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A Freighter Trip

A Freighter Voyage Around the World
by James and Mary Prosser
February/March 2000

Part I of V

Our voyage was arranged through Freighter World Cruises of Pasadena, California:
Tel:  1 (800) 531-7774).

We boarded February 1, 2000 at Long Beach, California and ultimately disembarked at Newark, New Jersey, 52 days later, after crossing the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans plus a number of seas in between.

The reader will note that this is written in a mixture of present and past tenses, but we're sure you'll understand. It's not the best journalistic practice, however.

It had been an ambition of Jim's to do this, and this was the perfect time in our lives to realize something that others can only dream about.

Travelling with our IBM laptop computer gave us the opportunity write this journal and other articles plus file reports while the ship is in port. Also, send/receive some E-mail.

First, a few brief facts about the ship. It is a Danish vessel, the Dagmar MAERSK. It is four years old, built in Korea and one of the "giant" class container ships. It is 958 feet long, 130 feet wide, with a 45 foot draft (depth below water line), travels at 24 knots and weighs 77,000 tons when fully loaded. It carries 4,233 containers. The ship is highly automated and staffed by a total of 22 crew members with maximum three passengers.

Our cabin consists of a bedroom and living room. They are very spacious, comfortable, and with plenty of storage cabinets and closets. The bathroom with shower was through the bedroom. Each room has two windows facing the sea on the starboard side, but with vision obstructed somewhat by the lifeboat hanging nearby. The living room has a small refrigerator, credenza, desk, couch, table and two easy chairs. As mentioned, it is quite comfortable.

Actually, it is rather eerie going about the ship for we rarely see anyone. Sometimes we felt like shouting "Is anybody here?" Walking around the main deck three times, is just more than one mile. We'll need that to work off the meals.

Besides ourselves, the other passenger is a very nice 25-year old man moving to a job in India. He'll disembark at Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The ship's officers are German, Russian, Lithuanian, Gabonese and balance of the crew are Kiribati (pronounced Kira-basi), of the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific. Several years ago the German government built a seamen's school at Tarawa. Many of the freighters of the world are now being staffed by Kiribati.

To those of you who ask "What do you do with all that time?" Or, "Why do you even bother to go by sea?"

Answering the last first, we love the sea. Secondly, we get to know the crew very well, brush up on our German language, read up on all those books we've been meaning to read, study the weather patterns, observe sea life (birds and fish), evening stars without any ambient light interference. And if we are exceptionally fortunate, we might have the opportunity to observe the wonder of the prismatic effect of the "green flash" on the ocean horizon immediately after sunset or before sunrise under the rare conditions necessary. We've been lucky to have seen it twice.

Tuesday, February 1

We boarded the Dagmar MAERSK in Long Beach, California and sailed after midnight, heading to the next port of call, Oakland.

We found the ship's personnel to be most congenial. This will be a very relaxed voyage, regardless of whatever the weather might bring.

At this writing, we have had four meals already, and find the food to be exactly what you would expect with a German/Kiribati crew. We've got great German beer/wine, bratwurst, brotchen in the morning, strong coffee, sausages, schnitzel, with side dishes of polynesian spiced meats, rice, fish, seafood, fruit, etc. No danger of starvation here!

Right now Mary is making friends with the cook, for he uses onions and garlic liberally in his cooking. She is hoping to have him prepare something at each meal without them. Good luck. The steward said that if there weren't lots of onions in the food, there might be a mutiny for Kiribati can't live without them.

Wednesday, February 2

Our first day at sea finds the skies cloudless, the ocean calm, but with large swells coming a great distance from the north Pacific. Dolphins were the main aquatic life observed. This is the season for southbound whales, but none were sighted. We'll try again after sailing from Oakland. The temperature is a delightful 65F.

We entered San Francisco Bay beneath the Golden Gate bridge at 2345. What a marvelous sight! Mary has been beneath the bridge before, but it was a first for Jim. The monkey deck (top deck) on our ship came within 20 feet of the bridge roadway! Now this is a tall ship!

Oh yes, the projected countries for stops along our itinerary are: Korea - Taiwan - China - Hong Kong - Singapore - Malaysia - Sri Lanka - Oman -Egypt - Suez Canal - Italy - Spain - Canada - disembarking at Port Newark, New Jersey.

Thursday, February 3

Our call duration at the port of Oakland was just under 24 hours, enough time to load over 700 40-foot containers bound for ports all along the way.

