Archive for the ‘Freighters’ Category

Freighter frustration again!

Friday, March 20th, 2009

It seems that just after we finish jumping through one hoop with the freighter, they put another one in place. We have “booked” a freighter from Shanghai to Seattle, through NSB Reiseburo, on or about June 1st.

First booking, we were told that even though we are Canadians, we require a Visa for the USA. Both us and our travel agent Fred had received letters from Homeland Security and the USA Embassy saying that Canadians do not require Visas; however, the freighter company insisted. They had an issue a few years back where a Canadian was denied entry, so they do not wish to get burned again.

So, we jumped through that hoop, forked over about $400 and received 10-year tourist visas for the USA. We only hope that having the visa doesn’t cause us more trouble than it save, since we don’t require it.

We thought everything was OK, but when we sent copies of our Visa’s, we hit another hurdle. Now we are told that our type L Chinese visa (tourist) does not permit us to embark in Shanghai. That type of visa is OK for any other port in China, but for some reason, Shanghai doesn’t accept it. So, we now need to acquire a type F visa (business), which requires an invitation letter from a company. We are hoping the freighter agent can provide us with the necessary invitations. It certainly would have been nice if they informed us of this odd restriction prior to us applying for and paying for our visa.

A slow boat to China

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Over the last few weeks, when people have asked Becky’s mom about where we were, she replied with “On a slow boat to China”. Well, Singapore is not exactly China, but our boat was headed to China after it dropped us off.

An Indian Ocean pig roast!

An Indian Ocean pig roast!

Our “Slow boat to China” was an enjoyable experience that was quite different from our trip across the Atlantic. We were concerned about the long time the ship was at sea; however, it turned out we need not have worried. Crossing the Indian Ocean does not involve more than 2-3 days of time without losing sight of land. Also, because of the land in the way, most of the shipping traffic takes the same route, so we were almost always within radar range of at least one other ship. We certainly did not get the “only people on earth” feeling that crossing the Atlantic Ocean gave us. The trip was broken up into 1-3 day segments which made the passing of time go quicker:

  1. Barcelona stop.
  2. Mediteranean Sea transit.
  3. Suez Canal transit.
  4. Red Sea transit.
  5. Gulf of Aden – piracy area transit.
  6. Gulf of Arabia transit.
  7. Rounding Sri Lanka.
  8. Indian Ocean transit.
  9. Straights of Malaka.
  10. Singapore.
Garbage in Malaka Straights

Garbage in Malaka Straights

Throughout the journey, we never had a clear day. The weather was sunny, but there was always a haze on the horizon that limited the visibility. It also meant that there was no chance of seeing the Green Flash . The haze gave you a feeling of being enclosed, and was rather eerie at times.

We did not spend as much time on the bridge and did not make as much of a connection with the Hanjin Brussels crew as we did on MSC Alessia – although Scott did play a couple of games of ping-pong with Rene the Cook and a few other crew members, so that helped break the ice a bit. It seemed to us that on this ship some of the senior officers were not as respectful of the Filipino crew and officers as on our other ship. There is always a hierarchy between officers and crew, on any ship, but it seemed to us it was a bit different on this ship. When those at the top of the hierarchy respect those at the bottom, everyone is much happier and things are pretty relaxed on the ship. On this ship, we could feel tension between the crew and some of the officers, which was rather sad.

Piracy on the high seas

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

If you think piracy was a thing of the past, think again. The movies portray pirates with romance and intrigue, but the real thing isn’t that pretty. Today, ships are boarded by pirates wielding automatic weapons and Rocket Propelled Grenades. Often in the attempt to take the ships, bullets fly. If your ship is taken by pirates, you can expect a minimum of six weeks waiting for the ransom to be paid. So far, inevitably a ransom will be paid – that is how it works and that is why piracy is a profitable business.

Pirate? Nope, just a Filipino sailor

Pirate? Nope, just a Filipino sailor

All that’s required for successful pirates is a relatively lawless nation to use as a base, a nearby trade route, and access to fast boats and automatic weapons. In the past decade, the most dangerous spot was in the Straights of Malaka between Indonesia and Malaysia/Singapore. Currently, the biggest area of threat for piracy is in the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia, which is where we are right now.

To combat a piracy attack, this ship goes fast – 26 knots. At this speed, the risks are very low – the pirate boats simply cannot catch us. Unfortunately, there are many ships travelling in the Gulf of Aden and northwestern Indian Ocean, and most are not as fast as we are. This area contains major trade routes between Asia and Europe, as well the routes travelled by most of the oil from the Middle East.

