Archive for the ‘Florida’ Category

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!


Boarding the freighter

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

Our day began with some typical chaos. Yesterday, we had been told to call Felix in the morning to check about boarding the ship. Carlos could not tell us when we could or should board. We did know that the ship was due to arrive at 7 am, expected to clear customs at around 8 am, and start loading procedures. The estimated time of departure was 1500 (3 pm). So, at 8 am we called Felix only to learn that Felix was leaving at 9 am. So, we rushed to load up our bikes and get to the ship.

It was good that we had scoped out the location of the Port Everglades port entrances. We did not have to fight with navigating our way and could simply ride the 12 km to the port entrance. When we arrived, we discovered we were at the wrong entrance. The guard directed us to the other gate, which fortunately was only 500 meters to the right. Once we arrived at that gate and provided our ID, the guard made a phone call and issued us a temporary port pass and lead us on our way.

It did not take long for us to miss our turn and need to be redirected to the next level of gates. The final gate was only about 30 meters from the ship at the entrance to the loading area. We arrived at the gate, and called Felix. Felix called a stevedore to escort us to the ship. It was highly amusing when the stevedore arrived in his pickup truck. We followed him on our bikes, across the port (about 30 meters) to the gangway of the ship. He then left us there. We had no idea what to do next, so Scott went up the gangway to report our arrival to the officer on watch.

The captain had given any non-duty crew shore leave until 1600 (4 pm). Since we rushed to meet Felix (who we never did meet), we did not get a chance to mail a couple of packages. Scott unloaded his gear and went out to mail packages while Becky stayed with the gear and her bike and got oriented to our home for the next 19 or so days.

The first mate took a look at our gear and our bikes, and asked the shore foreman if we could use the elevator to load the bikes and gear. As is apparently typical when anything is asked of the foreman in American docks, the answer was no. The first mate had a crewman send down a line to retrieve our bags. One at a time our bags were tied to the line and hoisted aboard the ship. The ships main deck is about 10 meters above the dock (about 12 meters from the water line). I was wondering how the bike would be loaded. A couple of crewman came down and two of them carried my bike up the gangway. Rather than stowing our bikes in our cabin, they found a home for them in the aft part of the ship (in the steering gear room).

Becky then settled into our cabin. The Owner’s Cabin is quite spacious, with a separate bedroom and day room. The day room has a couch and love seat as well as three chairs, a desk, a TV, and a fridge. It is larger than most of the hotel rooms we have stayed in over the last 4 months! Once Becky finished stowing her gear (it didn’t take long as we don’t own that much stuff), she went for a walk around the ships superstructure. The tower’s first level is called the upper deck (where the laundry and access to the outer deck is located). There are eight indoor levels above the upper deck, A through G and the bridge. Most decks have some storage rooms, a public toilet, and a few cabins. In addition, the galley and dining halls (crew mess and officers mess) are located on B deck, the gymnasium is located on C deck, the officers recreation room is located on E deck, and our room is located on F deck. It is nice being so close to the bridge (just two flights of stairs up), as that is where one goes to find out what is happening with the ship. Being a little further away from the galley and mess means that we get a little bit of exercise after every meal!

Scott had a bit of trouble getting back to the ship after running his errands. We had both been issued a T-class day pass for the container port, which requires ID to be presented. Scott pulled out his driver’s license and handed it to the guard – her response was an incredulous “is this you?” Scott took off his sunglasses, but she stared at him even more strangely, then handed over the license. It was Becky’s license! And the picture of Becky was from many years ago – big dark-framed glasses, long hair – the guard’s confusion was totally understandable. After a shared laugh with the guard, he dug out his passport, and was passed through. This delay meant that he arrived at the second gate just after noon, just as a hoard of dock workers were leaving the wharf for their lunch break. The same guard was on duty, but regulations require that people with T-class passes be escorted in restricted areas. The guard called Felix again, but with almost everyone on lunch, no-one appeared to provide the 30m escort across the wharf. This left Scott lounging patiently in the shade of the guardhouse, watching the dock operations, until 20 minutes later when the guard finally relented and permitted him to ride the 30 m to the ship.

We have a full complement of passengers on board – us and three others. A gentleman from Gainesville Florida (David), and a couple from England (Roger and Janet). The couple from England has been on several freighter cruises, so we plan to get some advice from them. One thing they mentioned is that we are lucky to have such a friendly captain. They told us that the attitude of the crew is very dependent on the captain. They have experienced ships where the passengers were seen as a nuisance rather than customers. Personally, we don’t think of ourselves as customers, but rather as entertainment for the crew (visiting the bridge when the mates are bored stiff and are happy to have someone to talk to)! Captain Schmeling allows us to be on the bridge, even when maneuvering as long as we stay out of the way. He seems to really enjoy telling us about the ship, and wants us to enjoy our time on board.