Being able to go ashore at each port is one of the advantages of this type travel. They usually are off the beaten tourist path.

In Oakland after a breakfast fit for a seaman about to do a heavy day's labor, we set off ashore by taxi to mail letters, make a number of telephone calls and have lunch in an Afghan restaurant in the Jack London Square complex by the water. It was the perfect location and time, for the place was almost empty on this blustery day. We were joined there by long time good friends from our years in Munich, Don and Gwen Petro, who drove down from Petaluma. There was plenty of time to enjoy ourselves leisurely dining and chatting.

The Petros took us back to the ship. Their eyes sort of popped when they realized just how large the Dagmar MAERSK is.

At each port the local agent always has a telephone line put aboard so that personnel can make and receive calls. We took this opportunity with our laptop computer to send/receive the final batch of E-mails until we reach the next "scheduled" port of call, Kwangyang, Korea, after about ten days at sea.

We say "scheduled" intentionally, for with freighter service, last minute changes are almost par for the course. Several years ago, we were sailing on a freighter from Europe to the USA and the announced point of disembarkation was to be Norfolk, Virginia. About one day away from New York, the captain was directed to stop instead at Port Newark, New Jersey and drop all cargo and passengers, a diversion of 370 miles. More recently in 1995 when sailing from London to Cape Town, the captain was instructed to skip Cape Town just before arriving there and instead to proceed to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, a diversion of 500 miles.

At 2130, under overcast skies, our ship cast off and began its slow way out of the Oakland and San Francisco Bay areas. The lights of the cities and bridges provided us with a glorious memory of the departure from US shores. In our opinion this is a sight equalled only by those of Vancouver, Sydney, Rio De Janerio and Cape Town.

For all large vessels entering and leaving ports, a pilot from the local port authority is normally required. The pilot is responsible for guiding the ship safely into or out of the navigational paths of the port. About ten miles outside of the Golden Gate, the ship slowed to a crawl.

At this point a small, fast, pilot ship pulled abreast of us to receive our pilot. What a hazardous job this is! A "Jacobs ladder" about 40 feet long is unrolled by lowering it over the side. Fortunately this was good weather and the sea was "slight". The pilot climbed down the ladder which is pitching to and fro a bit until he reaches the bottom, and at the precise moment jumps on to the deck of the pilot ship bobbing up and down in about eight foot arcs! It's not a job for the faint hearted.

So you might ask "What is in all those containers?" Just about everything mankind uses and produces. There are close to 4,000 on board. We even are carrying about 300 containers of chilled or frozen consumables. The latter are kept in special locations on the ship in order that the shipper's temperature control instructions can be continuously and automatically monitored.

Years ago on freighters, the chief engineer's office used to be in the bowels of the ship, just off the engine room, incredibly hot and noisy, full of equipment, grime and filth, with boisterous seamen coming and going. On today's modern freighters, it is usually on the upper deck, spacious, quiet, almost antiseptic, full of computers, security monitors, dials, gauges, switches, all automated and sometimes attended by just one person. This engine room is certified for 24-hour unattended operation! Thanks to all the security monitoring systems installed.

Friday February 4

Awaking to heavy overcast and slight rain, we are heading 265 degrees on a westerly track across the Pacific on roughly the 33rd parallel to reach Korea by passing just south of Japan. This is a bit longer than the preferred northerly "great circle" route, but MAERSK Line orders this to preclude cargo damage that might happen going on the rougher northern route in winter.

Dining room hours are set for: 0730 - 0830 breakfast, 1130 - 1230 lunch, and 1730 - 1830 supper. We can live with that, but would prefer the supper hour a bit later. But these times are determined for operational crew reasons, not the passenger's convenience. At sea, most of the crew works four hours on, eight hours off, around the clock.

A menu is posted for one week in advance. It sure looks good!

Mark Shiryayev, the second mate, gave us a very good briefing on ship safety and emergency procedures. We even practiced getting into the new type lifeboats which are now covered and motorized. We should have had our camera, but this was serious stuff right now. Mark said emergency drills would be held weekly throughout the voyage, but henceforth, always unannounced. "That way they are more effective", he said. Next time we'll have the camera.

