 13 - January 17th

The ship's "library" is a cupboard in the salon, crammed full of a very eclectic assortment of books in many languages. I took a look in it the other day and happened to find one that looked pretty interesting titled "The Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers." It is written by a young man who went to work for the Hudson's Bay Company in the 1930's at an outpost in Arctic Canada and chronicles his experiences living among the Inuits. I started reading it after breakfast this morning and became so engrossed by it that I had read it cover to cover by the time the day was done. Unexpectedly finding such an outstanding book and having the entire day free to read it is something that makes Freighter Days so great. (Note: I very highly recommend the book and will put it on my Amazon list!)

Day 14 - January 18th

We had yet another safety drill this morning, and by now we can pretty much do it in our sleep. It turns out that this is a weekly exercise, so by the time my freighter days in another couple of weeks I may well be doing it that way! The clocks were advanced yet again this afternoon, and by now I am certain that we are "ahead of ourselves." I've recently had the chance to have a couple of brief interactions with the Captain, and it turns out he's a pretty nice guy after all. I may ask him what's up with the "clock thing" and will report my findings if I do. Other than that, it was a "routine" day at sea.

Freighterdaysv2Day 15 - January 19th

Today was "routine" until the evening when we all gathered on the main deck aft for the monthly "all hands" BBQ party. I was hoping it would be a chance to really mix it up with the crew, so I was a little disappointed when I saw that the area was set up for the usual "segregation" with the Captain, officers and passengers at one table and the crew at another. We even had separate grills! We grilled our own meat -- though Randy did his best as always to see that none of us had to exert ourselves too much -- and ate in a mixed ambiance of blue sky and stiff breeze, party music and engine noise, European and Asian style food. The Captain ate fairly quickly and excused himself from the party, which I took as my cue to finish eating, change seats and join the crew table. Within seconds we were in full flow, quickly moving away from "Where are you from?" to "What's up with the US dollar?" and on from there. Oh, yeah, and we also started drinking in earnest. The crew had a cooler of beer thanks to their monthly $50 party allowance and a bottle of brandy compliments of the Captain. Not particularly caring for either of those options, I went to my cabin and grabbed a bottle of scotch I had gotten from Randy out of the "slop chest" and brought it back to the party. As some of the crew mixed the brandy with Fanta orange soda -- Yuk! -- they were intrigued by my drinking the scotch in its proper "neat" fashion. They couldn't really grasp the concept so I held a brief, impromptu "whiskey drinking seminar" and before long had a couple of stalwart partners in crime. The music was turned up and the dancing began, with Charlotte being a really good sport and dancing practically non-stop with every guy on board. After several hours of great fun and solid partying, I called it quits in the wee hours of the morning and left the festivities continuing in full swing -- I found out later -- until almost five in the morning.

Day 16 - January 20th

As you might imagine, it was pretty quiet on board today as most of us recovered from the party last night. As I had hoped, though, the event has morphed our interactions with the crew from cordial greetings in passing to a much richer mixture of sly smiles, knowing looks, pantomimed re-enactments of shared moments and all the other manifestations of closer connection that come from having had fun together. Once again, I am profoundly aware that no matter their cultural origin, people are people, people want to have fun, and fun is good!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Logbook: Freighter Days IV

Freighterdaysiv1Day 7 - January 11th

A "routine" day on the Red Sea, starting with my spending most of the morning doing my end-of-year accounting. That's right folks -- sad but true -- there's just no getting away from "The Man" no matter how far you voyage! After lunch I noticed that the crew -- which is always busy -- seemed to be even more active than usual. I had coffee with George -- the Chief Engineer -- who explained that with our last port call behind us until we reach Melbourne in a couple of weeks, they were cleaning up and making everything ship-shape for our long open-ocean cruise. This included giving the lifeboats a fresh coat of paint, which required a few of the lads to perch themselves somewhat precariously over the side of the ship. The photo doesn't give a very good sense of depth, but the crewman you see is about 30 feet above the water and I am about 20 feet above him. The Chief also commented that since nobody has previously worked with the new Captain we picked up in Port Said, the crew is working to make an especially good first impression. Like I said, there's just no getting away from "The Man" anywhere! We're heading south fast now, so it was noticeably warmer and more humid today. I may start doing some sunbathing in any day now!

