Archive for October, 2008

Adrift in Italy

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

28 km, 2.5 hours

We are off the ship and on dry land, but we are certainly feeling adrift in Italy. In hindsight, we are thinking it rather foolish that we arrived in a non-tourist area of Italy. The captain gave us the option to stay on the ship until Naples and we foolishly declined. Our guidebook starts 75 km north of where we are. Very few people here speak any English, we speak almost no Italian and we have very little idea how things work. At least the weather is beautiful – 20-25 degrees Celsius and sunny.

The ship arrived in Gioia Tauro at 9 pm last night, and it took until 10:30 pm to clear customs. Since they were going to be around until at least 8 am, we decided to stay on the ship for the night and disembark in the morning (definitely the right decision!). In the morning, we were up and had everything ready to go, but the ship’s departure was delayed to at least 10 am, so we were no longer in a rush. By 9:00 am, our gear and bikes were unloaded – this time using the monorail crane, so the process was much simpler – and we were on our way.

Getting through customs and immigration and out of the port was entertaining. We started by riding our bikes to the nearest security gate. Just before we arrived, a security car came up behind us telling us that we could not ride in the terminal (oops). We checked out of security and were led to immigration. The immigration guy looked at our passports, photocopied them, and marked down the name of the ship. He said to return when we were done. He spoke some English, but it took both of us several minutes to explain that we were not returning to the ship. The magic word turned out to be “disembarkation”. He then took our passports again, found our names listed in a different folder, stamped our passports, and we were on our way.

After about a kilometer, we came to the main gate for the container port. The customs guards stopped us there as well. At one point they all came out (about 8 of them) trying to figure out what to do with us. It seems that big trucks are more common than loaded bicycles – funny that! One of them took our passports and looked for a stamp. There was clearly a stamp from Gioia Tauro for today, but he did not seem to recognize it. After much miming, he telephoned immigration, who eventually cleared us. We were on our way again, for real.

Gioia Tauro is a small town that appears to primarily support the port. Looking south, you see a series of hills (mountains). Our first order of business was to ride around Gioia Tauro in hopes of finding a better map and a snack before going further south. Our thought for the day was to head to Massena on Sicily (about 40 km from Gioia Tauro according to our map).

Gioia Tauro appeared to be mostly closed. It may have been that it was still too early in the day, or we were in the wrong area of town. We did find a fruit store and bought some delicious grapes and a few bananas. Becky also ate a granola bar from her stash, and we headed south. We had already ridden 15 km. We began the climb out of Gioia Tauro. At one point Becky saw a sign that said 222m and looked like a bridge. She though perhaps there was a bridge or tunnel in 222m. That turned out to be incorrect, and the sign actually indicated the height of the pass. About 10 km later, we finally reached the top of the hill.

At about 12:30, we reached the town of Palmi. We were both rather hungry, so we headed towards the downtown (indicated by a sign saying Centro and showing a picture of concentric circles like a target). Just after we turned up the street Becky noticed a Tourismo office, so we stopped in. We were both in a fog about what we wanted. We asked about accommodation and food. The women (about our age or younger) helping us was apologetic about not speaking English. She explained that her colleague who usually translates was off sick. Our communication was a mixture of us using the guidebook, her speaking short phrases in English, and an online interpreter (each taking turns typing in our various questions and answers).

We decided to spend the night in Palmi, where we could hopefully get better orientated to Italy. We are in a much more luxurious place than we need – the Residence “La Marinella” (, which has apartment rooms with full kitchens. We are paying a little more than we would like at 80 Euro, which is actually very reasonable for what we have. It is definitely the off season, and a new place, so there are only a couple of other people here.

We took a brief afternoon siesta (when in Rome…), which we both needed as our sleep last night was rather fragmented.

After our siesta we tried to shower, but couldn’t get the water to come on. After much frustration, we tried to call the numbers we were given, but there was no phone! The assumption seems to be that everyone has a mobile.

We got up the courage to knock on the door of the other tenant and asked him to call our hosts. Fernando is a lawyer articling in Palmi, and speaks some English, which made the process much simpler. When they arrived, it was a matter of seconds to “fix” the shower. Although the water knob both pulled and turned, neither of these motions turned on the water. The magic trick was to bend the knob up and to the left or the right. Whups!

The residence is in a beautiful spot, 150m above the ocean. A high hill is to the south, and there is a lookout below us on a promontory. We made the scenic walk down to the lookout. There are many olive trees along the way, with nets below to catch the ripe olives as they fall off the trees. A women was walking up and down the side of the road with a bag, collecting olives that had fallen onto the road but were still good (not yet squished). She seem to have about 4 or 5 liters when we passed her on our way back up the hill. Becky tried and olive off of a tree, but it tasted awful!

Our accommodations are not as close to downtown as we would have liked and are 100m downhill, but after our scenic walk we did venture in that direction. It turned out to be not as far as we had feared, so a little unprepared, we were walking around downtown. Scott did not have his wallet, but Becky did have her purse, so we were able to get dinner and find an Internet cafe.

We had our first three course Italian meal (although each item is considered a course). First course was a simple pasta dish – penne with pomodoro and Basilico (tomato and basil sauce). It was simple but very good. The second course was fried pork, and the third (which was served with the second) was green salad (just romaine lettuce). Given that we didn’t have our guidebook, we thought we did well finding food and ordering. It was also only 6:30 pm and most Italians don’t eat until after 8. Since we did not have a proper lunch or breakfast, we were both rather hungry by that time, and did not want to wait until 8 pm to eat.

