Nine days at Sea… There is an immense amount of water out there. You see it from the beach and think, “Wow, I feel so small compared to its vastness.” Well that feeling is only intensified when your entire field of view, in every direction, for nine days, is ocean.
I’d anticipated twelve days, but am happy with nine. It is a unique experience especially on a nine hundred foot ship manned by only twenty three people, and one passenger, but it is a long slow ride and the novelty of the water wears off by about day four, so you focus on the people. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to travel by cargo ship, I thought it would be a far more intimate and interesting travel experience.
Beware: long post, some profanity, tense confusion
Day 1 – Getting on the ship:
After sitting at Starbucks for an hour and a half I decided to call the dock agent to see if he had better information about the arrival of the ship. He answered and told me that the ship had docked and that I could come aboard. It took me another 30 minutes to get a cab to this uncharted Starbucks and then to the boat. We returned to the security checkpoint where the guard shrugged her shoulders and said “I don’t know why it’s here so early.”
Driving down the line of massive container ships while looking for MSC painted on the side seemed to take quite a while. But finally we found it. I unloaded my bags from the cab, hefted them up onto me, and walked up the bouncy gangway to sign in and have my ID checked. From there it was a series of narrow hallways and stairs to get to the lift that would take me to my room. I had just enough time to drop my bags and glance at my accommodations before heading down to the Officer’s mess for lunch. This was to be my first “foreign” experience of the trip so far. I sat with the Officers and stared off into space while they spoke German to each other. The food was good and served with a sugary orangeish juice that would make its appearance at every meal after that.
I also made my first serious etiquette mistake of the trip. I haven’t had a hair cut in a couple months and didn’t feel like dealing with it so I had a hat on. In the hurry to get me to my room and down to the mess I didn’t consider taking it off. A short time after I was seated I considered the fact that no one else was wearing a hat, including the Captain. I considered that, at that point, the potential situation was too far gone and left the hat where it was. Some time later when everyone had left the room the Captain turned to me and politely asked “Does your head have a cold?” Being a bit slow I said “I’m sorry?” and he repeated. After the second run through he plainly asked if I would remove my hat, which I did immediately, and apologized repeatedly. (I didn’t wear the hat again for the duration of the voyage, bad hair day or not…)
I learned that we would be in port for the night as they readjusted some containers for more efficient weight distribution. I still had phone reception so I badgered Summer all night, full of anxiety about my pending departure. I’ve always thought she was an amazing woman for putting up with the idea of this trip, I feel it even more so now that she has had to deal with all my neuroses from having started it.
Dinner was interesting tonight; apparently it is some kind of German tradition to have cold cuts for dinner on Sundays. I was the first one into the officer’s mess and wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Usually I like to arrive later, that way I can follow the cues of others. I started out like I was making a sandwich and decided based on the number of bread slices that I should take only one, but I took three slices of different meat. There was some ham and mayonnaise looking concoction in a bowl so I took a scoop of that as well. The salad was self explanatory.
After others arrived and I watched them put their dinner together I realized several things. The ham and mayo was actually a sandwich topping. The other diners spread it on the toasted baguette whereas I ate mine like some kind of potato salad.
The cold cut stack I put together was far larger than anyone else’s. The two men sitting on either side of me took only one piece of meat and applied it to the heavily buttered bread.
I attempted as much as possible to eat like they did cutting the cold cut stack instead of instinctively picking it up with my hands.
After dinner I left with the 4th Mate to do some paperwork, sign off that I understood the security concerns, and knew the general and abandon ship alarms.
After that was a quick tour of C deck where the gym, pool, and sauna are located. The gym is far more outfitted than the ship I was supposed to be on. The pictures of that one showed only a ping pong table and a stationary bike. Here we have 3 bikes, free weights, a dartboard, a ping pong table, and a heavy bag. The pool is saltwater and appears to be about 8 feet deep. Swimming in a saltwater pool will be a new experience for me.