Freighterdaysiv2Day 8 - January 12th

Another pretty "routine" day at sea, but with a few notable events. First is that late in the morning we passed through the straights from the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden. It was pretty unremarkable and there was sufficient haze that there wasn't much to see or to photograph, but it does mean that we are now working our way out toward the open ocean. Second, the ship's clock moved another hour ahead, once again at 12:30 in the afternoon. I was chatting with Cookie -- the cook, of course -- who was griping a bit about the fact that he'd lost an hour in his day which would be deducted from his three hour break in the afternoon. I asked him why the clocks were advancing in the daytime and he told me that when he asked that very question of the new captain the answer he got was "So the crew can get a full night's rest." I pointed out that only part of the crew sleeps at night, to which Cookie replied "The Captain does." We gave each other a semi-conspiratorial smirk and left it at that. Third, we had another safety drill in the afternoon, a chance for the new Captain to see that we all know what we're supposed to do in case of emergency and a chance for me to take this photo with Cookie and Randy. Thus, the new Captain's program had sufficiently exhausted me that I was forced to take a nap before dinner, then made it an early night.

Freighterdaysiv3Day 9 - January 13th

Today was a special day aboard ship. For one thing, it was Sunday and that means you get steak for lunch with ice cream for dessert. The food has all been very good and satisfying, but let's be honest that steak is best and ice cream is a treat. It's also special that the "Slop Chest" is now open. Otherwise known as the ship's store, we can now purchase wine, liquor and snacks on board at very, very cheap prices. This was not permitted while we were in Egyptian waters and Randy -- who is the official merchant in charge on behalf of the Captain -- was very busy today. The third special aspect about today is that we sailed in a "pirate danger" area all day. There has been a growing amount of piracy in the Gulf of Aden -- between Yemen and Somalia -- recently, so we were in "lock down" all day. All that really means is that you have to lock the exterior deck doors when you come back inside. Our ship is pretty fast -- averaging about 19.5 knots -- so we are not a prime target for pirates, but there is a risk. In the past, pirates who have boarded ships have mostly just messed with some containers, but there has been increasing violence against crews recently. Locked doors is the standard defense. I have to admit I was hoping to see some pirates, but it didn't happen. The crew says we will be in another "pirate danger" area in another week or so -- I'm not yet sure where -- and I will keep my camera handy just in case!

Day 10 - January 14th

A completely "routine" day with the only exception of moving the ship's clock another hour ahead. Once again done at 12:30 in the afternoon, I am sticking with my semi-conspiratorial theory. Plus, with only four hours between breakfast and lunch, then only four more hours before dinner, I could hardly work up an appetite! There's not much else to report as we are now well into our sea "routine." My fellow passengers remain pleasant and companionable, and are all holding up very well on what I have found out is the first long sea cruise for any of them. That's right, it turns out that the Swiss couple -- Aldo and Hedi -- have only taken a couple of short cruises before and Charlotte has never been on a ship besides a day-long channel crossing. For them to have signed up for this very long freighter cruise that requires a lot of self-sufficiency is quite impressive and they are, as I said, all holding up very well. Our combined interaction with the crew has been gradually increasing from the minimal greetings-in-passing in the halls and stairways last week to some actual conversations and shared recreation/entertainment time. We are a little less like "passengers" and a little more like "guests." I will try to keep you posted on these developments!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Logbook: Freighter Days III

Freighterdaysiii1Day 4 - January 8th

It was quiet when I woke up at about 8am and headed down for coffee and breakfast. Aldo and Hedi had already eaten and were gone, but Charlotte was there -- pretty obviously just awakened as well -- so we had a quiet breakfast together while the ship finished up the last of its port activities. I got outside in time to see the tugs come alongside and stayed on deck as we left the dock and worked our way slowly out of Damietta. The scene was not very appealing, composed mostly of flat, dry land with an assortment of harbor facilities and ships. Most evident was a pretty thick layer of smog that covered the area for as far as I could see. Just after lunch we approached Port Said and took on a number of local characters who were purported to be harbor pilots, inspectors, boat men and other required "advisors." They pretty much just hung out on the bridge and on deck, talking loudly among themselves. Frankly, I got the sense that they were really part a "jobs" program. By early afternoon we had tied up to some mooring buoys and spent the rest of the day waiting. From bits and pieces of information we -- the other passengers and I -- got from the crew, it sounded like we had to wait for some other ships to join us to form a proper-sized convoy through the Suez Canal. A little before midnight I checked in with the bridge and was told it would be at least another hour before we started on our way through the canal. Since there really wouldn't be anything to see in the dark, I set my alarm for early in the morning and went to bed.

