Freighter Trip, Part 2: Dodging Icebergs

Sunrise on a container ship off the coast of Japan. Pete Martin photos.
Sunrise on a container ship off the coast of Japan. Pete Martin photos.

My Journey Crossing the Pacific Ocean by Container Ship, Part 2.

Pete Martin set off on a long journey on a container ship out of Busan, South Korea.  Part one was about his departing and the setting of the ship. READ PART ONE. Here is his second installment, well into the months-long journey.

Preparation onboard: Donning a safety suit.
Preparation onboard: Donning a safety suit.

By Pete Martin

I sleep so well that I feel great when my alarm goes off at half-past six. The cabin is pitch-black as the Steward had instructed me to close my blinds at night to prevent any light shining out on the containers. I open the blinds and I am in awe of the sunrise over the vast empty ocean.

Breakfast time is between seven and eight o’clock but the Steward advised me to be there at seven o’clock and so I am. Of course, again, I am the only one there. None of the Filipinos are up yet, never mind the French. It is a simple breakfast of French bread, strawberry jam, orange juice, and coffee.

International Date Line

At nine o’clock I meet the Safety Officer in the Ship’s Office to go through the safety procedures onboard, including a demonstration on how to put on the evacuation suit in an emergency. At the end of the brief, the Captain arrives to inform those in the office of the plans to work the time zone changes and the crossing of the International Date Line. I am fascinated by this. The plan is to have two Saturdays.

To my amazement, and with beautiful symmetry, Saturday will be Day 40 of my trip; so I will have two days which are exactly halfway through my circumnavigation of the world. On all the other days we will lose an hour; each day four o’clock in the afternoon will become five o’clock. The crew is laughing as they wanted the extra day to fall on Sunday as they work light shifts on a Sunday.

The Safety Officer says he prefers crossing the Pacific Ocean in the other direction as they lose a complete working day. I think back to reading about Phileas Fogg as I traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway earlier on this trip, who without suspecting it gained one day on his journey merely because he had traveled constantly eastward and so, to his surprise, had won his bet to make it around the world in eighty days.

The Day Disappears

Like on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the day pleasantly disappears, including losing an hour for the time zone adjustment, and soon it is time for dinner. On my way to dinner, I am surprised when I look out my window to find that the beautiful day has turned to pouring rain.

It is another fabulous meal, this time of egg salad and then roasted pork with nutmeg mashed potatoes. I take some cheese to my cabin for later. No wonder the Captain has a little timber with this cook as one of his crew.

Inside the ship's Navigation room.
Inside the ship’s Navigation room.

Before retiring to my room, I visit the Bridge for the final time today. I’m surprised that it is kept dark. I can hardly see anything until my eyes are accustomed to it. The Safety Officer is there and I make my way carefully to him. He tells me the lights would shine on the containers and cause problems for visibility, particularly now with the mist caused by the rain. He shows me where we are on the charts. We should be in the Tsugaru Straits on schedule, sometime between six o’clock and nine o’clock tomorrow morning.

Back on the Bridge

Ship stairwell.
Ship stairwell.

I’m back on the Bridge just after half past six. The ship has already entered the Tsuguru Straits in the Sea of Japan. I can see Honshu starboard side and Hokkaido port side, both have their snowy mountains clearly visible.

Above the Shimokita Peninsula, off in the distance, the early morning sun is trying to rise but is being blocked by a large cloud creating a stream of orange streaks in the light-blue sky. A sliver of the sun can be seen between mountain and cloud. The rain of yesterday evening has gone.

The Captain is on the Bridge and in a good mood. He tells me that we are passing over one of the longest tunnels in the world, deep beneath the sea. He says, in his French-accented English, “Even bigger than the Channel Tunnel!” In fact, Seiken Tunnel is both the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world.

While it is the longest underwater tunnel in its entirety, the Channel Tunnel actually has a larger undersea length. The Shinkansen is due to use the tunnel and two stations have been built that serve as emergency escape points and are the first railway stations in the world to be built under the sea.

Nothing But Ocean

Some of the 8749 containers aboard the ship.
Some of the 8749 containers aboard the ship.

The Captain tells me that after the Tsuguru Straits we will have nothing but ocean for five days and the weather will be calm but colder, but after this, it is likely to get rougher with much higher waves particularly as we get near to Alaska. At half-past eight we pass the snowy peak of Mount Esan on Hokkaido and we leave the Sea of Japan for the North Pacific Ocean.

With the mountains of Japan now behind us, except for the odd glimpse of Hokkaido, if the visibility remains this good, this will be the only sight of land for a while.

Before dinner, I wander to the Administration Office to send an email back home via satellite. Just as I finish the Cadet comes in and as we chat the Captain bursts out of his office, calls to the Cadet in a flurry of French and runs up the stairs to the Bridge.

I have no idea what’s going on and I don’t want to get in the way so I head back to my cabin. A few minutes later the Cadet calls my cabin to tell me to come to the Bridge.

