In the company of eight thousand boxes and a gallery of soft-porn: From Singapore to Hong Kong on a container ship
(Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect the crew’s privacy.)
I am armed and ready; with my medical insurance, a declaration that I and only I am responsible for my life and death, ten books, three types of board games, and a flute I didn’t know how to play. Lobo and I are taking a container ship to travel from Singapore to Hong Kong, a journey and a leave application purely for the sake of the journey and not the destination.
Our journey doesn’t begin that well. At Singapore’s port, I pose for a photograph for the entry pass, when it comes out I realize that my face has been replaced with a pockmarked cucumber.
But the blue seas hadn’t obliged easily. The container ship we were going to board was at first delayed by three days; a fire in a refinery in Brazil. Then another day of delay crept in; choppy seas around South Africa. Indeed, for someone like me used to travelling by low cost carriers, it was hard to oblige to this call for a cicada’s patience that travelling by a container ship demands for.
Our ship finally presents itself as a big blue wall. It is a French owned vessel named after a famed Verdi opera. We don’t give a name to an aircraft, car, or a bicycle, but every ship must have a name.
We climb up a number of tentative stairs to the deck, a rusty iron door is opened, and an Indian man in helmet and penguin like uniform greets us in. He takes us to meet the chief steward, Doru, a Romanian, who swiftly guides us to our cabin and then departs. One breath later, I realize that I am staring at a calendar featuring a naked girl. We have entered the world of sailors.
Why a container ship? Two months ago, I had met Ahmed, a seaman in a container ship who was originally from Singapore but had married into a family that managed a beachside shack in an Indonesian island, having thus carved his whole life around the seas. Ahmed suffered from general learning disability. But he could still say this to me with his severe stammer, “Only when I am on the ship, when I see nothing else but the sea and the sky, I feel so much peace.” Right then, we decided to try out Ahmed’s world.
There is one inviolable arrangement in our ship and everyone we meet on-board for the first time, tells us of it, “Dinner is served precisely at seven every evening.” The dinner hall is decorated neatly with an overdose of white linen. Like kids enrolled into a new school, we try to blend in, giving an eager and silly smile at anyone who enters. We are at the officer’s eating area and they treat us with the coldness reserved for new students. They eat quietly and depart one by one. I had been worried about the meals on-board because there are rumours going around that container ships tend to employ Filipino cooks. And nothing scares a vegetarian more than the prospect of a Filipino cook. Wonderful people as they are, Filipinos have a rather nuanced understanding of vegetarianism. I still have vivid memories of the meal time interactions with a motherly lady whose house I was staying at in the island of Bohol, Philippines. Every time she cooked, she would beam with tenderness, “I know you are a vegetarian. So I added some carrots to the pork dish. And over there, you must also try our national dish, the chicken adobo, purposefully; I put half a bell paper in there for you.” Just to prepare for such an emergency, I had packed a container-load of vegetarian instant noodles. Our chef, Edouard, turned out to be a Frenchman instead, and he obliged to my request instantly by churning out an omelette (I do eat eggs).
The youngest of the officers comes back in to dining room, “Hi, I am Marius, a cadet. Do you mind if I give you a tour of the ship?” Marius, a Romanian, is an engineering graduate who is interning with the ship. There is a certain childlike aspect about him. He says he has more time than the others because he is on medical leave, having hurt himself while lifting some weights, possibly a case of hernia. Marius shows us the saltwater swimming pool, the gym, the entertainment room and the bridge. With all the climbing up and down the five stories of the ship’s castle, the tour takes only twenty minutes, after which he smiles apologetically, “I suppose that is all there is to see.”
We spend the rest of the evening on our own watching the giant cranes loading and unloading the containers from our ship. These containers might have travelled thousands of kilometres over land and sea, but this is the only time when they fly, as the cranes lift them up and swing them around with ropes, a jaunty graceful swing like that of a heroine in those Chinese martial art films, with all our toys, key chains and Christmas trees inside them. All this while, the ship keeps sucking in oil from the much smaller bunker ship, its wet nurse for the night.
Container boxes, seventeen million of them in the world today, are a rather homogenous species. Their width is invariably eight foot, their length always either twenty foot or forty foot; their heights could vary marginally though. Even their colours are from a limited assortment in a beginner’s crayon box. Container capacity is measured in Twenty Equivalent Units or TEUs, the twenty foot and the forty foot containers being worth one and two TEUs respectively. The forty-foot container can carry up to 26,000 kilograms of cargo, just fewer than 270,000 McDonald’s hamburgers.
There are more than five thousand container ships that ply these boxes across the seas today of which fewer than five hundred and fifty are considered as large carriers with capacity of over 7500 TEUs. The largest ships can carry in excess of 19,000 TEUs; they take more than a hundred and seventy-five million dollars to build and fit-in, enough to pay for the girl’s rings for over 33,000 wedding engagements. In 2009, these ships carried more than 1.9 billion metric tons worth of cargo or ninety percent of the world’s trade in non-bulk goods, up from a mere hundred million tons in 1980. At this rate, in just three hundred years, the containers will be transporting more stuff than the mass of the moon.