Our learnings for today:

  • Southern Italy is hilly!
  • Have our “fake” passports handy to give to hotels and such for documentation, so that we don’t end up with worrying about a passport.
  • Everything seems to close down during Siesta time (1 pm – 5 pm) and most stores appear to be open in the evenings 6 pm onwards.
  • A normal supper does not start until 8 pm.
  • Don’t rush when figuring out accommodations – take time to ask questions and get clarification. It might take us a while to learn this one!


The waiting game

Monday, October 20th, 2008

We are adrift outside the port of Gioia Tauro in Southern Italy. The ship arrived at 1 pm, and we were looking forward to the scheduled docking at 3:00 pm. Once we arrived near Gioia Tauro, we were informed that the pilot was rescheduled to arrive at 6 pm. We are now being told that we are on 1 hour standby – that is, the port will tell the ship 1 hour before the pilot is due to arrive.

Both of us are feeling excited and anxious. We have been avoiding thinking about all the uncertainties associated with our landing in South Italy and our onward voyage. The freighter and her friendly crew seem like a safe warm cocoon, and we are loath to leave it. Now that we are sitting just off the coast, we can no longer deny our feelings. We are both a little bit scared about what our future adventure will be like. The longer we sit here waiting the more “what-ifs” go through our heads, so we are seeking out tasks to keep our minds occupied while we wait. Tomorrow will come soon enough, and the next phase of our journey will really begin.

We can see the docks from here, and it is clear that all the gantries are in use. They will need to finish with one of the ships that is currently in port and it will need to leave before we can be brought into harbor. Given the time of day, we are hoping that our arrival will be delayed until 8 or 9 pm, such that we can get a full night of sleep on the ship before departing in the morning. We are told that they have about 10 – 12 hours of unloading and loading to do in Gioia Tauro.

Earlier today, the ship made a detour to go closer to the volcanic island of Stromboli, so that we could get a good view. It is a small island that climbs to 1000m just north of Sicily. We had an opportunity to take many nice pictures, and it delayed our arrival in Gioia Tauro for about an hour (which meant one less hour of sitting here adrift). Although it is an active volcano, there are at least two small villages on it. Seems crazy to us!

Equipment malfunctions

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

We never expected perfection from our equipment, but Scott is getting a bit grumpy with some of the failures we’ve seen. Back in June, our shifter lockups were the beginning, but since then Scott’s shock failed in New Brunswick too. DT-Swiss were very good about sending a replacement ahead to meet us in Florida – unfortunately it was the wrong length, but once Scott discovered the problem, they were also willing to overnight a correct-sized replacement.

Today, he finally took the failed shock apart, and it isn’t clear what caused the problem. Two washers in the main air chamber are definitely not in good shape. There was still significant pressure when he disassembled the main barrel (even after removing all the air from the shock per the documentation), and a loud “pop” when the barrel finally came free. We suspect that the plastic washer got damaged somehow and caused the mechanism to block. In any case, we don’t feel comfortable using it (even as a backup) without factory reconditioning. Scott has stripped it for parts which we can use on our good shocks if needed.

On the camera front, Scott is on his second Canon G9. The first died in Louisberg, N.S. – it just wouldn’t turn on any more, first with one battery, then with the second (all within two hours or so, so we don’t think it was the batteries). This was as we were visiting the Fortress of Louisberg, so very annoying. Fortunately, after a bit of convincing, Henry’s Camera was willing to replace the camera fairly quickly. We had purchased their extended warranty, which gave us a replacement for failure in the first 90 days. Unfortunately, the second G9 also misbehaved. At random, the backlight for the LCD display would turn off, but the screen would still be faintly visible. This started back in Fredericton, but we were unable to do anything about it until we reached Florida. There, Henry’s kindly hooked us up with a local repair shop (Southern Photo, in North Miami Beach), which was able to expedite repairs and get the camera fixed before we left on the freighter. We paid up front for the repair, but will get reimbursed under the terms of the Henry’s extended warranty. The repaired camera has worked very well for the last two weeks, so we’re crossing our fingers.

Becky’s camera behaved better until we took it snorkeling in Florida. It’s an Olympus 850SW, which is theoretically waterproof to 3m. We never took it below the surface, but water still got through the seals and caused the battery door switch to fail. Talking to the fine folks at Henry’s repair, this isn’t that uncommon, and Olympus is pretty good about fixing it. Unfortunately, it needs to go back to the factory for this, and we discovered that we didn’t purchase her camera through Henry’s, so there wasn’t much they could do to help. In the end, we decided to ship the Olympus home, and just buy an inexpensive new camera. Becky decided on the Canon SD1100IS, which is both smaller than the Olympus and takes much better pictures. It isn’t waterproof or shockproof, so no more pictures in the rain while riding, but it looks good so far.

And then there was Becky’s GPS. Becky’s GPS started randomly turning itself off in Quebec. After a while, she discovered that it was more likely to turn off on bumpy roads than on smooth ones. The initial mounting configuration caused a fair bit of vibration, which appears to be the cause of the intermittent failure. This is a common failure mode for many Garmin GPS’s if they are hard-mounted to a bicycle. Becky re-adjusted the mounting system which reduced the occurrence of the random shutdown for a few weeks. By the time we reached Nova Scotia, Becky decided that her GPS was not worth the trouble – it was shutting down too frequently. We emailed about getting it fixed, but it is no longer under warrantee, so it would cost over $100 and requires that it be sent back to Garmin.

