Alison Bate

Writer, editor and journalist

Sailing to Shanghai (4): China Ahoy!

I get up really early and check my cellphone. I have a signal from China Mobile! We must be near land. But when I go to the bridge for my first glimpse of China, we’re blanketed in heavy fog.

It’s very tense on the bridge as Rodney, with able seaman Erwin Zarate on the wheel, alters course to avoid a fishing vessel. We’re ordered to anchor outside Qingdao, and join at least nine other big ships waiting for the fog to lift. A long five hours later, the fog finally clears and two little cone-shaped islands emerge slowly from the mist – my first sight of land since leaving Long Beach. I find myself singing out loud one of the Sunday songs: “Come holy spirit come”.

Arriving in Qingdao

Two Chinese pilots board and guide us into Qingdao, passing white skyscrapers, numerous cranes, and a harbor full of small ferries. Far below us on land, the longshore workers are waiting in almost military formation to grab our lines. The huge cranes kick into gear just minutes after we tie up, and the squeal, thump and clunk of containers being discharged fills the air.

Our cargo is mostly a bunch of empty containers, more than 1,700 of them. Only 225 carry anything at all, and then it’s mainly waste paper and scrap metal. When the U.S. talks about its huge trade imbalance with China, this is what it means. Consumer goods from China to North America fill the ships, while we send back a bunch of empties. The Felixstowe is a 4,250-TEU ship, which is the industry way of saying she can carry 4,250 twenty-foot containers or half that number of forty-foot containers.

While we wait, three local Chinese guys set up a mobile shop on board, selling watches, toys, electronic gadgets and even North Face jackets. Jina buys two watches for $20, and the crew splash out on CD/DVD players, baby portable TVs and phone cards for phoning home. Only two of the crew take shore leave: the downtown is more than an hour away, they worry about getting lost and not speaking Mandarin, and catching up on sleep is more tempting.

Heavy fog keeps us in port an extra 14 hours, which has The Captain muttering over the delays, but we finally head south toward Shanghai. A ship nearby radios in about seeing a dead man floating in the water. It could be a stowaway thrown overboard, or a crew member from a fishing vessel hit by another vessel in the heavy fog, says The Captain. We’ll never know.

We sail all day and all night and by early Saturday are at anchor in the Yangtze delta outside Shanghai harbor in 91 feet of water. We have a huge amount of chain out – 590 feet ¬– or about 6.5 times the depth of the water. The Captain explains that the weight of the cable holds the ship, not the anchor itself.


It’s a warm, humid night, raining slightly, with a half-moon reflecting on the milky water as a Shanghai pilot arrives to guide us up the river. It’s high tide, just after midnight, with at least 100 vessels in sight, some anchored, while others putter by. A strange-looking dredge, a junk, a small freighter, and now a small tugboat.

After more than four hours, we see the terminal of Wai Gao Qiao port ahead, eerily bright in the night. Two tugs chug over to help us dock, twirl and separate, with one settling into our port bow and the other near the stern. At long last, just before dawn, we tie off at Berth No.2. The dock gantry cranes kick into gear, the ship’s office fills with Chinese agents, and a new chief engineer arrives to replace Anil, who’s signing off at the next port.

I go reluctantly to my cabin to pack my bags, not really ready to leave the ship and the camaraderie of those on board. Dasan, the electrician, chats with me about his family and I realize he finds it baffling and somewhat shocking that I’m not married and don’t have children. My independent way of life is as strange to him as the concept of wives submitting to husbands is to me. Whenever I start to feel too judgmental, I try and remember his words: “Working and living on ships means having to get along with people from different religions and countries, which requires a lot of adjustments.”

Outside, the funnel is being repainted and trucks swarm below as I join Rodney, Jina and Annette to clear immigration. They’re excited to be heading home to Goa after five months at sea. Ocean life is not as glamorous as it sounds, says Jina. “At home, the other wives are jealous of me, because I’m married to a chief officer. They see the money and travel, but don’t see the price officers pay. All they have to stare at is the sea and the sky, and think of home”.

Annette holds my hand as we leave the gangway for the last time, then stand sweating in the bright sunlight surrounded by our baggage, saying our goodbyes. We board the port bus, full of workers in light blue uniforms going home for the day. They talk noisily and smile a lot more than U.S. port workers. More people pile in, the noise level reaches a crescendo, while outside are loads of trucks, cars hooting and people riding bikes.


Later, feeling suddenly very much alone, I head by taxi into downtown Shanghai. Huge billboards and colonial-style buildings are mixed up with tall, thin, gleaming skyscrapers. It’s very strange seeing so many people on the streets after being cloistered on the ship. But I think about buying chocolate and fresh fruit and going out for noodles, and my spirits slowly rise again.

Capt. Gomez, meanwhile, prepares to cross the Pacific one more time before his current contract ends and he too can go home to Mumbai to see his wife and son. Like all the Indian officers, he loves biryani, a dry curry eaten on board the ship every Sunday. “We measure our time left in biryanis,” he says. “I’ve got two biryanis left”.


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