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.


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.


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.
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.
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.

“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.
“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!”
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.

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.


in a settled and civilized ocean like our Atlantic … some skippers think little of pumping their whole way across it” (Moby Dick)

A gentle swell all night has allowed us a good sleep. Out of the window, grey sky, grey sea with a few breaking wavelets, and a bird gliding by with black wingtips: one of our gannets. We’re south of Rockall over the Rockall Trough, and visibility permitting, we should see be able to see Ireland by supper time.

After breakfast I had laundry to see to. Reagan led us down to Deck 5 to set the washing machine for us, not trusting us with the buttons and dials, especially after we’d messed up the DVD player last night; he got that machine working again, besides. Our washing’s on a two-hour setting after which we can use one of the three dryers. I notice that the Captain and Chief Engineer store a pair of bicycles down here as well, presumably for their shore-leave. Before we went back up, Reagan led the way to Deck 4, to show us the crew’s two exercise machines and sauna. We ought to make use of these facilities, having been so well fed by Amador, but it’s always Deck 13 where we’d rather pass the time.

Back up there, on the bridge, Nico has music playing from an MP3-player. We’re still too far off-shore to pick up any radio signals, but Chris says he’s just heard a Mayday call relayed from a helicopter, from a ship with engine room problems. There’s an optical illusion of white water on the horizon, but it’s actually sunlit water under clearer skies ahead, and we see wonderful bright patches between the rainstorms closer to hand. The outside air temperature is warmer, now. A pod of porpoises that the Captain identified as “Schweinfisch, I don’t know the English word for them, smaller than dolphins…” jump away from the bows.

Under Captain’s orders — who doesn’t agree with me that the Flottbek’s immaculate, thinks she looks scruffy! — members of the crew are painting the sides of the tower again. Capt. Block tells us about the care he takes to check out his ship. He even climbs inside the ballast tanks while she’s in dry dock, to check for dents and cracks. He found one once. We asked from what angle the ship would right herself in rough weather and he told us she’d roll to 50º before tipping over, but in any case he’d sooner jettison cargo than risk the lives of the souls on board.

I overhear the Captain talking to the Stehlis in German and using a poetic phrase. We are sailing “zwischen Himmel und Wasser,” he says, i.e. between the heavens and waters.

At lunch, we are given the copies of Thilo’s engine spec. and we read the latest edition of the daily ‘Flottbek News’, a summary of world news also selected and printed out by Thilo.

From the latest weather synopsis it seems a large, complex low-pressure system is covering the whole of the North Atlantic, lasting throughout the weekend, “moving east or northeast across all areas.” This afternoon a new chart appears on the desk: Outer Approaches to the North Channel, showing the Irish coast in more detail, Tory Island, Malin Head.

“Have you noticed anything different?” asks the Captain, towards the end of the afternoon.

“Yes!” I reply. “I have. The water’s changed colour!”

Correct. In fact there’s been a very striking change in the sea’s appearance, the water suddenly green. It means that we have reached the shallows of the continental shelf. We strain our eyes to catch a sight of land to starboard but all we see are showers on the horizon under clouds with anvil heads. And then, just after 17:00 hrs (Chris predicted it would happen ten minutes earlier), I am the first on board to sight land, about 27 nautical miles away, a faint outline of mountains. “Look, look!” I shout, to the amusement of Chris and the officers. The highest point near here is Errigal Mountain, 749m, so I think that must be what we can see.

Distracted by this view, we didn’t register the rain cloud looming ahead of us until we were almost upon it; the Captain orders a change of course to avoid the new paintwork getting wet and the whole ship banks sharply to the left.