Our ship can carry over eight and half thousand TEUS, that’s equivalent to sailing with over four thousand large trucks stacked on one top of another. She is over three hundred metres in length and her udders can hold over fourteen thousand cubic metres of oil, enough to fill up the fuel tanks of over two hundred cars. She can carry over a hundred million kilogram of cargo, or about thirty four billion condoms. With just a few trips, it can do enough to prevent any human babies being born ever on earth again.
The next day, we are still resting at Singapore port because the gantry cranes are yet to be done with loading the ship. From the bridge, the port looks like an assemblage of basic geometric shapes in primary colours, stacks of cuboidal containers on docked ships and unloading areas, green gantry cranes with massive linear frames and triangle tops, parallel tracks marked on the ground in yellow for the square yellow trucks to tread on. In this hyper-efficient giant industrial landscape, a handful of little men in yellow uniforms and red helmets move around like tiny beetles to give the only hint of life.
The ship leaves well past noon and once the pilot has departed, the master gives us a big grin. The rest of the crew too becomes more relaxed and shed their earlier coldness. Sébastien, the master, is a Frenchman from Normandy, perhaps in his fifties, with a Chuck Norris like face that looks like a wolverine when he laughs. He says, “The times leaving or entering a busy port like Singapore are often the most stressful because if one is not careful, collisions can happen easily with so many ships around. Even though the pilot is on-board, the eventual responsibility lies with me. But that’s what also gives us seaman the kick out of this job, the adrenalin burst. Otherwise, a master’s job today has become very administrative, a lot of paperwork, a lot of email, managing the port and immigration officials, phew.” He gives his wolfish grin again. Now he looks like a surfer who prefers to tuck in his t-shirt.
There are thirty people on board. Half of them are Romanians, there are three Indians and the rest are all French, most of the officers.
Worldwide, an approximate third of seafarers on international carriers comprise of Filipinos. Indians contribute one sixth, the other major nationalities among seafarers being Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Turkish, Polish and Greek. The officers, however, come mostly from developed countries. In recent years, the number of Chinese seafarers has been growing but they work mostly on Chinese owned vessels. Romania is an odd country among these, producing so many sailors despite having a coastline of less than two hundred and fifty kilometres, ranking a measly hundred and twenty second among the one hundred and fifty three countries with a coast. Marius had explained before, “We had a large merchant fleet during communist days. When we got into EU, they didn’t want our ships anymore but only our seaman.”
Everyone in the ship look reasonably fit, with all the climbing of stairs, running around the deck, standing for hours at the bridge, and the occasional visit to the makeshift gym and swimming pool. The two extremes for body shapes are Doru, the chief steward, and Sylvain, the chief engineer. Doru is lanky, almost looking like the hunchback of Notre Dame, his calories well burnt with all the running around that a steward’s job involves. He has to be everywhere at the same time, cleaning rooms and common areas, doing laundry, serving food. For lunch and dinner, he has to dress up in formal attire, changing to shorts and t-shirt as soon as the meal hour is over. On the other hand, the Chief Engineer has epitomised himself as the centre of gravity of the ship, having gathered calories over the years sitting all day, watching the gallery of monitors at the engine room.
We go over to the bridge in the afternoon. The sea, free from the silt near the port, is a blue I have never seen before. The helmsman says, “Call me Ismael!”
There are three combinations of navigation officers and helmsmen in our ship. Each pair works for two four hour shifts every day. All of them are Romanians. Both Ismael and Dragoslav, the navigation officer accompanying him, are from the coastal city of Constanta. Ismael is of Turkish origin. He is a man in his fifties, thin, short and bald, with scruffy white beard. We ask him if we are disturbing. That opens a verbal deluge. “It’s ok. You are like the police. Just like everyone runs away once the police arrives, after you came, all the boats disappeared. So we don’t need to do any work now.”
He continues, “We get very busy only when the seas are rough, say between Africa and Brazil, when this ship becomes a submarine, going under the big waves that keep coming and coming. Sometimes, we can’t eat anything other than sandwiches because the cook can’t cook in the tumble. Once I was stuck in a small ship between Le Havre and Southampton for eight days, holding a sandwich and steering.”
Rough seas can cause enormous damage. In 1975, ‘the three sisters’, a series of three giant waves that form in Lake Superior, probably brought the doom of SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a giant cargo ship, hitting the ship one after another, before it could recover from the earlier one. Even when the ship doesn’t suffer, rough weather can bring about toppling of containers, more than ten thousand of which are lost every year . Container ship casualties from weather related incidents have become rarer as ships take the cue from weather forecasts to avoid treacherous stretches. Yet, sailors still worry about nature. Marius had told us before, “Only twice in my life, I have been really scared. At both times, there were tsunami alerts, somewhere near Chile. There is nothing one can do on-board then.”
Ismael shows us around the bridge with all the radar monitors, maps, steering wheels, steering joystick, binoculars, coffee machines, monitors for humidity, navigation manuals, communication flags, and a few potted plants. The two helmsman’s chair overlooking the dashboards looks very similar to a barber’s chair.
“This is my Ferrari,” says Ismael. “So much technology, you see. Nowadays everything is automatic unless you are approaching a port or some emergency when you switch to manual. There are too many monitors, too many forecasts. But I have been a helmsman for thirty years; I don’t need to look into any of these.”
