Please note this is a multi-page post recording a 14 day sea voyage. I was the only passenger on CC Coral, a container ship travelling between Taiwan and New Zealand, in November 2019. It was an alternative to flying. But was it any more sustainable?
If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here is a menu to help you find your way: http://www.ourrelationshipwithnature.com/overview-overland-uk-2-nz-without-flying-eleven-stages-in-fifty-days/
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
Friday 8th November night into Saturday morning – The Port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
First night at sea. Mr Wang, my driver, had been a shipping agent for 25 years. He couldn’t understand why this giant of a company, CMA CGM, wanted to take passengers. Why? Other freight companies did not bother.
Well, Monsieur Wang, I was glad they did for they offered exactly what I wanted; a no-fuss way to travel without flying. I also felt comfortable that CMA CGM wore their environmental aspirations on their website. Mr Wang swooped the car around the grand driveway of the Excalibur hotel, lined with a small city’s worth of sparkly blue and white lights, and parked. We were there to pick up the new ship’s reever-electrician. (Whatever a reever is – it’s super important – I’ll find out later.)
The contrast between the chaos, clamour and steamy sizzle of my hotel’s not-foyer in the heart of the Kaohsiung inner-city night-market and this hotel-castle could not have been more marked. Romanian electrician Gabriel had been working on passenger ships for 15 years. This was his first container ship. Mr Wang hazarded he’d be joining a crew of about twenty-two. The company paid for his hotel.
We visited a small Immigration building where Gabriel and I watched a particularly silly and violent boxing film while forms were filled in and checked. Mr Wang kept our passports and we drove to the port security guard. She carefully examined our documents, and then us, looking us over from top to toe before waving us through.
As we entered the port Agent Wang was unimpressed with what he thought excess security. Ever since 9/11 taxis and unauthorised vehicles couldn’t get to the gangways. It was only possible to get shore leave through agents. (Although I found this differed port by port.)
Mr Wang drove us through a city of stacked containers. (Do you remember series two of The Wire? The container port?) The darkened containers towered above us as far as the eye could see. The roadway was busy in all directions with trucks appearing laden with different coloured boxes like giant Lego pieces.
There was a sudden brake as he came to an intersection with a truck driver bearing down, his truck lights illuminating where we were to go; the reveal of CC Coral, the immense side of her, and the two long-legged, monumental, roll-on-roll-off cranes that fed her.
The immensity was stunning. The overhead lights blared spotlight-yellow and others, super white-bright, and these giants had moving mouth-parts, swinging on cables like titan marionettes. They bit on to a container, (or two side-by-side) whisked the boxes up into the air, and swung them over and into the body of the ship. Limit 55 tones.
Lines of trucks bearing their containers, like ants carrying block-eggs, queued for their moment under the mechanical grabber when their load would be lightened. Then they would exit, their place taken straight away by the next pregnant truck. Clearly a pre-programmed sorting system existed, the times of arrival for each truck prearranged, for the containers would be packed with the soonest to be taken off at the top of the heap and all those balanced to keep the ship in trim.
Mr Wang swung his car cautiously around the cranes, not keen about driving so close to them, but he had to get right up to the gangway. We parked and retrieved our baggage. The side of the ship was tall. Gabriel did not hesitate so I followed, just ploughed right on, up those stairs. I was also holding my bag of emergency vegan snacks so I didn’t have two hands. Next time, I would take two hands. The handrail was grubby and greasy. It was steep. Luckily, I had been resting in the hotel. I needed all my puff to get up there with the required nonchalance.
The Coral was 280 metres long. She was being loaded with up to 30,000 tons of cargo. Agent Wang said they made most revenue from the refrigerated containers. He followed me up the gangway.
Third Officer, Myo Han Oo, wearing hard hat and heavy-duty overalls, nodded us into the office. Agent Wang introduced us to Captain Alessandru and Chief Officer Tudorel. There was some jostling around paper-work – which I’d forgotten I had – but in the end I handed over medical certificate, statement of responsibility, immunisation card, passport; all those precious documents collected months before. The Captain kept everything, even my passport. He wasn’t going anywhere. Neither was I. ‘Thank you’ in Romanian was ‘multumesc’ which sounds like ‘multimesk’.