“Not so much rudder!” he says, raising his voice to Orlando, at the controls. “The boys are still hanging…” belayed to ropes carefully knotted to the railings outside the bridge. Now aiming straight for the headland, but away from the downpour, we are “just in time!” Captain Block leans over the rail, laughing at his “boys”.
After supper the ship’s four passengers were allowed our one and only walk right round the outside of the ship, Stephan leading us, all of us wearing our orange helmets. We picked our way along the gangways, seeing the rolled up pilot’s ladder and the anchor chain, the headline ropes and their winches, past the towering containers. It was wonderfully quiet in the bows of the ship; all that could be heard was the swish of displaced water. We were awestruck by the metal ribs at the front of the ship that had been cracked and buckled when a container, on a previous voyage through very rough weather, worked itself loose from its pile and fell against the structure. We didn’t want to let our imaginations dwell on this for too long. The Stehlis took advantage of their permission to climb the metal rungs of the fo’c’sle ladder, Martin taking first turn, to see the view ahead; the rungs were not rounded but angular and hurt Mischa’s hands. It didn’t look safe to me; Chris and I limited ourselves to peering through the hole in the pointed end of the bows at the water beyond. In large waves, water pours through this orifice to relieve the battering pressure on the bows, not a good place to stand in those circumstances, I should think.
Then we grouped ourselves at the side taking photos of each other and of the superb views of the Irish coast lit by showery sunlight: of the lighthouse on Bloody Foreland Hill and Tory Island, with an extensive range of mountains behind, untouched by human intervention. The coastline looked remarkably like Newfoundland. aliatrail.jpgMore viewing from the bridge when we’d finished our tour, comparing what we could see with what was drawn on the chart. There was Malin Head coming up ahead of us. The hitchhiking gannets soared round and round, perhaps looking for rocks to land on; on some crossings they’ve been known to snatch bread from our helmets, said Orlando. This was the last we saw of the gannets; by Friday morning they had gone.
We had sensational views for the next three hours! Here was the lighthouse on Inishtrahull Island and the roads leading up to it; from the other side, little Garvan Island could be seen where the ships of the Spanish Armada were once wrecked with a cluster of romantically uninhabited, pointed chunks of island beyond, the Atlantic waves hitting their sides with splashes of white: the Tor Rocks. Eventually, after seeing the red sun set with bars of cloud across it very similar to the Ship of Death in Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner:

Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.

And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace !)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

… we sailed between Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre (visible from the port side, but slightly further away) into the long-awaited North Channel between Ireland and SW Scotland, our speed now down to 15 knots. Now that we were within range of Northern Ireland and not just Southern Ireland, we finally (after the others on board had already been chatting excitedly to their European contacts for some while) got cell-phone coverage and could receive Emma’s “Are you there yet? …Where are you?” text messages. “Past Malin Head” we replied, giving the co-ordinates, texting my sister and our friend Rob as well, and then Emma rang and spoke to us as well, saying that she and Peter had excitedly located our position on Google Earth, and welcoming us to Great Britain.

My legs were now very tired from all the standing and the stairs, so I repaired to the cabin to rest and admire the now full moon and evening star through the porthole. It’s a smooth, quiet night, and tomorrow we land.

May 30th, Wednesday

June 20, 2007

bigwave.jpg (Photo by Martin Stehli)

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.enginetools.jpg

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.

Hands go diligently along the bulwarks, and with buckets of water and rags restore them to their full tidiness.” (Moby Dick)

The alarm woke me from a deep sleep. A grey sea still, but it’s far less turbulent than yesterday. What a blessing the respite is! According to Chris’ latest GPS reading, marked on our own chart (bought at The World of Maps on Wellington St. in Ottawa), we’re now over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge –in water “only” 2 km deep– on a great-circle route to Northern Ireland, at about our furthest point from land.

We took the chart down to breakfast to show it to Mischa and Martin, which they liked so much that they’ve begged us to buy and post them their own copy with our route and way-points marked on it.

From the bridge this morning, we could see rainshowers coming, over a gentle swell. It’s a sleepy view, especially now that our clocks have been advanced an hour for three days in a row (still two hours behind Brit. summer time.) Today, the able-seamen are busy washing the corridors, walls and stairwells with buckets of soapy water. We’ve received a message to say that we won’t be allowed into the lock at Liverpool until 1130 on Friday, so there’s no point rushing; we have slowed down to 17.5 knots. The sea is calming further and the sky is clearing, blueness ahead. I’m surprised that the pressure reading on the barometer is still low (~992 hPa), but it appears that we’re in the “eye” of our current low-pressure system which like the eye of a hurricane makes for calm. The question is, shall we travel along at the same rate and in the same direction as the low or shall we have to move away from the centre of it, and thus back into rough weather? Time will tell. For the time being, anyhow, let’s enjoy it.
Since lunch, sea and sky have been beautiful, with a ring of cumulus on the horizons. The ocean’s now a deep blue with a long, slow swell coming from behind us. We saw a pair of land birds who had stowed away amongst the containers with little to eat or drink, poor things. I doubt if they’ll survive the voyage, but they’re still fluttering about. Chris and I went out on deck after lunch and Captain Block joined us, eating a banana. His retired father used to be master of a ship as well, he told us. This gentleman had been a passenger on the Flottbek last October, lucky to have fair weather all the way across. Since then though, they have had storms on every trip. It’s about time for some summer weather, says the Captain. Throwing his banana skin overboard into our wake he added with a laugh that he hoped his ship wouldn’t slip on it on the way back.banana.jpgwake.jpg