The chief mate invited us to visit the navigation deck (bridge) to receive a briefing on how the ship operates. The deck and "flying bridge" is 111 feet above water level! As far as we can tell, it operates with one person on the bridge while at sea. Of course, the captain is a frequent visitor. There no longer are a helmsman, radio operator ("sparks"), or navigator. Everything is automated and the responsibilities of those three individuals have been given to the officer on duty. Passengers can visit anytime except when there is a pilot aboard.

"Sparks" was a person with whom we could readily identify. He was always expected to be available for duty around the clock. That position disappeared from most ships by 1990 with arrival of satellite communications everywhere. Prior to then, Sparks' cabin was adjacent to the bridge, and usually doubled as the ship's radio room. Communications were by shortwave, limited in volume, yet critical. Sparks got the weather maps by facsimile, handled all messages to and from the ship, and made coordination with authorities on shore everywhere. Frequently Sparks was an amateur radio operator (ham), so on our previous voyages Jim usually took the opportunity to get to know him well and spent a lot of time in the radio room (shack).

When the International Maritime Satellite (INMARSAT) came into being, computers now do many tasks previously handled by humans. Press a button and the deck officer knows the ship's precise location within 10 meters. Maintaining voice and E-mail contact with corporate headquarters from anywhere on the globe is fast and simple. Basically, INMARSAT's geographic position system (GPS) eliminated the helmsman and navigator. Actually, there still is a helm on the bridge, but the captain said, "It is rarely used outside of a port".

After dinner this evening, the ship's "slop chest" or canteen was opened for about an hour. From it one can make limited purchases of toiletries, candy, beverages, tobacco products, etc. The prices are extremely reasonable; i.e. a case of 24 bottles of Beck's Bier is $8.00, German white/French red wines about $4.00 per bottle. Crew members have advised us the captain is highly intolerant of anyone abusing alcoholic beverages.

The ship rolled a couple times before we turned in to bed. A crew member said we'll have some heavy weather tonight. Things not fastened securely went sliding across tables. That's life at sea. We both have our sea legs and are not bothered by the motion.

Saturday, February 5

At midnight we crossed a time zone, so clocks were set back one hour. We'll do this 24 times by the time we reach home and lose a day crossing the international date line in about four days.

If there was heavy weather, we slept through it all. We are like babes in our mother's arms being gently rocked. But today we do have 10-15 foot waves. A ship of this size handles them quite nicely.

Sunday, February 6

The morning sea is relatively calm, weather partly cloudy, with temperature at 50F. That's considerably warmer than what we had expected this time of the year on the north Pacific Ocean. However, late in the afternoon, it started to rain hard and blow up a lot of huge waves forcing the vessel to cut back to 19 knots (from 24) so we weren't pounding so much.

This being Sunday, work routines are limited to the necessary. As a result, we were able to spend some time chatting with Kiribati crew members. When they sign on, it is for one year. On this particular MAERSK service, they must make two complete voyages which take about 200 days, then they receive 100 days vacation. Kiribati crew members change at Hong Kong. Other crew members change at various locations.

For a Kiribati crewman to get home, he flies from Hong Kong to Sydney, then to Nauru in the Marshall Islands, and finally to Tarawa in the former Gilbert Islands. That's a trip of two days in a plane if all connections are made, or three if there has to be a stopover. To put it in a distance perspective, that's like flying from Anchorage to Miami to get home in Goose Bay, Labrador.

The German government investment in developing a merchant marine academy in Tarawa has been a good one for all concerned. Hard currency wages are sent back into the local economy. Shipping lines receive crewmen who are certified in many skills, and more importantly, are not likely to become problems because diplomas are denied to those with character deficiencies.

Monday, February 7

It's a beautiful day, 68F at noon, with Honolulu 800 miles due south. There are heavy swells from a storm about 1,200 miles to the north. We do our laundry today. Many of the seamen did theirs yesterday.

Read a lot on deck. It didn't seem possible we would be doing this in February in the north Pacific.

The electrician furnished us an antenna connector cable so we can connect our SONY shortwave receiver to the ship's main antenna to receive radio broadcasts in our room. Without it, the total steel frame construction of the ship blocks out all reception. Otherwise, the radio could only be used effectively out on deck. Actually, it is delightful to be completely isolated from the political news scene of the U.S.

The first quarter of the moon and a clear sky offered outstanding celestial viewing this evening.

Tuesday, February 8

The day is overcast, 65F, with fresh breezes coming straight north from the Hawaiian Islands. This morning, for the first time since departure from Oakland we encountered another vessel, heading in the opposite direction. It passed us about one mile away. This definitely was not a nice day. We had bad weather coming at us from the southeast, south and west with frequent periods of sun, hard rain and heavy seas all day.