On the last voyage across the Gulf of Aden, a small bulk carrier only 16 Nautical Miles from the Hanjin Brussels was hijacked. It was part of a convoy with a military escort, the only option for the slower bulk carriers and tankers who do not have the option to outrun the pirates. At the time of the attack, the officers on the bridge of Hanjin Brussels heard the VHF calls for helicopters, and the final announcement that “pirates have successfully boarded the ship”. The entire altercation lasted only 20 minutes. It was a sophisticated attack, with multiple boats threatening several ships within convoy simultaneously – which allowed the pirates to draw the military away from their actual target. Once the pirates are on board, there isn’t much the military can do. The pirates have the crew as hostages and the ship as well. Even the smallest ship is worth millions of dollars, not even counting the cost of the cargo.

The military escorts are limited by the Rules of Engagement for vessels in international waters, which do not allow a vessel to fire until a clear threat has been identified. Fast vessels coming close to a convoy of slow freighters don’t count. Fortunately, no crew members have been killed in the pirate attacks so far in this area.

About 12 hours after we left the international convoy area, another ship was hijacked. We have no further information beyond the location, but it was right along our path, and just outside the staging area for the convoys. Unfortunately, the pirates have Internet access and VHF Radios, so they can get all the same information that the ships do about the “escort zone” locations.

While listening to a security announcement from one of the warships we suddenly heard “Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey”! We thought “what’s this about alcohol all of a sudden?”. We quickly realized that he was explaining how to get further information, and listed a website. In the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet, W is Whiskey. Thus “The website address is Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey…”. If you’re interested, the website is, which we haven’t been able to check, since there’s no web access on the ship.

In the end, we successfully traversed the Gulf of Aden with no incidents. The next we learned that a ship 12-hours behind us was hijacked. We don’t have any more information on that vessel, so we can’t say how fast she was going or whether or not she was escorted.


The Suez Canal

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

When we envision transiting a canal, we visualize going through locks, like the Rideau Canal at home; however, the Suez Canal does not have any locks. It is a long narrow channel connecting the Mediterranean to a couple of small lakes and then the Red Sea. A connection between the Nile and the Red Sea existed as early as 2000 B.C., but fell into disrepair several times over the centuries, before being permanently closed around 800 A.D. The current canal is between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and was opened on the 17th of November 1869. The canal was closed from 1967 through 1975 due to ships scuttled in the canal during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. During that time, 14 cargo ships were trapped in the canal at Bitter Lake for 8 years!

Just prior to taking on the first pilot for the canal, Becky was informed that we could not be on the bridge while there was a pilot on board – especially Becky as a female. The Captain did not want to do anything that might offend or upset the pilot. We were told that the Suez pilots are frequently grumpy and difficult to deal with. The Egyptian bureaucracy challenges the ships, and the fees are very high – any change or anything out of line causes the fees to increase. The Suez Canal Authority knows it has a captive audience and they know how much it would cost the ships not to use the canal – so they only make it a little bit less expensive than travelling all the way around the Horn of Africa!

The first bit of oddness we noticed was that a canal crew was taken aboard by hoisting up a small boat using the “Suez crane”. The crew remained in the boat while it was hoisted up to the Upper Deck (the lowest above-deck level on the ship). We took aboard three crew members, who appeared to do nothing. Just before that, we had taken aboard a pilot and one other man from a pilot boat. The other man turned out to be the “electrician”, responsible for the Suez Canal Projector. This is a light that is rigged at the front of the ship just for the Suez Canal transit. It is so far forward on the ship that it is useless to the bridge. The officers we talked to think that it may be a legacy requirement – similar to the Suez crew. These requirements provided employment, so the jobs are kept in place even though they are obsolete.

After taking the pilot and Suez crew onboard, we proceeded south through the Port Said bypass channel. At the 28 km mark, the buoys changed sides – that is, the red buoy moved from the left side to the right side. This is the arbitrary point of the canal where we change from “returning to port” to “leaving port”. When we arrived at the El Qantara bypass, we tied up alongside the canal to await the north bound convoy. At this point we discovered the function of the rest of the Suez crew. The Suez crew gathered in their boat and they were lowered to the canal. They were responsible for bringing the stern lines ashore. There was a crew on another boat waiting at El Qantara to bring the bow lines ashore. We were amused at how much more efficient the local crew was, and pondered again exactly why we needed to bring a crew along with us down the canal. The only reason other than legacy we’ve been able to come up with is emergency mooring. There are bollards along both shores of the canal every few hundred meters, so if we needed to stop for some reason, perhaps having a crew on board to bring the lines ashore could make the process quicker.