I had another peaceful sleep this afternoon. I wrote some more of this log and finished reading The Secret River. From the bridge, we spotted more whales and dolphins. There are anvil clouds on the horizon, signifying thunderstorms. According to Chris’ calculations made at 1509 hrs, local time, we’ll be rounding the tip of northern Ireland in 39 hours,18 minutes, so we’re making steady progress.

For supper, deep fried potato cakes, after which I watched another DVD: The World’s Fastest Indian, an entertaining true story about an old New Zealander with a home-made motorbike who won an unbeaten land-speed record, starring Anthony Hopkins. Before the film came to an end I took a break from it, so as not to miss the sunset from the bridge. atlanticsunset.jpgThe sky was inky under the rain showers, now close at hand, and we watched the fiery sun being swallowed up in the water beneath a heavy cloud to port. Chris, who also watched the sun set on a previous evening, says you can almost hear it hiss as it goes under. Later, the moon rose on the starboard side, almost full, casting a wonderful, bright gleam on the water. The ship is moving steadily along at 18 knots and the officers are already marking our progress on the latest chart, promisingly entitled Western Approaches to the British Isles, a larger scaled chart than yesterday’s. I see that we have crossed the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone and we’re over the so-called West European Basin now.

As we prepared to sleep, the water began to move the ship around more noticeably; here we go again! I thought I’d calm my nerves by fixing my eyes on the moon that was shining through the windowpane and lighting up my pillow (it seemed all wrong to pull the blind down and draw the curtains while we were at sea), but as it happened, that moon danced around the porthole in such jerky lines that I found it disconcerting, so I turned over to avoid watching it. Later, when the moon had moved over to the side, I tried looking up again, but now a bright planet (Venus?) was doing the same crazy dance, so that didn’t exactly lull me off to sleep, either.

May 28th, Monday

June 20, 2007

“…the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves…” (Moby Dick)

It has clouded over in the night, with growing waves. Our alarm clock and other paraphernalia fell off the desk. I was too tense to sleep much, holding onto my mattress on both sides. The ship is most obviously rolling, but she’s also pitching and yawing. We can’t get a satellite fix, says Chris, because we have too small a porthole for the satellites to be picked up through it. But I think the truth is that it’s too turbulent for peering at little screens for very long without feeling queasy. We’re aware of a certain amount of turbulence in our stomachs as well as on the surface of the ocean, so we’re taking a precautionary tablet each and have chewed some more of Elva’s ginger jelly beans.

I didn’t bother with a shower. Chris had one but complained that the water wasn’t vertical; he had to hold onto the shower rail. We are both tired, but braved the stairway down to Deck 7 where after a decent breakfast of muesli and a crispy bun with and cheese and jam plus cups of tea, I felt better. Chris only managed a handful of grapes and half a banana! You have to hang on tight to the sides of the table to prevent your chair from sliding across the floor, which leaves no free hands for holding onto the cups and plates. The milk in my muesli bowl slurped over the edge. However, the table cloth had been sprinkled with water so that the plates wouldn’t slide so easily– a neat mariners’ trick.

Reagan scuttled out of the galley to chain the chairs at the Captain’s table to the floor. The Captain popped down for a quick snack– “Good morning! Good appetite!” — and pronounced the weather “not bad, yet,” but couldn’t promise us any improvement before Liverpool. Is it going to be like this for the next five days, then? Or worse?