Shortly after Becky’s GPS started acting up, her cheap backup bike computer randomly reset itself. A few weeks later, it was resetting itself at least once every other day. The challenge with the reset is that it resets the tire size to default. Our front tires are 20 inches – must smaller than the 26 inch default. In the end, Becky decided to replace both her GPS and her computer with a slightly upgraded computer (one that had ride time, distance, and a thermometer).

Hopefully this will be the last of equipment failures for a while.

A day in Barcelona

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

We arrived in Barcelona on time and the pilot was ready to bring us into port a little earlier than originally scheduled. By 9 am, we had nicely backed into our birth. It is always quite impressive watching how the ship in maneuvered into port.

It was raining outside, heavily at times. Our vision of Spain is sunshine on warm stone, and neither of us had envisioned our arrival to be quite so wet. Fortunately, the rain was at its worst while the ship was waiting to clear customs. Once the formalities were over and we were free to go, the rain lighted up to an occasional drizzle.

The other passengers left the ship in Barcelona, so we said goodbye to David, Roger and Janet, and wished each other well on their various adventures. David is taking several months to go hiking in Europe, and Janet and Roger are continuing their post-retirement travels – now in their eighth year.

Rather than take a taxi, we decided to take the city bus into town. We had a copy of the Barcelona map from the Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring guide (thank-you David). It provided us with enough context to successfully take the bus and then walk to find an Internet café and then the downtown area of Barcelona.

Much of downtown Barcelona is a series of winding pedestrian streets. Some of the streets are wide enough to permit a single lane of traffic, but many don’t permit any cars at all. The streets are not laid out in a grid pattern, so it is easy to get disoriented as the streets turn and connect with one another at odd angled intersections. Fortunately, Scott has a much better sense of direction than Becky, such that he could navigate us around town.

We had lunch at a mediocre Tapas bar whose only redeeming features were good coffee and free wi-fi. We discovered that wi-fi is pronounced (WEE-FEE) here, so no one knew what we were looking for when we asked for W-eye-F-eye.

After lunch we went out to see Gaudi’s masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, an incredible cathedral that began construction in 1882 and is not yet complete. Upon seeing the “Façade de la Passion” – a very intense and busy – Becky’s reaction was “This is very gaudy”, which made her wonder if the term “gaudy” actually stems from the architect Gaudi?

To end our day in Barcelona we enjoyed dinner at a much nicer Tapas Bar (Taller de Tapas – including the requisite Sangria. One of the dishes we tried was razorshell, a cylindrical shellfish that tastes similar to clam but had much more meat on it.

By 8:30 pm, Barcelona was just waking up, and were exhausted and ready to make our way back to the ship. We heard about a Spanish guitar concert by Manuel Barrueco starting at 9 pm, but decided to return to the ship instead. Good thing we did, otherwise we might not have been back when our leave ended at 23:59.

We used the subway (Metro) and the bus to make our way back to the port. This went well, with only one almost-catastrophe: We asked the bus driver if this was the right bus to “Port de Barcelona”, and thought we should be taking a different bus. We overruled him and got on anyway, which was a good thing. We think he was trying to send us to the cruise ship port (Port Vell) rather than the container port (Port Olympic).

We were quite surprised by the lack of security at the Barcelona port. We did not need to sign out or in to the port at security. We flashed our ship ID badges and the Port Policeman did not even look at them, he just waved us in. We walked directly to the ship through the port at night. We were glad that things were much less chaotic than in Freeport, where all the different sounds and movements make navigation a challenge. The port at Barcelona seemed to be barely alive (only one gantry was working when we left and when we returned – however, one of the mates did say they had 4 working at one point during the day).

On a side note, we confirmed that even in Barcelona, one of the easiest places to find a public washroom (restroom, WC, or toilet) is in the lobby of a 4-star hotel! Also, the hotel overcharges for Wi-Fi: 20 Euros/day! In Canada and the U.S. this is typical – it’s the small motels which have free Wi-Fi, especially those catering to truckers. We’ll see if the same holds true in Europe.

A week at sea

Friday, October 17th, 2008


On Monday afternoon the third engineer gave Scott, Becky and David a tour of the Engine room. Becky was immediately surprised at how spacious it was and also how cool it was. She was afraid it was going to be oppressively hot; however, they appear to have good ventilation, such that it was quite pleasant – although very loud. Ear protection is mandatory, and it would probably be useful if the engine room crew knew sign-language.

The main engine uses “Bunker Oil” which is very viscous and dirty, but much cheaper than diesel. This means the fuel tanks must be heated constantly to keep the fuel from congealing, and the fuel must be purified before it is used in the engine. The engine still doesn’t burn very cleanly and particles of soot land everywhere on the ship.