The northbound convoy was a parade of ships led by one container ship, then a submarine (which we believe to be British), which proved to be quite entertaining. We sat and watched the passage of the ships of the North Bound convoy for 4 hours (military, container ships, bulk carriers, and finally tankers). We’re guessing that the container ship led the submarine to make the start of the convoy more easily visible. Most of the ships in the northbound convoy were large container ships. Currently, there are two southbound convoys and one north bound convoy per day. The first southbound convoy leaves at 1 or 2 am and proceeds to Bitter Lake, where they anchor and await the passing of the northbound convoy. We were part of the second convoy, so we tied up alongside at El Qantara and waited. Our convoy was only 4 ships, but perhaps the first convoy was larger.

When we finally departed it was already 4 pm and there was only an hour and a half of daylight left. We enjoyed sitting out on deck and watching the world go by. The Sinai (east) side of the canal is mostly desert – and rather flat desert at that. The Egypt mainland (west) side of the canal is mostly green.

As the sun was setting we arrived at Ismailia, where there is a small lake. We were amused at all the fancy resorts along the shores of the canal and the small lake. It was not that warm outside, so the resorts were empty – it must be the off season. We could not imagine why anyone would want to go to a resort on the Suez rather than on the Red Sea or Mediterranean, but apparently people do.

Once the sun dropped, the canal became a sea of lights – not too exciting, especially when you can’t go to the bridge and see the radar.

Overall, the Suez transit was neat but not nearly as interesting as we had expected. We suspect that the Panama Canal would be more exciting, as there are locks involved. We’ll have to wait for the report from Becky’s parents, who are taking a cruise through the Panama Canal in April.


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!

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!


Freighter Update

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

This update is coming a little late. We have successfully reserved a spot on a freighter from Naples Italy to Port Kelang (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia on or about February 1st, 2009. The itinerary currently takes us through La Spezia Italy and Barcelona Spain. We are hoping that we end up in Barcelona at a time when we can make a brief visit. The freighters stop in ports for between 6 and 24 hours, and the stop could be at any time of day, so there are no guarantees that we’ll get to Barcelona at a time when we could do any sight seeing.

I say reserved rather than bought a ticket because there are a couple more hoops we need to jump through yet. We need to purchase insurance and send along our policy numbers to the booking company. We are waiting for the fine print of a policy to arrive in the mail, so that we can decide where to buy the insurance. We’ll be getting a policy for our entire trip (emergency medical), so that complicates the decision a little.

The booking company is also saying that we need to get a doctors note not more than 30 days before the trip, and that they cannot issue the ticket without the note. This means we need to see a doctor while in Turkey or Greece to get the forms completed. Our agent was going to see if this was really necessary given our ages. A lot of freighter travelers are in their 70’s, which makes the medical form important; however, we are hoping that the freighter company will wave that requirement for us.

We will be staying in the owners cabin on the Hanjin Athens. The freighter companies have a neat utility that lets you check where in the world the ship is at any given time.

We have not yet booked anything to get us from North America over to Europe. We are waiting to hear about whether the Canada Senator renews its charter, expected in May. If it does, we’ll need to see if the timing works to take it from Montreal to Gioia Tauro, Italy. If the Canada Senator does not renew, then we will need to take one of the ships from Savannah Georgia to Italy (there are three or four listed). Savannah is a little further south than we wanted, so we would need to take a train from Boston to Savannah, as it would take too long to ride that distance.

Freighter frustration

Friday, February 29th, 2008

I have been trying for over a month now, rather unsuccessfully thus far, to book a freighter. We want to take a freighter from somewhere on the north east coast of North America (Montreal, New York, Newark, or Philadelphia) to somewhere in Europe (ideally Italy, but we would settle for pretty much anywhere on the continent at this point). I’ve tried 5 different listings to no avail!

My experience so far has been that everything that is posted is “going out of charter” or “changing routes” such that what I ask for is not available :(.

I also tried to book a freighter from Italy to Malaysia. There was one group (NSB Ever Champion etc.) that looked very good and ran very regularly (weekly). When I made the request, the information that came back was that the company is now running from England to Malaysia. Unfortunately, we’ll be on the other side of Europe, so England would be a bit of a stretch.

At this time, I am working on patience. I think I may be taking some of the wrong advice and trying to book too early. I have my fingers crossed that as our departure date gets closer, the boat schedules will firm up and more cruises will be available.

Cross your fingers for us!