A Freighter Voyage Around the World
by James and Mary Prosser
Part II of V
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, about 100 kms west of Pusan. After asking several Koreans, we were never able to get a correct distance. Some said 50, others 150 and 200 kms. It's a new city. How can you expect anyone to know where it is? The citizens don't even know where they are!
During the night the weather turned very cold. When the ship docked at 0745, it was 38F on a brilliant sunny day, but with a very brisk, damp wind to penetrate directly to the bone. This was our first visit to Korea.
We disembarked about 0900 to mail letters, make a number of ATT Direct telephone calls, exchange E-mail messages such as this one plus check out the sights and wonders of downtown Kwangyang.
What followed was a most pleasant surprise, but also a warm reminder of how nice the Korean people really are. We did not know what to expect.
After breakfast, Mary and I, along with Sheldon, another passenger, went ashore to do a bunch of errands. We were walking over to the public telephone box at the stevedore's shack when a young man came over to check our passports and port shore passes.
He did not speak much English, and of course, we spoke no Korean, so we motioned to him we were going to make some telephone calls, then get a taxi to take us into the city for a few hours sightseeing and minor shopping.
He motioned for us to come with him. He went inside the office, then came out with his boss. The boss checked our shore passes again and said the man was getting off duty, and if we liked, he would give us a ride into Kwangyang and back to the ship later. How could we turn down such an offer?
Through our excellent hand signals or Korean sign language, we explained we wanted to do a bit of souvenir shopping, mail some postcards, make a few international telephone calls, plus send and receive a bunch of E-mail messages. No problem!
Off we went. The first stop was at the telephone company main office. There we took care of the phoning. I mentioned to the young lady behind the desk (she understood a little English) that I had a laptop computer and would like to hook into a line to send/receive all my accumulated E-mail messages. She said, "No problem."
She called one of her colleagues to come and help me. He took me into another very large room in back which actually was the KTelcom training center. He said, "hook your computer onto this line and make your connection with Pusan". I said it might take some time for there had to be a lot of accrued messages. He said "No problem."
In the meantime, Mary, Sheldon and the driver/guard were out in the front section of KTelcom 'surfing the net on one of the public INTERNET locations.
In the back room, I was sending my messages and downloading 95, yes 95, messages, since last signing on two weeks ago. When it was all finished, I said to the man that I was on the line with Pusan for exactly 45 minutes and asked what it would cost me. He said, "Nothing, this is the training center for our staff and we do not charge. We are happy to serve you." And I was delighted to do business with them! I thanked him profusely.
Korea definitely is the "no problem" country. After finishing our tasks, the driver/guard took us on a sightseeing trip of this very new city. It already has 120,000 inhabitants and every building looks as if it is less than ten years old. Construction is everywhere. The roads appear as if they were finished last week. There are new train lines for container trains. The apartment buildings are certainly colorful, if not psychedelic.
The main activities of Kwangyang are the port, the Hyundai Steel Works, a petro-chemical industry, and the container terminal of the port. All of which are indescribably enormous.
Back at the ship, we thanked our "tour guide" and gave him a gratuity for his invaluable assistance. We still can not believe our good fortune of this day.
It turns out there were many more containers to process here than originally anticipated. Our Kwangyang port call stretched to 12 hours longer than the ship's officers would have liked, for they felt the pressure to "get moving". Setting sail for Kaoshiung, Taiwan at 1915, the ship was now three and one-half days behind schedule, something which cannot be made up.
Friday, February 18
Awaking at 0500 in the East China Sea and peering out the window in the almost full moonlight, it was as if we were passing a small city about a mile off shore from the Chinese mainland. In reality is was the Chinese fishing fleet spread out from horizon to horizon, each vessel with a bright light! There were 100 boats if there was one. What a sight! But what a headache for those navigating up on the bridge. The boats give way to us for the gigantic Dagmar MAERSK does not maneuver easily. Fortunately this ship's horn is fixed on the foremast, more than 200 meters from our cabin. We don't hear it when it is sounded as we learned it often was last night.
The day was considerably warmer than yesterday, but heavily overcast with hardly any wind. Fishing boats were visible everywhere all day long.
