Day 0

2 September, 2003

While being checked out by my landlord (JeJe Barons, highly recommended, if you don't mind the fact that the women who work there are too beautiful to even think of negotiating with), and receiving the return of my deposit, my pal and near neighbor Andy picked me up at my Kingston upon Thames digs. He, most gallantly considering the state of his back, whisked my copious baggage down the stairs (as I was still conducting business with the landlord) and off to Felixstowe we headed. The ship was to be about eight hours late (no reason given, but I learned later was caused by its having to wait for a berth in Rotterdam) so it was expected to arrive around three pm. The agent kindly suggested boarding then so as to save myself a nights hotel cost.

A lovely drive around south London on the M25 (we joined at Leatherhead, the name of which made me always imagine a tough community, I was wrong, very genteel), a corner of Kent and then off through Essex on the A12 and into the county of Suffolk. In an hour and a half, around noon, we pulled into the quaint old Victorian seaside (English Channel) town of Felixstowe.

Thinking I might get to see “my ship come in”, I kept an eye on the busy entrance channel (missed it, darn... again) which parades right in front of the pebbly beach and palisades, the port being outside of town by a few miles. We examined the almost deserted amusement arcades on a small pier. We walked a bit around the streets, busy with old age pensioners still on a cheap holiday (I imagine), and families doing back to school shopping. I took advantage of a last chance to access my British bank. The choices of restaurants did not look very promising, and there were long queues at the ones that did look interesting. We settled on a pub, where some very mediocre although plentifully piled plates (that ol’ American trick) were delivered almost an hour after we ordered! It was after two, so off to the port.

Although the port of Harwich (pronounced Hair-itch) has existed for centuries, with cross channel ferries and coastal shipping being it’s mainstay for the last century, it’s only with the rise of containerized shipping in the sixties, that Felixstowe (just across the harbor at the mouth of the Orwell river, from which a certain writer took his pseudonym) has become one of the premiere cargo ports of the UK. Some chamber of commerce wisenheimer sort must have come up with the scheme, and boy did it work! They dredged out the river entrance, including a long navigation channel out into the deepness of the English Channel making it accessible to these modern behemoths (a constantly ongoing project, the dredging). So now, along one long side of the river, there can be docked up to six of the giants and many other smaller sorts.

Each ship is covered by enormous crane machines, More giant bugs then spiders, they pluck containers off the back of trucks lined up six abreast in number lanes, and plunk them right down in a jig saw pile on the ship, and vice a versa. Once plucked or plonked, the trucks roar right off to be replaced instantly They do this at a rate of one a minute, maybe five cranes per ship, thirty ton containers flying through the air in all directions. Behind this front line is hundreds of acres of support area, yards of piled containers with their own smaller cranes racing around to make sure the right container ends up on the right, train, ship or truck and said trucks and trains with all the people associated.

All of this plucking and plonking is directed by a department known as “logistics”. It is their job to keep track of and direct all movements of the containers. From mysterious offices, these computers and their attendants play this big organizational game, what is the most efficient way to move this from here to there, taking into account the efficiency of everything else going from someplace to someplace. The Penang Senator is one of nine identical ships each carrying 4600 containers stacked in holds in rows of twelve across and eight high, on hatch tops covering the holds in rows of thirteen across by five high, including the possibility of three hundred refrigerated containers in specific locations. There are twelve ports to be visited, each with storage, railroad, trucking, refrigerated capacities of their own. Another fleet of smaller “feeder” ships who travel from these ports to many others. A lot to think about! The results of their work is issued as marching orders to the stevedores, who post a finished map when they are done loading a ship, on a wall by the ship’s office. These include the locations of dangerous cargo and the nature of their danger. Those aboard the ship only watch to make sure all is allright as to the business of sailing the ship, and that the ship itself and all it’s components are as should be. This includes interfacing with the stevedores as to what should go where to keep a proper balance for the ship.

This is a massive bit of industrial work involving many men and large and powerful machines. The overriding philosophy of this entire business is that ol’ saw “time is money”, and I have heard it from the mouths of several different people, in several different forms of broken english in the twenty four hours I have been aboard. The trend here, as in most industries, is to automation. Rotterdam, one of the largest ports in the world is supposed to be very automated.