Freighterdaysiii2Day 5 - January 9th

I happened to wake up at about 3am and could tell that the ship was moving. I went out on deck to take a look and could see the lights of Port Said not too far behind us, so I knew we had only recently gotten under way. By the moonlight and minimal glow of the ship's navigational lights I could tell we were moving slowly through a narrow channel -- which I presumed was the Canal -- but it was too dark to make out any detail so I went back to bed. When my alarm went off a few hours later, I got some coffee and went out on deck to see this sight of some ships behind us in convoy. As soon as I shot the photo I remembered that we are not supposed to take pictures in the Canal so I quickly put my camera in my pocket. It's a good thing, too, because the very next thing I saw was a military observation post! As we continued our transit through the northern section of the Canal I saw many, many more such outposts and it was obvious that security -- or maybe just something for the military to do -- is a major priority around here. The best I can do to describe the Canal in words is to say that it is a straight, narrow ditch dug through the desert. There isn't really anything to see besides sand, the occasional small settlement and many, many military compounds. If it wasn't for the novelty of being in the famous Suez Canal, I'd say it is just an ugly shortcut. By late morning we had reached Great Bitter Lake which is about the halfway point of the Canal and we came to a stop amidst a couple of dozen other ships that were already waiting for the remainder of the route to become clear of northbound traffic. We ended up waiting for the rest of the day and finally got going just after dinner. Between the all-day wait in Port Said and the all-day wait on Great Bitter Lake, it is fair to say that transiting the Suez Canal involves a lot of waiting. I suppose you could call it bad luck that we sailed during the night and waited during the day, but since there really isn't much to see anyway it wasn't really much of a hardship. I stepped out on deck from time to time during the evening but couldn't see anything, so I finished up my evening with some iLife and a book then went to bed.

Day 6 - January 10th

We obviously cleared Suez -- and the end of the Suez Canal -- during the night, because when I woke up this morning and looked out my window all I could see was the flat, calm expanse of the Red Sea. (Just so you know, the Red Sea isn't red, it's dark blue.) I spent the morning doing iLife, catching up on editing of all the media you are now seeing. During lunch we were informed by an announcement from the bridge that the ship's clock would be moving forward another hour at 12:30pm, and we all sat and watched the clocks simultaneously advance. At first I was a little surprised by the changeover time -- seems to me it is always done at night -- but I realized that on a freighter the time changes so often that it probably isn't fair for the night watch to have all of the forwards and backs. We'll go through many more time changes over the next three weeks, so I'll see if my theory holds up. I spent much of the afternoon reading and doing the "routine" with an emphasis on being outside. We crossed the Tropic of Cancer today and the temperature is already so much warmer than I've been used to that it feels downright balmy. I may even take some time to pack up my cold weather clothes! I finished a pretty good book tonight, so I'm going to start another one and hit the rack.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Dram: Great Bitter Lake Wait

Because the Suez Canal is only one ship wide, there can only be one "convoy" of ships -- moving either north or south -- in it at a time. Fortunately, there is a large body of water about half-way called Great Bitter Lake where convoys can safely pass each other. Although this helps improve the efficiency of the process, there's still a lot of waiting involved in transiting the Suez Canal. In our case, we had to wait almost a whole day in Port Said for a northbound convoy to clear the northern half of the Canal, then wait almost a whole day again in Great Bitter Lake for another northbound convoy to clear the southern half of the Canal. Here's a Dram of the Great Bitter Lake wait.

Dram: Bizarre Bazaar

Bizarrebazaar_2I have commented in the Logbook that we picked up a number of local characters in Port Said who were purported to be pilots, inspectors, etc., for our transit through the Suez Canal and that I had my suspicion that it was all part of a local "works" project. During my occasional trips up to the bridge deck, I would sometimes see one or two of them in the wheelhouse, drinking coffee and making comments to the officer on duty. I never saw more than a couple of them at a time. During lunch today while we were waiting on Great Bitter Lake, I asked Randy -- the steward/messman -- where all the other guys who had come aboard were. With the first scowl I have seen yet on his face he replied, "They are downstairs sleeping in the boatman room." Almost as an aside, he then added, "They have a bazaar. You should go take a look." I wasn't sure I understood him correctly, but subsequent conversation with my fellow passengers determined that we had all heard the same thing: The Egyptian boatmen were downstairs sleeping and holding a bazaar. Now that we just had to see!