Engineering involves quite a sophisticated series of systems, and the ship itself is quite new – built in 2001 by Daewoo in Korea. Scott drew a simplified system diagram to amuse himself, but hasn’t checked it with the engineers yet. The systems we were shown include:

  • 12 cylinder Main Engine with three turbochargers
  • Steam plant for heating bunker oil, internal heating, heating water – run from an auxiliary boiler until the main engine gets up to speed, then steam is generated using the hot exhaust gasses from the engine
  • Cooling system with a closed-loop fresh-water stage and open-loop sea-water stage
  • Fresh Water evaporator (so the ship can produce enough fresh water for crew use as well as cleaning). The ship uses about 16 tonnes of water fresh water a day, and can generate up to 26 tonnes when the evaporators are working correctly.
  • Fuel Oil Purifiers
  • Lubricating Oil purifiers
  • Air compressors and compressed air tank – the engine uses an air start mechanism
  • Auxiliary engines
  • Blowers to bring air into the engine

Everything is outsized, with the pistons twice as tall as Becky, and the engine itself three decks high.

The engine is directly coupled to the prop via the stern tube, with no transmission. The screw only turns at 88 RPM to make the ship go 22 knots. That is one impressively huge propeller!


We have found that over the last few days we have been more and more lethargic and spending too much time in our cabin. We were sleeping too much during the day and not getting proper sleep at night. It only occurred to Becky today that she was exhibiting the same symptoms as she gets in the shorter days of winter – at home she uses a light for 30 minutes a day on the shortest days of the year to help keep her sleep patterns. So, for the rest of the trip, we will each try and spend at least an hour each morning outside, exposing our bodies to the sun and getting some exercise – walking back and forth across the deck and climbing the many stairs.


Today we awoke early to see the Island of Santa Maria in the Portuguese Azores. The ship did a little detour to the south (to kill time since it was too early in the morning) and a detour to the north to get close enough to the Azores for the European crew members to use their cell phones. Since the Azores are in Portugal, they are within the European cell phone network. It is much cheaper for the crew to use cell phones than to use the satellite phone on the ship. We were happy to see land for the first time in six days. We will not see land again until we reach the Straits of Gibraltar on Friday morning.

Our plan of getting some sun and exercise is working well, and we’re feeling much more energetic.

Once we reach the Straits of Gibraltar, all the crew will be very busy until they leave the Mediterranean. The ship will have seven stops in two weeks, before they head back out across the Atlantic returning to North America. The cook and the steward are scheduled to leave in La Spezia, so a party was needed to say farewell (I think it was just an excuse to have a party!). We were invited to join in the festivities, which took place in the “Filipino Lounge”, otherwise known as the crew recreation room.

We arrived shortly after dinner. The room was a little smoky, there were Christmas lights twinkling and karaoke was playing. Immediately, chairs were set for us and we were offered beer or wine. It was essential that we each had a drink in hand. Anytime our drinks looked close to empty, someone came by to refill. There was also lots of food, including some fried fish with sauce and a delightful seafood salad (like ceveche with a Filipino twist and lots of ginger ).

We spent the night joining in with the karaoke. Several of the crew were very good singers, others not so good, but everyone was enthusiastic. As it got later the music changed from 60-70s English pop and Filipino love songs to 80s rock and the crowd got rowdier. Everyone was shouting out the lyrics and several folks were dancing. It was a lot of fun, and involved a lot of laughing.

We were surprised that the other passengers did not join in the parties. We really enjoyed the opportunity to laugh with the crew and share some of their culture. It certainly helped keep us entertained! They do have a pretty good life on board, although the four to seven month shifts do keep them away from their families and loved ones for long periods.


Most of Thursday was spent relaxing and recovering from the party. We left while the party was still going strong, but still did not get to sleep until after midnight.

We were sad to learn that the cook and the steward who were so looking forward to going home will need to wait another month until the ship gets to Houston. Their replacements were not able to get visas for Italy, so they must stay on board until their replacements can reach the ship. If they were to protest loudly enough, they would be able to leave, but generally you do not leave the ship until your replacement arrives. The captain also found out that his replacement will arrive 10 days later than originally scheduled. It seems that everyone on the ship suffers from the uncertainty of when their replacements will arrive.

We notice that there is a lot more shipping traffic. At one point Becky went up to the bridge to see four ships all heading for the same invisible spot (us included). It was amusing that in the open ocean with so many miles of open sea, our paths all intersected (within about 1-2 miles). Fortunately we didn’t all reach the magic spot at the same time. After this, there were no other ships for 50 miles.


We awoke at 5:30 am to see the lights of Africa (Morocco) and the rock of Gibraltar as we passed. Unfortunately, it was a dark night with the moon not as luminous as it had been while we were at sea. You could just barely make out the hills behind the lights in Tunis (a city in Morocco across from Spain). The rock of Gibraltar appeared only as a shaded mound against the dark background. The excitement of being in the Straits of Gibraltar lasted for about 45 minutes before we decided to crawl back into bed.

We are entertained by the change in the number of ships in the area. Every time we go up to the bridge, we see 10 or more ships on the radar. The officer of the watch needs to be diligent about checking our course and ensuring that we will not come too close to any of the other vessels.

We are still moving at 22 knots. We did not slow down for any of the narrow passageways (narrow was 7 miles wide). Apparently, the ship requires crew to be in the engine room in order to change to “maneuvering speed”. We are currently moving at “cruising speed”, which is not quite the maximum, but rather the most economical speed. Any significant changes to engine speed requires the Chief Engineer and a full team to be on standby in the engine room.

Since entering the Mediterranean, the ship has pretty much stopped rocking. We still feel the vibration of then engine, but the rolling caused by the sea swell is gone. The ship feels like it is moving slower, when in fact it is moving faster! Our first impression of the Mediterranean is that it is full of garbage. Watching the waves from the bow, we can see garbage floating in the water. You can’t go more than a few seconds without seeing some bit of paper, plastic, or can floating in the water. It is rather sad to see so much junk.

