Archive for the ‘Atlantic Ocean’ Category

It’s my life!

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

It was someone’s birthday – really that was just an excuse. It seems that this particular crew always finds an excuse for a party on Wednesday nights at sea. We were in the middle of the Atlantic, on a container ship, with not much else to do. We, as well as everyone else on board, were invited to the crew lounge for a party.

At the appointed time, Scott and I sauntered down to the lounge. Fortunately, not many of the crew on this ship smoke (mostly it is the officers that smoke), and with the crowds people, it would have been very uncomfortable if too many of them were smoking in the small room.

The cook prepared some special treats for the party – chicken wings and other finger food. Upon walking in, the crew showed their delight at our joining them by  immediately offering us drink – beer, wine, whatever we wanted. I don’t know who paid for the alcohol for the party, but we were honoured guests so it wasn’t us. In hind sight, I think it was the person having the birthday that paid – opposite to our tradition, in the Philippines, where most of the crew are from – it is an honour to buy your friends drinks.

So, with drink in hand, we joined in the festivities. This group had karaoke setup and were pretty good at it. We sang some songs we recognized as well as many that we didn’t. I had to get up and do some Brian Adams – they didn’t have Brian Adams as a karaoke CD, so you just sung along to the CD – in the crew lounge any CD could become a karaoke CD. We even tried singing some karaoke in Tagalog (the language spoken in the Philippines). Scott was OK at it; the German apprentice onboard was very good. Clearly he has been practicing!

For many of the crew, karaoke night is not just a chance to party, it is also a chance to practice English. During the party, one of the ship’s mechanics watched the karaoke with a notebook in his hand. Anytime he saw a word he didn’t understand, he would write it down so he could look it up later. I was amazed at how a particular crew member could sing along to karaoke without an accent, and yet he could barely string together a sentence in English.

By midnight the party started to get pretty roudy – with lots of loud singing and dancing. I was the only female in the room, but that didn’t stop some of the guys from table dancing – it was that wild. Of course, when the camera came out, everyone had to jump into the picture – and then see the picture in the camera window – you have to love digital cameras!

A particular vivid memory was when they put on a Bon Jovi CD. Imagine, the whole lot of us, in the middle of the Altantic Ocean, on a very dark night, screaming “It’s My Life” at the top of our lungs.

It’s my life
It’s now or never
I ain’t gonna live forever
I just want to live while I’m alive

(It’s my life)

My heart is like an open highway
Like Frankie said
I did it my way
I just wanna live while I’m alive
It’s my life

That sound will forever be imprinted in my mind, with the image of all of us dancing and screaming out the words as if we were the only people on earth (we were in the middle of the ocean after all).

That was four years ago, and every time I hear that song, and I hear it often as it is the third song on my daily exercise track,  I smile (and sometimes I even scream although I try to keep the scream inside). It’s my life!


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!

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.

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.