After supper, the air temperature which had been at about 60F most of the day, shot up to about 75F in one hour's time! The humidity went to about 100 percent and stayed there. And twenty-four hours ago, we were near freezing in Korea!
Saturday, February 19
Travelling along the close western shore of Taiwan, we still did not see land because of the poor visibility. Three miles was the limit. But, we saw plenty of fishing vessels. Navigating through these waters is like driving through the traffic of the Via Veneto in Rome during rush hour.
The 0800 temperature was already 75F. The chief engineer said the sea temperature was now 70F, and after Hong Kong when it should reach 80F, he'll fill the swimming pool.
At breakfast this morning, the captain was disappointed the ship had lost four knots speed the past 18 hours due to the highly unusual four knot current in the Formosa Straits at this time of the year. The ship headed straight into it. Consequently, we arrived in Kaoshiung, Taiwan at 1200 noon, three hours later than anticipated.
When the outline of the city began to arise out of the heavy overcast we were astounded to view a skyline that was full of skyscrapers, one of which is 85 floors high. We eventually learned that was the "Formosa Building". It is unique in that the bottom 40 floors are two separate buildings spaced about 30 meters apart. On top of the two buildings, in the center rests the single 45 story tower on a connecting platform. A small airplane could easily fly through the hole below.
Now the sun was out and this town was steaming hot. After lunch we three passengers left the ship, hired a taxi and had the driver take us into the city center. What a colorful city this is. There is plenty of visual blight with huge colorful Chinese lettered signs hanging on all available space. A national presidential election is soon to take place we gather from the trucks with booming loudspeakers going around. The driver said the population is well over 1,000,000. He wasn't exactly sure. Nor could anyone else we spoke with give us a reasonable number.
Riding through traffic certainly was exiting. Glad we did not have to do any driving. Our taxi driver had numerous "close calls" which did not seem to faze him at all. Chewing beetlenut constantly, spitting the red juice into a cup on the console between himself and passenger, he just zoomed onward. Jim just closed his eyes, putting his trust in the dear Lord to get us through it all safely.
While there are a lot of automobiles on the street, the number of motor scooters far surpasses that of Naples, Italy. People who ride them often wear cloth masks to filter out the air pollution the rest of us breath. The scooters are parked on the sidewalks from one corner of a block all the way to the next. At 1700 when everyone was starting to head home, the sight of about 500,000 motor scooters all taking off simultaneously in all directions was not only colorful, but rather interesting. Many are double riders, helmeted young ladies in short skirts showing lots of leg, or a parent with child holding a toy or tonight's supper (live). With all the riding we did, we never observed an accident. Somehow all this motorized chaos works.
The driver took us to the Hotel Kingdom in the city center and dropped us. We arranged to have him come back at 1700 to take us back to the ship, which was about 10 kms away.
We wandered about the streets, changed money, wrote/mailed some post cards, shopped a bit, drank large bottles of the local beer (outstanding) then tried unsuccessfully to send/receive E-mail messages. The local contact numbers either did not answer, or when they did, a connection to CompuServe's system was never realized. Oh well, Hong Kong is the next stop.
The local Chinese were celebrating the last day of the Chinese New Year (dragon this year). They started Feb. 5th! The city was gaily decorated. Back at the ship this evening while watching containers being unloaded/loaded, we observed a lot of fireworks over the city. With all the lights of this tremendous harbor and city, it made quite a sight.
We were thoroughly impressed with the Chinese gantry crane operators and the overall port organization. We timed one operator removing containers from the rear of the superstructure directly behind our cabin. He was removing one container every 65-70 seconds, or at a rate of about 54 containers per hour. Four cranes were working our vessel simultaneously to unload the 1,200 containers on board for Taiwan. We loaded about half that many for onward ports between here and Europe.
This being a late Saturday night at the end of an extended holiday period, we were further amazed that container terminal operations were proceeding full tilt as if it were a normal work day, which, in fact, it always is where ships and containers are concerned. But, we have experienced differently in some European and American ports. We particularly recall once arriving on a South African freighter in Le Harve on a Sunday afternoon at about 1500. French port authorities and customs officials ignored the ship until after midnight and only then could operations begin.
