Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Fremantle to Singapore via Port Klang: Feb 2007.

Ian in Command !!

"Full speed ahead"

Entering Port Klang

The Ship

Crossing the equator!

The engines and the chief engineer.

Looking down at the 7 levels of the central stairwell from the Bridge.

Everywhere there are signs like this.

From Fremantle to Singapore via Port Klang on the MV Theodor Storm!

Again I decided to turn the five hour plane journey between Perth and Singapore into a five day trip on a freighter, only this time it would take eight days as the ship detoured to Port Klang in Malaysia, and only then onto Singapore. My reasons for making this trip were similar to those of my first nautical excursion. Essentially, I thought that a few days at sea would be a few pleasant days of peace and quiet, untrammelled by the demands of a noisy and intrusive world. This, fortunately, did prove to be the case.

The vessel I travelled on was the ‘Theodor Storm’, a 34,000 tonne, 213m long, 32m wide ship, capable of carrying 20 crew-members (Russian officers, Philippino crew), up to 2500 freight containers, and at least one passenger. On the Port Klang leg of the voyage, the ship carried 1430 containers. I was told by the 2nd officer (from St Petersburg) that, while the ship was carrying less than its full complement of containers, it was carrying its max weight of containers. The ‘Storm’ was riding low in the water, 11 metres. The ship itself is ‘owned’ by a Euro financed German company, registered in Cyprus, has a multi-national crew, and, at the time of my trip, was chartered by a Malaysian company—globalisation at work: no one owns anything, no one is responsible, and everyone is a contractor—carrying consumerist junk from one end of the globe to the other.

Structurally, the Storm is designed solely to carry cargo. This requirement consumes most of the above deck space on the ship. Below deck are the ship’s engine and fuel. At the rear of the ship, rising above the deck, are the living quarters of the crew, and at the top, the Bridge. There are seven levels to the living area (‘A’ lowest to ’F’ highest), with the Bridge above. As one ascends so does the size of the cabins and status of the people in each cabin. Immediately, below the Bridge are the ‘A’ level cabins for the Captain and Chief Engineer. I was on ‘D’ deck. The distinguishing feature of the ship are its freight containers. When looking out over the ship one sees many, many containers, stacked horizontally and vertically in rows and columns. My first ship, the Esprit, was built a decade earlier than the Storm, as such a few design improvements can be seen. The demand for shipping capacity has steadily grown over the last decade, this has compelled ship designers to build bigger ships and to squeeze the maximum efficiency out of the ships constructed. This shows in the design of the cargo area of the Storm: containers are tightly packed, and there is little (or no) wasted space. In comparison, when on the Esprit I climbed around the cargo area several times, there was lots of free space, not so on the Storm. An additional change is that the Storm does not carry any onboard cargo cranes, it is designed to dock only at ports with suitable cranes and dock gear.

The ship’s maximum speed is 23 knots, this equals just under a 1,000 kilometres every 24 hours. This distance requires approximately 90–100 tonnes of fuel, as the Storm can carry 2,500 tonnes of fuel, it can travel approximately 25,000 kilometres between fuel stops. However, the ship, when laden, usually travels at approximately 19 knots. If any of my readers are interested in leasing the Storm, the rent is us$15,000 per day, depending. Fuel costs, which are in addition are approximately us$4,000 per day. The ship’s maximum carrying capacity is 28,000 tonnes. As you can see the base cost of shipping a tonne of cargo is less than a dollar a day, not a large sum at all.

The Storm was built in 2004, so it is as new as can be, however, this newness did not translate through to the ship’s fittings or accoutrements. The ship can only be described as functionally spartan. An example of this design can be found in the the living quarters: they are entirely adequate, but each cabin has the same cheap furniture, each wall is the same shade of bland brown, there are only two small paintings on the ship’s walls, and last but not least the ship has a noisy environment. What surprised me about this ascetic aesthetic was the potential effect on the crew, who may spend six or more months on the ship. Each day they are surrounded by these drab living conditions. In the interests of efficiency alone I thought that the ship’s owners would spend a minute fraction of what the ship must have cost to better outfit the ship so to ensure a more pleasant living and working environment for the crew. A happy crew = a productive ship—but what do I know? I was also surprised by the many minor signs of wear and tear on the ship, which have not been corrected. One example of this are the light control switches on the bridge. Some of these have been broken for some time, and have been only crudely (but admittedly functionally) repaired by the use of wrapping tape.