The ship’s steward stopped by to see if I needed anything from the on-board store. I asked for some sprite as the water is drinkable from the faucet. That was when I found out that you can only buy things by the case. So now I have 24 cans of sprite for the next seven days of travel. There is no way I will drink all of it, but I will experiment with combining sprite and vodka…
Day 2 – Sailing away
Strangely, it is the 13th and it is also the day I set off for Europe on this cargo ship. I believe they prefer “Container Ship”. I woke about 6:30am this morning. Sleep was spotty last night; I remember waking up many times but nothing was serious enough to keep me up for long. Before going to bed I watched the cranes moving containers around on the ship. They seemed to focus on the stack of containers just outside the tower, and thus, my room. I went to bed about Midnight and they were all on break. There was no clanking or shaking or crazy buzzing alarm for at least 30 minutes.
In that time I fell asleep in my king bed with a comforter for my sheets and blanket.
This morning we got underway at about 7:40 am. I decided to go breakfast late so that I could observe and mimic if necessary. When I opened the door to the Officer’s mess, I was the first and only one there. The cook asked me if I wanted eggs with tomatoes and onions! How did he know? And the other main course was Melba Toast. I’d never had Melba Toast before so I said I’d like to try it. Melba Toast in case you’re curious, is bread, a thin slice of meat, some type of fruit (mandarin oranges in this case), and cheese, then baked.
Before the breakfast had a chance to make it to me there was a call from the bridge. The Captain wanted me upstairs. I jogged up the seven decks to the bridge and walked out to where the captain was. He smiled and said “Make your fucking breakfast later! We are Sailing!!” He was under the impression that none of this is very interesting. And that watching us turn and head out to sea would be the only slightly exciting thing that would happen for the next six days.
At 10:00 am there is a coffee break for the Officers in the ship’s office. I felt like I was intruding as everyone got quiet for a while after I arrived and poured my coffee. Slowly, conversation started back up in German. I busied myself with all the signs and computers in the room. Eventually the captain arrived and sat at the head of the table. More conversation but now some in English. He told me stories of cargo arriving at one port and being relabeled and picked up at another. That there are clever men that out there just sitting back waiting for their money, and apparently it happens all over the place.
Then we got into a discussion about German football (soccer) and whether or not I’d like to be in the betting pool. Cost to enter: 1 Euro, just pick the winners and the one with the most points gets a case of beer. He said that usually the people who know the least about the teams end up winning, or he’s just saying that so I’ll play. Either way, it’s something to pass the time… Totto they call it, instead of Lotto.
Notes from after dinner conversation with the Captain:
The ship is worth 70billion (seems like a lot, maybe he meant million)
It burns 240 tons of fuel a day. It can hold 5000 tons of fuel.
The engine is 75000 hp and can do 25knots
It currently has 4500 containers on board.
It is 300 meters long and 54 meters wide.
The phrase “You don’t believe” is interchangeable with “I can’t believe” When I figured this out I stopped saying “Yes I do!” Example: Captain “You don’t believe how poor Americans are!” Me “Yes I do!” Let me clarify what he meant by this statement. He and the dock agent couldn’t find a Karaoke machine or a 220 to 110 volt converter while out shopping. When he asked for the 220 to 110 converter he couldn’t find anyone that knew what he was talking about. Personally I fault the dock agent more than the “poor” retail person tasked with finding things not many people in the US ever ask for.
At about midnight after several Vodka-Sprites, I put on my headphones and ventured out to the portside D deck which extends closer to the water than any other deck. The night wind was cool and strong and the sky had more stars in it than I’ve ever been able to see before. With nearly all the ship’s lights off it was black one hundred feet in every direction. The Milky Way ran parallel to the ghostly white exhaust from the ships engines and the whitecaps made by the wake of the ship glowed under the few lights that were on.