Tomorrow morning we shall be in Barcelona. We hope that the ship will be in port long enough for us to enjoy a couple of good meals ashore and run a few errands. Once we leave Barcelona, we will only have about 36 hours to prepare for our departure in Gioia Taura.

Pirates, pigs, and parties

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

Have you ever seen a movie that involves container ships and pirates? Often the pirates are shown with cloth tied over their head and over their faces, only exposing their eyes. This is what the deck crew often look like when they are working (painting or cleaning). The head protection (usually an old T-shirt) keeps the soot and dirt off of their heads and the cloth over their mouths prevents them from breathing in particles and fumes. It is a little disconcerting when you go for a walk around the ship and everyone you see is looks like a pirate!

Today is Saturday and we will be on the open ocean all day.  There is a naval tradition that involves the open ocean and a pig roast. Because Saturday is the day most of the crew relax and often party, today is pig roast day!

Party preparations began after lunch. Under the direction of the cook, the large barbeque was rigged on the starboard side D deck. Crewman took turns manually rotating the pig while it cooked. On the port side D deck a large table was setup and the area was decorated with flags spelling DAQZ (the ship’s call sign) and PARTY. In addition to the suckling pig, pork ribs, steak, chicken wings, and fish were also barbequed. It was quite the feast.

Amusingly enough, while the party preparations were being made, a few rain squalls threatened. The second mate, who was on bridge duty at the time, dutifully navigated the ship slightly north, to ensure that the rain squalls passed below us, keeping the decks and crew dry for the party! A few miles off course now and then makes such a small difference to our overall passage that moving the ship off course for a few hours to benefit a party is completely reasonable.

The ship will take seven full days to cross the Atlantic. In that time, we cross six time zones. Prior to boarding the ship, we wondered how they handled time zones. What they do is pick which days are best (that is, if they are going east, they will not advance clocks on a Saturday, as that would mean one less hour of sleep on party night), and they advance the clocks one hour each night. On most vessels, this means each of the three night watches is 20-minutes shorter, but here the deck officers arrange a one hour change to involve a different officer each night, so that the short watch going east and the long watch going west is shared among each of them.

The ship’s crew always likes going east, because the days are shorter. When at sea they are usually counting the days until their rotation is over and they can go home to be with their loved ones. Of course, some do find the successive short days a challenge. It is difficult to get enough sleep when you work two four-hour shifts plus a few hours doing other duties and you only have 23 hours in the day.

Grease, fires, and immersion suits

Friday, October 10th, 2008

MSC Alessia somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean

This was our first day truly at sea. We awoke to a blue sea with no sign of land. We are moving across the ocean at 22 knots. At this location there is a 25 – 30 knot wind, so on board we feel winds up to 50 knots, which does make standing anywhere that is not protected from the wind a challenge.

The track of the shortest distance between the Bahamas and the Straits of Gibraltar appears as a curved line on the chart of the North Atlantic. The distances are so grand (it is 4000 NM between the Bahamas and the Straits of Gibraltar) that the shortest distance is a curve – the ship is turning ever so slightly to starboard as we progress. Fortunately, the ship’s computer calculates the necessary course, such that there is no need to do the calculations manually. We also notice that the large scale charts also have special lines indicating the magnetic variation because the variation is different at the top of the chart versus the bottom. It is hard to mentally grasp the scale.

Today was safety drill day. The drills were listed on memos that were posted on the crew’s mess, the officer’s mess, and on the bridge. Becky decided to go ask the Second Mate (the safety officer) about the drills (first a fire drill and then an abandon ship drill); which in the end caused more confusion that it alleviated. Becky came back from the bridge with the idea that we were not participating in the fire drill, and that we just needed to go to the stern to watch.

Unfortunately, this was incorrect and led Scott astray. About 15 minute prior to the drill, she learned that when the alarm sounded we did need to go to the muster station. She says she told Scott, but he missed the comment, so when the first alarm sounded, he went to the stern to watch the fire rather than the muster station – causing confusion and requiring crew members to go searching for him! It has now been drilled into even Scott’s thick head that anytime the alarm sounds, you grab your life jacket, helmet, and immersion suit and proceed to the muster station.  The crew was good-natured about the whole thing, since it gave them a chance to practice the ‘lost passenger’ drill as well.

Once everyone arrived at the muster station, we were directed to the aft of the ship to watch the fire drill exercises. Becky was a little surprised when they actually lit a fire in the BBQ barrel! They used a fire extinguisher to put it out. Since some of the crew members had not experienced the fire fighting foam, they also practiced using it (which made a nice mess of the stern). It was a little disconcerting watching them, as there were a few errors in their procedures. The fire hoses were not laid out properly at first, so when the water was turned on the hose had kinks. Then the foam pump was put on backwards, so the foam did not work right away. These are some of the reasons the drills are necessary. Becky just expected that they would be performed with the military precision she is accustomed to. In her naval training, had they made such mistakes, the drill would have been repeated until it was performed without error.

After the fire drill was complete, and everything cleaned up, the alarm sounded again and we returned to the muster station. Once everyone arrived, we proceeded to the swimming pool where three crewman donned their immersion suits and demonstrated floating the pool. The suits provide enough flotation on the their own; however, wearing a life jacket makes it easier to hold your head out of the water.