“On land too, I am the helmsman. I drive taxi. All my life, I learnt to do only one thing, steering. My taxi company has two cars, the other one is driven by my son. Maybe, one day, we will have the money for a third car and hire a driver. So I have to keep working in the ship. My son doesn’t want to be a sailor like me. He wants to be close to his family.” Ismael’s idea of time at home is different from that of the master who had told me earlier, “I have two lives, one on the sea and one on land. Once I go back home after a long time on the sea, I just collapse. I don’t feel like doing any work. I play guitar. I go out for long walks. As seaman, your eyes crave for some green, some vegetation. And if I still miss the sea, I go sailing with my family.”
Dragoslav, the officer, teases Ismael, “Don’t get him started on his home. He is anyway talking about Turkish food back home all the time.”
“Yes,” says Ismael, “Think of kebabs, baklava, ayran. Here, it’s French food every day. They think so highly of it but does it compare with Turkish food? So, whenever I am going back home, I call my wife a few days in advance over skype and ask her to make baklava. Baklava is good because it can last for one month. So even if my ship is delayed, it is fine.”
Ismael indeed can’t stop talking, a trait we soon begin to associate with all seamen, “Baklava is hard work. It takes two days to make baklava, did you know that, Dragoslav? But my family also puts a lot of demands on me. Every time I am on skype, my one and half year old grandson will say, ‘bring me chocolates, bonbon, don’t bring me clothes, only chocolates.’ But I have to buy clothes also because otherwise his parents will say, ‘What, you bring only chocolates?’ I have to buy something for everyone, parents, wives, son, daughter-in-law. The son will say, where are you, in Brazil, let me see on internet what is good there, then you can get it for me, may be the soccer t-shirt; where are you in Korea, maybe electronics?’”
It never gets lonely along this route, one of the busiest in the world; ships always keep appearing. Dragoslav says, “It is different in the South Atlantic, from South Africa to Brazil, there you crave to see a ship for days.”
The clouds and the sun spilt the sky into halves. The sea below follows the hint and splits into two as well, one half, a viscous blue paint, and the other half, a massive silver foil.
Two fishing boats appear. Ismael says, “They always work as a couple, holding the net in between. Then they share the catch equally; I hope they do.” But these could be pirate ships too. We are in the waters near the Anambas archipelago, crowned recently as one the most beautiful islands in South East Asia. But these waters also happen to be the most affected by piracy. But the master had been relaxed about it when we had mentioned it to him, “The pirates here are not like Somalis who kidnap the crew, torture them, and ask for ransom. Here, they only steal cargo and that too mostly oil or scrap metal, usually from smaller ships.” Nonetheless, Vasilescu, another cadet had warned us, “If you go out today, remember to close all the doors when you come back in. And don’t go out after six PM.” The next day, not too far away from where we are, an oil tanker from Singapore is attacked by pirates who stole all the oil and disappeared.
Later in the evening, everyone has to take part in the safety drill. We had been asked to bring along our safety vests. For the first time, I see all the crew together.
Petru, the safety officer, briefs us on the guidelines in a mixture of French and English. He asks Vasilescu to demonstrate how to put on the emergency vest. Once Vasilescu has zipped himself up, he looks like a banana shaped alien, smooth curves, smooth rubbery skin, and bright yellow. Petru, a man with a deep voice and curly hair, looking like an embodiment of sincerity and integrity, asks us with all seriousness, “Do you also want to try on the emergency suit? Then we can throw you into the swimming pool to simulate how it works if you were to fall overboard.”
When we are about to go back to our room with our vests, Vasilescu says, “Take good care of it because I will be staying at your room after you leave.”
Later, Vasilescu shows us around the deck. Perhaps, he thinks that the safety features are the only things worth showing, “Here’s the life boat. Down there is another. Here is a spare emergency vest. There you see some fire extinguishers.” He is delighted to take us to the fire control room, “Fire is common, sometimes at the engine room, sometimes from the cigarette stubs left carelessly. Once a South Korean liner was carrying fireworks in the cargo and it caught fire. It must have looked fantastic, but I pity the crew.” He shows us the sludge pipes, “Now the law is very strict; we can’t just throw away the sludge anywhere. The oil and other waste have to be separated and then treated accordingly before disposal at proper places.” All the same, the industry is infamous for using the ‘magic pipe’ occasionally, a crude concoction that can be devised by the crew to offload the entire sludge load into the sea to show good parameters for the engine to the ship’s management. In February, the US Government penalised Hachiuma Steamship for using the ‘magic pipe’, asking them to pay 1.8 million dollars, and placed it on probation for three years; the whistle blower in this case was paid 250,000 dollars.
Vasilescu shows the anchor chain, each ring the size of a human torso, good enough to chain Minotaur.
The crew, including the officers, have formed the habit of shaking each other’s hands. The officers have to behave well towards the Able Seamen or ABs to keep the morale high. The master had told us, “Well, the most important aspect of being a master is managing people. Sometimes, you are with them all day and night for four months. I have to keep the discipline and morale high. So, sometimes, I have to organize things like table tennis competitions, barbecues. See, I also have to be the chief of party.” That was not too bad, given that not too long ago, morale and engagement was usually kept high among seamen by keelhauling recalcitrant sailors!
