Tag Archives: Maritime

Containership in Tacoma, Washington State, US

Maritime clips

Here’s a short selection from the hundreds of shipping articles I’ve written while covering the west coast of North America, including California, Oregon, Washington State, B.C.(Canada) and Alaska:

* Kyle Washington: The Prince of Tides (BC Business)

* Escape from the 91st Floor (9/11)

* Armada Rescues Trapped New Yorkers (9/11)

* The Ship That Will Not Die (New Carissa)

* B.C. longshore casuals take a beating

* Fight over Arctic shipping routes

* Crossing the Columbia Bar

* Stranded for nine months in Vancouver Harbor (Globe and Mail)

* Sailing To Shanghai: How I crossed the Pacific on a containership

* What the Truckers’ Fight Is All About (The Tyee)

* Summaries of my articles on U.S.Transportation Research website (Search “Alison Bate”)


* Double Trouble: Exxon Mobil slow to build double hulls

* Death by Lifeboat: Safety drills may cost your life

* The Oil Detectives: What’s killing California birds?


I edited two maritime magazines (in Canada and the U.S.) and wrote a regular column on maritime safety for three years. My articles have appeared in The Globe and Mail, BCBusiness magazine, Marine Digest, The Journal of Commerce, Maritime Magazine, Shipping & Trade News, Containerisation International, among others.

10 questions about life on a containership

Pix CSCL Felixstowe

Photo of the 800-foot CSCL Felixstowe by Philip Gilston

May 30, 2011

By Alison Bate

While surfing the internet, I ran across this photo of a ship I sailed on a few years ago (see above).

It brought back fond memories of sailing across the Pacific on the CSCL Felixstowe. I got asked a ton of questions about the trip from L.A. to Shanghai. Here, in no particular order, are some of them along with my answers:

1. What was the food like?

Wonderful, if you like curries. Fortunately, I do. Chief cook Ignacio (Nick) Villanueva had an exhausting job, cooking for 25 of us every day, helped only by messman Lorenzo (Laurence) Ramos.

Nick often ended up cooking separate meals for the Indian officers and Filipino crew. Indian officers don’t eat beef and some don’t eat pork, while the Filipinos didn’t like spicy Indian curries.

A typical lunch for the Indian officers included a freshwater fish called Tilapia, potato and cauliflower curry, rice, salad and melon. Meanwhile, the Filipinos had grilled beef, rice, bitter gourd and melon.

On Sundays, Jina Noronha, wife of first officer Rodney Noronha, often helped out by cooking biriani for the Indian officers, along with raita, a delicious yoghurty dip.

“We measure our time left in birianis. I’ve got two birianis left,” said Capt. Alfred Gomez, who was signing off shortly.

2. Did you drink every night with the Captain?

Capt. Gomez was a staunch Catholic who discouraged drinking and held Sunday prayer meetings with rip-roaring singing to boost crew morale and camaraderie.

“I see it as the only way. Instead of getting soaked in alcohol, you are getting soaked in God’s word,” he said. To this day, I can’t hear “This is the day that the Lord has made” without feeling emotional.

Rum rations for the crew are long gone, replaced by strict anti-alcohol and drug policies. Although beer was allowed off-duty, it was quietly frowned upon. I drank three beers while on board, and even then felt guilty.

The best tales from the captain’s table came during lunchtime, when the captain, chief engineer Anil Sharma and third officer Praveen Prabhu traded stories.

The Suez Canal is nicknamed the Marlboro Canal, and if you don’t pay the pilot with cartons of cigarettes, they won’t move the ship. One time the captain finally got a pilot who said he didn’t take cigarettes.

“I’ll just have coffee,” he said, then but then promptly added tea, butter and a huge list of other demands.

“Better you take the cigarettes,” said the captain, finally.