Sunday, February 20
By 0400 the ship was loaded and departed for Hong Kong two hours earlier than expected. We awoke to find ourselves out on an absolutely flat sea. The only waves today were the ones the ship made. It was very hazy, making it impossible to differentiate between the sea and sky.
The ship traffic on this part of the South China Sea is quite dense. At any given moment there are usually a half dozen large vessels in our limited, hazy view. It's a good thing the ship has excellent radar.
This particular location has a bad memory for Jim where he experienced his worst time at sea, ever. He was on a French freighter in 1956 sailing from Saigon to Japan. It confronted the "tail end of a typhoon". The ship was battered by monstrous waves for more than 12 hours. It was a "white knuckles" ride in a life-threatening situation.
Just before noon today, we met an oncoming ship that has to be the ugliest thing afloat anywhere. It was the Nissan shipping company's EURO SPIRIT. It is a new car carrier, capacity of approximately 4,000 vehicles, returning empty to Japan. It resembles a giant, oblong balloon or sausage floating on the water with a tiny bridge up front on top. Ships are supposed to be like women, with classy lines. The EURO SPIRIT definitely is an ugly duckling.
The time saved by our early departure from Kaoshiung was canceled by MAERSK Hong Kong agent's news that the berth our ship was to occupy wouldn't be available until 0600 Monday morning! As a result we steamed (also the captain was steamed) on a hazy, glassy sea at half speed in order to arrive at the Hong Kong pilot station for a Monday 0400 pilot pick up.
Monday, February 21
The ship picked up the Hong Kong pilot at 0400 ten miles out at sea. We arose to observe our arrival expecting to see the magnificent skyline and city all lit up. And it was, but not terribly visible to us because of the dense, low overcast and occasional mist. We were disappointed, but still hopeful that with our projected afternoon departure, we'd be sure to get a nice view.
After tie-up at 0530, stevedores were soon all over the vessel unleashing the deck containers. Work began immediately. To our amazement, the captain allowed a few local Chinese vendors to come aboard to sell sport shirts, and even a tailor to take measurements for a suit if we wanted which would be completed by departure!
We last visited Hong Kong six years ago, which was before the turnover of the colony by the British to Chinese administration. On the surface from our brief observations, nothing has changed at all. The place is as vibrant and colorful as ever.
The captain advised at breakfast our time in port would be just nine hours and that we'd sail at 1400! Quickly clambering down the gangway, we three passengers hiked a fair distance to the nearest taxi stand for the six-mile ride into the city.
We did some minor shopping, walked about Kowloon, plus sent and received our E-mail messages. Sadly, we didn't even have enough time ashore for lunch, as everyone had to be back on board two hours before the scheduled sailing time. We would have loved to have been in Hong Kong for a full day or more. No doubt about it, the main disadvantage of riding a container ship is that the cargo handling time in some ports is greatly reduced by automation.
Sitting in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel brought back fond memories to Jim who was a frequent visitor there back in the 1950's. As often as not, he'd meet someone from Saigon who would show up unexpectedly for afternoon high tea. But, those days are gone forever. Nevertheless, the afternoon high tea, class and ambiance of the hotel remain as always. Even Gaddi's restaurant is still there, but with prices unimaginable even for today.
Hong Kong's container terminal area, constructed in the former "New Territories" is relatively new and impossible to estimate by size. Suffice it to say it is incredibly large. Because the land mass around Hong Kong is all mountainous, the terminal areas had to be built on land reclaimed from the sea, just as the new airport was. The new container terminals are half-way between the new airport and the city of Kowloon (30 minutes by taxi in morning traffic).
Asia terminals 1 and 2, where the Dagmar MAERSK docked, had a huge container lot with long rows of boxes stacked six high. The place was a beehive of activity, even at 0530 on a Monday morning. What was extremely interesting were the three huge buildings near the container lot and ships. They had to equal that of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Without these three enormous buildings, the outside storage container lot would have to have been at least three times larger than it already is. Space in Hong Kong is at such a premium, you must go vertical whenever possible.