Nonetheless, container ships still maintain a certain feudal feel about them. The officers have bigger accommodations at higher levels as compared to the ABs. There are separate entertainment areas for the two groups; even their dining areas are separate. During meals, junior officers stay quiet unless asked a question. The master had told me in private, “I don’t like this distinction. But I am helpless. This is how the companies want us to operate. I can’t change such visible rules on my own. Maybe the company still thinks it’s hard to maintain discipline within the crew if the officers get too close to the Abs.” Marius, while being a cadet, gets to sit along with the officers. He had an explanation, “Merchant shipping used to be a militarized business earlier with all the hierarchies that came with it; perhaps the legacy has remained. Or maybe if you put both the groups together at the dining table, fights would erupt every day.” Vasilescu had been able to cross the barrier, “I used to be an AB before. Then the company sent me for some training. So now I am a cadet. I hope someday I can be a master. It is the best job but there are also a lot of responsibilities.” Vasilescu is in his late forties. I could imagine his delight when he got promoted from an AB to a cadet; that first walk across the galleys, from the AB’s mess to the officer’s dining hall, taking the white napkin with his initials marked on it, and sitting gently on the same table as the master.
Earlier, Marius had shown the same hope in his job, “I am only twenty-five but I have already been to so many countries on other people’s expense. I can’t be a master but at least I can be a chief engineer someday.”
We are adjusting to the rhythms of the ship; the wake up alarm for sunrise at the starboard side, over to port side for the sunset, the precise timing of the meals, the one hour cycling in the ship’s gym, the swim, the finding people to talk to, the evening movie, and in between all these, watching the seas like watching a giant palette flooded with blue, always blue, never the same blue, turquoise near our ships foam, further out, it’s the colour of cheap hospital curtains. We keep waiting for the phone to ring, because Ismael had promised to call us if he spotted dolphins. The dolphins do appear once. But for the rest of the time, the sea is one busy runway, flying fish taking-off and touching down every minute.
To keep ourselves in shape, we come up with a cunning plan; take the stairs whenever going up, take the lift only when going down. But the elevator has an irresistible charm, a world of its own, playing happy French songs all the time; we cherish each ride, and whenever we get out we just stand there and keep its door open till someone else appears.
Omelette meal number three: Doru, the steward, gives me an apologetic smile every time he serves my main course. But I don’t mind; while the main course is always an omelette, I could still enjoy the daily variations of salads, desserts, fruits, juices and wines. As such, I was extremely thankful to Edouard, the chef, for having understood and accepted my vegetarianism. Edouard, a man in his forties, looked like a twin brother of Steve Jobs but with a more amiable personality. When I apologize to him for making him do extra work for my dietary needs, he waves and says in his broken English, “Not at all. Anyway I have to customize for the other Indian men. They don’t eat any pork or beef because of their religion. So, one more religion is no problem.” I wonder what name Edouard gave to this strange religion of omelette-devourers.
This evening, Edouard takes us for a tour of the galleys. It is stainless steel and aluminium all around. Among his equipment are six gas ovens, a deep fryer, few grills, enormous blenders, and two microwave ovens. Edouard changes the menu every day. He takes us to the refrigerated chambers, one for fruits and vegetables, one for dairy, juices, wines, and other liquid food, and the third for meat and fish. It is a strange feeling when I enter the refrigerated chamber for fruits and vegetables. My teeth clatters in the uninhabitable sub-arctic temperature of sixteen degrees below zero, and yet in front of my eyes is this paradisiacal garden of bounty, juicy tomatoes, lettuce, pumpkin and capsicum. At the meat chamber, Edouard shows us a boulder sized chunk of meat, “This is for barbecue party.” There is also a dry chamber for storing grains, cornflakes, sugar and other processed food. The ship had stocked up in South Africa and will restock when it reaches Busan in South Korea. There is enough food to feed the crew for one month. I am more interested in the number of eggs. Edouard comforts me by saying, “Don’t worry, I have seven thousand of them.”
Edouard cooks all day, preparing every meal except for breakfast which is more self-service in nature. He also prepares titbits for the recess breaks for the ABs. He works on the ship for sixteen weeks and then stays at home for another sixteen. I ask him if he cooks once he is at home. “No,” he smiles, “Only once in a while for my wife.”
Edouard passes the blame on to others when we ask him why the meal menus are always printed along with pictures of scantily clad women, “It’s not me. I just scribble down the menu every morning and give to a cadet. It’s they who play these pranks.” Pictures of naked and semi-naked women are everywhere in the ship, inside cabin rooms, the elevator, engine room. There are stories of sailors relaying audio from their favourite porn over channel 16, the emergency VHF radio channel. Sailor’s living quarters are in that way not too different from male dormitories in colleges; clothes are forgotten inside the laundry for days, skipping breakfast is common practice. When we first arrived on the ship, the menu placed on our table used to have sterilized images, sharks, Donald Duck, lilies, group photo of the crew in Rio de Janeiro. When we asked about this segregation to the master, he said with a big grin, “We try to be nice with our guests.” But one day, Lobo stole one of the crew’s menu, made a sketch of the naked girl pasted on it and gifted it to the ship. The master was delighted, “We will laminate this and put it up somewhere.” Vasilescu, the cadet, said, “Maybe someday it will be worth a million dollars.” Next day onwards, we begin getting the same menu card as the rest of the crew, unsterilized.