Our first two meals onboard (lunch and supper) were very good. Lunch was potato salad and fried fish: supper was hamburger, French fries, and coleslaw. In addition, there is freshly warmed baguette and a variety of cheeses. Looking at the menu for the week, we are expecting to be well fed throughout the journey. We will need to ensure we get our exercise; otherwise, we’ll end up gaining weight on this trip. The stairs, however, will help ensure we get at least a minimal amount of exercise!

Our departure was delayed until 1930 (7:30 pm), which unfortunately meant that we left after dark. It would have been nice to get more pictures of the departure. Because of the size of the ship (300 meters long, and 40 meters wide), we could not turn around in the Port Everglades port. The ship was backed out of the port, then turned around in the main channel. It was amusing watching the maneuver. Then the Port Everglades pilot had to disembark. A pilot is someone who specializes in navigating ships into a particular port or narrow passageway. Each port has its own pilots and they are required to be on board advising the captain and officer of the watch in the best method to get into and out of port. The pilot boat was quite an impressive power boat (about 40 feet long) that was able to keep up to the ship steaming at 20 knots. The pilot boat came along side, and a ladder was lowered. The pilot climbed down the ladder and jumped onto the pilot boat. We did slow down, but we didn’t stop, so the entire procedure occurred while moving. Very impressive, but obviously something the pilot does many times each day.

After all this excitement, we were beat. We were in bed asleep by 2130 (9:30 pm)!


One more night in Hollywood

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

A long December and there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can’t remember the last thing that you said as you were leavin’
Now the days go by so fast

And it’s one more day up in the canyons
And it’s one more night in Hollywood
If you think that I could be forgiven…I wish you would

Long December – The Counting Crows

Becky has had this song going through her head for the last few days, and it’s driving her crazy! The song is about Hollywood, California, not Florida, but that doesn’t seem to matter. This should be our last night in Hollywood as we are due to board the MSC Alessia tomorrow (Friday). The boat will take approximately 19 days and will stop by Freeport Bahamas and Barcelona Spain on the way to Gioia Tauro Italy.

We are not certain if we will have Internet access during the trip. We might get intermittent access to our email – who knows. Do not be shocked if you do not hear from us until the end of October. We have been told that Internet in Italy can be very expensive, so we may only have limited Internet access until we get to Greece or Turkey. If we do have email access, we may update our blog posts on Crazy Guy on a Bike ( as that does not require any web access for us to post. Of course, if we don’t have access to email, you will not see updates there either.

Now that we are pretty confident the boat is arriving Friday, we’re trying to figure out what we’ll do on board for the 16+ days. We’re both planning to make good use of whatever exercise equipment they have, and Scott is planning to try meditating, which should be easier to find time for on the boat than while riding. It will probably be good for us to spend some time without Internet access, even if withdrawal from email (and blogs for Scott, Facebook for Becky) may be hard…


Found the boat! Fort Lauderdale and Port Everglades

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

65 km 3h45

Our boat has been found again. We’re still not sure why it wasn’t on the port agent’s schedule, but our travel agent in Germany contacted the captain of the ship, the captain contacted the port agent, and the port agent let us know that the boat is scheduled to dock on Friday around 1530. We’re to follow up on Thursday to confirm.

We went on a ride and reconnaissance mission today. We wanted to check out the Florida Beaches and get a sense of where the different entry points are for Port Everglades. Tomorrow we should find out which of the port entrances we need to present ourselves at in order to board our boat on Friday or Saturday.

Fort Lauderdale has a large stretch of public beach – over 10 km long. The beaches look nice and sandy and very calm – although we did see at least one person carrying a surf board. Large segments of the Fort Lauderdale beach are also sea turtle nesting grounds. As a result, the street lights are covered (or not turned on) for periods of time between May and November ( We noticed some hooded lights as we road along the coastal street (route A1A).

The streets that line the beaches here are not as packed with cheap motels as the streets of Maine and New Hampshire were. In Fort Lauderdale you see many more expensive homes and high priced condominiums. Scott noticed that a lot of the condos had their windows covered with the hurricane storm protection. We wonder if this is mostly on units where people are still in their summer homes a little further north. The great migration of people to Florida for the winter doesn’t begin until November.

After a nice ride up the coast we took the TriRail train back to Hollywood. It was nice to be able to take the train and we were happy to discover that the “2 bikes per car” limit is not enforced – at least not during the time of day we were riding. Although putting our bikes on the train was rather painless, we’re not sure we would have wanted to do it with loaded bikes, as maneuvering in the cramped space on the train with heavy loaded bikes would be challenging.


