May 30th, Wednesday
June 20, 2007
“The ship was sailing plungingly; astern the billows rolled in riots.” (Moby Dick)
Sometime between 0430 and 0530 we were woken by wave after wave of violent pitching, juddering movements, reminding me of going through towering cumulus in our little aeroplane: an alarming sensation. Staggering out of bed to take a hasty look through the window, since it was already light out there, I saw lots of white water, though from our deck, a good way above them, the waves didn’t appear too huge. All the same, they were frequent and head-on, so Chris and I clung to each other for mutual comfort and support; further sleeping was out of the question.
At 0530 (as Chris later found recorded in the ship’s log) came a great CRACK as in Act 1, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Tempest!
“We split! We split!…”
The whole ship shook and, although lying down, I screamed! Whereat the engine’s vibrations promptly diminished in intensity. Had the shock caused a malfunction or had the Captain ordered a reduction to manoeuvring speed? No alarms sounded, so the latter seemed more likely. Within a quarter of an hour the motion had altered, too, to a roll. Had the weather suddenly changed in our favour, or had we deliberately changed course? We didn’t yet know.
Noted by Chris, a little later:
At approximately 53ºN 23ºW, the thump that made Ali scream also tipped the gyro compass. Without a gyro compass the Captain then had to switch to using the magnetic compass instead. Having reduced our speed to 6 knots, the drift caused by wind and current is substantial, so he brought the Flottbek through a 360º turn to find a heading to give us the necessary track. Having found this, the ship is again heading east-north-east towards Malin Head, although in the last two hours, according to the GPS on the bridge, we have already moved south of planned track.
The sky is full of grey cloud and rain. Through our porthole we can see the sky moving around all the time. I did without breakfast and have taken another precautionary ‘Gravol’. Chris, on the bridge, has been watching Orlando and two other crew members check for damage; apparently, none was sustained, apart from the gyro. It seems that the worst wave hit us unexpectedly sideways at a moment when our bows were plummeting into a trough between two other large waves.
I have been too wary of being thrown off-balance to climb up the stair-tower as far as the bridge this morning, though Chris says it’s exciting up there, the bows throwing up great sheets of spray all around. Martin was up with him and managed to get a great photo (see above).
The notice to passengers in the mess room (in a magnetic frame sticking to the metal door) still announced a tour of the Engine Room today at 1530 and I wondered how easy it would be to hold on during our tour if the sea continued throwing us around as it was doing that morning, but by slow degrees the turbulence began to abate. In any case we’d discovered that the lower the deck we were on, the less violent the motion of the ship. After lunch I leafed through a large hardback lying in the passengers’ recreation room, an illustrated history of the ships built under the Meyer dynasty at their shipyard (“Werft”) in Papenburg on the River Ems. Clearly, this prestigious family has contributed greatly to the wealth and pride of north Germany during the last century or so. The first of their ships had sails, then it was paddle ships, steam ships, coal-driven Motorschiffe and 2nd world war ships for the German navy. The latest ones built range from cargo ships and oil tankers to ro-ro ferries and luxury cruise liners. I found illustrations of all of the above in the book, which was written in English, not German. The Flottbek and her sister ships were all built in 2005, in the following order: 1) the Eilbek, 2) the Reinbeck, 3) the Flottbek, and 4) the Barmbek. Each vessel is designed to consume around 46 tons of fuel a day. There are very strict anti-pollution laws about getting rid of the waste products. The latest directive says that any oil in the bilge water, for example, has to be diluted to 15 ppm (parts per million) before it can be emitted into the sea.
Our 50 minute tour-of-the-engine-rooms, beginning promptly at 1530, was guided by Thilo Schmidt, the Flottbek’s Chief Engineer, whose confidence around the machinery and whose knowledge at his fingertips is most impressive. (We do feel we can trust this crew!) In the engine control room, before we proceeded towards the engines themselves—at which point we were given earplugs and heard no more speech until we emerged again—Thilo gave us some facts, mostly in English. The next day he also presented each of us with a neatly presented sheaf of fact sheets he’d compiled — in German, illustrated with many black and white photographs.
The ship’s 2-stroke engine, kept immaculately clean and painted in a pale shade of green, is three decks high. Made in Copenhagen, it has 8 cylinders, burning “heavy fuel oil” (Schweröl) and running on diesel (Dieselöl), up to 50 tons of it per day. The oil, black, dense and sticky, has to be heated to 50º when the ship’s surroundings are wintery. The exhaust is channelled into indoor heating and water heating. Our supply of tap water, distilled by means of a condenser (Verdampfer) that works in a vacuum where the boiling temperature is no higher than 45º, is as good as or better than anything you’d get to drink on land.
We were shown the air-conditioning unit (Klimaanlage), refrigerators (Kühler), the compressors (Luftcompressoren und Luftflaschen), and the separators that clean the oils by means of centrifugal force, bits of dirt flying to the outside of these devices. We also saw a wave generator (Wellengenerator), and I still don’t see why you’d need one of these as in my opinion there were quite enough waves out there without the need for making more artificially, but probably I misunderstood the function of this piece of machinery. What thrilled me the most was when Thilo lifted a grill to let us peer down a hole and see the great propeller shaft turning, driving us unfalteringly towards our little grandson. England, here we come!
We have five generators on board, therefore plenty of backup systems, though Chris wasn’t so pleased to hear that the engine’s monitor display runs on a WINDOWS operating system… however, there is a backup computer, just in case. Chris was admittedly impressed to hear that the ship could if necessary be steered and controlled from the engine room in case the bridge was unusable for whatever reason. In rough weather, Thilo confessed, rather than sleep in his cabin upstairs where the motion is so extreme, he prefers to erect a camp bed below where he can sleep beside his beloved engines, where every tool is in its proper place.
After a tasty salmon and spinach lasagne for supper, we repaired to the bridge and saw the spray from the bows making rainbows, because the sun was coming out. Within an hour, between 1900 and 2000, the sea had calmed down quite definitely. We were even able to stand out on deck for a while. The sky’s blue again now. We saw another container ship pass by in the distance, our first sign of human life since leaving Canadian waters, four and a half days ago.