The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Crossing the Pacific: best read in 2 sittings

The freighter was one of the first things we got really excited about when we were planning the trip. Sat in a kitchen on a rainy London Sunday in 2006 we looked at the 2 oceans we had to cross. Gambling we could crew a boat across the Atlantic, it seemed freighter travel was our best bet for the inhospitable Northern Pacific. We were about 60 years too late to work for a cheap passage, but there were companies who could arrange a passenger berth for us. But whilst we begun to get excited about the destination, we got distinctly unexcited about the prices. €100 a day before you have even added port fees. In the end we settled on Vancouver to Gwangyang in South Korea as this was the shortest crossing we could get. Our route would take us from Vancouver across the Gulf of Alaska, into the Bering Sea, between the North and South Islands of Japan and onward to the southern tip of South Korea. This is a diary of our time on board, the length is a reflection of plenty of time to kill...

TUESDAY, 18th AUGUST: Boarding the ship

Despite our plans to be ready well in advance we got a call from the port agent yesterday bringing the time we had to get on board forward by 24 hours. Enjoying our final moments in the West evaporated as we scuttled our way back and forth across Vancouver collecting rucksacks, boxing the tandem and changing dollars into won. But we made it on time to the Vanterm container terminal. 'Checking in' was bizarre. The taxi driver wove his way between the swarm of articulated lorries tearing in and out of the port and dropped us by a tiny reflective windowed booth. I craned my neck round to try and see into the letterbox sized opening and a large lady loomed out of the gloom. She checked passports and let us cheerily through the chain link fence to wait for bizarrely titled 'Bunny bus'. We sat expectantly for a few minutes, but instead of a big eared, fluffy minibus, a grizzled Canadian wearing a dirty Stetson rolled up in his pick up and offered us a lift. Sweeping away a stack of empty coffee cups, Hol and I both squeezed into the front seat. This was more like it. He took us on a quick tour and we got our first look at the Hanjin Madrid.

My first thought was, it's not that big. After seeing lots of photos I had expected to be blown away. Maybe it was the 3 giant cranes effortlessly whisking containers on and off the deck, but it didn't seem as imposing as I thought. However, drawing alongside was a different matter - it seemed to block out the sky. The truck dropped us at the gangplank and that was it. The heavy machinery and relentless port activity swirled about us unabated, but nobody was there to tell us what to do. We had been waiting for a minute or two nervously chuckling to ourselves before a small head poked out from above the gangplank. This turned out to be the steward, Adrian. Being 5 or so floors up we couldn't really hear him, but his smiling Filipino face grinned wider when we stepped onto the gangplank and so we took this as our invitation to come aboard. Our feet had left Western soil for 7 months!

Adrian showed us to our room. First impressions were that it was huge with an en-suite bathroom, a big double bed, and a lounge with desk, sofas, armchairs, a TV and a fridge. We quickly settled into unpacking and before long there was a knock on the door. In swept a large man with a spectacular amount of swept back (and up) hair that complemented a cracking bushy tash. A kind of Germanic Ron Burgundy. He was wearing socks under leather flip-flops and a cloud of cigarette smoke followed him into the room and had the look of someone who doesn't like bullshit. This was Captain Kruse. A brief welcome and he was back out of the door. We continued settling into our room before our first dinner and a quick recce of the other decks.

WEDNESDAY, 19th: Heading into the Pacific

We got up early as we were scheduled to leave port at 0800. After breakfast we stood on the top deck watching the sun glint off the tug boat as it bullied the bow round into the channel. There was a lot of activity on the bridge itself, so we figured we should check we were allowed up there. “Ze ving is fine, but not in ze bridge. OK?”, growled Captain Kruse. The front of the boat, or “the wessel” as the German crew referred to it as, inched around until it pointed to the delicate span of the Lion's Gate bridge. The engines engaged and we slowly started out of the harbour. As we headed towards Vancouver Island the boat seemed to roll slowly despite the calm weather, but nothing to worry us as we watched small boats flee out of our way. At Victoria the pilot casually disembarked down a perilous step ladder and then it was out into the open ocean past a parade of 10 or so grey whales. The sun is shining, we are on our way to Asia and all is well after Day 1.