3. Was it risky, a woman sailing with all those men?

Rodney and Annette Noronha on the bridge

No, they were wonderful! And I wasn’t not the only woman on board. When I boarded, first officer Rodney Noronha was waiting to greet me with his wife, Jina, and six-year-old daughter, Annette. Jina and Annette had been sailing with Rodney for the last four months, and on and off ships since Annette was a toddler. The wife and two-year-old son of second engineer Ravi Singh also sailed with us.

The two wives, two kids and myself were all Supernumeraries, an archaic-sounding word also applied to actors who appear on stage but have no lines to speak. Pretty accurate, in this case. I was the Fifth Supernumerary.

4. How long did the trip take?

The ship was pretty fast, with a cruising speed of 24 knots (nautical miles an hour), so it only took 11 days to sail from LA/Long Beach to Qingdao in northeast China.

We sailed the Great Circle route, skirting the Aleutian Islands off Alaska before arching across the Pacific to Qingdao – more than 5,800 nautical miles in all.

A Super Hurricane northeast of the Philippines delayed us a day and at Qingdao, we hit fog. So we arrived in Shanghai at dawn 13 sailing days (14 days by date) after leaving Long Beach.

5. Did you get seasick?

Streaming across the Pacific

Streaming across the Pacific

I used to throw up regularly on yachts crossing the English Channel. Fortunately, the CSCL Felixstowe rode the waves much better than a small yacht.

The worst times came southeast of Japan, as we hit the aftermath of a Super Hurricane called Dianmu. That night I was lying in my bunk sweating and headachy as the ship pitched back and forth like a bucking bronco. Winds at the time reached Force 8, but we missed the worst of the hurricane.

6. Can I sail on a containership, too?

Containerships don’t usually take passengers, so I was very lucky. The crew is too busy most of the time to look after passengers and there are also insurance complications.

Bulk carriers have more leisurely schedules, and are more likely to take passengers, but they are still not cheap. Several companies cater to freighter travel, though. Check out Freighter Travel and Seaplus.

7. What cargo did you carry?

Actually, a lot of empty 40-footers! We left California with 1,768 empty containers and just 225 full ones, carrying mainly waste paper and scrap metal.

The transpacific trade is notoriously imbalanced: ships loaded with consumer goods arrive in the U.S. from Asia and often return empty.

8. What did the crew do all day?

Pix of two of the officers

Second officer Praveen Menon and third officer Praveen Prabhu

They were all pretty busy during their work shifts, and during time off, had different rituals.

Typically they’d slump exhausted or bored watching DVDs or listening to music in their cabins. A hard-core of ping-pong fanatics got together regularly in the little on-board gym. My personal memories are of playing the Memory Game on the bridge with little Annette.

Time and again, as we sailed across the Pacific, my desire to idealize the crew’s way of life received a cold dose of salty water from those that lived this life daily. I was looking for adventure while the captain and crew were looking for their floating office to run as smoothly as possible.

Second officer Praveen Menon laughed when I asked if being at sea was 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.”

9. Did the crew speak English?

Yes, they all spoke English. Captains and officers are required to speak English if they trade in international waters, and the Filipino crew had learnt English at home.

10. What flag did the ship sail under?

It was all very convoluted, but typical for international shipping. I sailed with 20 Indian officers and Filipino crew on a ship built in South Korea, registered (flagged) in Cyprus, owned and managed by a Canadian company and operated by a Chinese state shipping line.

* See my full story about the trip: Sailing to Shanghai

B.C. longshore casuals take a beating

By Alison Bate
First published in Maritime Magazine, Fall 2009

Vancouver longshore worker Karen Crossan stood in the ghostly dispatch hall looking vainly for work on tonight’s graveyard shift.

“I’m bored and I am broke,” she said, after learning there was no work that night, yet again. “There were 150 jobs for the afternoon shift, but only a few casuals got out.”

Crossan only comes in from Port Coquitlam twice a week nowadays looking for work, as it’s usually a wasted 40-minute trip each way. She last worked ten days ago.