The waves are leaving trails of foam behind them. Some breaks in the cloud make bright patches; otherwise, there’s sleety precipitation. It’s very cold outside, but warm enough in the cabin.


After reading some more of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, propped up by pillows, the soporific effect of the ‘Gravol’ kicked in and I slept again, so was late to lunch. Chris went ahead, having stayed on the bridge for most of this morning. He reports that there are lows ahead of us that “could be a problem” but the wind should continue to blow from the southwest, pushing us along. The wind is now at Gale Force 9, Gale 10 at times.

At lunch, the Captain warned us it “could get worse”, so there’s to be no more walking about on the ship than is strictly necessary! He’s clearly worried about us injuring ourselves. We were served fried duck with red cabbage and chips, followed by wedges of watermelon. Like the Stehlis we felt surprisingly hungry, though Mischa and I did request smaller portions. One roll of the ship sent all our plates flying over the table, spilling the gravy on them, damp tablecloth notwithstanding. Another had us all sliding on our chairs involuntarily across towards the Captain’s table, the water from my tumbler tipping into my lap, another rolling right off the table onto the floor. Woops, no harm done; we’d slid back to where we’d come from. Laughter. The steward, the cook and the officers know how to move around, how to brace themselves, what positions to stand in. We passengers are not so good at it.

Chris says that these conditions “aren’t conducive to serious study” (of his philosophy books).

I climbed up to Deck 13 to see what it was like on the bridge. There are no pilot reports from other ships in the vicinity, so we’ve no idea what’s ahead of us. Our Captain says, “All the other ships have gone. We’re the only one on this route, apart from one small fishing vessel to the north of us.”


We’re glad we aren’t on that ship. Now that we know what it’s like out here, it’s sobering to think of the early settlers to Canada coming across or the original explorers taking this route in their tiny ships, or worse still, to imagine the slave ships crossing, with their human cargo chained down in horrible conditions in the hold. Mid-Atlantic is a lonely place to be at the best of times. However, we mustn’t let these thoughts get us down. Captain Block with a grin tells us to “think positive”.

We talked to Orlando again, who had experienced the 2004 Tsunami while at sea, near Columbo. the wave dropping his ship 10m in a couple of seconds. He also told us about the seabirds who sometimes lay eggs overnight, on the ships they land on.

We’re over half way, now. The 8m waves of this morning are diminishing a little, with the wind backing to WNW, so that the waves start to come from behind us. On average, we’re rolling 10º, with 25º rolls now and then. This morning it was more like 20º all the time. The complexity of sea and light is wonderful. What power!

By the evening the swell was gentler, less noticeable. Our supper was pasta with chicken fritters. On my own in the rec. room afterwards, because the others had other things they wanted to do, I watched a DVD from the ship’s collection: Miller’s The Crucible. I’d seen it before on an Air Canada flight once, but hadn’t been able to follow the dialogue for the engine noise. This engine vibrated just as much but was less intrusive and I wasn’t interrupted by the steward trying to sell me duty-free cigarettes.

At 22 Zulu hours, says Chris in the cabin, having put on another Beethoven Quartet for background music, there were 62 hours 40 minutes left before we reach the Irish coast; he estimates it will take another 10 hours 5 minutes to go round Northern Ireland and reach the docks. Therefore our ETA at Liverpool is now 1000 on Friday.

“…bringing out a large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table…” (Moby Dick)

I’m writing in the cabin to the accompaniment of a Beethoven string quartet. The fog still thick, the water choppy. The alarm woke us at 7 and Chris took a GPS reading as I showered, holding onto the rail.

“We’re heading straight for Africa!” it seems. In fact we are plotting a detour round the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to avoid icebergs. Even so, the Captain spotted one on radar last night, not more than a mile away from the ship. He’s posting a look-out on the bridge whose job it is to see growlers coming, though the visibility is only 100m or so. These are “bergy waters”, as it says in the fax messages scrolling from the printer, which mention a “heavy concentration of significant ice” in the Belle Isle passage, which would have been our most direct route to the UK. In fact the Flottbek is categorised as an ice-breaker– she can push through three feet of river ice in winter– but ‘bergs are another matter. There’s also a “large whale trapped in fishing gear,” poor creature, the report giving the latitude and longitude of its whereabouts. The weather map shows us with lows behind us and ahead. Every half hour the position of our ship is marked on a Nav. chart drawn in Taunton, UK.