Sailors and sex have never gone out of fashion. To meet the demand from sailors, Jean O’Hara, the legendary prostitute invented the ‘bull pen’ system for running brothels during the 1940s wherein one sex worker would work in three rooms at the same time; having sex with a sailor in the middle room, the previous customer dressing up in the next room, the next customer undressing in the adjacent room, three minutes per person to release, three dollars per release. In Makassar, even today, the red light area runs parallel to the port. Orchard Towers, also known as Singapore’s ‘Four Floors of Whores’ has a status of a place of pilgrimage among sailors; incidentally, it also houses the embassy of Romania. Filipino sailors, since the days of Magellan till today, are renowned for their ‘bolitas’, plastic and metal titbits sewn inside their penises to charm the Brazilian prostitutes.
That evening, we decide to explore Channel 16 further. It is notorious for everything it speaks out, racist slurs from one group of sailors to others, horrible attempts to sing Chinese ballads, as well as the occasional distress calls. Since it has to be kept on all the time, there is no escape for the sailors from this loud mouthed granny. Dragoslav, the navigation officer, shares with us his frustration with Channel 16, “The radio is OK till you reach Asia. People here treat it differently, not like an emergency channel. The Chinese fishermen talk to each other for hours. The noise becomes tolerable only after you reach Japan. We have a joke that the Chinese buy cheap VHF radio with only one channel to save money and they tune it to Channel 16. I used to find it culturally interesting at first. Now the radio makes me go crazy at times. But what can I do? If you are a ship, you have to go to China. It’s the centre of the world.”
Lobo makes an announcement on channel 16, “Good evening everyone.” Snap comes the reply over the radio from somewhere, “Good evening, my darling.” Then there is stark silence. A female voice in this almost exclusively male industry! Ismail helps bring normalcy back on channel 16 by announcing on the radio, “That was a mermaid.”
Shipping has forever been a male-dominated industry. There have been famous female pirates such as Anne Bonny, Sadie the Goat, and Ching Shih, but until recently, a woman on a ship was considered to be bad luck. Even today, only one to two percent of seafarers are women, working mainly as stewards and cooks.
Omelette meal number four! Today, we visit the beating heart of a container ship, the engine room. Marius has volunteered to take us around. The engine room’s office is a windowless version of Starship Enterprise, bar for the calendar of the semi-naked girl on the door. Inside is a room full of engineers with Micky Mouse noise-blocking headphones, keenly observing all the monitors, buttons and levers. When Marius opens the door out of this office into the engine chambers, a sudden burst of hotness welcomes us. Marius says, “This would be rather pleasant in arctic climates but it feels like a furnace in the tropics.” Marius struggles to contain his enthusiasm as he shows us the monstrous machines at work, the engines, the generators, the sludge separators, the desalination plant. Despite the headphones we are wearing, the sound is near deafening; machines chatting among themselves the things that machines want to hear from each other; and if anything deviates from normal, the piercing noise of the alarms signal instant grief. “There are 14,000 possible alarms,” says Marius. He shows me the ominous sounding dead man alarm, “This is nothing, that’s only a precautionary alarm, activated when someone is working alone in the engine room. The most severe is the CO2 alarm which is for fire in the engine room. Imagine what could happen with all the fuel around. Only the master has the authority to react in that situation.”
The pinnacle of the whole system is the giant cyclotron looking area where the propeller shaft keeps moving and moving and moving, the core of this universe, this giant black eternal force. Marius screams into my ears, “This is why I love this job. It is complicated and has this engineering aspect about it that I like. And I need to know everything about this engine because an emergency situation can develop in any system here while I am on watch alone.” Indeed, after years of hearing corporate jargon like competitive advantage, blue-ocean strategy, or razor-sharp focus; the words that I was hearing here, dead-weight tonnage, buoyance, sludge, they almost had a certain musical quality.
All this 101,640 horse power from the engine is only used to propel the ship at an average of fifteen knots an hour, a lot slower than most clippers of the nineteenth century such as the Champion of the Seas and the Sovereign of the Seas, which reached speeds exceeding twenty knots. If the ports are congested and too near to each other, like Singapore and Port Klang, it might actually be faster to walk the three hundred and seventy five kilometres that separate the two places than to take a container ship that, in order to save fuel and reduce emissions, are being forced to participate in the ‘Go Slow’ movement.
We move to the workshop where machines and tools of all sorts are available to build a world of nuts and bolts. Some have been used to weld and forge makeshift dumb-bells for the gymnasium. ABs and engineers drenched in sweat move around with their heavy costumes, giving us high-fives. We are fully covered in sweat as well and once Marius leads us out into the open, I am much relieved. We ask Marius who works the hardest, “Of course, the ABs. Perhaps the safety engineer or the Chief Officer, who at times, doesn’t sleep for thirty hours at a stretch.” About those who work the least, he says, “Some would say that it’s the cadets like me. But I would say we cadets do all the work.”
The electrician is doing his routine rounds, checking all the reefers and the other systems. The Indian ABs are moving around giant CO2 cylinders in bold red colours. At the aft, the welder Simu calls out to us by our names. This is the first time we are meeting him and I am surprised that he had memorised our names from the list that was pasted on the elevator.