Two of the buildings were six floors high, and the third in the rear was ten floors and equal in combined size to the other two buildings. Each had a spiral driveway for access to each floor. From our ship we could observe a steady stream of semi tractor trailers bringing containers up for storage. They all returned down the same spiral with empty trailers. Somehow the containers were removed and stored for eventual shipment. But how? That remains a mystery.
At the bottom of each of the buildings, several entrances allowed empty semi trailers to pull up, receive a container from above and cart it off to the side of a particular vessel for lifting by the gantry crane on to the waiting ship. It would have been nice to have gone inside those buildings and observed what actually happens to all those containers. No Chinese stevedore could satisfactorily describe the interior operations, other than to say "all automatic". We'd love to see that!
The weather in Hong Kong was awful. Being misty, warm, very humid, and heavily overcast, sightseeing was out of the question. From Kowloon, Hong Kong island was barely visible. By the time we sailed, it wasn't. The Dagmar MAERSK had to sound its horn numerous times making its departure through the haze and maze of vessels of every description and size. For Sheldon, our fellow passenger, it was a frustration not being able to even ride the Star Ferry across to Hong Kong. For us, the disappointment was lessened by the fact we had done it many times before.
Just before the ship was ready to "cast off" all lines, the captain ordered all crew members to conduct a thorough search for stowaways, "bow to stern, bridge to bilge". This was interesting to observe and very well organized. Apparently Hong Kong is one port where MAERSK Lines requires this done on all their ships. Twenty crew members scampering helter-skelter over a vessel this size to inspect every nook and cranny took just 30 minutes. That was impressive. The captain said, "With such practice, we don't have any problems with stowaways. Otherwise, the company would be fined and there is too much paperwork."
We related to him how ships along the east African coast handled their stowaways by the shocking, but common, practice of depositing them overboard as shark bait. One would think word would eventually get back to Mogadiscio, Mombasa, Zanzibar or Dar Es Salaam not to be a stowaway because chances of survival are nil. But the ruthless practice still exists today.
Tuesday, February 22
The weather was fine but quite warm at 85F. After all, we were just a bit more than a day away from the equator. The Chief Mate had all hands out on deck with hoses and brushes giving the ship a complete washdown. It really needed it after all the grime of Kaoshiung and Hong Kong settling on it. Water was flying every-where. Actually, it looked as if the deck hands were having fun. We had hoped the swimming pool would be available today, but deck hands were chipping paint in the area and getting ready to give it a new coat.
Once the bow was thoroughly washed, Jim took up his usual post there which today included watching a lot of flying fish in the bright sun. Several sharks were also observed. Of course, many ships were passing in both directions between Hong Kong and Singapore.
The Chief Engineer gave a briefing and tour of the engine room of the ship. He and his staff total seven people! The antiseptic control room is almost the width of the ship, with dials, panels, computers, buttons, levers, switches, blinking lights everywhere. But no one is here! "Bridge control" the Chief Engineer said, pointing to a light on one of the many master control panels. Every loaded refrigerator container's temperature is monitored remotely in this room continually, and twice daily by visual inspection of the container's gauge.
Back up on the bow after lunch, Jim noticed there were a few fishing boats in the vicinity, but several miles away off the port and starboard sides. Unfortunately for them, they had strung out a long net which reached directly across the path of the ship. He witnessed the comparatively sharp edge of the bow at water level and 24 knots speed cut through the net as if it wasn't there. The fishermen now had a major net mending problem for the remainder of their afternoon.
Mid-afternoon, the captain called a fire drill. Everyone reported to their muster station wearing life jackets and helmets. The passengers were inspected and, as this was a fire drill, we were released and directed to remain in our cabins until the fire drill was completed. The crew was then dispersed to the location of a "suspect" container for dousing it with either high pressure water or other fire retardants. That could get nasty, so it was best to stay out of the way.
The sea was glassy after supper. Sunset on the South China Sea invariably is something special, and tonight was no exception. While we had azure skies above, in the extreme western distance there were a lot of thunderheads built up. Shortly after darkness set in, we were able to see a magnificent lightning display perhaps 100 miles away, but it lasted a long time.
Later, we visited the "monkey deck" on a perfect evening to see stars and the moon eventually rise. What a lovely night this was!