Nico is on duty again this morning; having returned to the party at midnight yesterday, he found the Stehlis were still there. I said what fun the singing had been. If we didn’t sing, Nico commented, we’d shout at one another.
Having stood for hours attached to his iPod while staring fascinated at the waves, their patterns so complex it’s hard to tell the direction they come from, Chris returned to the cabin for another sleep. I gave him a couple of ginger jelly beans (an Australian souvenir from my friend Elva) as a stomach settler, just in case. The waves are growing now, coming at us diagonally, the water splashing dramatically from the starboard side of the bows in turquoise-white crests. I’m rather glad we can’t see the horizon yet; though the sky’s quite light, almost sunny, above us the fog’s still thick ahead. [I took the photo of Chris, above, on a clearer day.]

Lunch was soup, T-bone steaks with stirfry vegetables, followed by icecream topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce! Managed it, though.

We’re now in deeper water, off the edge of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. We made the change of heading at 13:40hrs, still 1812.9 nautical miles from Liverpool, according to our friend Laurie’s CoPilot program. Chris is programming in a new aeroplane flying at a very low altitude at 18 knots, called the Flottbek. It will take us 100 hours 43 minutes if we “fly direct” across Ireland, which obviously won’t be possible. We’re now listening to Schubert on the CD player and the visibility’s improving.

At about 1550 came the announcement of our Emergency Drill over the intercom, followed by 7 + 1 blasts. Mischa had just woken up from her siesta and forgot her jacket in the rush to the Muster Station on Deck 6. Chris left his jacket on the hook too. drillwear2.jpgIt wasn’t easy to hurry down 56 steps in the rolling ship carrying my bulky life-vest and immersion suit with my bad ankle. My helmet was on my head, but not very tightly– at a rakish angle.

Plenty of merriment at the Muster Station, the crew, all in orange suits, milling around like schoolboys. A roll-call of men and PAX was also like being at school. Two senior officers then ordered groups of crew to disperse on a sort of treasure hunt “all over the ship” to look for anything unusual or out of place, supposedly a bomb.

“What do WE do?”

“Passengers, STAY HERE!” So we were left all alone and forlorn at the stern, looking back on an increasingly rough sea, the wind now blowing the waves into white crests. muster.jpg [Photos by Martin Stehli]
It was perishing cold, despite our life-vests and helmets. We stood there in a little huddle for well over half an hour hanging onto rails and trying to find the most sheltered spot, while occasional crew members roamed by, still searching for a bomb in the same places. muster2.jpgStephan and Reagan felt sorry for me and came to chat. As he’ll be promoted on the next voyage I’m one of Reagan’s last passengers. (“My passengers write me letters sometimes. Oh, that’s …!” Lost for words, he put his hand on his heart.) Chris says, Admiral Lord Nelson started out at a cabin boy, too.

Chris disobediently wandered off to find a WC when he should have remained standing in the cold wind; all that water was too much for him. The crew members were still rushing about.

“Have you found anything yet?” we kept asking, hopefully.

“No. Not yet.” Stephan’s theory was that the bomb would be found in the Engine Room.

In the end, Mamerto took pity on us and allowed us to warm up in the crew’s recreation room, while the search continued.

Finally Captain Block popped his head round the door to dismiss us and instead of telling us off for disobedience, thanked us for our co-operation! Has the ‘bomb’ been found? Yes! Where was it, in the end? We put a biscuit tin in the sauna, said the Captain. The men have to learn to keep a look out for anything that’s in the wrong place.

The seas are now rough / high and the wind at Beaufort Scale 8! The sky’s clearning rapidly. We’re lucky that the wind’s in the opposite direction from the waves, says Orlando. If they come in the same direction, then “we’ll get it”! Orlando suffers from sea-sickness then, as well as lack of sleep. He says the whales and dolphins “get dizzy”, too, so they swim away from the bad weather. If we see them swimming in the same direction as the ship we’re in luck; it means calm seas ahead. I’m amazed that I still don’t feel sick or dizzy and am still capable of doing SODUKO puzzles!

We went to bed with moonlight shining upon increasingly wild water.