Marius says that the fore is his favourite part of the ship, “Sometimes at night, I come here alone and stay for hours. You can see all the stars without a frame of containers.” He looks out at the blue water passing behind us. “I want to start my own company some day in Romania. Maybe I will do something in agriculture.”
Today, the ship’s provision store is open for an hour, selling beer and cigarettes. At evening, the bossun, the only person among the crew who looks like Jack Sparrow, and a few other ABs take off their shirts, open cans of just-bought beer, and enjoy the sunset.
We swing by the master’s room, not too different from a fashionable service apartment. In his hall, there is a guitar and tabs for ‘Girl for Ipanema’ and some Andrea Bocelli song. “When I am on land, I play with a retired captain,” the master says. There are many books scattered around, ‘History of the world’s major religions’, a big collection of novels, a few graphic novels, operational manuals. “Sailors tend to read a lot,” he says, “And, watch a lot of movies. Of course, the younger ones play a lot of war games.”
While I was fascinated by the engine room, Lobo is intrigued by the small flags kept at the bridge. “These are for signalling,” explains Ionut, the burly Romanian navigation officer, “As a backup to the radio or when the radio is too inconvenient.” There is also a signal lamp for communicating using Morse Code and the Engine Order Telegraph for communication between the bridge and the engine room. Lobo spends hours studying the manuals for these, “I have always struggled to communicate with words,” she says, “These are so much better.”
Omelette meal number six. When we go to the bridge, Ismael is in an excited state, “Something extra-ordinary happened today. An eagle attacked one of the swallows and she collapsed on the bridge. I gave her some water to drink. I thought it will not survive. But then, after one hour or so, it suddenly flew away.” Container ships carry along their own wild life. Ionut is the expert in container wildlife. He is a person who can’t keep still, moving around like a hovering bird, talking to us as he turns and turns. “Sometimes, sparrows from Brazil join us to migrate without having to fly. But when we reach South Africa, falcons from the shore come to the ship to catch them. When we approach Hong Kong, you will see falcons again looking for sparrows in our ship. There are also sea-birds which will always fly around container ships because as the ship moves forward, small fish jump out of the water and the sea-birds hunt them. These seabirds are always on the ship, they never go onshore except to rear babies. Then there are the dolphins which follow container ships to rub against the waves the ship generates to help them shed their skin. Do you know that dolphins need to change skin every two hours?”
What about animals inside the ship? In Indonesian ships, I had always encountered foul-mouthed song birds in the master’s room. Earlier it was common for ships to carry a lot of cats, not only because they were considered good luck charms, but also because they hunted rats, which were a nightmare for sailors. These rats fed on the grains the ships carried and they could cause havoc by munching on the ropes and the wood. Ships of the olden days also used to be full of cockroaches. When I ask if there any rats and roaches around, Dragoslav, the administrative officer has a smirk, “Rats? No way! Container ships are hypersensitive about pests. I will tell you a story. Somehow, whenever ships go through the Suez Canal, a lot of flies come inside. People say the pilots of Egypt who help steer through the canal are the ones who bring in these flies. So as soon as the pilot was gone, all the crew in my ship came to the bridge with repellent sprays. We would be like the US Marines, men on a mission, bang, bang, spray, spray, hunt down all the flies.”
But ships can also cause significant damage to sea fauna. The North Atlantic Right Whale has been driven to endangered status, arguably as a result of collisions with ships. Underwater noise caused by container ships can disorient marine animals of all sorts and result in fatal consequences. The ballast water from ships, particularly tankers and dry bulk carriers, also bring along enormous quantities of sea creatures, which, if not treated properly before discharging, can ravage the local ecosystem by introducing invasive organisms. Then, there is the massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions from container ships.
I decide to investigate seamen’s superstitions. Everyone in the ship has an attitude of ‘it’s them, not me’ about superstitions. Dragoslav says, “Yes, in general, seamen are a superstitious lot. There are some universal ones. Like you never whistle on-board a ship, they believe it brings bad weather. Then there are some national ones. The Romanians will never stand with their back facing the bridge. The French will never say the word ‘rabbit’.” Ionut defends Romania, “Well, anyway it doesn’t make sense to stand with your back facing the seas. On the bridge, we are supposed to be always on the lookout, right?” “We also have elaborate rituals,” says Marius, “Like we have this line-crossing ceremony where we baptize people who sail for the first time through the equator. They have to wear funny hats and lick mustard sauce splashed on the feet of a man dressed up as Neptune King, the god of the sea. Then these rookies have to kiss the greased belly of the Royal Baby who is usually an ugly fat man from the crew.”
Omelette meal number eight. Today we are sailing past the disputed Paracel Islands. We get a call from Ionut from the bridge, “Vietnamese war ships, do you want to see, come, come to the bridge!” The seas are calm, the sky is cloudless, but the warships look unwieldy and single-minded. For rival powers, China, the Philippines and Vietnam, filling up the sea by undertaking massive reclamation projects has become essential part of their strategy and posturing. Who knows how long the South China Sea or the Philippines Sea will continue to remain a sea; just as man has eliminated the Aral Sea, leaving camels grazing next to ghostly ship ruins, on what used to be the seabed?