Wednesday, February 9

Last night really tested this ship. We sailed into gale force winds of 50 knots per hour. The bridge reported the waves to be 12 meters (39 feet) high. In the darkness they were hard to observe, but we knew they were there. The ship reduced its speed to less than half and rode out the storm nicely for 12 hours by heading directly into it. The pitching and rolling were much reduced.

This day starts off quite nice with just moderate swells. But, it's February in the north Pacific! John & Pat Blake on the Washington coast: look out! Last night's storm is heading directly at you and should be there in about five days to give your anemometer a good spin.

Friday, February 11

We lost Thursday completely by crossing the international date line close to midnight last night.

Just after breakfast this morning, we wrote a message, placed it in an empty bottle and threw it overboard. That's a tradition with us on our sea voyages. It's amazing that we actually have received answers to several of them. Some take more than a year to be found. On this voyage, we'll drop messages near mid-point in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

It was a gorgeous day, but swells from distant storms required the ship to sail at reduced speed.

Saturday, February 12

It's another magnificent day of 72F, but the continuing large swells from the northwest cause the captain to grouse about being "almost three days late for Korea". Most of this day was spent reading on the swimming pool deck (no water yet) watching the horizon bob up and down. The chief engineer said we can have water in the pool anytime with slight seas after the ocean temperature reaches 74F, and that is not likely to happen until Taiwan in a weeks' time. Right now it is a surprising 66F.

Sunday, February 13

Since mid-afternoon yesterday, the swells lessened to a point making it possible for "full speed ahead!"

The captain says we can now walk about the ship outside anywhere without getting doused with spray. "But not the forecastle deck", he says. "With this relatively calm weather we are going to do some repair work there on the anchor winches and don't want anyone in the way."

Drat! With binoculars and a good book, the forecastle deck is the best place to ride on a container ship. There is no vibration or noise other than the rush of air and the bow cutting through the water about 50 feet below. The movement, if any, is that of a gentle roller coaster.

Monday, February 14

More smooth sailing today. The forecastle deck is available and a delight on this 72F day. Sun screen lotion must be liberally applied to avoid a burn, on the north Pacific, in February! How fortunate we are. A very large bulk cargo vessel passed us this afternoon heading east. Otherwise, we are still alone out here.

Tuesday, February 15

During the night we sailed over the Japan Trench, the second deepest place on the earth at 34,038 feet.

Mark, the 2nd mate, reported at breakfast sighting two whales shortly after dawn while on his bridge watch. We missed them.

Today turned out to be another rather wild ride at sea. Very strong head winds (gale force-12) from the west came up right after breakfast and were with us all day. They made an angry sea, blowing the tops off the high waves! The skies were partly sunny all day, but really interesting to observe with clouds flying by at terrific speed. The waves, perhaps 30 feet high at times, had a relatively short distance between them. The Dagmar MAERSK, with its 958-foot length, was riding about four waves at a time. So there wasn't much pitching for our speed was reduced to less than half to ride out the waves in a relatively smooth fashion.

Wednesday, February 16

The gale has subsided considerably to force-8 today with bright, sunny skies. The waves are down to the 10-15 foot range thereby allowing the ship to travel normal speed again. Today's 55F temperature is also more like what we expected traversing the north Pacific in February.

We have already sighted four large vessels today. Coincidentally, two of them passing within about five miles were from the MAERSK Line, one an empty supertanker heading from Japan to the Persian Gulf for replenishment, the other a container ship a bit smaller than ours heading for Taiwan and numerous ports along the way home to Copenhagen.

"Land Ho!", exclaims Sheldon Wellbrown excitedly. We have sailed 5,285 nautical miles from Oakland. By noon, our position is just off the south coast of the Japanese island of Kyushu and the small northern islands of the Ryukyu Islands, both of which are clearly visible. One of them is a volcano and puffing steam profusely. This area undoubtedly is an important crossing point for many ships are going all directions.

Thursday, February 17

After a calm night on the East China Sea, we arrived three days late at the new Korean container port of Kwangyang.

Here, with luck, we'll disembark at 0900 to mail some letters, plus make a number of ATT Direct telephone calls, exchange E-mail messages such as this one, and check out the sights of downtown Kwangyang.

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