THURSDAY, 20th: The start of the press up challenge and the food

What a night's sleep. I think the constant rumble of the engine cancels out any other sounds and I didn't even turn over until the 0700 alarm. Today was the day I would start my 5,000 press ups in a week challenge. Laid down over a few too many beers in Colorado I had been slightly nervous, but there was never going to be a better time to crack out 850 or so press ups a day. 150 before breakfast and it was underway.

Before boarding, one of my main concerns had been the food. More specifically, would there be enough. We are served 3 meals a day, but until yesterday we had no idea how big they'd be. Walking into the Officer's Mess there are three 4-person circular tables laid out. We are on one with 2 place settings which is to be ours for the duration. It is a shame not being on a shared table with the crew as this seems the obvious time to get to know them, but after seeing the massive breakfast buffet I was in no mood to complain. Laid out today were a choice of 3 breads, 4 cheeses, cold meats, various jams, honey and Nutella. There was a also fresh coffee, orange juice, yoghurt and a bowl of fruit. Along with the choice of cereal this surely should be enough, but Adrian popped his head round and asked us if we wanted the cooked option; salami cheese toast. Yes sir. This seems as if it is going to be the norm for breakfast with the hot options on the weekly menu ranging from Bacon and Eggs, Apple pancakes, Steak and even something called 'Stramer Max'! Hunger is not going to be a problem. Obesity, maybe.

Looking at the meals we have lined up, every lunch and dinner we have a starter of fresh salads, cold meats and cheese. The main courses range from roast duck with red cabbage to tenderloin steak or slow roasted pork knuckle. This is often complemented by various soups, and we even had smoked salmon and caviar for lunch. This shouldn't give you the idea that this is 5 star cooking. It is more hearty fare with a dose of flair. That said, mealtimes are going to be a definite highlight in breaking up the day. Speaking of which, we also had a fire drill this afternoon. Lifejackets and helmets on, down to the muster station and we stand around like a pair of lemons while the crew dons firefighting gear, sprays a hose over the side for 20 mins and the get in the lifeboats. Bizarre, but a change from press ups
FRIDAY, 21st: It's how big?
We arrive at breakfast to find a sign saying 'RETARD 1 HOUR TONIGHT'. Not sure what would be expected of us during this hour, but we later found out this was the instruction to set clocks back. Despite the comedy of being welcomed in by this sign whenever we enter the mess, meal times are strange affairs. The Filipino crew eat in one room and the German Officers in another. The segregation seems archaic to us, but is apparently 'essential for discipline'. Whilst the Filipino room is often buzzing with life, ours can be eerily silent. Everyone gets served up their food by Adrian, gobbles it down and then heads off with a cursory “Bis Spater”. Since we are on a table of our own, it is often hard to chat to anyone other than ourselves. We haven't worked out whether this is us being cautious or just what the crew are like. Maybe we have just been in North America for too long and amongst the constant chit chat and friendliness have forgotten North European ways? We have tried to ask Captain Kruse a few questions, but the response often seems curt:

“Good afternoon Captain.”
“So zen, are you feeling ze seasick yet?”
“No, we're doing fine actually. Do you think it is going to get any rougher though?”
"What is rough for zis ship? It is no problem. Ve can go in a Force 12 if ve have to”
“You said it was typhoon season in Japan. Are there any you are keeping an eye on?”
“Zey are typhoonz! Zey go in all directions. But I will not steer into zem OBVIOUSLY.”

With little progress on that front we decided today would be a good time to find out more about the ship and so we snooped around various charts up on the bridge:How big:278.8m long, 40.3m wide; 56.3m from the bottom of the hull to the top of the bridge.The boat weighs 60,000 tonnes and carries 5,700 containers at any one time.

The Engine: a WARTSILA NSD(!) producing 74,700hp. It can go 28.3kt at 100rpm, but spends most of it's time at 21kts at 80rpm which is the most fuel efficient speed. The WARTSILA burns bunker fuel which is so viscous it needs to be heated to around 80 degrees before it even flows into the engine. At cruising speed the engine burns 130 tonnes of it a day. With engines full astern it will take 7.6 minutes and 1.76 miles to stop meaning falling over board is a terrible idea. This engine is also widely credited in the container ship community as having the best name of any marine engine developed in the last 5 years.