May 26th, Saturday

June 19, 2007

We blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.” (Moby Dick)

We were awake by 0630, the sun well up but shining through stratus over the Gulf of St Lawrence. The visibility’s better today and the sea still pretty calm. According to Chris’ GPS we are somewhere between the Îles de la Madeleine and the southwestern tip of Newfoundland.

In the shower Chris was covered head-to-toe in bubbles when the water supply suddenly stopped. I offered to pour a bottle of mineral water over him straight from the fridge, but he said “No. Go away.” A few moments later the water supply came back on; what a disappointment (for me).

Up to the bridge briefly before a pancake breakfast then back up the 84 stairs. The barometer shows that the pressure’s dropping. I discover that we’re carrying 11670 tons of cargo, dry goods, in 20 foot and 40 foot containers. We’d missed seeing some of the largest colony of gannets in N. America as we rounded the tip of the Gaspé peninsula but later realised that a few of them had stowed away among the containers. Now came the coast of Newfoundland with exciting views of the Table Mountain, snow covering its steep slopes. I could make out the lighthouse at Isle aux Morts and a powerline up the cliff; otherwise no sign of civilisation. We looked through binoculars and talked to the 3rd Officer, Nico, who comes from a small island at the end of the Philippine chain. He still has his own fishing boat and the rest of his family there.

This is Nico showing Mischa and Martin the radar screens. nicobridge.jpg

Cape Ray is our closest point of land, 442 nautical miles from the pilot station at Grandes Bergeronnes. From there to Liverpool was 2691 nautical miles, at which point our estimated time en route, pilot to pilot, was 6 days 5-and-a-half hours. At about 1000 we overheard the goodbye call radioed from the Canadian coastguard at Channel Head, before we made a slight change of heading aiming towards St Pierre and Petite Miquelon, across the Banc de St Pierre, in French waters! We still have to skirt the Burin Peninsula and the Avalon Peninsula of NFD, which will take another 12 hours! There are numerous iceberg reports for the waters ahead but the weather prognosis is still fair. We saw whales again, quite close and later, a school of dolphins, who swim more jumpily, Apparently they often play with ships: it’s as if they dare each other to leap across the bows. Time is passing surprisingly fast. It’s almost lunch time. Chris is enjoying himself mightily, taking GPS readings to chart our course and making the same marks on his WAC and seachart as the officers. The weather’s clearing up again. It’s just beautiful.

Afternoon. It’s chilly on the bridge now, the windows and doors still open. We climbed the stairtower to see the ship enter France, but there was no sign of the Miquelon islands. Are they at too low an altitude? The swell’s now obvious, but we can see the waves coming, with a wave period of 6-7 seconds. On reaching the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, we predictably sailed fog.jpg into fog. [Photo by Martin Stehli] We watched its rapid approach; then suddenly we couldn’t see the foremast any longer. The Captain’s worrying about icebergs. I have come back to the cabin to warm up and put César Frank’s Violin Sonata on the CD player.

A smell of cooking wafts up to the cabin. The ship’s now rolling and pitching enough to make us unsteady on our feet. I still don’t feel exactly sick, but rather hollow and tense in anticipation of the BBQ coming up at 1800 on Deck 5.

We wander downstairs 15 minutes early, only to find a deserted deck with sticky handrails and foggy dampness. Now what? Let’s go and ask on Deck 6. There we find one of the crew who looks amused by us and who leads us down a different set of stairs to the dry-storage room on the deck below, where we are greeted heartily by most of the crew standing round a long table, with sheets for a tablecloth, covered with bottles or cans of Becks beer, a bottle or two of gin, bowls of salad and fruit, hot sauces, and a hot, foil-wrapped potato on each plate. It’s going to be a bit of a squash. Metal shelves store rice, milk, oil and jars of other foods under a low, metal ceiling. At the table’s end is a steel BBQ piled thick and high with greasy sausages, pork ribs, chicken wings, etc., fat smoke filling the air. Flags hanging behind the table — among which the Red Ensign, Germany, the Philippines — are all swaying with the roll of the ship.

“May I sit down?” I say nervously, choosing a seat near the door.

“Have a beer!”

