June 1st, Friday

June 22, 2007

This is the last of a series of nine posts about our voyage on a container ship, the Flottbek. Unless you want to read the whole story backwards, I recommend you scroll down the page to my description of May 24th, Thursday, Day 1 of this adventure, and start from there.

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What the devil’s the matter with me? I don’t stand right on my legs.” (Moby Dick)

A thump of heavy rope against our porthole first thing in the morning (0600) meant that a sailor was out there washing the windows again. The sea is as smooth as silk with misty mountains in the distance. On the Isle of Man, I’d guess. Definitely not, decides Chris, working out our position. We’re well past the Isle of Man. We’re nearly at Liverpool! That land we can see must be Anglesey with the Snowdonian mountains behind it… Wales.

Martin Stehli’s red T-shirt at breakfast proclaimed him “en füdligwöndliche Schwiizer“, which is nothing like any German I’ve read before so I asked him what it meant. “Ein stinknormaler Schweizer,” he explained. The crew are looking unusually formal, wearing khaki uniforms today: short sleeved shirts with epaulettes (four stripes for Jan Block and Thilo Schmidt). Coming into port must be a serious business.

Rather sad to be doing so, we pack, leaving a tip with a thank you note for Reagan, then hurry up to the bridge.

The shine on the water is so dazzling we have to screw up our eyes to see the rows of turbines in the nearby wind-farms on shore. Some wind turbines stick out of the water ahead of us too with the skyscrapers of the city vaguely beyond them. The last chart on the desk is a very detailed one of Liverpool Bay. Everyone’s on the bridge and it’s a busy place, Captain Block calling out the headings and the steersman repeating them as we go.

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Rob, driving over from York to meet us with Sally, sends us a text message to say they’re on their way.

At 10:00, we see the pilot boat. Before our pilot boards the Flottbek, the boat does a complete circuit of the ship, speeding round our stern from starboard to port, where (as we know from yesterday) the ladder is.

“Pilot on board!” is announced, as he climbs the ladder. Then the little boat zooms off to deliver another pilot to the next ship in line. Six cargo ships are lining up to come in with the tide; we are number One.livpilotboat.jpg

Puffing from all the stairs he has climbed, the Englishman greets our Captain with: “Here we are again! When are you going to fix that lift?”

Capt. Block is ready for the repartee. “When we get the spare parts!” he retorts with a grin. “Coffee?”

Nico leaps into action to brew the pilot a nice cup of the ship’s best coffee, and kindly lets me have some, as well. While the pilot communicates by radio with the Hollyhead Coastguards — I wonder if they are known as Sea Traffic Control, their phraseology being so similar to Air Traffic Controllers’ — the Captain makes some ‘phone calls in German; he seems to be contacting his employers to let them know that the Flottbek’s latest voyage has come to a successful conclusion. We make our way between lightships moored in parallel rows to make a channel, cormorants waddling about on their miniature decks, stretching their wings. The navigation channel continues between two rows of buoys. We pass the wind-farm, empty stands in the water implying that more turbines will be erected in future. From the opposite direction comes a rusty old tanker from Cyprus and passes us by, leaving a polluted trail of foam in her wake. To our surprise, a porpoise jumps; the water can’t be that dirty after all.

Another text message from Rob: “At Formby Point now. We can see a container ship. Is that you?”

Chris confirms our location on the Captain’s chart. “That’s us.” We’re really looking forward to seeing Rob and Sally when we disembark.
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As we approach Liverpool’s docklands we identify New Brighton to starboard, built around a hill on the Wirral peninsula, topped with a large, domed Catholic church. It’s unreal to see so many land-based, human built objects after nearly a week of unadulterated water. There’s a lighthouse at the end of the harbour wall, even a beach with actual people moving about on it. Yachts are moored in a marina beyond the harbour and beyond them the narrowing Mersey estuary continues upstream in the bright haze to the right of the skyscrapers.
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The Norway (a P & O ferry) passes us, broadcasting “Outbound!” and now two tugs are chugging towards us, that will escort us towards the lock, its blue metal bridge swinging open for us as we approach. One tug is called The Trafalgar. I can’t catch the name of the other. Containers, cranes and chimneys everywhere, heaps of scrap metal. We are entering a very industrial landscape.
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“No hazardous! No defects!” broadcasts the Captain.

Delicate steering now from the controls at the starboard side of the Flottbek’s bridge, bringing the propellers at the bows into action as we slowly, slowly turn to enter the narrow lock. bowsteering.jpgTwo of the officers call out the number of metres by which we are missing the lock’s walls (“Four metres!… Two-and-a-half metres!…”), the two tugs assisting with gentle little nudges. Thus we enter the lock at exactly 1130, our ETA for the past three days. The tug still ahead of us risks being crushed by our weight and momentum as we follow it into the lock. A rope is thrown, the tugs helping us in for the last few metres.
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“Easy now, Trafalgar! … Take up the slack!”

The lock gates close behind us and the water level’s lowered.

“Headline tight!”

Our visiting pilot’s job is done now and he can relax, so he saunters over to the coffee machine and wonders how he can get another cup of coffee out of it. I show him which button to press.