Swell and weather: A force 12 is no problem for this boat. In the 50kn winds we were in today we rolled about a maximum of 3 degrees from upright, but if the swell cycles match the roll of the boat this can get up to 30 degrees.

Time on the bridge is a nice break as we check our progress on the charts, look at the forecast, chat to whoever is on watch and get some fresh air. The temperature has been dropping rapidly as we head North and thick jumpers, hats and jackets now the order of the day

SATURDAY, 22nd: The Aleutian Islands. Extra bonus!

A dim silvery light pervades the sea and I can't take my eyes off it as I sit back in a deck chair, soaking up the icy cold Alaskan wind. Excitement is high. Today we pass through the Unimak Channel – a narrow gap between two Aleutian Islands taking us out of the Gulf of Alaska and into the Bering Sea. The fact that we are going to see land on this voyage was only known to us when we got on board and checked out the charts. It now seems obvious that the ships passage would head North so to take into account the curvature of the Earth, but we hadn't really worked out that this would mean seeing land some of the way across.

By mid afternoon we can see the faint outline of land. A mass of snow shrouded in cloud shimmers off in the distance beyond a sea that is now being whipped up by 40 knot winds. It suddenly strikes me that this might be the most remote place I will ever see on Earth. As we draw closer to land over the next 2 hours huge flocks of birds fly in formation alongside the boat and the giant fins of Orcas can be seen gliding in and out of the water to our bow. As the clouds clear a huge, perfectly conical volcano peak is revealed in the distance. It is caked in snow and gleams a brilliant white as wisps of dull cloud float over its top. As we get closer huge green foothills come into focus, sweeping up from battered cliffs to rocky peaks. It feels brutal in mid-summer, the thought of this in Winter is grim. We are at the wildest extremity of Alaska and the emotion of cruising through this untouched and wild part of the world will remain for a long time. Celebrate by doing 1,000 press ups.

SUNDAY, 23rd: A Change in the weather, boredom

A long day. The weather has turned and rain is relentlessly lashing the containers outside the window. You can't see much through the rain and all sound is muted except the deep rumble of the engines and constant hum of air conditioning. Cocooned in the room you become more aware of being stuck on board. Time is marked by chapters read, press ups pressed and meals eaten. Hol has turned into a dormouse and slept away the day. As if to make the day seem even slower they have stopped the engines turning as we are ahead of schedule. We are just sat hundreds of miles from anywhere letting minutes tick by. Highlight was a steak and banana split lunch. The only downside is thinking I have to press up all the weight I'm gaining from the food each day. Not sure if my boobs are growing from the press up challenge or just gaining a layer of Bering Sea blubber.Manage to destroy 2 t-shirts in the ship's washing machine as well. Bugger.

MONDAY, 24th: The lost day

During the night we passed over 180 degrees longitude, the international dateline. Consequently we have lost a day and Monday this week doesn't exist. We're now 12 hours ahead of GMT and the furthest from home you can physically get. Each step from now on is closer to home! This does mean the week long press up challenge needs to be done in 6 days.

TUESDAY, 25th: The first foray into the Officer's Rec

Finally feel like we are getting somewhere with the crew and suddenly the drinks invitations pour in. Last night at dinner the Captain initiates conversation with us: “So you are happy just in your room?”. We reply that, we've got lots of books and have been spending lots of time on the bridge and on our deck, but this just gets a slightly disapproving grumble from Kruse. We're not too sure whether this is an invitation to spend more time out of our room or what. Luckily someone on the other table follows it up with: “Later we have drinks in the rec room so you should come along”. Hurrah! The great silence ended and we were invited to chat!

In the Rec room it became apparent that some of the crew hadn't stopped drinking since that morning, which made it an enlightening evening. After a graphic account of how best to stay faithful to a girlfriend while at sea for 4 months the conversation moved onto the excitement of having a woman on board to a muddled account of ship politics. We also found out that passengers on the boat are usually loaded; the last one was the Financial Director of Microsoft traveling with his son. It quickly became clear that the captain and crew were a bit confused to see two scruffy backpackers on board.