Day 3 – BBQ night
The social lubricant of the evening was “Gustav’s Special” (aka. German Jungle Juice)
The captain has been taking me to the holds below the galley for the past two days to sample his concoction. Today 3 bottles of champagne were added.
The recipe is thus:
Coniac ( in unknown quantity), Fruit (mostly fruit cocktail style: pinapple, cherry, grapes, etc…), 3 cases of wine, and 3 bottles of champagne. I believe I paid for one of those cases based on a discussion I had with the captain at lunch but we’ll see when the tally rounds up.
I had the rawest steak I’ve ever had tonight. Now, you must understand, I’m not prone to hyperbole, best and worst are wasted on me, so if I ever say anything ending in “–est” that isn’t a German word, know that I’ve put some thought into it. So when I say “rawest” I mean the edges were brown and the middle was nearly beating. Yet I put it down, as well as some of the spit roasted pig and the shrimp that I believe I improperly peeled.
Then we drank the “Gustav’s Special”. By we I mean the captain, officers, and crew. There was one crew member that I never got the name of that continued to steal my glass and fill it whenever I wasn’t looking… He took it when I was watching as well.
Somewhere in the middle, I grabbed the bottle of Grey Goose from my fridge and offered it up to everyone. The Germans laughed at me. Real Vodka comes from Poland or Russia, not France, according to them.
The Philippinos had no issue with the country of origin once the Captain left. They added it to Gustav’s Special while I held court with the 4th mate and Cadet. We mostly talked about missing our loves. I’ve talked with these men about home and they refer to it in terms of where their loves are. The steward talks of his wife and his1 year old child. The cadet talks of his girlfriend and speaks of the passion that lives in one day in port. The fourth mate talks of starting a family and ending his career as a Seaman. At 24 he knows that his life is best lived in port with his heart a suburb away. I miss my fiancé, my love, and I tell them all about it. I pull out the Archos, and smile proudly as I flip through the pictures.
I miss my girl… My future wife…
It’s 2am again… Breakfast tomorrow is optional…
Day 4 – The sun and the sea
I finally timed the sun correctly so that I could lay out on deck and try to add some color to my skin as I’m easily the whitest person aboard the ship. I’ll probably be the whitest person I Europe until I venture up North, and I mean really north. If I wanted to blend a bit more I’m sure I could venture over to the UK and find some other pale peoples.
So the color of the day is red which will hopefully fade into the tan of my forearms which, while hanging out the windows of the van over 7000 miles, have given up their pastiness. I’ve got a wedding to look good for and that certainly won’t happen if I consume every hearty German meal offered on board. Yesterday I skipped breakfast and still wasn’t hungry by lunch but figured I’d better show up so they didn’t think I was clutching my head in agony all day. I sat down and was served some mystery of burnt meat covered in what tasted like a sweet and sour sauce. As usual I just started eating; now using my fork in my left hand for the duration of the meal. Sorry mom and dad, the manners you taught me have served me well, but this one had to go. The Captain commented the other day about how I ate my steak, cutting pieces then putting down the knife and switching the fork to my right hand. As I’m sure I argued when I was a child “But that’s not how the Europeans do it!” When in Rome…
Day 5 – Keeping Busy-ish
I’ve been reading my books on Europe but can only do that for so long. They are the collections on the whole of Europe so contain mostly tidbits and reference material. I couldn’t bring all my books as the weight of just the things I did bring seems excessive.
I did bring a couple fiction books but feel like reading them would be a waste of the time I could spend working on photos, training on Photoshop, or writing.
Last night the ship really started to roll. I’ve learned what the locks are for on all the drawers. Even with the help of an Ambien I found myself unable to sleep. It was a slow but serious roll from one side to the next. Happily, I’m not seasick, actually I quite enjoy the ride, however, my body isn’t quite sure what’s going on. Maybe it thinks an invisible hand is trying to roll me over so that I’ll stop snoring. Since the Chief Officer’s cabin is just down the hall, maybe he requested this sneaky maneuver. Regardless I found myself awake and gathered up all the loose items in the room, some of which had already made their way to the floor. At one point my full Nalgene of water made a shot for my head. Luckily the pillows stopped it before it made contact with my nose.
