We climb up the wobbly stairs to the deck, and a rusty iron door opens. The steward, Doru (all names here have been changed to protect the crew’s privacy), swiftly guides us to our cabin and departs. And barely a breath later, I realise I’m facing a calendar featuring a naked girl. I have entered the world of sailors.
My wife Lobo and I are travelling from Singapore to Hong Kong on board a container vessel to experience life within these movers of global commerce. It’s a journey undertaken for its own sake, not with the destination in mind. In 2009, container ships carried 1.9 billion metric tons of cargo or 90 percent of the global trade in non-bulk goods, up from a mere 100 million tons in 1980. Travelling on board these carrier pigeons of maritime commerce, which virtually anyone can do, is a fairly unique experience, and quite different from that offered by conventional cruise ships.
Marius, a cadet, offers us a tour of the ship,and we troop behind him. He shows us the saltwater swimming pool, the gym, the entertainment room and the bridge. Even with all the climbing up and down the five stories of the ship’s castle, the tour takes only 20 minutes. “Well, that’s all there is to see,” says Marius, smiling somewhat apologetically.
At noon the next day, the ship leaves Singapore, and Sebastien, the master, finally notices us. “Sorry, leaving or entering a busy port is stressful because collisions can happen easily, with so many ships around,” he says. “But that’s what gives seamen the adrenaline boost. Otherwise, a master’s job today is very administrative:lots of paperwork, emails, phew!”
We go back to the bridge. The sea, free from the silt near the port, is a blue I have never seen before. It has become one busy runway, with flying fish taking off and touching down every minute. The helmsman—“Call me Ismael”—shows us around the bridge, which is outfitted with an assortment of navigation aids: radar monitors, maps, steering wheels, joysticks, binoculars, hygrometer, Morse lamps, navigation manuals and communication flags. It also has coffee machines, and a few potted plants.
“This is my Ferrari,” says Ismael, who is given to garrulity, like most seamen. “Too much technology nowadays, everything is automatic. But I have been a helmsman for 30 years; I don’t need any of these.”
It never gets lonely along this sea route, which is one of the busiest in the world. Ships keep appearing alongside, and drift away like strangers in the night. It wasn’t comforting to know that pirate ships too are active in these parts. Vasilescu, the safety officer, had warned us: “Remember to close any door you may open. Don’t go out after dark. Pirates here are not like the Somali pirates who kidnap the crew, torture them, and ask for ransom. Out here, they only steal cargo, mostly oil or scrap metal, usually from smaller ships. But still…”
The next morning, I meet the entire crew during the safety drill, and am surprised to learn that only 30 people are managing a ship that can carry a 100 million kilograms of cargo. The Able Bodied Seamen or ABs are all Romanians and Indians; most of the officers are French. Afterwards, Vasilescu shows us around the deck, a metal fortress humming loud with the reefers’ mumble. He shows us the anchor chain, each of whose rings is the size of a human torso, and good enough to chain a Minotaur, should it pop up out of the waters.
Being an eggetarian, I had come prepared with a containerload of instant noodles. But our chef Edouard, a Steve Jobs lookalike but with a more amiable personality, obliged me by churning out salads and omelettes for every meal. His office is a world of stainless steel and aluminium, six gas ovens, a deep fryer, a few grills, enormous blenders, and two microwave ovens. He takes us to the refrigerated chambers, a surreal arctic garden full of juicy tomatoes, lettuce, pumpkin, and colourful fruits. There are separate rooms for dairy products, juices, wines, meat and fish. I am more interested in eggs. Edouard comforts me: “Don’t worry, I have seven thousand of them.”
Omelette No. 4. Without mobile phone coverage or internet access, we soon adjust to the rhythms of the ship. Wake-up alarm for sunrise on the starboard side, and for sunset on the port side; precisely timed meals; an hour of cycling at the gym; a swim; finding people to talk to; evening movie with the crew; watching the seas, always blue, but never the same blue; waiting for the phone to ring; Ismael’s promise to call us if he spotted dolphins. In between, I keep blowing at a flute I don’t know how to play.
We visit the sailors’ living quarters, which are no different from male dormitories in colleges, with pictures of naked girls, and with clothes forgotten in the laundromat, and in every other way generally messy.
Omelette No. 6. Today, we tune in to Channel 16, the emergency radio made infamous by sailors misusing it with their notorious racist taunts, atrocious singing attempts, and the occasional playing of audio porn. The radio has to be kept on always, so there is no escape from this loud-mouthed granny. Lobo goes on air with a cheery “Good evening,” but is greeted by stark silence. The sole female voice in this exclusively male industry evidently has the seamen puzzled. But Ismael quickly restores normalcy by announcing: “That was a mermaid.”
Omelette No. 8. Today, we visit the engine room. It is a windowless Starship Enterprise, a room full of dials and engineers with Mickey Mouse noise-blocking headphones. Marius, again our guide, beams with enthusiasm as he shows us the monstrous machines at work: the engines, generators, sludge separators, and the desalination plants.
The sound is deafening, but there is a method in the high-decibel thunderous roar as well. If there is any auditory deviation, the piercing noise of an alarm signals instant grief. “There are 14,000 possible alarms, including one called the Dead Man Alarm,” says Marius. We see the beating heart of the ship—the giant propeller shaft—a brooding sage, generating 101,640 horsepower of energy to propel the ship at 15 knots an hour, much slower than most clippers of the 19th century.