WEDNESDAY, 26th: Scaring ourselves on the Foc'sle

The end of the 5,000 press up challenge! It is a relief not to have to watch the carpet rise and fall 840 times every day. In pursuit of new things to do we went up to the foc'sle this morning. It is surprising how we have such a free run of the ship. Walking down to upper deck (confusingly the lowest deck) we found a thin track running up to the bow. It felt like we were a couple of kids daring each other to go further as we gingerly crept along the side of the ship. 6 layers of containers towered above us emitting a ghostly creaking and moaning with the roll of the ship. To our right a drop straight into the icy ocean as it raced past. With only a hip high safety rail you very quickly become aware of how easy it would be to topple in. Chatting to the crew they mentioned a lady who fell in without a life-jacket and was found treading water 25 hours later. However, that wasn't in the Bering Sea; 3 hours is about the limit here.

The weird thing about walking up to the bow is that with each step forward the engine vibrations and noise fade away so that by the time you reach the bow you can only hear the rush of the water and wail of the wind amongst the containers. Up at the bow we found steps going up to the prow of the boat. We were completely hidden from the bridge and so I decided to investigate and discovered giant anchor winches, mooring lines as wide as your chest and a step to look right over the bow. I tried to lean right over to see if I could see the bulb at the front. I almost crapped myself. Hanging over and looking back the sense of speed gets you. If you fall you are swept under 60,000 tonnes of speeding steel and that is before you hit the 7m tall propeller at the other end. Not a nice thought and I was back up pretty quick.

After the bonding of the previous night we thought that meal times might be a bit more lively. But alas, with the absence of alcohol everyone went back to their sullen selves. That said, we did get an invite to the Rec room again so we bought a crate of Becks from the 'slop chest' (ship's offy) and headed back down. My heart sank as we walked in and there was barely a grumble. There are no seats left at the bar and so we perch on the end. Thankfully after a while everyone warms up again and we start discussing our trip and the life of a seaman. By the sixth beer politics is thrown into the mix, 'Why do the British still support the Monarchy? Why do we still have a House of Lords? Why we haven't joined the Euro?'. It was good to be getting our teeth into some good European discussions after the cult of Obama.

THURSDAY, 27th: Touring the engine room with Chief

We have been planning to go to the engine room for the last few days, but it has been postponed each time. Today we are 30 hours ahead of schedule and so the engines have stopped to lose some time. It apparently gets a touch noisy down there and so this was deemed the best time to for a tour. We were handed some heavy duty ear defenders and the Chief Engineer opened the door into a steel cathedral. The floor dropped away to reveal a huge space about 5 stories deep and hunkering in the middle was a colossal block of oily steel, pistons and dials. I had feared it would be like a modern car engine with everything hidden away under a plastic shell. Far from it. This was a working engine and it was clear all parts had to be accessed by burly men with hammers and wrenches with the minimum of fuss. We weaved our way down between towering exhaust ducts, miles of piping, through blasts of hot air and past countless smaller generators, coolers, heaters, extractors and scrubbers. Chief had been quiet around us so far, but this was clearly his element. A broad grin spread across his face as he proceeded to point out the mind boggling array of hardware on show. Before we even got to the engine itself he had explained what 20 or so car sized chunks of metal orbiting the Wartsila did. The 2 generators that provided electricity for the ship? Both the size of a 2 story terraced house. Massive.

After 40 minutes we went into the control room which is best described as something from a late 70's Bond Villain's moon base. The ship is only 6 years old, but there are no flat-screens or touch screens, just solid functional walls of dials, chunky banks of lights and solid looking levers. Every conceivable metric is fed to the monitors on the control deck; temperatures, pressures and even down to the viscosity of the fuel. However, talking to Chief who has been working on ships since 1967, despite all the automated monitoring of every thump of the 10 cylinder monster there are also greasy thermometers sticking out of the metal and a well stocked workshop to fix it all with a bit of brute strength.

At 1600 the engines were turned on again and we ventured out onto the floor to get an idea of how loud it is when running. Loud, almost unbearably so. The vibrations when standing right next to it run right through your bones and you begin to sense the power being generated to move 60,000 tonnes of metal across the North Pacific.