So, after lunch we all climbed down to the main deck and found the room that is designated for the Egyptian boatmen during their time on board for the Suez transit. It is a cabin with six bunk beds, each of which was occupied by a sleeping man. Strewn all over the floor was the most bizarre collection of stuff you could imagine, including everything from miniature pyramid souvenirs to fishing tackle and shaving cream. The man closest to the door must have heard us because he jumped up immediately and invited us in to "Take a look!" It took me less than five seconds to see that there was nothing I wanted, but Charlotte jumped into the fray and gave it all a good look for about a half a minute. Back on deck we moved away from the door and broke out laughing. It seems that the boatmen have figured out that as long as they are going to sleep all day, they might as well bring a whole bunch of crap on board and see if they can sell some of it to passengers and crew who were not able to go ashore. After all, "If you can't bring Muhammad to the mountain, bring the mountain to Muhammad."

Monday, January 07, 2008

Logbook: Freighter Days II

Freighterdaysii1Day 1 - January 5th

My first full day at sea began at 7am with coffee and some staring out at the sea, followed by breakfast from 7:30 to 8:30 then some "quiet time" -- books, iTunes, naps, etc. -- until lunch at noon. After lunch, the 3rd Officer gave us an extensive "familiarization" tour of the ship and its facilities -- including the laundry, the ping-pong room and the swimming pool (which the Chief will fill with sea water upon request!) -- emphasizing the location of all the safety and fire fighting equipment on board. Although this is surely mostly a formality, the passengers' responsibilities in case of emergency are specified "as directed" and it will be good to have some idea where things are if needed. After the "familiarization" we had an all-hands lifeboat drill which started in the usual way of donning life jackets and meeting at the muster station but included the unusual experience of actually climbing into the lifeboat, strapping in and having a lengthy -- if only marginally understandable -- explanation of its operation, equipment, rations and stores. All four of us passengers are assigned to the same life boat, along with about a dozen of the crew -- approximately half of the total complement of 24 crew members -- who were obviously amused by our performance. With all of that activity behind us, I made a brief visit to the bridge then had quiet time before dinner. Late in the evening we transited the Straights of Messina, a remarkably narrow passage surrounded by city lights. It was a beautiful sight and a very nice way to end the day as we cleared the Italian peninsula and headed out into the Mediterranean Sea.

Freighterdaysii2Day 2 - January 6th

It is immediately clear that many of my logbook entries during these "Freighter Days" are going to be very, very brief. Today, for example, I have already gotten into what I think I'll call the "routine": Coffee and staring at the sea, followed by breakfast, quiet time, lunch, more quiet time, dinner and still more quiet time. I'm sure this at-sea lifestyle could be hell for a lot of people, but it is heaven for me. There is just enough interaction with the other three passengers and various members of the crew to feel like I am "connected" with people, but the unstructured, uninterrupted time by myself to think, read, write, iLife, etc. is blissful. The food is good, the view is great and the time seems to fly by. So far, being on a freighter is a lot like being on a cruise ship, but without all the annoying tourists, entertainment staff, activities and announcements. In a word, perfect.