I discovered that if I lay in the same direction as the pitching of the ship I sleep much better. I’m very happy at this point that the bed in my cabin is so large. My feet hang off the end when I sleep with my head to port but at least I don’t wake up every few minutes. Finally after sitting up writing for an hour or so and taking a melatonin, I was able to get back to sleep, which I did successfully until about 9am.
No sunshine today and the temperature has dropped about 20 degrees. They’ve taken the water out of the pool due to the rocking of the ship. The captain says we are riding against 12ft. swells, nothing serious, just enough to rock the boat.
I was just out on D deck with my face into the wind and decided shorts are not an option for the next couple of days. There are still no dolphins to escort us.
I’ve been getting homesick in waves lately, wondering if all this was a good idea. I miss Summer terribly and find that I spend most of my time thinking about her and wishing she were here with me or I was there with her. 4 days to go until I can talk to her again. All this time just being “away” is starting to really take its toll.
Somewhere on the E deck I’ve found that the ship sings. There is some kind of harmonic resonance there that always makes me look for a radio that’s on. I don’t know how else to explain it.
I’m skipping dinner tonight in favor of a bunch of fruit I grabbed at lunch, but I think I’ll head up to the bridge later on and pester whomever is on duty to teach me a thing or two about sailing.
N.44. W.44. In the middle of the Atlantic.
Well I never made it to the bridge but the Cadet stopped in to teach me some seaman’s knots. Some of the knots I remembered from the Mountaineering classes I took a few years back but I was rusty and his knots were far more elaborate. The Diamond knot in particular was ornate and functional but was used back in the 1800s. During our discussion I found out that the German Navy has over 500 knots, and doesn’t use them all. Even most of the knots he showed me aren’t used on this ship. They use about four main knots here.
I now know how to tie barrels, splice both nylon and steel braided wires, and make pretty knots for the ladies.
Tomorrow night he’ll test my memory and show me some videos of dolphins chasing the ship.
It’s 1:30 and the Ambien yet again fails to do the job.
Day 6 – A Seaman’s Life
Worked on photos, watched West Wing, and listened to a lot of German “Future Trance” from Sebastian (aka. The Cadet). Spent some time in the gym and running the stairs between decks.
I stopped up on the bridge to see if my GPS readings were accurate for our position and… They were! We’re just past the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
The clouds are a constant low mass at this point, the sun above them just lights up the sky with a ghostly dull grey florescence.
Fire drill today… the Steward came to find me at about 3:50pm to tell me about it and get me suited up and ready for the run. I took my camera but discovered once we had all gathered that I’d left the memory card in the cabin… Oh well, you’ll just have to imagine me in a goofy orange hard hat and life preserver.
People keep asking me if I’m bored yet and when I say “nah” they shrug and say “It’s a Seaman’s life.”
I spent more time with Sebastian tonight learning about what is involved in the Seaman’s school he attends. I saw lots of pictures of immersion suits, fire fighting, classrooms, and an interesting party game played with ceramic and metal capped beer bottles.
Day 7 – Birthday Party
It’s colder today for sure. As we creep up the Northern Latitudes we’ve met a low pressure system that is batting the ship around a bit, 10-12 degrees. The elevator (lift) stops working at 15 degrees. I’ve only been attending one or two meals a day lately so the crew has been concerned about me being seasick. I haven’t felt at all seasick yet despite the rolling of the ship. I just haven’t been that hungry and the meals are substantial enough to last me through the day.
We’ve added a day to our journey. What was going to be the 20th in the morning is now the 21st in the morning. Actually we should arrive in port about 11:30pm on the 20th but I will not disembark until the afternoon of the 21st. The Captain says he will arrange for a car to take me to Antwerp Central where I can call my contact, or just hang out until he gets off work.