I did spend some time on the bridge, for, as I shall describe below, the bridge is a cool place to hang out. I chatted to the various watch officers about their time on the ‘Storm’ and other ships, plus how the ship is operated. From this I learnt something about life at sea, it can be hard and lonely, away from family and home, however, the reason that men go to sea, as it has usually been, is money. Each crew member can earn significantly more at sea than in their home country.

Speaking of the ship, this ship, like its fellows on the Australia/SE Asia run, travels from the ports of Australia to Singapore and the E coast of Asia, and then back again, loading and unloading cargo to serve the needs of the producers and consumers of the far east. The routes of each ship are planned well in advance, but detours can take place to various ports as time and cargo dictate. Navigation along these well travelled routes is carefully planned in advance. There are longitude and latitude ‘way points’ for each combination of departure and destination ports. The ship’s GPS assisted autopilot moves the ship along these routes. There is always an ‘officer of the watch’, on the Bridge at all times. This person’s duty is to keep an eye on the autopilot, look for other ships in the vicinity, and generally ensure the ship is operating smoothly. While it is an important job, it is also boring, a departure from the routine is rare—danger or emergency far rarer still. One aspect of the trip which caused me mild concern was the varied use of various measures of distance: kilometres, nautical miles, and ordinary miles were intermixed, with, to my unskilled eye, little co-ordination. I kept remembering the problem NASA once had with imperial and metric! However, on this trip nothing went off the rails.

One mildly amusing aspect of my first day on board was my ‘security’ briefing. A slightly bored 3rd officer read to me a series of instructions: ‘don’t throw rubbish overboard’, ‘don’t use the elevator when the ship is listing more than 10 degrees’, etc, and then asked if I understood each. When he came to the emergency/abandon ship section he told me that the officer of the watch would phone my cabin and give me specific instructions. I immediately replied that my cabin (the cabin of the non-existent ship’s Doctor) did not have a phone. His responce was that he would therefore personally come and find me and let me know what I should do! Speaking of security, several of the crew informed me of one of the more dastardly side effects of 911. In the good old days, visitors were free to come on board ships in harbour, virtually without restriction. Females made up a sizeable percentage of these visitors. Now, however, girls, nor anyone else, are allowed to freely visit a ship. Sad days indeed! As one crew member said of the past, ‘Very nice!’.

Speaking about me again, I found the journey on the ‘Storm’ less demanding than that on the ‘Esprit’. While I never felt sea sick on either ship, during my first few days on the Esprit I continually felt very, very, very tired. However, on the Storm this was not the case, I did need a day to get my ‘sea legs’, but after that I was just fine, even during the storm which I shall discuss next.

The Storm on the Storm
One of my motives in taking a second freighter journey was to experience some rough weather. Fortunately (from my perspective) my wish came true. A day out of Fremantle saw the ship experience its first and last storm of the voyage. As these things go it was not a heavy storm, the surface winds gusted to 35–45 knots, there was some rain, and a lot of wind. This did, however, cause the ship to sway a great deal from side to side. Over a 5 second period the ship would swing 45 degrees from the horizontal and back again. It was fascinating to see something this big move so much so fast. Usually, the ship would would rotate port to starboard or bow to stern, i.e. along its minor or major axis. I did find this much movement a little difficult to deal with. At first simply walking was a challenge, it was all too easy to fall. However, after a while I learnt to compensate, and was able to walk a semi-straight line. This was not, however, the only ambulatory challenge, when the geometry was so aligned the ship would swing through both of its axis's simultaneously. This multi-dimensionally aspect to the ship’s movement was very disorienting and hard to deal with.

There were also seemingly random movements when the ship would swing into an oncoming wave of water. This usually occurred when the bow dived down into the water and then hit an oncoming wave: the entire ship would shudder, a loud ‘thunk’ would be heard, and the ship would momentarily stop. It was these last moments that were the most difficult. One can adapt to the wide movement of the ship, but when this movement ceases, even for a few seconds, one feels very disoriented. Needless to say, during the storm I made great use of the ship’s handrails. Even the ship’s crew find rough seas a challenge, it is hard to work, eat or sleep when the ship is rolling hard.