Freighterdaysii3Day 3 - January 7th

There were a few alterations to the "routine" today, beginning with the fact that the ship's clock moved ahead one hour during the night. So, although I had been informed that this would happen but promptly forgot, I arrived in the Mess promptly at the end of the breakfast hour. Randy and the Cook would have been happy to make me breakfast anyway, but it's not my style to create more work for those guys than they already have, so I just grabbed a cup of coffee and a couple of bread rolls and called it good enough. Later in the morning the four passengers gathered in the Chief Engineer's office and the Chief -- George -- proceeded to give us a complete tour of the physical plant of the ship. Beginning in the ballast control room and continuing through the refrigerated food lockers, electrical control room, shop, water system, electrical generators, steam plant, fuel processing, etc., etc., we ended up inspecting the main engine from all three floors of its observation decks and having our picture taken standing next to the beast. What you see on the left of this picture is only the top quarter -- really just the injectors and cylinder heads -- of the engine. It is a huge machine but it is really only one relatively small part of of the overall physical plant. It was a great tour and we got a very good sense of what all is involved in running the ship. In the afternoon I added some much needed physical exercise to the "routine" in the form of a solid hour of walking around the deck. The process requires "asking permission" from the bridge officer -- it's really more like "informing" him that you'll be out on the deck and making sure there's nothing dangerous going on there -- then heading down seven flights of stairs, doing as many laps as you want and checking back in with the officer of the deck when you've had enough. The overall length of the ship is about 200 meters, so twice that plus for and aft crossovers makes one lap equal to a bit less than half a kilometer. I didn't count my laps -- though several of the crew who saw me kept asking me "how many?" -- but instead just walked for the duration of an hour long audio podcast on my iPod. It's a little boring, but it feels good and I plan to make it a part of the "routine" on a fairly regular basis. The last novelty of the day was our evening approach to the port of Damietta, Egypt and our arrival at the dock at about 11pm. I stayed up to watch the beginning of container operations, but they were pretty much the same as I'd seen in La Spezia -- and would be going on throughout the night -- so I called it a day and went to bed.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Report: Lifeboat Drill (Something Like That)

During our first full day at sea we had the required safety drill, including the usual donning of life jackets and gathering at the muster station. Quite unusual was that we actually loaded into the lifeboat and had a complete briefing inside. This Report shares the experience and explains the sub-title... something like that!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Report: Freighter Embarkation

This Report chronicles my freighter embarkation in La Spezia, from the time I entered the port to the time we finally set sail. In between is some pretty good footage of the container loading process which I think you will find interesting from an onboard perspective. Enjoy!

Logbook: Freighter Days I

Freighterdaysi1Day 0 - January 4th

Early on my last morning in La Spezia, I got some coffee then wandered down to the waterfront and saw that my ship -- the dark blue one in the middle of the photo -- was, in fact, already in port and being loaded. With that reassurance, I went back to my hotel, finished packing up, checked out and got a cab to the now famous reception booth at the port entrance. After a few minutes of waiting around while the security guard finished a very animated phone call, he waved me through with instructions to walk to the customs building a short distance inside the gate. Once there, nothing "official" happened -- neither my documents nor my gear were inspected -- and I was simply told to wait for the shuttle van which would take me to my ship. A few minutes later a car pulled up and the driver popped the rear hatch then signaled me to load my gear and get in. A minute's drive through the port later, he stopped the car next to my ship, popped the rear hatch again and signaled me to get out. Thus, I had arrived at "my ride" and was standing with my gear at the bottom of a very long ladder that went up the side of a very, very large ship. A young Filipino man on deck saw me then came down to give me a hand with my gear and lead me aboard. After climbing up two more decks I was led into a conference room where I was checked in, photographed for my ID badge then led up three more decks to my cabin on the port side of E Deck. I was met there by Randy -- the steward -- who told me to make myself comfortable and feel free to walk around anywhere inside but not to go out onto the deck during the loading process. Pointing at the clock which read 10:30, he said lunch would be served in the Officers' Mess at noon, then left me alone.

Freighterdaysi2My room -- my new home for the next month or so -- is quite spacious and very comfortable. I will document it later, but for now I will simply say that it has a bed, a small desk, a love-seat sized couch with a coffee table, a small refrigerator, a small closet and a surprisingly large private bathroom. It is at least as large and as nice as most of my hotel rooms have been, so I was immediately quite happy with it. Most important to me, however, is that it has a fairly large porthole/window that looks out over a small deck space then straight out off the port side of the ship. Not having known what to expect, I was simply delighted to find that I will have a permanently unobstructed view of the sea from my cabin window! After taking a little time to stow my gear, I wandered around inside the superstructure and found a large salon on my deck, various cabins on the deck above mine and the bridge -- to which open access is allowed except when there is a harbor pilot on board -- on the top deck above that. The two decks below me have various crew cabins and Deck B below those includes the Officers' Mess which I entered promptly at noon for lunch. There, I met a few more of the officers as well as the other three passengers: Hedi and Aldo are a retired Swiss couple headed to Australia, and Charlotte is a young French woman headed to New Zealand. Thankfully for me, their English -- which is actually the "official" language on board for the Romanian, Polish, Chinese and Filipino crew -- is pretty good, so although idioms, irony and innuendo are not too well grasped I am thankful that basic conversation will be possible throughout our voyage. Plus, it was immediately clear that they are all three delightful people and that we will no doubt get along well.