At night, while taking some dishes back to the galley I came across a flyer for a Birthday party in the Crew Bar so I decided to stop in. I talked at length with several of the crew about the different ports and types of ships they’d worked on and about which islands in the Philippines would be best for a honeymoon. I learned some new phrases in Tagalog. Just the basics: Good Morning (Magandan Omaga) Good evening (Magandang gabi), thank you (Salamat), I’m sorry (Pasensya Ka Na).
Then some time later I found myself in conversation with an older German engineer. Our topics criss-crossed the superficial and somehow we ended up talking about War. He was born and raised in East Germany nearly ten years after the end of the World War II. He had seen Vietnam from the East German side. I could see him holding back memories with everything he had, but the tears came anyway. Although I’ve had no personal involvement in war and I’m thankful to whatever power there is on high that my father wasn’t directed to Vietnam, I still felt every tear this man shed and wished away his pain. He was struggling through broken English and Russian to explain to me how bad it was. The frustration from not being able to find the words and reliving the memories eventually became too much so we switched to lighter topics and he invited me to his cabin tomorrow as a new friend, so that he could show me pictures of his family.
Some truths are learned only from those who have been on the other side….
3am… time for sleep…
Day 8 – English Channel
I finished processing the bulk of the photos from Sioux City through the Atlantic today; I also fixed the DVD player that the Captain lost a disc in. As soon as people found out that I’m a computer guy the questions always start. I’ve helped with several problems that have been nagging the crew, mostly office related stuff, and the occasional “should I have done this?” It felt good to help out with something instead of just being “The Passenger”.
My new friend from last night and the Cadet stopped by my cabin this afternoon and invited me down to look through photos with them. We talked a lot about where they are from and where I am from. We drank some Becks and I showed them some of the pictures from my trip. They liked the time-lapse from New Mexico to Iowa and were surprised at how many miles, and hours, I took to get from Portland to Charleston.
It was a good afternoon.
Tonight we’ve entered the English Channel which is wide enough that we still can’t see much. I’ve seen what appeared to be a ferry cross on the horizon and I’ve been able to see the flashing lights from the lighthouses on the English side. Birds have started to take up positions on the containers outside my window. Sometime tomorrow night we will be with the Pilot that will guide us into the Antwerp port.
We’ve successfully crossed the Atlantic.
Day 9 – Laundry day
I found my way to the ship’s laundry and washed what I had worn, watched more West Wing and found out that I hadn’t won the Totto. No worries, the steward had and he was sharing his beer with the crew regardless. I’ve really begun to like these guys. I can see where this kind of camaraderie could beat back the boredom of months at sea.
Now that we’re so close to land I’m eager to start exploring Europe, the time seems to stretch again as the anticipation grows.
We dropped anchor at 11pm to wait for the tide to come in and didn’t get moving again until about 3am.
I didn’t get much sleep, either the anticipation or the jarring of the ship as we got underway again, kept me from it.
Day 10 – Belguim
I see land. Lots of smaller ships have taken up positions alongside us and are headed in the same direction.
After we made it through the locks it was only a short time before we made it to the dock. The Antwerp port was absolutely buzzing with activity. The tall yellow container crane-trucks looked like hungry ants carrying food to their queens. Everything seemed to move at a pace twice that of Charleston.
I was on the ship until 4pm so I crammed all my junk into my bag and waited for immigration to clear me. After putting on my pack this time I had the serious realization that I’ll be reevaluating its contents. There is no need for half this weight. I’m loaded up for too many scenarios and what will probably happen is that I’ll end up tweaking my back and not being able to carry any of it. House cleaning time is coming.
I was able to talk with Summer for a while today and get caught up on her life and vice versa. It was incredibly refreshing and felt great just to hear her voice. Nine days is too long. I’m ready for Europe now…