FRIDAY, 28th: First sight of the mystic East

After 348 days on the road we got our first glimpse of Asia. At midday we passed through the Tsugaru strait between the North and South Islands of Japan. Hol was excited about the prospect of small fishing boats with people in straw hats on them, I was keen to see people checking into capsule hotels. Unfortunately the weather wasn't helping. We got views of mist shrouded hills rising steeply from the coast with towns and villages clustered along the shore. It seems Japan is saving it's charms for when we land on its shores in a week. We only had a glimpse of Japan, but it made us feel the freighter leg is going to be over all too soon. We need to make the most of conversations in English, big breakfasts and comfy beds! This afternoon we played with Richard's remote control helicopter on the ping-pong table and later on more beers with the crew. Feel like we are getting to know them a lot better which is cool. I even gave my copy of Pumping Iron to the Polish 2nd Engineer after an in depth discussion about body-building, Arnie and Jean Claude van Damme.

SATURDAY, 29th: The Long Awaited Party

The day dawned bright this morning, which is a relief as this is to be the day of the big party. Everyone had been going about with a certain spring in their steps the last 2 days. Even Adrian had been nervously grinning to himself in his marigolds and apron at the mention of it. At lunch Kruse outlined the plan... a whole suckling pig BBQd on deck. Holy Crap. He then proceeded to lecture Adrian in the kitchen: 'Ze ice for ze beers at seventeen certy. Ze pig must be cooking by two certy. No bullshit!' This is the first party they've had for 6 months and so we were lucky to witness it.

1530: I have just come up from the gym and happened across a bizarre scene on D deck. The aforementioned pig was being vigorously spun by one crew member while chef and another Filipino in an LA Lakers vest were slow dancing together around the BBQ. Even though I was dripping sweat in gym kit I was immediately offered a beer by Alex, a particularly friendly crew member with a head like a cannonball. This could turn into a big session...

Well it didn't disappoint. We headed out about 5 o'clock and started having a few drinks with the officers. There were excitable shouts from down below from the crew and before long a feast of biblical proportions got ferried up. Salads, breads, fruit, puddings, rice, pastas and the hog. If that wasn't enough, another BBQ gets fired up as Kruse explains that the hog is insufficient. Soon steaks, sausages and chicken are all joining the party. Everyone sat down and feasted as beers, vodka and Fundador brandy started doing the rounds. Conversation flowed, we felt very welcomed and even Kruse had a massive smile on his face all night. The music really set the tone for the night. The first CD was called 'Power Disco', to which the chef threw around some serious moves, and it just got better from there on. In the Navy by YMCA was a non ironic favourite of the Filipino contingent. Karaoke inevitably followed on, but we managed to dodge a Sonny and Cher duet. Things were wrapping up by around 12 by which time heads were beginning to droop and we made our excuses. My main concern is a hazy recollection that I was invited to play basketball sometime tomorrow with the Filipino crew? Oh dear.

SUNDAY: 30th: The Immersion suit

Hungover. Main excitement for the day was getting to try out the immersion suits we had in our room. These are thick neoprene suits you chuck on if going over the side in cold waters. You are meant to be able to survive for 24 hours in freezing water as opposed to around 24 minutes. Not much needs to be added other than a picture. I reeeeally want one of these for fancy dress parties.
MONDAY: 31st: Arrival in Kwangyang

A nervous day as we prepared to leave the comforts of the ship. We woke to find jagged cliffs and tiny islands littering the view and we gradually crept closer to land. The pilot joined and guided us between smoking steel plants and mile upon mile of container terminal. Pulling alongside we looked at the skyline of blocks of flats and wondered where we would be spending the night. As it happened a very efficient port agent whisked us away to immigration, customs and even dropped us at a hotel. He was excited to tell us we were the first passengers EVER to come through Gwangyang container terminal. However, after he left we soon realised he was the only person who spoke English in town. We just managed to order some food by pointing, but we don't even know 'thankyou' or 'noodles' yet. It feels incredibly alien with people sat cross legged on the floor in restaurants and hopelessly unintelligible signs but it is such a rush after the cocoon of the boat.

However, after all the strange moments on the ship we felt sad leaving the crew behind as they came to wave us off. It took a bit of settling down, but heading off into the unknown it felt like we had made some good friends on board and would miss the company. Oh well, onward to Busan and the hydrofoil to Japan!

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