At the first muster station, Becky leaned up against a cable that holds the life raft. She succeeded in getting grease on both her arms, her shirt, and the back of her pants. She did not notice until Scott pointed it out to her! At the second muster station, the crew was careful to ensure that no one else leaned up against the very greasy cable. Good thing Becky is not wearing any of her good clothes on the ship (she doesn’t really have any “good” clothing). The outside of the ship is very dirty in spots, so anything you wear is likely to get some grease or soot on it eventually.  The crew are cleaning and painting something every day, but on a 300m ship, there aren’t enough crew or enough hours to keep the ship pristine.

A day in Freeport

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

50 km, 3hr

The day began with a call to weigh anchor. We were permitted to go forward and watch as the anchor was being brought in. Becky is constantly amazed at how the procedures used here are pretty much the same as the ones she learned as a sea cadet on the YAGs. The key difference being the scale of things. Where on a small sailboat (under 30 feet) you might manually haul in the anchor, on a larger boat you use an anchor windless: on a freighter you use a giant anchor windless. On a small sailboat you shake the anchor to clean off the mud from the bottom. On a larger boat you use hoses to wash the cable and anchor while you are raising it.  On this  freighter there is a built-in washing system as the anchor cable comes up through the hull.  We captured part of this process on video (add links).

Coming alongside in the Bahamas turned out to be a rather stressful experience, at least for us! They seem to do things in a manner that ensure the maneuvers will be exciting and filled with adrenaline. First we are directed into the port through a very narrow channel. Then we arrive at our birth and the previous ship is still in it! So, we are left drifting around the narrow port waiting for a ship to be moved out of our spot. To add to that confusion, there were problems with the tugboat on the bow. The tug kept backing up before the crew had enough time to secure the line to the cleat. This was particularly unsafe, as someone could have had a hand in the way when the tug started pulling. This happened twice before they successfully connected the tug to the ship. It turned out that there was a lack of communication between the tug and the bow crew. This was happening while we were drifting waiting for our birth to be freed!

The procedure that has one ship coming in before the previous ship appears to be a new standard procedure in Freeport (the crew were surprised so it clearly hasn’t happened that often). When we departed, the same procedure was performed, with the new ship waiting right beside us until we left. It is especially interesting because we are a very large container ship; often much bigger than the others in port, so you’d think they might use more caution when maneuvering such a large vessel.

Once we were along side, the gangway was rigged and we were allowed to go ashore. While we were in our room preparing the crew brought our bikes down to the dock. We were lucky to have our bikes, as the cost of a taxi to town is excessive ($30 US each way). Because the boat did not dock until after 3pm, we did not get off on our adventure until 4 pm.

Leaving the dock at Freeport was a bit of an adventure in itself. First we made our way along the safety zone (along the edge of the dock). The crane operators quickly came over. Becky was afraid we were doing something wrong, but it turned out they just wanted to ask about our bikes. After a brief discussion, we were guided to the path that lead to the security gate. Crossing the path of the transports was interesting. We felt like we were in the middle of a battle scene in Star Wars. The vehicles used to move containers are large three container high creatures with four leg and a head. The control booth (the head) is at the top and the drivers are seated sideways. The vehicles make alarming noises when they move. Also, the cranes sound alarms when they are lifting hatch panels and when they move along the dock.  Fortunately there are no alarms when lifting containers, or the cacophony would be constant.  The combination of sounds (unfamiliar and meaningless to us) combined with these large creatures moving about was quite surreal.

Freeport turned out to be further away than we anticipated. We rode for 15 km before arriving near the center of town. We found the International Bazaar: it appeared to be pretty dead with most of the shops empty or closed. Eventually, we ran into David, another passenger, who had made his way to the chamber of commerce and discovered that we actually wanted to be in Port Lucaya rather than Freeport. So, we hopped on our bikes and rode an addition 10 km into Port Lucaya (which would have only been 5 km, had we not taken a detour along the way).

We found the shopping district in Port Lucaya and an Internet café. This only involved one incidence of Becky turning into the wrong lane; good thing there was no oncoming traffic. They drive on the left side of the road in the Bahamas (although at least 50% of the cars are right-hand drive). While in Port Lucaya, Becky did a little bit of shopping while Scott sent email and updated the blog. Becky soon discovered that the cost of everything in Port Lucaya was excessive, so she only bought a few things that we could not get on the ship (gingerale, tortilla chips, and cookies).  The ship’s slop chest does have Tonic and Fanta, and Potato chips among other things.

Once the critical emails were sent and the blog updated, we headed out for a nice dinner at an Italian Restaurant. Becky was amused that we were eating Italian in the Bahamas when we would be in Italy in 8-10 days. It hasn’t really sunk in that we are going to Europe!

After dinner, we realized that it was a beautiful night and would be a shame to throw our bikes in a taxi when the ride back to the ship would involve a nice tailwind. So we hooked up our lights, and hopped on our bikes. The ride back to the ship was  rather pleasant. We rode the 20 km in less than an hour.

Upon arriving at the port, the security guard required that we be escorted back to the ship by an
MSC agent (he did not want us riding in the dark). We were more than happy to throw our bikes in the back of the pickup truck and not need to navigate our way through the Star Wars battle scene a second time!