There’s no sign of the Stehlis yet, but Jesus (2nd Engineer) tells me to go ahead and help myself to the greasy meat on the BBQ. Don’t panic, Ali, I tell myself, deciding I am probably hungry rather than queasy. I choose the smallest piece of chicken I can find and unwrap my large potato.

“Have some garlic butter on it. We won’t start eating till you do!”

flottbekbbq2.jpg [Photo by Martin Stehli]

So I do start, take a sip of beer and it tastes good. There’s talk of the karaoke party to follow which will be a sort of competition, the highest and lowest scorers to treat the others to a crate of beer. Chris and I are rather puzzled at this, but we’re obviously expected to join in. I get talking in German to one of the cadets, Stephan from Hamburg, doing his ‘Praxis’ in training as a navigator. He wants to captain his own ship one day. The other cadet, Michel from the Philippines is further ahead in the system; this is his last crossing for the time being. When he goes on to the next stage, Reagan will take one step up from cabin boy / steward, and presumably some new boy will be appointed in Reagan’s place.
flottbekbbq3.jpg flottbekbbq4.jpg
The table gradually fills up until all the seats are taken, the Captain sitting in the middle next to Chris. Many toasts of “Santé! Prost! Zum Wohl!” We begin not to care about the rolling; alcohol helps! Mischa is very happy to accept a large tot of gin in her orange juice. It all feels quite cosy and intimate, Jesus obviously relishing his role as chief entertainer.

At the meal’s end the ship’s company (except for those on duty) repair to the crew’s recreation room up a level on Deck 6, where the karaoke machine is already in operation. The tables are covered with bottles. Amador the cook brings in the left-overs from the BBQ plus some fruit and peanuts in case we’re still feeling peckish.


This is the equivalent of the sea-shanties of old, sung to an accordion accompaniment, vital for morale at sea, an excellent team-building strategy and an outlet for suppressed emotions. Behind the titles, lyrics and scores awarded for our karaoke songs appear screen-saver shots of scenes from the Philippines. “I wonder if those pictures make them feel homesick,” says Chris to me sotto voce. For sure they do.

Again we are all squashed up tight on the long benches against three sides of the room. Pleasantly relaxed, I take my shoes off and put my feet up, as they otherwise dangle. The microphone / remote-control is passed around as well as The Book, i.e. the list of songs to choose from, from hymns ancient and modern to pop, folk and rock, also ancient and modern, mostly ancient. The Filipinos — I hear a couple of them talking to each other in Spanish — turn out to have great voices. It’s uninhibited, quite musical singing. Jesus jokes about them strengthening their singing voices above the noise in the engine room till they can sing “like Pavarotti.” They know every song backwards.


The computer judges each person’s performance and gives us marks. For example, I get 85 points — applause! — for my rendition of Summertime, and Chris gets 46 points (“needs more effort”) — but more applause! — for Tell Laura I love her –which he hasn’t attempted for 40 years. Capt. Block warms things up with his version of Bryan AdamsSummer of ’69 and Jesus, swaying on his feet, is a convincing Tom Jones in Delilah, everyone present joining lustily in the chorus: Why, why, why, Delilah? My, my, my Delilah… I just couldn’t take any more! — with a picture of a lemur-like animal with pink eyes in the rainforest projected on the screen behind the prompts.

As the beer bottles keep being opened and the gin handed round, other songs are The Great Pretender with a memorably original rhyme in it:

I wanna be just as close as
The Holy Ghost is

as well as Love Story, Imagine and Take me home, country roads, West Virginia…, tutti fortissimo. The Stehlis sing in unison, choosing Californian rock songs, and soon lose their inhibitions about singing in public. I have a second go, at Danny Boy, which is difficult, the accompaniment being so slow, but the all-time favourite and highest scoring song is by Capt Block leading the whole company in We all live in a yellow submarine! Very apt, though Chris is none too sure what the words mean. Score: 96. “What a [sic] excellent singer!” says the computer. Rapturous applause and enthusiastic toasts to the Flottbek.

We excuse ourselves exhausted at 1030, clocks in advance one hour already, as the party continues for another four hours below, and the ship, with Orlando in control on the bridge, continues heading away from land through the fog, over the “huge and heaving dome,” as Oscar Wilde put it.

I feel as if I’ve learned something this evening.