Montreal, May 24
June 18, 2007
Day by day, here comes my story of our voyage across the Atlantic on the MV FLOTTBEK, a container ship owned by the Wappen Reederei of Hamburg.
“…as for Captain Ahab, no sign of him was yet to be seen; only, they said he was in the cabin…” (Herman Melville: Moby Dick)
It’s a very hot afternoon with a smog alert. Docked at the river end of rue Curatteau, Montreal, we’re in Pax Cabin No 1 at the stern of the Flottbek, already well stacked with colourful containers labelled Hapag-Lloyd, OOCL, Capital. No idea what’s inside them. The container port is a super-efficient place with a speedy unloading system, each truck-driver given a number on a blue card. I had to scuttle between arriving trucks to enquire at the gate huts where passengers should go. The man couldn’t hear me too well through his ear plugs but told me to bring the luggage and our ID over here and we’d be driven to the ship. Tight security: Carol and Don who’d brought us here were made to stand still while the guard checked our passports. Up drove a young man in a helmet, hasty goodbyes to the Buchans and he spirited us away amongst the container forest.
The gang-plank was made of rope with metal steps. Miss a step and you’d break your leg through the holes between. A friendly welcome on board from a couple of the orange clad filipino crew who took our passports off us for the duration of the voyage. No sign of the Captain, yet! We sat in a small office on Deck 6 while the First Officer looked us up on his computer. Then we were introduced to a polite young man in a white uniform, the steward.
“What’s your name?”
He led the way down the narrow corridor then up 8 steep flights of stairs on the port side to Deck 10, past framed photographs of the earlier Flottbeks, Flottbek 1 being a sailing ship. Our cabin’s at the far end of a row of cabins, clean, neat and carpeted. Coat hooks by the door, orange chairs clamped to the floor by the table, but their restraints can be unscrewed. A desk stands under the porthole between the two beds. Through this window I spy cranes in operation (capacité sous spreader 40L Tons) obscuring my view of the Mont Royale, the Olympic Stadium and a stretch of river towards the city. Another window over Chris’ bed overlooks the thousands of containers stacked on shore. In the cabin is a modern washroom with a shower, a divided wardrobe, a Hi-fi unit and a small fridge. We have drawers under the desks and beds containing helmets, PFDs and “immersion suits”. A framed picture of Hamburg’s Alster hangs over my bed with wedges of torn paper at the corners to stop it from rattling, likewise the ceiling lights. A ship’s lamp hangs over the table and there are reading lights over the beds. Plenty of soap and toilet rolls are provided as well as two towels each, so we hadn’t needed to pack any after all.
We are due to cast off at High Water, 8p.m.
Our only fellow passengers are Mischa and Martin Stehli from Switzerland, in their mid-30s. They are at the end of a 14 month honeymoon in North America, deliberately protracting their homeward journey to Zug, Switzerland. We were all given a safety briefing: the emergency signal will be 7 short blasts followed by 1 long blast, klaxoned all over the ship. If we hear 1 short and 1 long blast repeated we must “ABANDON SHIP!” If we have to wear our life jackets in the water a light attached to them will come on automatically once we’re in the water. My goodness, that’s reassuring. There’s also a free-fall life boat hanging at a 45 degree angle from Deck 8 at a great distance from the water. If we have to get into this we’ll sit facing backwards. For this one, we’d be wearing a different kind of life-jacket.
At our first supper on board (tasty meat on skewers with flavoured rice, cheese, fish, cold meats and a bowl of fruit besides) we also met the Captain, Captain Jan Block from Hamburg, who has a long blond pony tail. “Good appetite!” he said, and told us we’d be welcome on the bridge, Deck 13, at any time. So we watched the cast-off from up there, an emotional moment for the Stehlis when our rope flopped into the water, their last attachment to North America.
Our departure at sunset was magical, the bows beyond our nine rows of containers (the ship’s hold seven containers long) moving almost imperceptively away from the quayside. To my surprise we were setting off upstream, towards the city, but only to make a slow turn, the horizon tilting slightly as we banked to the side. We passed an oil refinery and four ships at anchor, mid-stream on river, brightly lit (picture below by Martin Stehli). Because my legs and feet hurt from so much standing I went and sat on our cabin desk looking out of our porthole. Briefly, Chris and I went out on the stern deck to see half a moon and the evening star, then early to bed with lights on the banks and lit buoys on the river to either side.