On Friday morning, we were able to watch more of the dock operations while the ship was being loaded. The ship in front of us had departed, so we had 4 cranes loading the bow at one time –  quite the flurry of activity. Scott went on shore to take pictures, but was ushered back to the ship after 30 minutes because although he was wearing a safety vest, he was not wearing his hard-hat. 

Here are some videos of the “creatures” moving containers around and the cranes loading containers and deck plates onto the ship. (add link)

As we undocked at Freeport, we were permitted to go forward and observe the crew as they cast off the bow lines.  (It’s rare that this would be permitted, so we were very grateful).  Again, not quite the same as a sailboat, since each line is the diameter of an arm.  The crew needed to put enough slack in the line that it was entirely in the water before the dock workers were able to remove the bight (loop) of the line from the bollard (post on the dock).  We were careful to stay off the foredeck, and well out of the way of the crew.  With such large lines and powerful winches, they need to concentrate on their work, and not worry about us.  Fortunately there were places we could stand and take pictures while being well out of the way.

We waved goodbye to the Bahamas shortly before sunset – now we’re in the open ocean for six or seven days.

Food, Email, and other random sea notes

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Nothing much has happened today. The ship remains at anchor, so we spent the day relaxing. Our current estimated time of arrival in Freeport is some time tomorrow morning. With the engine shut down and a lack of moment on the ship, the crew are busier than ever performing tasks that can only be done with the main engine down or during calm seas. The deck crew have been sanding down rust spots in the deck and repairing them. This has meant that our regular walks around the deck have been curtailed to allow them room to work.

Much of the equipment on board is familiar to us from smaller boats, only the scale is much larger. The lines are the diameter of an arm, and it took us a few moments when we first arrived to recognize the waist-high cylinders were cleats. The anchor cable is similarly outsized, with each link larger than our heads.

The officers on board the ship are mostly from Germany, including all the engineering officers; however, of the four deck officers, two are not. The Second Mate is from the Philippines and the Third Mate from Poland. The crew is mostly from the Philippines. The approach to ethic relations seems to be different than we have experienced in Canada – and one that we believe is healthier. In our upbringing, we were taught that the appropriate behavior was to be “color blind”; that is, to not recognize that people are different. In some anti-racism training that Becky took through church, she was told that this is not a good approach, rather that differences should be recognized. She never really grasped what that meant, but we can see something similar in the healthy relations on the boat. The captain is proud of the Filipino crew and ensures that items in his slopchest (canteen) reflect their needs in addition to the needs of the predominately German officers. There is no tension between the deck officers of different backgrounds. They do speak of the different cultures, but it is in a straight forward factual manner, which feels like it honours the differences rather than criticizing them. Everyone appears to be relatively happy on board – they work hard and are proud of the work they do.

So far on the journey, the food on board has been excellent and plentiful. There are three fixed meals a day and two coffee breaks. Lunch and supper are both full meals, both being similar to what we would call supper at home. After several days, we are noticing that most meals involve a savory sauce. It is starting to get a little bit too rich, and we may need to ask for meals without the sauce. We are also planning to ask about eating some of the food that is served to the crew. It is more in an Asian style, where the officers’ food involves mostly German recipes.

On this ship, the officers mess (where meals are taken) has fixed seating. We sit with the other passenger (David). The engineering officers sit together with the third mate, and the captain and chief mate sit together. I believe the second mate would also sit at the captain’s table; however, he does not appear to take meals in the officers mess. The British couple on board do not take meals in the officers mess, rather they eat in their cabin. Meal time seems to be focused on eating and not on visiting. The officers often come in, eat, and leave. They do not spend time lingering over conversation. We on the other hand, often linger until the steward comes and tries to clear the tables and we find ourselves in the way!

We did attempt to send one email from the ship. There is no Internet on board, and email is sent from a global “ship” account that uses a satellite uplink. The captain sends the email and a printed copy is kept in the ships records – so there is no privacy in what you are sending. The cost of sending an email is about 40 Euro cents per page. We do not plan to use the ships email to update the blog, rather, we will compose messages while at sea and post them when we get to port if time and Internet access permit.

We noticeed that smoking seems to be permitted anywhere within the superstructure. The officers do smoke on the bridge but they do not smoke in the officers mess which is nice. We also find that the ventilation in the cabins is really good, such that we do not notice the Chief Mate chain smoking in his cabin next to us. The only sign of his bad habit is the occasional smell in the hallway.

As of this morning, our estimated time of arrival in Freeport is 1000 (10:00 am) on Wednesday, but our experience so far leads us to expect that to change.

Crew changes and the waiting game

Monday, October 6th, 2008

On Friday night we headed out of Port Everglades destined for Freeport, Bahamas. Freeport is only 80 miles from Florida, so the trip over did not take long. The MSC Alessia reported in to Freeport at 2330 (11:30 pm) on Friday but we did not actually go to Freeport. We entered the port limit and radioed in our position. From there, we moved out a safe distance and let the ship drift.

Becky sitting in the Captain's seat - MSC Alessia

Becky sitting in the Captain's seat - MSC Alessia

It is intriguing the way this is done. The ship is placed a safe distance from all the other ships, the engines are shut down, and the “not under command” signal (red over red) is set. The ship continues to drift until there is a need for it go someplace, or we get too close to land. We drifted until midway through the afternoon on Saturday. The Gulf Stream passes between Florida and the Bahamas and is a 3 knot current, so in the time we were adrift, we moved half way back to Florida!