In the first eight months of 2009, she clocked less than 300 hours work as a B Board casual in International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 500. This year, B Board casuals like Crossan will be lucky to make $30,000, compared with an average $70,000 last year.

The recession has hit the dockworkers in British Columbia hard, with work hours down by 600,000 hours or 17.6 per cent – the equivalent of 400 full-time jobs.

Container work has taken the biggest dive, and Vancouver’s Local 500 has seen a 23 per cent drop in work hours from January to the end of August 2009, year-on-year.

While full union members are surviving, the 1,200 casuals have suffered dramatically, especially on the lower boards. In Vancouver, A Board casuals get preference over those on B, C, T and OO Boards and the numbers speak for themselves.

According to Gordie Westrand, president of Local 500 (*), last year’s A Board easily averaged $87,000 last year. This year, they’ll be lucky to make $50,000.

T Board casuals last year made about $30,000 last year; this year, maybe $2,000 or $3,000. The way things are going, Westrand predicted it could be 2020 before they become full union members. As for the OO Boards, they made $15,000 to $20,000 in 2008. This year, a pitiful $51 to date.

“There’s just despair,” Westrand told Maritime Magazine. Some regulars on the C Boards, who have been coming to the dispatch hall for the last four years only worked one day last month. They can’t afford to pay rent, and have run out of employment insurance. He said one guy has been forced to live in his car as he can’t pay his rent any more.

“I’ve been down on the waterfront for 44 years and seen some of the worst recessions. The 1975 one lasted from mid-April to mid-September. But this one has already lasted longer: from January until now (September),” he added.

Crossan realizes she’s luckier than most, with money still coming in from her husband, a full union longshore worker. But even these union members aren’t getting the work they like.

“Lots of the guys are having to do jobs they haven’t done for 20 years. I feel for them,” she said.

Tom Dufresne, president of ILWU Canada(*), said the union took on 700 new workers about two years ago and trained them to handle the boom. Now there’s no work for them.

The union is also preparing to negotiate its contract with the BC Maritime Employers Association, with talks due to start Dec.1. The contract expires March 31. “I think it’s going to be an interesting round of negotiations,” said Dufresne.

Over on Vancouver Island, work hours are down 17 per cent this year compared with 2008. Unlike Vancouver, they don’t handle container traffic, and never really benefited from the boom.

Brett Hartley, president of ILWU Local 508, said that the downturn in the forest industry and closure of many mills has caused a steady decline in work in the last ten years. There were about 400 union members in 1999; now there are 115 union members. At the beginning of this year, there were also 60 to 70 casuals but Hartley is not sure what the numbers are now.

“They’ve been taking a beating,” said Hartley. “Some of them have been hit twice.” A lot of mill workers became longshore casuals when mills closed or took down time, and are now suffering again.

The Vancouver Island local is based in Chemainus but uses a telephone dispatch system to cover its vast area. Workers may live in Victoria and travel to work in Port Alberni three hours away, an increasingly expensive proposition.

Currently, the biggest source of work is handling raw log exports at Port Alberni, Nanaimo and Island Timberlands’ terminal, south of Nanaimo.

It’s dangerous work and some people disapprove of raw log exports, but Hartley said it was happening anyway. Logs were being towed or barged to U.S. ports and exported to China, Korea and Japan from there. The union intervened, and now at least its members are getting the work in B.C.

At Cowichan Bay, the export of Western Forest Products lumber has really slumped. Full ships carrying 21 to 24 million board feet of lumber used to sail tor the eastern U.S. every month. So far this year, only four vessels have arrived and they left half-empty.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Hartley concluded. “The difficult part from our view is that this scenario has been going on for a number of years. It’s always been a scramble.”

© 2009 Maritime Magazine
UPDATE: * Eight-year contract approved on Vancouver docks (May 4, 2011):
UPDATE: * Rob Ashton is now the president of ILWU Canada
UPDATE: * Reno Voci is now the president of ILWU Local 500