Omelette meal number ten. We cross over the galley to the have a more relaxed chat with the ABs and sit down with the men known in the ship as ‘the Indians’. Even official notices sometime mention them as Indian men 1, or Indian men 2; perhaps because of the crew’s unfamiliarity with their type of names, Rajasekhara Naidu, Sitaramanjaneyula Reddy, and Yarlagadda Rao. All three are from a small coastal town near the port city of Visakhapatnam. They have been employed by a manning company. They typically work as painters (ships require a lot of painting and repainting every day). They also do general physical jobs around the ship, moving around loads, helping others with maintenance jobs, keeping watch at nights for pirates and other threats. Except for the occasional night shift to keep watch, they work from nine to six. It is hard work for them, in the engine room, in the open sun, often moving heavy gear and they are perpetually drenched in sweat. They have an extremely humble demeanour about them and smile and greet everyone who comes their way.
After work hours, the ship doesn’t appear to be a natural den for Indians. All the DVDs and books available are in French. And while all the Romanians on-board speak fluent French, the Indian’s speak only English and Telugu. Rajasekhara, or Indian man 2, is in high spirits even when he talks about this isolation, “After six, we just keep chit-chatting among the three of us. It is important. In this kind of life, we are away from home for so long. Without their friendship, I might go crazy. So we just talk about anything.” Sitaramanjaneyula and Yarlagadda just smile. Rajasekhara continues, “Life in a cruise ship is slightly better. At least, we get Indian food there. Here, it is always French.” Sitaramanjaneyula, the Indian man 1, is married and has children while the other two are still bachelors. Rajasekhara’s eyes twinkle when I ask him about the challenges in finding a mate when one spends so much time disconnected from land, “We will get married very easily, I am confident. We may be busy here, but our parents are not busy. They are on the lookout and the prospects always think we have great jobs. They have no idea what skills we have, whether we paint or work as cleaners, but since we are away, we must be doing well.” Yarlagadda gets soda drinks for us and asks Lobo where she is from. She says she is Indian too because she is married to me. The three look very pleased with the answer. I ask them the countries they like to visit most. Rajasekhara says with his permanent smile and swaying head, “You see we have been to more than thirty countries; but at most places, we have seen it only from the ship. Because Indians need visa for almost every country in the world, so at most ports we just have to stay on-board.” They keep looking at the clock and leave sharp on the dot when the meal hour ends, habits that come with a contract job.
Salaries of ABs and officers differ significantly. The Interns make about seven hundred euros a month; when they join as officers, they make two thousand; and as they graduate one day to become either the chief engineer or master, they could make as much as ten to fifteen thousand euros a month. On the other hand, the ABs and the stewards make between a thousand to fifteen hundred euros a month. But while most officers have permanent jobs with long holidays in between the trips, most shipping companies hire ABs on contract. ABs, therefore, look for jobs all around the year. Most of them, after all, come from countries where the per capita income is well below three hundred euros a month.
Omelette meal number twelve. I have been looking at the same scene from my windows; a block of containers, almost regal, gently piercing the sea and the sky. It never changes, the same arrangement of colours and shapes. I feel part of this mission, with a sense of responsibility, to deliver these giant shapes to their destination. Who knows what sleeps inside these sonorous waterproof structures? There could be families inside, dead or alive, as were found in the Tilbury docks in 2014; thirty-five Afghan Sikhs, one dead, the rest lucky by a few minutes in the airless chamber; all put inside by traffickers who even divided the container into partitions for families to sleep with some privacy. Once I open the windows, I can hear the constant roar of the reefers. If indeed there were migrants inside and were crying for help; only death could answer.
Containers sail around for seven to eight years after which they show up on eBay, selling for two thousand dollars. Some are refurbished into fancy homes for bohemians, some end up as housing for construction workers at worksites or as shelters for homeless people or refugees. Container ships on the other hand, typically have a life of twenty-five years during which their ownership changes hands two to three times, and then eventually, when their scrap value is worth more than their resale value, they are sent on their final journey to their graveyards, their favourite ones being places with long shores, high tidal difference, and a lot of cheap labour, essentially three places in the world, the shipbreaking sites at Gadani in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Alang in India.
Yesterday, we were a day away from Hong Kong, our destination. Today, we are two days away. Whenever we see the master, I can see his stress levels going up, “We don’t know. There could be more delay. There is no berthing space in Hong Kong and pilots are also not free.” I ask him if that means the shipping line will have to compensate its customers. That puts him in a spot, “Really,” he looks confused, “Well, I don’t know the commercial terms. Maybe, yeah, it does make sense to have some kind of penalty for delays.” Such secrecy is common in the shipping industry, crew members even hardly know what cargo they are carrying,
The ship has come to a crawl. The massive engine is now pushing us at less than five knots an hour. After six hours of crawling, the master decides to let the ship go adrift till he has a confirmed berthing time from the Hong Kong port. The bridge is in a relaxed state of mind, even though the crew there has to be on watch for wayward ships. Dragoslav, the navigation officer, is chattier than usual, and more philosophical, “Times have changed for shipping. It is all about money now that the shipping companies care for.” He begins to sing, “Money, Money, Money.. Do you know this song by Kraftwerk?” “It’s by ABBA,” I correct him. “Who is that? Anyway, to cut costs, nowadays, the shipping companies hire many young people as officers with little experience. These young people often ignore the rules. Like today, I was shocked. A ship was coming towards us and according to rules, both of us have to move towards starboard to avoid collision. I moved, but the other guy just kept coming straight. I was furious. That’s what I mean, you cut costs and you get crew like this. You don’t know what kind of schools they have graduated from. You should have heard me; I gave him such a good thrashing on channel 16.”