The MSC Alessia is not scheduled to enter Freeport for the next few days. Exactly when it will enter is not clear, the estimated time of landing changes at least once a day. We are at the mercy of the MSC freight director in Freeport, who is waiting for other feeder ships to deliver more cargo from throughout the Americas. We expect at least two and as many as four days before we go to port. However, we did have a crew change scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday evening, the new Third Mate came on board, and on Sunday morning after the handover of duties was completed, the old Third Mate was discharged. Since we are not in port, this process requires a small boat to deliver and retrieve the changing crew.

To prevent the need of the small boat to travel too far (the seas are quite wavy from the small boats perspective, but we don’t really notice it on the ship), the MSC Alessia was manoeuvred to within half a mile of the port. We do find it quite interesting that they move this huge ship (with the associated fuel and personnel costs) rather than moving the smaller boat further or delaying the exchange until we are in port. Manoeuvring the ship towards the port turned out to be a little more challenging than it should have been. There was a tanker in our path to the port that was not answering any radio calls. The mate and the captain manoeuvred the MSC Alessia around the tanker, but with no radio contact it was a bit challenging. Half a nautical mile is lots of clearance in a sailboat, but not quite as much between two 300m freighters. A small boat came alongside, and the gangway was lowered. The new 3rd mate climbed on board and the excitement was over for the evening.

Something we learned about fuel tankers is that they almost never stop moving. The exhaust gases from the engine are scrubbed and used as an inert gas to fill the fuel tanks. This is to drive out the oxygen from the tanks so a stray spark can’t ignite the fuel. While waiting to dock, they putter back and forth at 1-2 knots rather than anchoring or drifting.

While we were trying to capture the excitement of the crew changeover with our cameras, Becky ran into a little party happening on the deck. A few of the crew were snacking and drinking beers. Upon seeing us, they immediately invited us to join them. Of course, we would never turn down the opportunity to meet more people and a beer was also a nice bonus! It was our first opportunity to spend off-duty time with the crew, and it was nice to get to know Fernandez, Arturo and David. The conversation was mostly dominated by David, a young German officer-in-training. He is training to become a ship’s engineer. He explained that Saturday night is the closest thing to a “night off” they have, because they only work from 9 – noon on Sunday. They work from 9 – 5, Monday to Friday, and 9 – 3 on Saturday. They also work whenever something needs to be done and when they are in port, they may also sit a special port watch (like gangway watch – supervising the comings and goings on the ship). David entertained us with his colorful commentaries on the different places he has been. He has an excellent ability to reproduce accents, although his English involves a bit too much profanity for Becky’s taste. Perhaps there is something to the saying “Swearing like a Sailor”.

On Sunday, we were awake in time to observe the maneuvering associated with the departure of the off duty Third Mate. This should have been a standard procedure; however it was Sunday, and the driver of the relief boat was either particularly incompetent or suffering a wicked hangover. First, he took several attempts to successfully come alongside. Then after the transfer was complete he seem to be completely unable to get his boat away from the ship. He kept backing the boat up and then going forward directly into the ship. It was very comical – with the Captain, the First Mate, and everyone else watching chortling with amusement. Scott commented to the First Mate that we must have had an electromagnet engaged drawing the boat to the ship! It took the boat driver almost 10 minutes to break away.

Scott sticking his head out of the bow on MSC Alessia

Scott sticking his head out of the bow on MSC Alessia

After this excitement, the boat headed out to the coast of the Bimini Islands on the Grand Bahama Banks and set anchor. At anchor, the engines get shut down, so it’s a good time to do maintenance. Since it was Sunday the ship was rather quiet in the afternoon with everyone enjoying their weekly time off. In the evening however, we had great excitement. Anchoring outside Freeport and waiting for cargo seems common on this route, and the Captain has found a great spot. Because we are at anchor in relatively shallow waters (20m below the hull, so about 32 meters of water), the crew go fishing. Yes, that is correct, fishing off the back of a freighter! We certainly never imagined this would be part of the journey! Becky expected to see people fishing with fishing poles, but that is not how it is done. The crew is mostly from the Philippines and they are excellent fisherman using only a line and hooks. The line is wrapped around a cylindrical object (a pop bottle, an old can, whatever is at hand). Each line has a weight and several baited hooks. At least one of the fisherman was using a large bolt as a weight. Fishing reduced to its bare essentials! More than half the crew participated, but only the Chief and Second Mates was there to represent the officers.

Scott showing off some of the earlier catches

Scott showing off some of the earlier catches

The fishing began before dark, but is wasn’t until after sunset that the excitement began. Several lights were placed at the stern pointing directly at the water. The lights attracted the fish, which made the process much more effective. At first, they were catching many small red snappers (about the size of a hand), but eventually they also caught some larger white fish (about a foot). At one point a two to three foot fish was caught and being hauled up, then … scary music here … a chomp, and what gets brought up is only the head and top 2 inches of the fish. A shark was prowling in the waters and ate the bottom three quarters of the fish! Then it happened a second time. It was quite amusing to see the heads of the fish being brought up on the lines. We could see the white form of the six foot shark swimming about around the stern of the ship looking for other tasty tidbits. Eventually the shark left, and many more fish were caught and barbequed.

Oops, a shark got most of this one!

Oops, a shark got most of this one!

We didn’t stay up late enough to enjoy the barbeque, but the crew saved us a few fish, and we enjoyed them for lunch the next day. Very yummy!