In June 2004, I was invited to sail across the Pacific on a modern containership. Naturally I jumped at the chance. A radio documentary of my trip later aired on CBC Radio’s Outfront. Here’s a shortened account of my trip:
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 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 feel a buzz of excitement whenever the captain and crew talk about stowaways, pirates, storms, and other sea stories. I wonder 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 how 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 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. 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.
Joining the ship
I join the ship in L.A. shortly after the stowaways have been taken away. The CSCL Felixstowe looks massive when I first see her, bright green hull piled high with around 2,000 containers, mainly forty-footers.
She’s owned by Canada’s Seaspan Container Lines, but is on long-term charter to China Shipping Container Lines (CSCL). Companies like to brand-name their vessels, and China Shipping is no exception. I’ll be confined to the equivalent of a very narrow apartment block several storeys high, living with 20 Indian officers and Filipino crew. Getting along with everyone will be really important.
Although the crew are all men, I’m not the only woman on board. At the top of the gangway, first officer Rodney Noronha, a slightly stocky man of 42 with gentle eyes, is waiting to greet me with his wife, Jina, and six-year-old daughter. Jina, a small, dark-haired woman, and little Annette have been sailing with Rodney for the last four months, and on and off ships since Annette was a toddler.
“It’s too lonely at home by myself. Here, I can be with my husband all the time,” says Jina, clearly pleased to have another woman around. Annette, a shy girl with a wide grin, nods when I ask if she plays cards, then names a couple I’ve never heard of. We quickly become friends.
The wife and two-year-old son of second engineer Ravi Singh are also sailing with us. Ravi and Kiran, now in their 30s, met as childhood friends and live in Chandigarh, in northwest India. Ravi’s busy working in the bowels of the ship most of the time, but Kiran would still rather be here than raise little Aryan alone. He’s a cute little boy, hair tied back in a ponytail, rapidly learning to speak, and with a treasure trove of picture books and toys.
The two wives, two kids and myself are all called Supernumeraries, an archaic-sounding word that also applies to actors who appear on stage but have no lines to speak. On this trip, I’ll be the Fifth Supernumerary.
Setting out on the Great Circle route
Shortly after leaving L.A. and Long Beach, I climb up to the bridge, and join third officer Praveen Prabhu on watch. He’s a friendly guy of 27, and we chat about cricket and the latest troubles in Kashmir as the marine radio crackles in the background.
It’s like being in a penthouse suite here at the top of the ship, with an open blue sky, dark rippling sea, seagulls flying alongside, and rows and rows of green and brown containers down below. I’d like to call this trip the Slow Boat To China, but the truth is we’re racing along compared with most ocean-going vessels. The ship’s only 18 months out the yard, has new engines, and a cruising speed of 24 knots (nautical miles an hour).
Gradually the sky darkens, the radar becomes clearer, and mountains on shore fade slowly in the mist as we sail almost directly into the sunset. We’ll be taking the Great Circle route to Qingdao in China, our first port of call, more than 5,800 nautical miles away. Skirting the Aleutian Islands off Alaska before arching across the Pacific to Japan, then round the bottom of Korea, and finally northwest across the Yellow Sea to Qingdao. Drop off some containers, then head south again to Shanghai, the biggest port in mainland China.
The first couple of days are a bit disorientating. We set our watches back an hour each day for nine days, or nine days of “retardation”. I stumble down to breakfast way too early, but gradually settle into the rhythm of the ship. Ocean life is all very exotic and exciting to me, but for officers and crew, it’s like going to work, except they’re stuck with each other at the end of the day. A cozy, comfortable but claustrophobic life.
Second officer Praveen Menon laughs when I ask if being at sea is a romantic life. “No, I don’t think so. Maybe in a passenger ship, but not a merchant ship. They have the atmosphere to be romantic, but here the atmosphere is not romantic at all. It’s purely work.” Off-duty, he watches DVDs such as Kill Bill 2, or Indian musical romances filmed in New Zealand. Other crew members listen to music in their cabins while a hard core of ping-pong fanatics play in the little gym every evening.
There’s an upstairs, downstairs feel about the ship chores, with deck officers, the bosun, able and ordinary seamen working mainly above the waterline. While down below, chief engineer Anil Sharma is in charge of his own little empire in the bowels of the ship. As I head down to see him, I reach for earplugs to blunt the screeching of the main engines. Anil, a stern-looking bulldog kind of guy with a soft heart, is busy in the engine control room, dealing with his first major headache: a problem with one of the main air compressor motors.
He e-mails company superintendent Manoj Suri, then distributes work to the first, second, and junior engineers, electrician, fitter, oiler and wiper. Apart from the usual monthly reports, Anil has quarterly reports to write, and his tour of duty ends after this trip, requiring a tidy handover before he heads home to New Delhi. “Too many reports,” he grunts unhappily.