Sailing to Shanghai

On board the Felixstowe

In June 2004, I was invited to sail across the Pacific on a modern containership. Containerships rarely take passengers, so naturally I jumped at the chance. A radio documentary of my trip aired on CBC Radio’s Outfront on May 9, 2005. Here’s a written account of how the trip panned out:

ON BOARD THE FELIXSTOWE

By Alison Bate

It’s misty and wet underfoot as I slog up and down ladders behind the captain, protected by my orange boiler suit, safety helmet and gloves. The wind screams through the narrow gaps separating bays of containers, stacked seven high below deck and six high above. As the boxes jostle against each other, they moan like animals dying.

Capt. Alfred Gomez, whom everyone calls simply “The Captain”, points to a cramped, half-open inspection hatch where Chinese stowaways hid on the journey before mine. We’re near the bow of the CSCL Felixstowe, an 800-foot containership that ploughs back and forth across the Pacific and over to Europe, picking up full containers in China and Korea and dumping them in other countries. Sometimes they unwittingly pick up extra cargo like these five stowaways, desperately seeking a better life in North America.

“They were lucky they got our ship. Often, crew just throw them overboard,” says the captain. It’s a harsh reminder of the lawlessness of the sea, aided and abetted by rules that make reporting stowaways a nightmare for everyone. Nowadays, ship owners are fined when stowaways are discovered, some ports won’t let them land, and the scrutiny and time delays caused by government officials give crews more grief than the stowaways themselves.

The Felixstowe stowaways made their way from China to South Korea, then snuck on unnoticed while the ship was loading containers at Busan, the biggest port in Korea. Two men were discovered shortly after sailing, and a thorough search found three others, all very hungry and nervous. They were fed, given cabins, and ended up sleeping a lot of the time or watching movies while the ship continued its journey east across the Pacific for another ten days to Los Angeles. Their cocooned world ended abruptly when a posse of 12 U.S. Coast Guard and immigration officers boarded just outside L.A. to take them into custody.

I can’t help feeling a buzz of excitement whenever the captain and crew talk about stowaways, pirates, storms, and other sea stories. I start wondering what kind of life prompted the five stowaways to risk being thrown overboard, at best two to three weeks hiding uncomfortably on a huge containership, and more likely, being found and sent back home again. But when I ask the captain what he felt after discovering the stowaways, he replies: “A deep sense of remorse, really, for my company. A lot of work will have to take place because of this stowaway problem.”

The captain and crew were denied shore leave when the ship docked in L.A., a tough break for men who hadn’t been ashore in a month. They were all given a thorough grilling, and in future the sleep-deprived crew will have to man the gangway permanently when the ship docks at Asian ports. The ship owners are also planning to add grates to all 56 of the Felixstowe’s inspection hatches, to prevent stowaways hiding in them again.

Time and again, as we sail across the Pacific, my desire to idealize the crew’s way of life receives a cold dose of salty water from those that live this life daily. We’re heading in opposite directions really: I’m looking for adventure and the captain and crew are looking for their floating office to run as smoothly as possible.

Continued

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