Lost the boat?

Monday, September 29th, 2008

We headed back to Hollywood today, hoping to get our cameras fixed. The backlight on Scott’s Canon G9 is turning off intermittently and Becky’s Olympus 850 SWdied shortly after taking it snorkeling. We also needed to get in contact with the port agent to figure out what was happening with the boat.

Scott spent much time talking to our camera shop in Ottawa and worked out a plan that will hopefully allow for his camera to be fixed under warrantee. We don’t have the receipt for Becky’s camera and are not 100% certain where we bought it, so we will have to pay to have it fixed. According to Henry’s, water damage after inversion a known problem with the Olympus 850SW, so hopefully the shop can fix it quickly.

We were told last week from our travel agent that the freighter would be in Port Everglades on Oct 3rd. When we finally reached the local agent, they were not able to find any records of our boat coming here. So, we are no longer certain what is happening with the boat that we were supposed to be boarding on Friday. We have sent a message off to our travel agent in Germany, and hopefully when we get up tomorrow morning we’ll have an update.

We are both rather surprised that the lack of information regarding our boat is not stressing us. We figure that if the boat is leaving from a different place, then we will figure it out. We may need to take a plane to catch the boat, since time is becoming short. We may even end up giving up on the boat – who knows. One big reason for our lack of stress is the hospitality Dave and Leo are providing. It almost feels we’re at home!

Key West and Key Largo

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

We arrived in Key West just before dinner last night. We are staying with Jim, who we met on Warm Showers. We had a delightful dinner at a local beach restaurant while watching some of the “local entertainment” on the beach. Unfortunately, due to its temperate climate, there are a fair number of homeless who make their way to Key West, and several of them got into a brawl shortly after we arrived at the restaurant. Fortunately, there were a few folks around who were willing to break up the fight.

Powered By SmugWPJim has done a fair bit of bike touring, and other interesting things in his life, and is planning another bike tour shortly. We had a chance to learn a bit about his story after dinner. He started out in the Navy after High School, working in San Diego, then moved to San Francisco after his discharge. He has also worked in Yosemite, and has spent the last 10 years in Key West, watching it change and grow.

He has managed all this while being HIV positive for more than 20 years, which not too many people can say. Now HIV in North America gives you the same life expectancy as Type One Diabetes (which my father has survived for over 40 years now), but that certainly wasn’t true 25 years ago. At that time, HIV-AIDS was mysterious, and seemed to be eventually fatal for everyone. Jim left San Francisco to travel by bicycle after being diagnosed, and he attributes the travel, exercise and serenity he gained through cycling for helping him in the early years of his illness.

For decades, Key West has been a refuge for gay tourists, and was also an area hit very hard by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The complex where Jim lives is a testament to that. It is called “Marty’s Place”, and was established in 1990 by composer Jerry Herman in memory of Marty Finkelstein, as a home for people who are HIV positive. We waved to a few of the residents, but we left on Sunday morning, so didn’t get a chance to meet any of them and hear their stories. Two days certainly isn’t long enough to really get to know anyplace, and Scott felt that we were rushing through our trip to the Keys, but we had things to do back in Hollywood on Monday, so didn’t feel we had much choice.

Before Jim headed out for a training ride, Puffie got a chance to meet Marvin the Martian (Jim’s mascot), and to pose for a photo.

After packing our gear, we headed to downtown Key West to check it out. It was oppressively hot (over 95 deg F and humid). We have not yet adapted to the heat, so weren’t happy being out of the air-conditioning for any length of time. It is very good that we choose not to bike!

After a nice lunch at the Banana Café, we went to check out the Key West cemetery. Because everything on Key West is close to sea level (the highest place is only 12 feet above sea level), a lot of the burial plots were above ground tombs. It was neat seeing the family burial plots with tombs stacked 2 , 3, and even 4 high. Becky wonders if there is a building ordinance that limits the height of any given plot?

After our tour of the cemetery, we decided to head up to Key Largo to enjoy an afternoon by the pool and a nice dinner in celebration of our sixth wedding anniversary. Just as we were getting into the car, Becky accidentally dropped Puffie, directly into a mud puddle! It was a good thing we had a bottle of water in the car. Becky was able to give Puffie a nice warm shower. Puffie now isn’t quite as muddy, but looks like a pretty bedraggled Labrador Puffin (scruffy Puffie). We hope he will dry out OK.

It was nice to see the Keys weren’t as heavily developed as other coastal areas we have been to – still lots of low-rises and small homes, and very few buildings taller than 3 stories. Some of that may be due to the relatively recent ‘discovery’ of the Keys as a destination, but also related to infrastructure constraints. All the water for the Keys comes down from wells near Florida City via a 130 mile Aqueduct, although there are two desalination plants for emergency use.


