Friday, February 22, 2013

Groundhog Day

Just a quick, initial message for those who surf on in and don't receive Facebook or e-mail updates this is to let you know that a) I have added several posts about New Zealand that can be found below (although they were written after I left New Zealand I have placed them before so as to be in the correct chronological order) and b) there are new photo albums, of East Timor, Australia and New Zealand available to view from links on the right hand side of the website. But now back to the blog:

So, here I am, back on dry ground. 21 days, one ocean, 12,000km, a new continent, and a new hemisphere later. It was certainly an interesting experience. There was nothing for me to do, the views were about as monotonous as you can get, one day merged into another, each indistinguishable from the next. In one case that was more true than usual. On Monday the 4th of February we crossed the international date line and so we had the (dubious) pleasure of experiencing two Mondays in a row (the crew were not impressed, although in the other direction they get a 4-day week). And yet the time, if you'll forgive the pun, just sailed past. I suppose that I get along quite well with myself and took the opportunity afforded me to catch up with some reading, writing and working on my knowledge of pop culture by watching a slew of films that have accumulated on my hard drive. And I also discovered what life is like for a modern-day sailor.

Not another Monday! we just had one today.

The ship, called the Bahia, was a mid-sized* container ship some 250m long with a capacity of around 3500 container units (although she was carrying about half that). She's run by a German company, plying the Australia to western Atlantic route, but, like many, flies under a Liberian flag of convenience. The crew of 26 was an unexpected Polish-Filipino combination: most of the officers Polish whilst the bulk of the crew were Filipino, part of the vast Pinoy working diaspora. Filipinos are particularly popular as sailors as they speak English and are quite cheap, since pay not only reflects your rank, but also your nationality (one of the egregious realities of international shipping is that two people may do the same job, on the same ship and yet have vastly different salaries due solely to where they are from). The division didn't seem to affect the working of the ship, but there was certainly a social division. There were two separate messes: one for the Polish officers and one for the Filipino crew (although there were some Filipino crew who outranked a number of the Poles, they still ate with the crew). There were even two separate menus, one European and one Filipino. I was put with the Poles, though the cook (imaginatively nicknamed Cookie) would sometimes give me portions of the crew's food after I told him how much I liked adobo, pancit and sisig. By and large the two groups lived up to their national stereotypes: the Poles talked mainly among themselves, and although perfectly civil, were uninterested; whereas the Filipinos were always smiling, saying hello and ready for a quick chat. Cookie also lived up to the seaman's stereotype when he gave me a rundown of the price of prostitutes in various different ports around  the world.

A view from the bridge (this is about as exciting as the views get - sunlight breaking through cracks in the clouds in the early morning).

My main occupations were reading, watching films, writing and eating. There was also a small gym aboard, which I meant to use regularly. Initially I did, creating a routine with the treadmill, bike and weights (although the treadmill fell out of favour in rougher seas as it was hard to maintain balance); but despite being a relatively active person I find it difficult to find the motivation to do any sort of physical activity just for the sake of doing it. I need to have some sort of destination or goal, over and above simple exercise, otherwise I quickly lose interest, promptly doing so on board before a week was out. Otherwise my only physical activity was climbing the stairs of the superstructure from my cabin to the mess and back again, and shovelling in the copious quantities of food on offer. Despite Cookie being Filipino, the European menu was decidedly Slavic, and not bad at all, and certainly better than my standard ANZ fare of peanut butter and jam sandwiches.

The Pacific mainly lived up to its name, and only a couple of days were a bit rocky with waves of up to a metre. To be honest I was a little disappointed. I wanted to see some action. Some of the crew told me that the Tasman, between Australia and New Zealand was habitually rough, with waves of over 5m. Whilst at sea I persuaded the chief engineer to give me a small tour of the engine. I thought it might be some steam turbine or other exotic contraption, but it was just like a normal car engine. Eight cyclinders. Just here the cylinders were over a metre in diameter pumping out a whopping 26MW of power and burning through over 50 tonnes of bunker fuel a day. The reefer engineer (a reefer is a refrigerated container used for transporting perishables, and therefore needs to be hooked up to a power supply and constantly monitored throughout its passage) also gave me a tour of the cargo holds. Again I was not prepared for the size. When you see a container ship at sea the most conspicuous parts are the containers that are stacked above deck. Most of the hull, however, is below the waterline and there are far more containers stacked in there. The humble shipping container may be a nondescript, banal object, out of sight due to its ubiquity, but the way it has revolutionised the transport of goods - and by extension our very lives - is hard to overstate. The incredibly efficient use of the available space within the hold and the speed with which vast quantities of goods can be transferred is staggering. We stopped at Colon port and a total of 1000 containers - that's enough for a train about 15km long - were (un)loaded in less than eight hours.