Iceberg Alert!

Upstairs the Captain points out a couple of massive blocks of ice on the ocean surface. On the port side horizon, between the sea and sky, there is a thick white line of ice. The crew on lookout have discovered it through their binoculars, despite there being no warning from the weather forecast or from the radar.

The Safety Officer and the Cadet notice a ship about ten nautical miles ahead of us that is clearly changing its course, turning starboard away from the danger. That vessel, nor ours, is designed to break through the thick ice and the depth of the ice is not known.

It’s the beginning of dusk outside, just getting dark, and the Captain shows me the trajectory of our wake in the sunset behind us, indicating the curved change in our course that we have also taken away from the iceberg.

The Bridge is busy. The Captain is clearly in charge but allows all the officers and I to take photographs of the iceberg. Most of the crew have never experienced this either. Even the Chief Engineer is on the Bridge taking photographs of the ice.

As it gets darker most of the crew leave the Captain, Safety Officer and the lookouts and head for dinner. I do the same. The initial euphoria of the unusual situation has passed and the crew is comfortable in their trust for their Captain.

Feeling Great

Aboard the ship off the coast of Japan.
Aboard the ship off the coast of Japan.

Back in my cabin, full of excellent food, I just feel great. Life is simple and, although I will strive for more, I do not need any more. I have never felt so calm in all my life. What did the cook put in the soup? I think back to the Indian Ayurveda retreat and how awful I felt in that first week. Here I feel alive. WTF! I am in the North Pacific Ocean dodging icebergs.

I have slept so well again that I find it difficult to wake up in time for breakfast. I open the blinds to another amazing sunrise and no sign of ice. After breakfast, I go to my favorite place – the Bridge.

Only the Safety Officer is there this morning. It’s beautiful outside again, the blue ocean oscillating in every direction. The Safety Officer shows me the map with our change of course from yesterday evening. From half past six until midnight, the Captain steered the ship southwards away from the ice. Now away from danger, we’re heading back toward our original route.

The Safety Officer was excited too by the events of yesterday evening. He tells me that the Bosun was stationed at the front of the vessel for most of the night, in the cold, checking for ice through his binoculars.

Mout Esan, on Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan.
Mout Esan, on Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan.

The Safety Officer has been doing his job for four years and is another example of someone who loves what he does. As with the Captain and the other members of the crew, he is happy to answer all the daft questions I have about their maritime lives. Like most of the senior French crew, he works two months at sea and then two months at home.

One thing he doesn’t like is flying between his home and the embarkation points. He started this trip in Singapore and will finish in New York. Nor does he like the effects of the time differences on his sleep and he would like to choose his routes rather than be given them by the shipping company. He tells me how much he likes this vessel because of the Captain and, more importantly, the Cook.

He says both the Captain and the Cook are the best he’s worked with.

He points out to the cargo and he is also happy with the load. We have just less than five thousand containers on board. The capacity is eight and a half thousand; 8,469 to be precise.

The containers are known as ‘TEUS’; twenty-foot equivalent units. The double-length container (the forty foot container), or two ‘TEUS’, are the widely used containers in front and behind me on the ship and that are commonly seen on big trucks.

The Safety Officer describes one voyage from Europe to China that was almost empty and then on the return it was completely full, so much so that it was hard to see the quayside when docking and visibility were difficult with the height of the cargo.

At today’s breakfast I let the Steward know that I will begin to skip lunches, otherwise I’ll arrive in Seattle much heavier. Having enjoyed the food so much, my body now craves sleep, so I get another couple of hours of sleep after breakfast.

The ship's route from Busan Korea to Seattle Washington.
The ship’s route from Busan Korea to Seattle Washington.

By midday, the sun has won its battle with the clouds and shines brightly. Through my cabin window, I can see the rays glittering on the ocean. It’s my fifth day on board and the sight of the sun on the ocean still lifts my spirits.

The day just disappears again. Every now and again twenty minutes will drag out while I decide what to do but with a walk outside for some air, some stretching or a coffee I’m happy with my writing, reading, meditations, music, and DVDs. I’m not sure how long I could do this for but at the moment I have settled well and I’m enjoying life without any stresses. My only fixed appointments are breakfast and dinner, neatly arranged at seven o’clock in the morning and seven o’clock in the evening.

Relaxing in the evening, I think how I’m now used to being offline and out of touch with the rest of the world. Of course, I miss contacting my wife and not having the Liverpool FC football scores (but the latter has an upside of taking away one of life’s stresses). The lack of contact really adds to the solitude and sense of being completely away from it all.

© 2017 Pete Martin.

Pete Martin

Author. Journalist. Coach. Pete Martin is an author of transformational journeys. His recent book is called “Revolutions: Wandering and wondering on a sabbatical year”. For anyone stuck in a rut, this is a compelling tale to deal with change and to follow your dreams. More information is available at www.petemartin.org where Chapter One of the book is available for free.

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