Alison Bate

Writer, editor and journalist

Sailing to Shanghai (3): Preparing for the hurricane

In my spare officer’s cabin on E deck, I look out the porthole and see the same sight as usual: the backs of two green containers, jostling slightly. “Hi containers,” I say, before wandering up to the bridge to check the action outside. It’s Day 6 and we’re about to cross the International Dateline, when Thursday will disappear into the deep grey sea.

Just before 4 p.m., a little dot appears on the horizon, almost dead ahead of us. It turns out to be another containership, the “Independence”, and as she passes on our starboard side about a mile away I wave madly, excited to see my first ship since leaving L.A.

The Pacific is much emptier than I’d expected. Reassuring, really, that such a large part of the world is still wild and uninhabited. At first I was exhilarated by the wide expanse, but now I feel pretty much the same way as able seaman Reggie Victoria, who says: “Well, it’s just there.”

Although the winds are fairly light now, a super hurricane called Dianmu is building up north-east of the Philippines. Weather faxes arriving every six hours are checked over carefully by the officers. I’m worried I’ll be upchucking soon.

The next day, I’m having breakfast with chief engineer Anil when The Captain comes in. “We’re going to be changing course because of the hurricane, go south of Japan,” he says. Our original course took us between the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu, but now we’ll be heading south round the bottom of Japan.

The two Praveens

Up on the bridge, third officer Praveen is working on the chart and listening to Indian music on his portable computer. “The cyclone is coming,” he says. The officers use the words hurricane, typhoon and cyclone interchangeably, but they all mean the same thing, with winds more than 64 knots or nautical miles per hour (about 73 m.p.h). This hurricane is a nasty one, with a very low pressure of 925 hectapascals or millibars.

It’s Day 9 and the ship pitches unpleasantly overnight as winds increase, and The Captain warns we’ll still catch the aftermath of the hurricane. That evening, the crew ties down all the chairs in the ship’s office. I’m engaged in my nightly ritual, playing cards on the bridge with Annette, and feeling a little nauseous watching the bow rising and falling in front of us. I sing an English sea shanty very badly: “While the raging seas did roar…”

In the middle of the night, I lie in my bunk sweating and listening to gale Force 8 winds howling outside the porthole. The Felixstowe is pitching back and forth, pounding again and again as the waves slam into the bow. It’s difficult to sleep, and the cabin is really stuffy. A couple of gravol prevents me being seasick, and I finally get some sleep and wake up feeling much better.

The next morning, I go outside briefly with Rodney into the warm, muggy air. The winds have died down slightly and the swells are longer, but the noise is still deafening. The sea is an inky dark blue with white caps, the wake streaming down the port side: powerful, white and turquoise.


Chief cook Ignacio “Nick” Villanueva has an exhausting job. Nick, helped only by messman Lorenzo “Laurence” Ramos, has to cater for 25 people daily, often cooking separate meals for the two nationalities. The Indians don’t eat beef, and some don’t eat pork, while the Filipinos don’t like spicy Indian curries. A typical lunch for the Indian officers is a freshwater fish called Tilapia, potato and cauliflower curry, rice, salad and melon. Meanwhile, the Filipinos have grilled beef, rice, bitter gourd and melon.

Nick, ranked as crew, is surprised when I first chat with him. “Lots of the visitors, they don’t talk to us,” he says. Although officers and crew co-exist quite peacefully, their worlds are very different. Officers and crew eat in separate messrooms. Officers use different dayrooms and even different laundry rooms from the crew. Officers are allowed to have families sail with them, crew are not. The officers say you need this kind of structure to maintain order, but I’m certainly very uncomfortable with it.

Despite the differences in treatment and pay rates, the Filipino crew say they make good money by their country’s standards. Able seaman Erwin Zarate is torn between making more money than he could get at home and missing home life dreadfully. “It’s a good life, no problem, because all seamen like to earn money and because every seaman has a project,” says Zarate, a fit, wiry man who started seafaring 12 years ago. But almost immediately afterward, he talks about how difficult it is to be happy on board when he’s away from his wife Rachel and their two children.


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