The giant ship's engine. You can see the eight cylinder heads in a row, but they also descend a further three floors down.

Heralded by the presence of sea birds such as graceful frigate birds (in the middle of the Pacific there was no life to be seen, either above or below the waves), the undeniable highlight was the Panama Canal. Undeniably one of the greatest engineering feats of the past century, taking over 30 years to build and costing the lives of some 27,000 workers. Three sets of locks raise ships 27m above sea level before passing through giant cuttings, the vast, man-made Gatun Lake, before descending to sea level again. Interestingly, when passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic the ships are actually travelling from east to west. The locks are vast constructions that, when built, dwarfed the passing ships. Today though they are a limiting factor and today's standard ship sizes are defined by their ability to squeeze through those locks or not (so-called Panamax ships are as big as you can get and still get through). And the fit is incredibly tight. A flotilla of tug boats and canalside trains nudge and cajole the ships into the waiting mouth of the locks. Leaning out over the railings of the superstructure, looking straight down at the edge of the hull I couldn't see the water below, so tight was the fit, with less than 20cm to spare on either side.

It wasn't all plain sailing though. We arrived at the mouth of the canal on schedule in the early morning of the 18th, but as we were manoeuvring in the bay one of the pumps in the engine gave way and had to be fixed. It took the team 7 hours to get the thing working again. No problem one might think, but they had missed their slot. That missed slot taught me how tightly controlled and regulated the international shipping industry is. Slots for traversing the canal have to be booked 6 months in advance and cost $74 per container capacity (meaning that a modest ship like the Bahia must pay around a quarter of a million dollars each time it traverses the canal). We then had to anchor outside Panama City and wait for a couple of days before a slot freed up and we could continue. This delay then had knock-on effects on the rest of our schedule as the wharf where we were supposed to dock in Colon was occupied and the ship had to anchor for half a day before we could dock.

You can see from this picture of the ship in the lock beside ours how tight the fit is. There is literally less than 20cm to spare on either side. You can also see the rail engines (one is in the foreground, bottom centre) that are used to stabilise the ship with hawsers so as not to hit the sides of the lock.

Finally, after only 2.5 days delay (so stop complaining next time your train is an hour late) I finally set foot on dry land again, all eager to explore this new continent. I'm very glad to have been able to experience a sea passage such as this. It's a shame that they are so expensive. Although at 6km per pound it's comparable to the train in the West. Instead it is flying that is too cheap for the speed and distance covered thanks to the subsidy of jet fuel, not to mention the greater levels of pollution compared to other means of transport. It's not a popular thing to say in today's world of weekend breaks with budget airlines, but we really ought to be paying more for flights - we might value them more if we did.

* For an idea of how big container ships can get check out this BBC article.


Susanne said...

I would gladly read your blog during such a traverse; so well-written and fun! Now do tell: which books and films did you enjoy during the crossing? Or did you just watch Groundhog Day over and over again?

Erik said...

No Groundhog Day - should have got it and watched it once a day. As for films that made a good impression: Made in Dagenham, Welcome to Sarajevo (I have a soft spot for films that mix social commentary with self-deprecating humour, something the Brits are masters at) and Kour (aka Smoke). Interestingly there were a number of "good" films that disappointed me somewhat: Hurt Locker, There Will Be Blood, The Mission.

As for books, I've really gotten into the Song of Fire and Ice (aka Game of Thrones) cycle, which explodes the fantasy-as-genre fallacy. It's a richly woven political intrigue epic, driven by a multitude of great characters, that just happens to have the odd dragon here and there. I've also grown to love my kindle which is an invaluable weight-saver.