Mischa is amused, “He can bring a ship into port but he can’t work a coffee machine!”
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Interesting though it would be to see the Flottbek’s arrival at her Liverpool wharf, it was now ship’s lunchtime, and we felt duty bound not to miss our last lunch provided by Amador and served by Reagan, another hearty meal: soup, lamb chops, potatoes with sauce and green beans, watermelon for dessert. We ate hurriedly and were just in time to see the ship docking and her ropes made fast.

“First line ashore, 1218!” duly logged.

The smell of diesel surrounded us. The water, full of litter, looked filthy, but it was a beautiful, warm, blue-sky day. Large blue cranes around us were emblazoned “Port of Liverpool” so there was no doubt we were at the right place. We packed our last few things and a ‘phone call summoned us to Deck 6, where the Liverpool agent, Gary Clays, was sitting in the office ready to escort us on shore. No sign of any immigrations or customs officers; apparently all the official business of landing had already been done, by ‘phone. Suits us fine!

After we had shaken hands with all the crew we could find, Michel, whose last voyage as a cadet it had been, carried our cases down the gangway. We followed, treading carefully, having hugged the Stehlis goodbye and wished them luck. fromshore.jpgThen we piled into Gary’s car and at the security gate there were Rob and Sally waiting to welcome us, reminding us of Carol and Don saying goodbye at the other end of our voyage. We are very aware of having good friends on both continents.

At the recommendation of Mr Clays, Rob drove us from the industrial docklands proper to the touristy, historic Albert Dock at the heart of Liverpool, in search of a hotel room. We passed the massively imposing Royal Liver Building and any number of building sites, Liverpool Cathedral prominent beyond this chaos on a hill. We found a hotel, but they’d only allow us a room if we were willing to stay two nights. That was no good. After a bit of fuss, we managed to make a booking elsewhere, but it meant we’d have to drive to the other side of the Mersey. After more ‘phoning, the car rental people agreed to let us have a car a day earlier than I’d arranged.

I was feeling peculiar, rather woozy and queasy from land-sickness! Chris felt it too. We’d read about this phenomenon but hadn’t expected it to be so perceptible. The other disturbing thing was to have so much space around us suddenly. Agoraphobic after our confinement of the ship (a paradox, if you think of the extent of the Atlantic), we huddled in a corner of a bar, me trying to restore my equilibrium in true British fashion with a cup of tea.
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After a walk on the cobblestones and boardwalks round the Albert Dock, we started to feel better. Then I realised that I still had the Flottbek’s cabin key; it had to be returned to Mr Clays which entailed another two laps of the docks behind Rob and Sally, having picked up our rental car, before driving back to the road for the Birkenhead tunnels, paying the toll at the far end with coins we weren’t used to, and continuing a long way down the Old Chester Road. When we reached our destination, further confusion. The room allotted to us was no longer available because of a “faulty bath”. Don’t worry, said the receptionist, we’ll give you a refund. Better still, we’ll also pay for you to spend a night at “the other hotel down the road”. The breakfast next morning would be free as well.

“You’re lucky!” said the girl at the reception desk of the substitute hotel“, “We have a pool here, but I bet you didn’t think to pack any swimsuits.”

“I bet we did!”

After an excellent supper with our friends, Chris and I took a quiet walk down a nearby lane to Bromborough Pool, an old candle-manufacturers’ community, built for his workers by a palm-oil importing, nineteenth century philanthropist called Mr Wilson.

In the middle of the night when we were in our first deep sleep, my cellphone beeped and flashed red lights to announce the arrival of another text message from Rob saying, as requested, that he and Sally were safely home. But owing to the state we were in, Chris and I both sprang out of bed in a panic, searching frantically for our helmets and immersion suits, interpreting the interruption as an Abandon Ship alarm! We clung to the furniture as the whole room swayed about and Chris, peering through the curtains, couldn’t make out how big the waves were because he couldn’t find his glasses.

It took about thirty hours for the swaying sensation to subside completely, by which time we were with our dear little grandson in London, who would have made all those perilous nautical miles worthwhile even if we hadn’t liked our crossing. alexchris.jpgBut we had liked it.

“Would you do it again?” we asked each other.

The answer was YES.

2 Responses to “June 1st, Friday”

  1. Paul Bradshaw Says:

    Hello, I enjoyed your story. I crossed this past June and too found it to be a great adventure. We had good weather, the crew were professional and friendly and the food was excellent. We were detained on arrival in Liverpool but were graciuosly accomidated by the captian through-out our ordeal. We lost a day due to this event but it added to the adventure.

  2. Stephen Brooks Says:

    Your journal is a delight. I made a similar trip from Montreal to Antwerp on CP Ships’ “Canmar Honour” in 2002. Your experiences were so similar to mine that I became quite emotional reading them. Returning home, I felt compelled, like the Ancient Mariner, to corner my friends and tell them the tale. Most expressed amazement about the seemingly separate world of merchant mariners. Some, when I got to my favorite part about The Storm, said “Stop! Stop!, you’re making me sick.” It is now five years since I made the trip and I think about it often, scheming to find the time to go to sea again. I wish you many more happy sailings. Stephen Brooks


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