The obliging Messman (they called him Messy but his name was Win Myint Thein from Myanmar) came to carry my bag and we went up in a tiny little lift, checked the Officers Mess where I’d be taking meals, and found my cabin. Furnished in aqua, reminiscent of my Phoenix House digs in Brighton, the cabin featured a bed, desk, drawers, ensuite and a window looking out on a heap of containers. And a picture of a naked lady, maybe by Klimt?
Win showed me how I could go on the side deck outside but explained if I went up or down I’d need to wear the hardhat hanging on the wall. He reassured me I’d be safe enough just to stand and watch the loading. After he left I did a spot of unpacking, made myself at home, and went back out to my wing deck to watch the containers fly through the air like extremely ungainly, inflexible trapeze artists.
The brightly lit people in safety gear doing serious, dangerous work, waved containers onward and signalled successful docking. The spreader (or in my mind; grabber) could reconfigure to fit the size of container. If there were two smaller (twenty-footers) loading on from the same truck, the grabber expanded to pick both up at the same time. And, if a normal container (forty-footer), the mechanism extended to the full width of the crane.
There were people working up in the cranes. I didn’t spot them until one climbed down from somewhere, walked across the lower level to chat with someone else in a little cupboard perched midsection of the crane structure and then caught a lift to ground level before walking over to the closer crane. A goodly distance.
The stack of building that sat in the rear third of the Coral was seven floors tall and more spacious than I’d guessed when observing similar ships in other harbours (see Harwich, Rotterdam, Hamburg … ). Obviously the Bridge, or Master’s Station, was at the top. The Captain’s rooms and archiving were on floor F. Then there were people like me, the Only Passenger and the Chief Officer, Chief Engineer and the Second Engineer on E.
These men were all relatively senior, and I might add, from Romania. Most of the other officers were younger and from Myanmar. This was a dual nationality ship, reflected in the Officer’s Mess. There were two tables, one for Romania and one for Myanamar. And a little circular island off towards the kitchen representing UK, Australia and New Zealand with Passenger Number Only One. My floor also had a rec room for coffee, tea and videos (a rather odd collection of action/sci fi movies and Mama Mia.) And a mini-laundry.
Back in the cabin, I skimmed through the folder of safety documents. There was a lot of hazchem, fuel and gas on board. Any number of things might go wrong. Soya beans in their little containers could build up methane. I had an extinguisher right outside my cabin. There was a life-boat just below my eyeline, a life-raft somewhere else and an immersion suit …
I sincerely hoped I only saw those things in drills. Donning was not something I wished to explore.
Tao 36 said, TO CONCLUDE FIRST INITIATE. I could not stay awake to watch us depart Kaohsiung at 4am but we definitely initiated.
It was not dissimilar to my first night on the train from Moscow. Solitary. I cleaned my teeth using one of the large bottles of filtered water Win had supplied for me. The bed was clean and comfortable. I slept almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Day one at sea. I woke for breakfast at 7am. The first thing I noticed was the pitching of the ship. There was a hefty swell. We rocked and rolled, baby. Managed a normal breakfast. More bottled water.
When quizzed, the First Engineer, Alin, hadn’t heard a weather report. But he did tell me that a nautical mile equalled 1,852 metres and knots were the measurement of speed in nautical miles. He explained the Coral burnt heavy fuel oil which was expensive and dirty. She did not have scrubbers on her chimney stacks so emission levels were high. Whilst in port she burnt relatively clean diesel. Both types of fuel were fed into the engine via different channels. When one was required, the other was simply turned off. There was one engine to drive the propeller. The propeller was 5 metres wide. Three other engines created power to run electricity, air conditioning and the reevers. Still not sure about those reevers.
Went out for a widow’s walk outside my cabin and saw a rainbow fluttering beside the ship. It was formed; appearing, disappearing and reappearing in the same place, by the spray tossed up from the prow of the ship. The pot of gold was right there.
The Coral pitched and rolled.
I saw a bird. Maybe a gannet?
I read ‘City of Girls’, a jolly and compassionate romp by Elizabeth Gilbert. More sleep.
Tao 37 said, ‘No desire is serenity, and the world settles of itself.’ (I was looking forward to that.)