Freighterdaysi3After lunch, I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between hanging out in my cabin, exploring the ship and observing the loading process. It is pretty amazing to watch containers loaded form an onboard perspective, and I shot quite a bit of video that I will try to edit into a Report. The most amazing part is that the containers are stacked six deep below the main deck, and up to six high on top of it. When the cargo hatch directly in front of the superstructure was open, I was able to grab this shot to give you the barest idea of just how big the ship is and how much it can hold. The maximum capacity -- stowed 12 deep, 10 wide and 10 long -- is 1200 containers, probably more than the longest freight train you have ever seen. Amazing! As fast as the gantries are at loading them, it still took the entire day, through dinner and into the evening to complete the process. At about 9:30pm we cast off lines and began to make our way slowly out of the port. By that time it was completely dark, cold and raining. Somehow it seemed a fitting farewell to the weather I have had for almost all of the past 2-3 months I have spent in Europe. Happily aboard my new home, with my belly full of good food and in the company of fine passengers and crew, I went to bed and slept reasonably well to the sounds, vibrations and movements of a huge ship on the open sea.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Logbook: "On Or About" and "As You Wish"

Onorabout1Yesterday, when I called the shipping company's port agent here in La Spezia to get my boarding instructions, he informed me that the ship is now scheduled to "be alongside" tomorrow -- the 4th -- from 6am until 6pm and that I can board anytime in between. (So, now we know what departing "on or about the 3rd" means!) During our phone call, he asked me to drop by his office today to take care of some "passport formalities" which I said I would be happy to do. In my customary style of trying to minimize hassle and confusion for myself this morning, I made a scouting trip last night to locate his office according to the address I had received from the booking company and was quite happy with myself for being successful. I tried to celebrate by getting some Asian food for a change at this promising looking establishment, but my order for the "menu of the day" resulted in an antipasti plate of sliced, smoked meats, a portion of beef ravioli and some kind of meat and cheese thing. So much for something different to eat. Seriously folks, you can't make up the stuff that happens on The Voyage!

Onorabout2After coffee this morning, I retraced my route to the agent's office but discovered that he was no longer a tenant in the office building I had found last night. (You'd think I would have learned by now, no?) A couple of phone calls and a whole bunch of wandering around later I finally found his new office and the "passport formalities" amounted to me handing over my passport to him and receiving his assurance that he will give it back to me onboard ship tomorrow. So much for that! While I had his attention, I asked again what time he wanted me to board and his reply was simply, "As you wish." I couldn't shake the feeling that this was not a very good answer, so I asked if ten o'clock would be okay. His reply was, again, "As you wish." So, I gave up on that line of inquiry and asked him where I should arrive for boarding. He paused, then said, "At the port." Silly me, I guess it was a dumb question. Nevertheless, I persisted and asked him exactly where I should show up. He responded by pointing vaguely up the street, saying -- and I quote -- "At reception. It is a small black building at the entrance to the port. Give them your name and they will take you to the ship." I sensed he had reached the limit of his helpfulness, so I thanked him and left. On the way back I scouted out the small black reception building you see here. No comment.

So, if everything proceeds as it has so far, I am in for a morning of last minute confusion, followed by hassle, miscommunication and utter chaos but ending up -- hopefully -- in boarding the ship that will be my home for the next month or so and setting sail for New Zealand to arrive "on or about" February 6th. Besides that, I really don't know anything. I wish I could answer all of your thoughtful inquiries, but I really don't have any answers. I don't know if there will be internet on board. I don't know how many other passengers there may be. I don't know what ports -- if any -- we may call at along the way. I don't know if anybody besides me will speak English. I don't know what my cabin will be like. I don't know if I will eat with the crew. I really don't know anything except that I'm heading to sea on a freighter for a blissfully long sea cruise. I have some books, my trusty Mac and a new bottle of scotch. What else do I really need?

As always, I promise to tell you all about as soon as possible. Meanwhile, best wishes to all of you in the new year as The Voyage of Macgellan continues!