An incredible websight of photos of Rotterdam's automated cranes and otherwise

Entering this industrial maelstrom from the inland side is intimidating, giant trucks and machines everywhere, Andy took me to the agents, with my copious luggage. The agent informed us that the ship was just then pulling up alongside and that I should wait by their car . Andy headed back to dear old Kingston, (a good friend who made this years stay in Kingston much easier). After about twenty minutes, a tiny Mickey Rooney, Richard Attenbourough type fellow appeared. I piled my stuff into the car, and we set off, but I found his accent (maybe the local accent) very hard to understand. He weaved in and out of all the activity, blithely ignoring stop signs and such, pulling up besides the ship, looming like an aircraft carrier over the dock. And this is where I made my first blunder.

I did not understand exactly, his instructions, which were (I have since decided) “let’s go up and meet the captain and then he will send some people down to help with the baggage”. This is because to enter the ship, one must go up about a three story aluminum ladder ramp, which is very thin and insubstantial feeling, with little rope side rails, and then it is six more stories up stairs to my room. In anycase, I grabbed my heaviest bag, wishing to appear game, and headed up the spindly stepped ramp. I was doing fine until I got to a joint between two sections of the ramp where a couple of suspension ropes caught my large appendage and I became somewhat engaged. At this point, one of the Kiribase crew, in blue boilersuit and bright orange hard-hat (later on discovered to be the bosun), seeing my trouble, came to my rescue with a big friendly grin, and Mickey Rooney disappeared into the ship. I promptly went back down to pick up a couple smaller and lighter pieces (guitar and computer backpack) which I navigated to the main deck. There an officer, or someone in a bright orange boiler suit, pointed me at a stair case and insinuated I should go up to see the captain. I went up the stairs, and kept going up the stairs, six floors on the outside of the superstructure, towards the bridge, but all the doors were locked (as they are in port to prevent thievery), but the officer hadn’t told me I had to go around a corner after the first flight and enter the ship where the ship’s office is. After ten minutes of wandering up and down stairs carrying guitar and computer bag, I finally fall into the office, a sweaty wreck, and three very officious Germanic officers look up with expressions between bemused and disgusted.

Not a good first impression. The Captain makes an almost scary joke about my having to pay for an extra room for all the luggage he has just seen go up (har-har) and then gives up on me (time in port is extremely occupied for the officers) and tells me where my room is and that I should go there. Oh yeah, and you have to take the German elevator, it has stairs (har-har).

Two stewards and the bosun were finishing dropping my baggage in the state room (so big the luggage disappears in it) when I arrived, they seemed nice and friendly. I was told dinner was in the officers mess at 17:30. I got to unpacking and exploring my lovely new home. At 17:00 I was about to clean up for dinner, when there is a knock on the door, the steward, to show me to dinner as it was almost over and the captain was a little miffed again. Apparently ship time follows a logic of its own (it turns out to be the Captain’s logic, he doesn’t like to bother changing the clock for England) as I saw the clock in the mess, one hour ahead of my English time. And speaking of mess, I was a big sweaty mess, being introduced to my dining partners for the next five weeks, the Germans seemed a little put off, but after several days I would learn that meals were mostly silent affairs. I was seated at the table by the window, with the lowest officer and the apprentice, both of which seemed put out being stuck with me (once again, it was just their natural state).

A plate of short ribs, cabbage and boiled potatoes, but not bad. The captain points out some colored water on a counter that I should help myself to, he joked, “German wine” (I was beginning to get his humor), I picked up a glass, it looked kind of like cool-aid or something, but I got a bit worried and asked the captain that, as I was very “allergic” to alcohol, was there any alcohol in this “German” wine? He assured me there wasn’t (it was like cool-aid and is the general drink in different colors at, almost, all meals) and asked if I drank at all. When I assured him I didn’t he seemed relieved like, “thank god, he may be crazy but he isn’t a drunk as well”.

I retired to my room, took a bit of an exploratory tour of the upper outside decks, using my new binoculars to examine the endless train of vessels of different sizes, entering this otherwise lovely harbor, set about by ancient English countryside and towns. I also got to watch the never ceasing furious loading and unloading process closer up.

The steward (Mr. Reebo) brought my nice bowl of fruit, but as the “slop chest” would not be open until we are at sea (Tuesdays and Fridays at 1800) I had nothing in my drinks cabinet with much good crystal, to drink except tap water. That will do, and today, my steward brought some juice. Friday I will get mineral water. With crashing containers going on full speed outside of my window, I go to sleep and sleep very fitfully, afraid of being late to breakfast.