Today, the provision store is open for an hour, selling beer and cigarettes. Ionut, the bosun, a Jack Sparrow look-alike, and other ABs take off their shirts and enjoy the sunset with just-bought beer. Suddenly, we see dolphins. Ionut exclaims: “There they come! They shed their skin every two hours. That’s why they follow us: to rub themselves against the waves we generate!” He comes across as quite an authority on container ship fauna. “Sparrows from Brazil join us to migrate without having to fly. They are hunted by falcons when we reach land again in South Africa. There are sea-birds that spend most of their life on container ships, eating small fish that jump out of the water.”
Omelette No. 10. I investigate the seamen’s superstitions. Ismael says: “Sailors are the most superstitious lot. Never whistle on-board, it brings bad weather. The Romanians never stand with their back facing the bridge. The French never say ‘rabbit’. We also have rituals like the line-crossing ceremony to baptise sailors crossing the Equator for the first time. We dress them like a clown and make them lick mustard sauce from the feet of someone dressed as Neptune King. Then they have to kiss the greased belly of the Royal Baby,he fattest man from the crew.”
We meet the men simply known in the ship as ‘Indians’: Rajasekhara, Sitaramanjaneyula, and Yarlagadda, all ABs doing painting jobs, maintenance works, and keeping watch at nights for pirates. Rajasekhara is in high spirits despite the tough work. “This job is good for my marriage prospects,” he says. “The girls’ parents in my small town admire me for working overseas, but they have no idea what I actually do here.” The men are constantly looking at the clock and leave on the dot when the meal hour ends, habits that are hardwired by the nature of the contract.
Omelette No. 12. Yesterday, we were a day away from Hong Kong. Today, we are two days away! There is no available berthing space in Hong Kong. The ship has come to a crawl and eventually, the master decides to go adrift till he has a sail-ahead from the port authorities.
To get the full thrill, I was hoping for a storm. When I mention my dark desire to Sebastien, he gives me a look of horror. “No! Never wish for bad weather.” Weather-related casualties are rare, as ships avoid treacherous stretches based on forecasts. Yet, rough weather can topple containers, more than 10,000 of which are lost every year. Ismael had said, “In a storm, this ship becomes a submarine, going under the big waves that keep on coming. We eat only sandwiches then because the cook can’t cook in the tumble.”
The master organises a party for us. The crew is relaxed. They talk about their other skills; Sebastien is a table tennis player of some repute, Marius is a master skateboarder, and Ismael is a champion cyclist.
Next morning, we wake up to see the green hills and skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Sebastien greets us at the deck. “This port is a beauty. After weeks in the ocean, your eyes crave for some green.”
Finally, it is time to leave the sea. I look fondly at the subtly decorated rooms and walkways. I feel especially sad when the ABs, Ismael, Ionut, the Indians, bid us farewell as if we were soulmates. Ionut puts our luggage inside a gunny sack and gets a crane to bring it down from the deck in style. As I descend the stairs from the deck, I shout to the master: “How do you get a haircut?” He shouts back, “The Romanians have a machine. But I don’t trust them. I get one in France every six months.”
We fly back to Singapore, a trip that appears joyless now—and way too fast. I crave for omelettes. Without the sea’s cradle, I don’t sleep well. I keep recalling our visits to the bridge at night, and the moment I opened its door, when everything would be a dark nothingness. Slowly, my eyes would reveal Venus, a handful of stars, then a million, the spray of the Milky Way, then a faint yellow spot growing into one giant moon, reflected by the dark sea, a luminous highway. I recall what Ismael had whispered then: “I don’t want to be a seaman in my next life. It’s such a lonely job. But sometimes, I see the moon, just like this, it’s beautiful.”
How to do it
Any reasonably healthy and patient—person who is comfortable with a bit of solitude can hitch a ride on a container ship. One can either write to shipping lines like CMACGM(cma-cgm.com) or Maersk(maerskline.com) or agents who specialise in container cruises(freightertravel.co.nz, cargoshipvoyages.com, freighterexpeditions.com.au) andindicate the preferred route. Trips can vary from short hops of less than a week to a round-the-world trip of 80 days or more. The booking needs to be made two tothree months in advance. And the itineraries can and often do change till the last minute.
What it costs
Container ship journeys typically cost €100 per person per day, but trips shorter than a week are typically more expensive. One usually doesn’t need to pay for anything else on board—except for purchases at the ship’s provision store. Some ports also charge port fees. You’ll need to have travel insurance and all the necessary visas.
What to look out for
Elderly travellers or those with chronic illnesses should seek medical advice as there are no doctors on board. And while travelling by container ship is safe, there is a small risk of collisions, pirate attacks, ship disintegration or fire. Usually, mobile and internet connection is not available, so travellers should inform their colleagues and loved ones that they will not be reachable on demand. The ship’s master can, however, set up a temporary e-mail facility. Dress code and behavioural norms are casual, as compared to the passenger cruise ships, although even here, the crew tends to dress up a bit formally for dinner. Cabins are usually well appointed with attached bathrooms, refrigerator, and so on, and are cleaned by the steward daily. It is advisable to bring along medicines for minor illnesses and for seasickness, just in case there is a storm