Not all of my time on board was spent battling the elements. I read several books in transit. The first and best was Professor Richard Dawkin’s latest opus, The God Delusion, which examines and critiques the notion of god and the supernatural, very effectively. The second was The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, which discusses the ability of people in motivated, informed groups to reach accurate conclusions. I also reread one of Nigel Warburton’s books on philosophy, Philosophy: the Classics—a poor man’s A History of Western Philosophy. Finally, I finally found time to to re-read parts of Dr Jasmine Day’s The Mummy’s Curse, an examination of the role and position of ancient Egyptian history and culture (particularly mummies) in modern, popular culture. Interestingly enough, the Russian officers were fascinated by ancient Egypt and mummies. Perhaps a Russian language translation?

You might ask where I read on the ship, or not. The first option was of course my own cabin, but that can quickly grow stale (metaphorically). After that only a few choices exist, there is not much free space on a freighter, and the decks, unlike those of a girly cruise ship, are not an overly salubrious environment (small, and covered with diesel exhaust). There is an officers’ smoking room, this however, with a Russian crew, lived up to its name. It was always either smoky or smoke filled. The best place I found to read was on the Bridge! It is big, well lit, and quiet. Most of the time only one watch officer is present. So, I would sit in a comfy chair, occasionally stare out to see, and read my book atop 1430 freight containers. An interesting reading environment indeed!

For those interested, my day fell quickly into a restful routine: awake, visit the Bridge to see where we were, breakfast, chit chat with the crew, read, or watch a show on my computer, lunch, repeat until sleep time. Very restful. I did get excited about the prospect of crossing the equator at sea. I went to the Bridge an hour before we were due to reach 0 degrees latitude, and, much to the amusement of the watch officer, waited patiently for the invisible line to be reached. I did in fact video the ship’s position on the autopilot map as we crossed the equator! (again to the mild amusement of the watch officer.)

Speaking about the crew, I did find the Russians somewhat taciturn, not overly jocular nor loquacious. By no means were they unfriendly, but they were not overly interested in small talk, even amongst themselves. In the officer’s mess, the officer’s would sit and eat for minutes at a time without talking to each other. It is possible to understand this attitude, at sea, away from friends and family, for six months at a time, with a full day’s work. This creates less motive than is usual for socialising. Also, their English was not as good as that of the officer’s on the Esprit. However, in contrast, the Philoppino crew members were willing to talk about anything and everything. As usual they were surprised and astounded that someone of my tender years was unmarried. This usually led to an offer of an introduction to their sister or daughter, or some other female relative. They were equally, or even more shocked, when I told them, in answer to their question of my religious affiliation, that I was an atheist. They found it difficult to believe that someone as nice as I could not believe in god. I did mention some aspects of modern and past religious activity to disabuse them of the belief that religion = niceness.

I did make several obligatory walks around the ship’s deck area. This was something of a daunting activity. The container areas are always wet, greasy and slippery, so one must maintain situational awareness. There were also a sizeable number of cold storage containers with internal refrigeration units, which were extremely noisy. I went to the bow, looked over the edge, climbed the ship’s lookout mast, and did the usually required things. To put personal safety matters into perspective, if I were to slide over the deck into the ocean, something which would not be impossible, two or even three meals may go past before the Captain would wonder where that Australian dork, who asked all those silly questions, was. Then he would have to decide if filling out the forms, and turning the ship around to look for me was worth the effort: “No, sorry, he must have gotten off the ship before we sailed. Never saw him”.

Playing table tennis
There are few diversions on a freighter, the crew spend most of their time working, and when not working they are usually eating or resting. One surprising find on the Storm was the existence of a table tennis table. Needless to say I decided to play the game. One of the Philippino messmen offered to be my opponent. We played several games during our trip, and at no time did we waste our time keeping score. For us simply keeping the ball in the air, on the table, and off the floor was triumph enough.

The game of table tennis is an easy one, however, when played on a shifting ship, an added dimension of difficulty emerges. The ship, even in relatively calm seas, moves through the three dimensions in a semi-regular roll, already described. This requires that: the players must keep their balance and not fall, while simultaneously trying to keep track of the ball as it curves through the air, this while the ball (from the perspective of the observer, me) describes a strange, non-intuitive arc. It makes for an interesting game.

