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.
The Felixstowe’s bigger than the regular Alaskan cruise ships, but I won’t be wandering on the promenade deck at sunset and slipping into comfortable lounge bars. Instead, 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.
NINE DAYS OF RETARDATION
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 intermittently 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. We’re sailing almost directly into the sunset, which finally sets into a funny shape like a lampshade, just off our port bow. 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.