Puffie goes snorkelling

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

Aruba, jamaica ooo I wanna take you
To bermuda, bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo, montego baby why dont we go

(the Beach Boys)

Becky keeps singing the kokomo song! I wish she would stop. I know we are in Key Largo, but really, she must stop soon!

The day began with rain. It sucks to fly in the rain – your wings get all wet.

We packed up our bags and headed out on an afternoon snorkel trip to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park about 2-3 miles off the coast of Key Largo. The boat was a nice big catamaran, with sails! Becky certainly was in heaven – sailing and snorkeling. I’m sure Scott was pretty happy too. I on the other hand am still molting in this heat. Soon I’ll shed enough feathers to make a pillow!

When the boat stopped, Becky and Scott were pretty quick to don their snorkeling gear. When we jumped in the water I was shocked at just how warm it was. The water felt warmer than the air. Apparently it is around 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Certainly too warm for me!

Scott and Becky swam around and stared at the funny looking fish. I was hoping to have a nice snack, but the fish are all funny looking, with lots of bright colours. One of them looks like parrot! I tasted one of the smaller ones, but it is all full of bones and has no meat on it! Not good eating at all. I am certainly missing my North Atlantic home.

When we got back to the boat Becky discovered that her camera was no longer working! It worked fine when she was taking pictures underwater, but suddenly it thinks the card door is open even when it is closed. It looks like we won’t get to see any of the wonderful pictures until she can get the camera fixed (apparently it is a known issue with the Olympus).

Unfortunately, the captain decided not to put up the sails for the trip back, so it turned out to be a trip on a sailing catamaran that did not involve any sailing. Becky was disappointed, but the most of the others folks on board didn’t notice.

After the snorkeling adventure, we packed ourselves up and jumped into the car to head to Key West (a little too far to fly in the heat).

A weekend in the Florida Keys

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Our first order of business today was to get our bikes. The UPS website had each of them leaving Jacksonville last night at a different time, but this morning they all “went out for delivery” at the same time. The bike shop told us that they should arrive at around 2 pm, and lo-and-behold they did! Dave kindly gave Scott a ride to the bike shop and they picked up the 5 boxes – good thing Dave and Leo have a pickup!

We decided that rather than jumping on our bikes right away, we would rent a car for the weekend to take advantage for the weekend rental specials and get out to see the Florida Keys. If we rode, we might get to Key Largo, but we would not likely make it all the way down to Key West.

The bikes arrived safely, and we rapidly put them together. It appears that all the pieces arrived! In addition, a new shock for Scott’s bike arrived. So, when we get back from our weekend escape to the keys, we’ll be ready for a few days of riding. On Dave’s recommendation, we plan to check out the beaches north of Hollywood (the Palm Beach area).

Welcome to Florida

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

We both slept rather late this morning (given that we went to bed before 10 pm). Our roomette bunks were comfortable, and the swaying of the train didn’t keep us awake. It appears that we both sleep well on trains. Hopefully that will translate to sleeping well on freighters too.

After breakfast, the train made its first daytime stop in Jacksonville Florida. We were ahead of schedule, so we had a good 40 minutes to walk around outside and enjoy a little bit of the beautiful day before getting back on the train. We could tell that we had moved south, as it was much warmer outside (about 25 degrees C) and muggy. Unlike in Washington, no-one was concerned that we were taking pictures of the train, station and rails.

Last night Scott was told that it was illegal to take photographs of any Amtrak equipment, on grounds of Homeland Security. We found an interview clip from earlier this year where an Amtrak spokesman states photography is allowed, but is contradicted by a security guard nearby during the interview. Good to see there’s a consistently understood policy!

The train ride today is a bit rougher than yesterday. The dedicated Amtrak rails ended at Washington D.C. last night, and we’re now on freight rails. As we pass over some of the railroad switches, they can throw the train car quite sharply sideways. Overall though, the train ride was very pleasant. Much nicer than the horror stories we had heard, and we arrived right on time.

We had purchased tickets to Fort Lauderdale, but then found out that the place we really wanted to go to was Hollywood. We enquired about changing the ticket when we went to pick it up, but the change would have cost us more than $150! (Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale are serviced by the same public transit, so our alternate plan was to take public transit once we got off the train). When we asked the cabin steward if we could stay on the one extra stop, he said “Sure, no problem”.

Tonight and for a few nights before we get on the boat, we will be staying with Dave and Leo, whom we met through Warm Showers. We are looking forward to getting to know them better.

Upon arrival, Becky called up Leo to let him know we had arrived. He jumped into his truck and picked us up at the train station – what wonderful hospitality!