During the big storm my opponent and I played a short game. Short, because with the ship rolling as it was, the game was very very very difficult. I found the tasks of watching the ball and keeping myself on my feet nearly impossible. One felt oneself to be in the middle of a Dali masterpiece.

The diet on the Storm was good, but not overly inspired. No one would ever starve, but boredom would be a constant threat. A typical lunch or dinner would begin with soup and finish with a main course, usually meat with a few vegetables. Every second day there was a desert: ice cream or cake. The food was fresh for the first few days, after that frozen. Again, the crew were a little surprised that I did not eat meat but were happy to oblige my perceived eccentricity.

The Engine Room
I had a tour of the ship’s engine room. This was an impressive piece of kit. Great big pistons pumping, thrusting the ship through the water. Very cool. The Storm is a 7 cylinder, diesel powered ship, each cylinder is 80cms across. Unlike the Esprit the Storm’s engine room is near spotlessly clean. My tour was hampered by the chief engineer’s lack of English, so it was not as illuminating as it could have been, but still fun.

The trip itself
From Fremantle to Java the ship sailed a near straight, and direct route. Lots of wide open sea and no other ships in view. However, all that changed when we reached the waters between Sumatra and Java. Here, there were many other ships: freighters, tankers, small fishing ships, and even oil drilling platforms. From the bridge the radar screen was filled with slowly moving dots and shapes. When we reached this area the Captain was called to the Bridge to oversee out route, and order the appropriate twists and turns. There was little real danger, everyone knew what to do, however, certainly exciting! Between Java and Singapore the seas were always filled with ships, sometimes more, sometimes less.

The few hours we spent passing Singapore on our way to Port Klang were also interesting. This took place on the evening of Saturday the 17th. Needless to say Singapore waters are a crowded, and a complex area. As seen on the nautical charts the allotted path for big ships outside Singapore is an almost zigzag route, which is itself criss-crossed with ferry routes, marker buoys, and areas to avoid. Three people were on duty that evening: the Captain, a watch officer, and a lookout. At any one time there were three, four or five ships in our near vicinity, with many more on radar. While we were keeping an eye on these ships reports came over the radio, including a report that a tanker was in some difficulty due to an oil spill (a negative containment situation—which I assumed meant a leak), and all ships to bypass by at least 500 metres! We avoided all these potential problems, and I headed to bed early to be ready for our arrival in Port Klang the next morning.

Port Klang is the port of the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The port is well situated, it lies behind three islands which provide a narrow passage for vessels and shelter the harbour from the elements. Our arrival at the harbour was scheduled for 07.30 on the morning of the 18th, however, not all goes as it is planned at sea. When we arrived at the entrance to the harbour we found many ships queued, waiting to dock, a queue we were told to join. The Captain was not overly happy at this news. We did not dock until 14.00.

Even though Port Klang is just a (big) harbour and associated (small) town I decided to go ashore and have a look around, and see what I could see. However, it was both Sunday, and Chinese New Year, so it was very quite. There was only one shopping mall open, Tesco!, so, after six days of Nescafe, I did have the opportunity to enjoy a flat white coffee. I also had myself driven around the port and the town of Klang. A mix of old and new. I was optimistically hoping for lots of fireworks that night but my driver told me that firecrackers were now deemed too dangerous for public use in Malaysia, and were thusly banned. Tedious burecrats everywhere. Drat!!

We left Klang on Monday morning and, after an uneventful trip, arrived in Singapore harbour that evening. Needless to say Singapore is a busy port. Docking the ship was a tricky job. Let me add here that the steerage inside the harbour area is directed by a harbour ‘pilot’. A person knowledgeable in ship’s navigation, and experienced with the harbour’s conditions. On outgoing ships a pilot boards, directs, and is then picked up by a fast boat. For incoming ships the pilot is carried to the ship, hops on board, and then directs the ship to its dock. I did watch one pilot climb off the Storm, it was a tricky operation.

I spent a total of eight days at sea. First, from Fremantle to Port Klang, Monday evening to Sunday afternoon, then from Port Klang to Singapore, Monday morning to Monday evening. All in all I found this cruise to be very interesting, restful and fun. The storm was a challenging experience, the crew’s company informative, and the voyage much fun. I would recommend such a trip to all (but perhaps not if one is prone to motion sickness).

No comments: