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Our Freighter Trip from Singapore to America

So, you've finally done it, crossed an ocean or two in your trawler; what an accomplishment! Now you're thousands of miles from home and you really need to get back there to brag about what you've accomplished, take care of business,and to renew ties with family and friends. Sure, you could hop on a plane and be there in no time at all...yawn. Or, you could do something different, something befitting your lifestyle.

After cruising Asia we decided to spend the summer back home; it had been three years since we’d been back. Always looking for something different, we decided to travel as passengers aboard a cargo ship. We Googled “freighter travel” and were amazed at the plethora of possibilities. After lots of Internet searching and emailing travel agents, we settled on an agent who was made the choice of ship, route and voyage particulars an easy matter. Who knew that such agents even existed. From several ships, we chose the PORTLAND SENATOR, a large container ship travelling between Singapore and Long Beach California.
 
Getting AKAMA, our Kadey Krogen Whaleback, ready to be left behind was easy. We hired a boat boy to clean her once a week, arranged for a responsible couple of yachties to oversee the boat boy and look in on her regularly. Flushing her salt water systems and closing the seacocks was easier than we thought. A diver checked the zincs and replaced a few...no problem there. All electrical systems except the bilge pumps and the dehumidifier were switched off. The whole thing took less than a day.
 
Our first challenge was getting to the ship. First, we had to get from the marina in Malaysia to the ship in Singapore. We arrived in Singapore by passenger ferry, expecting to take a taxi to the ship. While that may have once been possible, new security procedures now make that impossible, our taxi from the ferry terminal was not allowed to enter the port, and we had to stop at the port security office for temporary passes. Travel to the port was by a mini-bus provided by the ship’s agent. The charge for the short bus ride from the port office to the ship was $45, nearly twice what we paid the cab to travel nearly half way across Singapore. This was the only rip-off we experienced during the entire trip.
Here are the particulars concerning the ship:
  • Name: MV PORTLAND SENATOR
  • Call sign: DQVM
  • Port of Registry: Rostock, Germany
  • Class: Panamax Containership GL +100 A5 +MC AUT 1W
  • LOA: 294.13m (964’ 11.4”)
  • Beam: 32.2 m (105’ 7.7”)
  • Draught: 13m (42’ 7.8”)
  • Air draught: 35m (114’ 9.7”)
  • Deadweight: 63,645 TO
  • Displacement: 82,496 TO
  • BRT: 53324 TO
  • NRT: 30816 TO
  • Capacity: 4545 TEU (20’ containers)
  • Service Speed: 23.7 Kts
  • Fuel: 6170 cbm (6,170,000 litres)
  • Diesel: 349 cbm
  • Fresh Water: 312 cbm
  • Ballast water 18,125 cbm
  • Engines:
    • Main: MAN 9 K90 MC-C 41,040 KW (55,800 HP)
    • Aux: 2x 1650 KW, 1x1470 KW
    • Emergency: 1x 330KW Mercedes Benz
    • Bowthruster: 1800 KW (2448 HP)
That’s all rather clinical. To put this into perspective:
  • The main engine power is roughly the equivalent of about 560, 1.6-litre cars running flat out.
  • If all 4545 containers were stacked, the stack would be 12.5 km (7.75 miles) high. If they were placed end to end, they would span 27.7 km (17.48 miles).
  • The ship’s generators provide sufficient power to serve a city with a population of about 160,000.
  • If placed on the ground, the ship would be as tall as a 19-story building, about six metres (yards) lower than the Eiffel Tower.
  • When running at full speed, the ship moves only 3.2 metres per litre (a yard per quart) of fuel; it takes over 90 litres (23 gallons) just to move the ship its own length.
  • The sail area of the hull and containers, 7200 square metres (8611 sq. yards), is 29% greater than the sail area of the biggest sailing ship in the world, the S/S Preussen.
  • The rudder has an area of 80 square metres (96 sq. yards), about the same area as a small 3-bedroom bungalow, and it weighs 60 tons.
  • A single cargo hatch weighs 28 tons.
  • The propeller is about as high as a two story house, 7.4 metres (24.28 feet) in diameter.
We were warmly welcomed by the Second Officer, who took our passports and health certificates, adding them to the strongbox containing those of all others on the boat. He then served ice cream, while we waited for our room to be cleaned, as we declined the offer of a full meal. Tominika, the officer’s steward and ours, fetched our bags and took us to our cabin. Our Cabin, Number four on E-deck, was the only one with a double bed the others have twin singles. All cabins have a large sitting room with an entertainment centre, ample bedroom and a private head. We even had our own refrigerator and drinks cabinet. The view from our cabin was good, as we had windows to starboard and aft. From the lounge we could see forward. One morning LA spotted dolphins jumping alongside the ship. We also see lots of flying fish, mostly fleeing from our path.

The Third Officer paid a visit to our room and ran us through security measures on the ship. Just before dinner the master, Capt. Heinz Krueger, arrived at our room with a vase of orchids. With service like this who needs a cruise liner! Like most ships, this one has an “international crew”. The Master and most of the engineers are German. The Chief Officer (First Mate) is Russian. The cook is from the Philippines, as are about half the crew. The rest of the crew, including our steward, is Kiribati. The master and the other officers, with whom we have the most contact, were laid back and very nice. The ship departed Singapore about 21:30, just as we were retiring for the night. We slept, lulled by the faint drone of the ship’s main engine, and smooth passage over glassy seas.

One of the first things we did was to explore the ship; we went everywhere we could except for the unauthorized areas such as the engine room and the bridge. Cargo ships are not what we thought, oily, rusty and Spartan. This one, even though it is eleven years old, is clean, neat and well equipped. There is a small indoor pool, an exercise machine, a sauna, a ping pong table, and an officer’s lounge, in addition to separate facilities for the crew. The ship has about sixty movies on DVD and even more on VCR tapes in the officers’ lounge, which is equipped with every form of video player, and a large TV set.

Satisfied that we knew where to find everything, our next mission was to ensure that our movies and music sould play on the entertainment system in our cabin and to patch in our computer. In no time, we were able to listen to our own music, and watch our movies and photos. Roughing it? Ya, right! Less successful was our shortwave receiver. Even with a wire antenna stuck out the window and tied to a railing we were unable to receive much. The Captain remarked that he noticed the same thing and chalked it up to a combination of propagation conditions and the constant cutting back of the international broadcasters in recent years.

One unusual thing we did was to set up the ECDIS (electronic chart display), on our computer. This is a spare one from AKAMA, which we’d brought to keep tabs on the ship’s progress. Although the ship is steel, by putting the GPS antenna near a window we get position information from the satellites. It was really handy. The Master gave us the ship’s route, which we input into the computer. One day we noticed on our ECDIS that the ship had not made a planned turn towards Korea; we had continued straight for over forty miles. Maurice went up to the bridge to find out what was happening. It turned out that due to a truckers’ strike in Korea there was no point in stopping in Pusan. So, we are now going straight to Osaka, Japan. Another time, the ship had stopped; but it was hard to tell, because it runs so smoothly. Our first reaction was that our ECDIS had failed. In fact, we were so far ahead of schedule that the captain decided to lay a-hull for a while.

Monday we took a tour of the cargo deck. It was fascinating to see all the containers and how the first row or two are affixed to the ship with straps and turn-buckles.  The containers above these have pin-like devices that lock into the container below them, to keep them from sliding off.  If the ship rolls more than 45-degrees they can fall overboard…a sobering thought. The ship’s equipment is equally fascinating. Although all the equipment on board is conceptually the same as on AKAMA, everything is absolutely massive.

The Master gave us permission to go to the bridge whenever we wish, a rare privilege. From what we’ve read, on most ships this is usually off limits except on specific invitation. We took up the offer and spent a good part of one morning watching the passing ships and familiarising ourselves with the navigation systems. There is more of everything than there is on AKAMA and most of it is bigger and better.  Yet, after a time we were quite at home. With a little practice we think we could navigate the ship. On one occasion the Captain called us to the bridge and proceeded to give us complete instructions on how to steer the ship, engage the autopilot and so on. We seem to have been singled out for this, perhaps because he is well aware of our experience at sea aboard our own vessel.

Our first Tuesday afternoon at sea was taken up by the first of three major safety drills. They staged a fire in the engine room which, by design, they failed to control. The ship was shut down and allowed to drift while everyone went to their muster stations with life jackets and hard-hats.  Even we were given instruction on how to operate the motor lifeboat, although we suspect that it is because of our experience at sea. Everything went well, except that a pulley on the port side lifeboat was seized due to rust and excessive paint. Fortunately, this did not impair the deployment of the lifeboat. In addition to hardhats and PFDs, we were each supplied with an immersion suit, for abandoning ship in cold water; once we leave Japan, our route takes us within bout five hundred miles of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska…burr!

While our drills were abbreviated, those of the crew were intensive. The steward told us that the US Coast Guard routinely questions the crew about emergency situations, and requires non-effective crew members to leave the ship. The drills included a simulated oil spill, a bomb scare, more fires, loss of steering control and other safety training. Frankly, we are impressed by the professional way this ship is run. However, there was a glitch in the bomb scare drill. The officers’ steward found the “bomb”, picked it up and proudly took it to the captain, “Here I found the bomb”. No amount of explaining seemed to get through to him that he was not supposed to touch it. “I could see it was not real”, he responded. Apparently, this is common with the lower-ranking crew members, who do not really get the concept of drills being conducted as if they were the real thing.

At some point, we began to realise that this trip could make us fat! The food is good, plentiful and varied, if rather ordinary compared to that on a cruise ship.  Since they are catering to working men, there are three full meals a day. The steward serves us full portions and the tendency is to eat it all. We resolved to cut back and to do so regularly, but it is so difficult. In addition to three square meals a day, we were served coffee in the morning and tea the afternoon, always with cookies and sometimes with black forest cake or other delights. We had a constant supply of fresh fruit, both in our room and in the mess. On the plus side, our stateroom was on E-deck while the dining room was eight flights of stairs below, on A-deck. Going down is easy, gravity works for us. Going up the 48-steps with a full stomach is another matter.
 
When we arrived in Hong Kong Wednesday evening we opted not to go ashore. We’d seen HK before and did not want to rush around during our short stay. Watching the cargo loading was fascinating. It is amazing how quickly the crane operator can pick up a 40-foot container, whisk it over to a waiting flatbed truck and get back for the next one; the average time was about 80 seconds.
 
 
We hadn’t been docked for even an hour when a local trading boat came alongside displaying his wares, mostly electronics goods and a few toiletry items.  These he spread along the lower deck, where the crew eagerly foraged for bargains. In Hong Kong we took on a new passenger, a retired computer programmer from the USA whose wife told him to get out of the house. So he got on a ship and went to Asia and Europe, and is now, many months later, returning.
 
As soon as we arrived in Yan Tian, a group of traders came aboard the ship, again offering copy watches, copy cell phones, copy movies…copy everything. Later, while ashore, we saw that even the shops have copies. We were offered a copy Nokia N82 phone, the same model as the one we had just bought in Singapore, but for a fraction of the price. On close examination one could see that it was a poor imitation. When we were not interested we were offered the latest Nokia model, just released a week ago…our choice…original or copy! We bought a watch and two travel bags with wheels, both excellent bargains. We engaged in conversation with a young salesman at a shop and he told us that a lot of people from surrounding villages came to work in Yan Tian; we had noted that there were a lot of young people.

Everyone has heard horror stories about poor maintenance on some passenger liners and we were a bit worried at first. However, maintenance of the ship seems to be exemplary; they are constantly scraping, painting and greasing things.  But it’s not without the odd glitch. The ship’s fresh water ran out just as Maurice was having his evening shower. The next day the ship again had a problem with the water pipes just as LA started our second load of washing. The second engineer told us that a weld had failed and the water had drained out of the pipes. In both cases, we had to wait only a short time before the water returned and on the third occurrence the weld was fixed for good. Since the ship is so high, they must have a heck of a strong pump to get the water up to us, as the head pressure alone would be in the order of 30 psi.

Normally, passengers get “shore leave” whenever it does not cause a delay for the ship. So, our fare includes charges for such shore leave, such as port and agent fees. We were very disappointed that we were not allowed off the ship in Osaka. The ship’s lessee and agent in Japan, Hanjin Lines, refused to handle passengers, only cargo and crew. They said that the ship’s owner should have retained a separate agent for passengers. Of course, it was too late to do this so we could not get off. As it turned out, the day turned cold and rainy, so we wouldn’t have had as much fun ashore as we might have anyway. We spent the day running all over the ship “supervising” cargo loading and unloading. It was good exercise, as we must have gone up and down the stairs a dozen times.

From Osaka to Tokyo the seas were rough, due to a cyclone about 250 miles south of us.  But the effect on such a big ship was minimal. In AKAMA we would have been tossed around quite a bit. On the other hand, a day out of Long Beach we rolled a lot, in seas that we would have found quite tame in AKAMA. It’s taken us a while to get our minds around the motion of the ship vs. that of AKAMA. In wind waves, invariably short period, AKAMA is so small that she pitches and rolls with nearly every wave. Her hydraulic stabilisers take out a lot of the roll, but not the pitch. In contrast, the ship is so big that wind waves are nearly unnoticed from any angle. Swells are another matter. Going into or running with them, AKAMA rides up and over most swell. When the swell is abeam, the stabilisers take out most of the roll. So our main motion in swells is up and down with a bit of comfortable pitch, like a duck riding on the waves. The ship, on the other hand, has no stabilisers. So it rolls a lot on swells taken any were other than directly before or aft. She did not pitch appreciably while we were aboard; but the captain says that in very heavy seas she flexes up to a meter, and if those seas are off the quarter she visibly corkscrews. That must be scary!

Again, in Tokyo, we were not allowed shore leave, for the same reason as in Osaka, although the rain and cold would have made it unpleasant. Still, it would have been nice to get off the ship, even if it meant only going to a shopping centre and an Internet cafe. So, we again watched the cargo operations…we’re becoming rather expert, and it is still fascinating. We left Tokyo at 01:00 Wednesday, following the great circle route to Long Beach.

We expected the trip to be boring, one day the same as the next in the open sea. While Wednesday was uneventful, we broke down on Thursday. It took the engineers about an hour to restart. The Master was not too happy about the speed of repairs, as any over a half hour require a detailed report. Also, like any boat, going faster to make up the lost time requires running the engine faster, which is less efficient. Related to this, our tour of the engine room, planned for Friday, was postponed. Apparently, the fault entailed heavy oil getting into one of the water headers, which overflowed, making the engine room a slippery mess.

We had just returned to our room after Friday’s dinner when we received a phone call from the captain to meet him on F-deck on the port side, stating “I want to show you something”. We went to F-deck to find the captain and officers having a few beers watching the sunset and were invited to join them. One of the officers offered his heavy bush shirt to LA, for which she was very thankful. Nevertheless, even though we were on the warmer side of the ship with the sun shining on it; the 8C (46F) temperature finally sent us inside after consuming a couple of beers. Once in our room we took our duvets off the bed and wrapped ourselves in them to warm up. We had a great time chatting and kibitzing with the officers. The captain predicted that the weather would be nice for the next few days; so he announced a BBQ.

After another peaceful sleep, we awoke Saturday to thick fog, visibility a very short distance, only about to the bow, and continued cold. So, we read and watched movies most of the day. Travelling on a cargo ship is very relaxing.

Accounting for time zones was interesting. Of course, we made the obligatory midnight change as we went from the SE Asia zone to the Japan zone, but once we left Japan things got rather arbitrary in the open ocean. We traveled nearly one time zone per day at these latitudes. So, most days, we advanced our clocks one hour. So far so good…our tiny brains can handle that. Saturday night was more interesting. As we were nearing the international dateline, we watched the little ship cursor on our ECDIS chug east toward the extreme right side of the screen (180-degrees longitude). Before it got there, at midnight, it was Sunday. Then, at about 01:30 the cursor flew over to the left side of the screen, as we crossed the dateline. It was still Sunday…right…no, it was Saturday night again, as we lost a day crossing the line. To compensate, the Captain designated the next two days as Sunday. Hmmm.

Sunday morning (the first one), after breakfast, we were invited to take our tour of the engine room.  Way cool! This is one huge and noisy engine, and unlike anything else we’d ever seen. First, it runs on heavy oil, which has to be kept warm or it will solidify, much like butter. There are nine cylinders, each one with only a piston and an exhaust valve, as it is a 2-stroke diesel. The cylinders are wider than a 200-litre oil drum; the piston rings are about the size of a standard hula-hoop. The injectors, only a few inches long on AKAMA, are well over waist height on this ship. In many places on the block there are hatches big enough to admit a big man, and that’s what they are for. To service this engine they sometimes have to go inside. Some of the hatches are the size of doors on a house.  To start the engine a blast of highly compressed air is shot into some of the cylinders. This turns the engine over and the remaining cylinders fire. Then the starting cylinders are brought on line. Flat out, this behemoth turns over at less than 100 rpm. The propeller shaft is the diameter and length of a good sized tree. Despite its girth, it is so long that it has to be supported by three massive, pressure lubricated bearings. Because it is coupled directly to the engine, once the engine is running the boat wants to go. Idle speed (dead slow in ship-speak) is 8 knots once she gets going. To go in reverse, the engine has to be stopped, the restarted, running backwards. You don’t get any second chances with this thing. To control the engine and other equipment there is an ultra-modern, digital control panel in an air-conditioned room.   However in an emergency, the engine can be controlled from a little panel right on the engine. It’s the oldest-looking, crummiest little thing one can imagine, totally at odds with the rest of the ship.

Sunday (the second one) was like the movie Groundhog Day, same menu for each of the meals. Even the ECDIS did not appear to change much, as there is absolutely nothing out here, not even a tiny island, well…we did see a school of big fish feeding. We have not seen land for days and we won’t any time soon. The Hawaiian Islands are far to the south and the Aleutian Islands to the north. Even the seabed isn’t close, as we are in over five kilometres (three miles) of water.

Tuesday evening found us back on F-deck for the BBQ. This was another surprise, something you’d expect only on a passenger liner. The crew were all there too, except that they took turns standing watch. The food was delicious, and included T-bone steaks, several kinds of sausage, salads and two suckling pigs.  The Asian crew members tended to go back to work early, while the officers stayed longer. We passengers were driven in by the cold, followed by calls from the senior officers to stay and party. The party went on until about midnight.

The galley is an interesting place.  In the middle is the kitchen, the private domain of “Cookie”. On either side of that are two pantries, one for the officers and one for the crew. Everything is in stainless steel.  Below this there are three storage areas, all walk-in, one freezer, one refrigerator and one for everything else. Cookie regaled us with stories of his life at sea. He was shipwrecked about seven days out of Fremantle. A fire broke out in the engine room and he was the last one overboard. A shark ate the Chief Engineer! Another time, they were chased by pirates in the China Sea a day out of Hong Kong. The pirates fired on the bridge to which everyone except cookie had fled. Cookie was hiding under the floorboards in the engine room sump...ugh!. The bridge took all the fire from the pirate’s machine guns but nobody was killed. After bumping the pirate’s boat a few times, they fled back to Hong Kong waters, where the British Navy afforded them protection.

Arrival in Long Beach CA was uneventful. Everything went without a hitch at customs and immigration, much to our surprise, and in stark contrast to the hustle, bustle and hassle one sometimes get at airports.

The trip cost us $5650, all inclusive. If one only wanted to get from A to B for the lowest price then economy air would be the way to go. But freighter travel is perfect for those looking for an unusual vacation, or who have the time.

When we began this new journey we wondered whether we’d ever do it again…the answer is a definite yes.