Wednesday, February 23
What a glorious day this was! One could not ask for more perfect weather at sea. The only waves were the ones made by the wake of the Dagmar MAERSK. We saw dozens of ships all day and Singapore was still a long way off.
There were flying fish everywhere. Also untold numbers of sharks performing feeding rituals just beneath the surface not too far from the ship. We observed dozens of shark fins three different times. There were even a few dolphins later in the morning. Plus one lone eel lurking on the surface as we glided by.
Monday in Hong Kong we were concerned about potential stowaways. Today the captain briefed us on a far more serious menace coming to us in the Singapore and Malacca Straits tonight and tomorrow - pirates! Yes, pirates in the year 2000!
No one told us about pirates when we signed up for this voyage. This conjured up memories of the "Terry and the Pirates" comic strips of the 1940s. However, there is no sultry Dragon Lady to spice up this predicament.
Today the problem of pirates in the approaches to Singapore is a very real and potentially deadly one. They are heavily armed and sophisticated compared to those of lore.
These guys are not the stereotypical bearded, swarthy types with one eye, wearing a bandanna, and griping a knife between their teeth as they climb over the side on board to do hand-to-hand combat. They now arrive on high- speed power boats with all sorts of tools, weapons or grenades; i.e. Uzzis, AK-47s, and are prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way.
The ship was advised during the night that our berth would not be available for docking until 0700 Thursday. To adjust for this, it stopped for a while late this afternoon about 200 miles from Singapore before the "pirate zone". Then at 1700 we sailed at full speed (24 knots) direct to the pilot station through the pirate zone with all outside doors secured and personnel instructed to remain inside. The captain said, "Because of our size, high free board and speed, there never is a problem, but we must be prepared." Lookouts are posted on both wings of the "flying bridge".
The same procedure will be observed in reverse upon departure from Singapore for about 18 hours when heading northwest through the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia. Of course, while docked in the container terminal of the Singapore port, there is no problem for the Singapore police and coast guard are extremely tough on pirates. It's the approach waters where the danger lurks.
One maneuver of the pirates with their high speed vessels is to launch a grappling line aboard the side of a selected ship, then climb aboard. Often the pirates know exactly which container they want to rob and go straight for it with all necessary tools to break into it. This usually means they got their information from "insiders" in shipping companies, from customs officials or manufacturers.
The MAERSK policy is the pirates can have whatever they want out of a container. Protection of ship personnel is more important. Pirates sometimes spray ships with gunfire even if they are unable to get on board, just out of meanness. That's one reason why wise shipping lines never load containers with hazardous materials on the outside of a container ship.
The pirate problem here is an international one, that until a few years ago had been pretty well under control through police cooperation by the three countries of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. But since Indonesia has had its internal problems with East Timor and other islands, there has been less participation from them with the other countries. The resultant increase in piracy and attendant brazen violence has caused the Singapore and Malaysia authorities to conclude these newly very well armed pirates may actually be Indonesian Navy personnel who are "moonlighting".
Normally a ship prefers to run "dark" during the night for easier night vision, with just the foremast white, and main mast port red and starboard green lights illuminated. Tonight, the bright spot lights from the flying bridge showing sides both fore and aft were on continuously in the event a pirate ship tried to come alongside. They would be noticed.
So you wonder, "What's a flying bridge?" Glad you asked.
From the bridge, both sides of the ship to the waterline must be visible, especially for maneuvers in and out of dockside, canals, as well as observing the pilots arrive and depart.
Today's ships are so large, it would be a senseless waste of space to build the bridge to extend from side to side. So the bridge is constructed with the main portion compacted in the center and perhaps only 60 feet wide as on the Dagmar MAERSK, while the ship is 130 feet wide.
On both sides are wings which extend to the outer edge of the ship allowing complete side viewing. They usually contain a duplicate of the ship's compass, along with engine room controls for port maneuvering. As there is nothing below these extensions but several levels of space, they became known as the "flying bridge." On this ship, it is 111 feet to the water.
The next time you see a large ship, look for the flying bridge. It's a lofty (and often very windy) location, just beneath the "monkey deck", previously explained.