I like to call myself an insomniac, tormented by the problems of humanity. But on this ship, I have been sleeping too well. The sea has been completely calm and the gentle vibrations of the ship were working on my back like cheap massage chairs on low battery. To make most of my short experience, I was hoping for a storm, so I can get the full thrill. But when I mention my dark desires to the master, he gives me a look of horror, “No, no, we never wish for bad weather on a ship.”
Omelette meal number fourteen while being adrift, I feel unsettled. I didn’t get this feeling while we were still moving, scattering the innocent fish for the birds. But now, the word ‘adrift’ feels too strong to be associated with me. I am a prisoner of this sea. There is no other way to get out here. I am helpless. The forces of the world, all well beyond my control, the fire in the refinery in Brazil, the strong currents near South Africa, the long queue for berthing space in Hong Kong port, has brought me to this situation, being adrift.
The master has organized a small party for us and the other officers. I am sitting opposite Léonard, the introvert Chief Officer, who I always thought to be rather suspicious of me. But when the master asks me where we will travel next and I answer, “To the mountains, in Sichuan,” the Chief Officer’s eyes brighten up. He and I begin name dropping the peaks we have been to, “Everest, Nandadevi?” he asks, “Annapurna,” I say, “Chimburazo?” he asks, “No, I have been to Rua Pichincha only,” I say, “Mont Blanc?” he says, “Matterhorn,” I reply. A smile forces out of his face; finally we have won his trust by naming places where one cannot see the sea.
All the sailing around the world hasn’t satiated the wish to travel for these sailor’s. Marius will be heading for a week long holiday to Turkey with his girlfriend as soon as he is done with this trip, Léonard is dreaming of mountains; Gunduz, another Turkish-Romanian helmsman, is thinking of long cycling trips in the Carpathian, while the master has organized a sailing trip for him and his son within two days of going back from these seas. Perhaps, life on the ship has further intensified this urge to travel. Ismael had told me, “We go all around the world, Shanghai, Singapore, Santos, but I only see these cities from what I can see from the bridge.” While the Indian and Filipino ABs often don’t have the right visa, the officers don’t fare much better. Dragoslav, had told me earlier, “Money, money, money; all the company can think about is money. At ports, the company has to pay for every minute, so it’s always rush, rush, rush. I will be lucky if I get to stay for more than twelve hours in Hong Kong. Sometimes, in China, it’s less than six hours. You can only to hope to see a city if that port is very inefficient like in Brazil or if the port-workers are on strike, as it often happens in USA. Sometimes, I miss my days working in tankers. Those ships are not that efficient yet and we could spend up to a week at ports of call.”
The officers are relaxed tonight. They talk about their other skills; the master is a table tennis player of some repute; Yves, the third engineer is a master skateboarder; Sylvain, the Chief Engineer, is the champion of darts. They offer to show us a movie on piracy, Captain Phillips. But while they go about setting up the screen, a white curtain with magnetic ends to fix to the roof, they realize that the Hollywood movie has been dubbed in French and there are no English subtitles. As we bid the officers goodnight, the master says, “Sorry about the movie. But let me at least tell you a seaman’s joke. We talk about Jacques Cousteau and how great he was in the seas. We say Jacques Cousteau’s treated octopuses as pet cats, rubbing their backs every time he came across one.”
When we wake up the next morning, there is land all around us, the hills of Southern China. The water has become murky and the falcons are circling around the ship in a state of frenzy, looking for prey. Our trip is coming to an end. I look fondly at the subtly decorated rooms and walkways and feel sad about the ship’s eventual fate. Even if it doesn’t meet a grisly accident, the ship, once its utility as a ship is over, will be beached, scavenged bitterly, noxious chemicals poured into, fired and drilled through, cut out; as these the metal monsters with grand names disappear forever into nameless scrap metal.
We say goodbyes to the stewards and the cook. Pipa, the avuncular second steward, shows off his Mandarin, “Ni Hao (hello), Nu ren (woman).” When I ask him if he knows what the word is for ‘man’ in Mandarin, he shrugs and bites his teeth. “Don’t blame me,” he says, “It’s because of them. I am supposed to be a mechanic. But they asked me to only wash dishes here. What can I do? They are French.”
Doru, the chief steward, looks stressed, “There will be a change of master in Hong Kong. I have to prepare his room before he comes. I don’t know if I can do it in time.”
On the bridge, the pilot has already arrived. All the officers have gathered there. The air is tense. A small ship called Xi-Rong is not responding to radio calls. Collision seems possible. The master is shouting over the radio, “Xi-rong, Xi-rong, please respond.” We move towards starboard, but so does the other ship. “Xi-Rong, Xi-Rong, what are you doing?” There are too many ships around limiting our ability to manoeuvre.
Container shipping still remains a relatively accident prone business. Between 2010 and 2013, 8.3% of container ships met with accidents; most common being collisions with another vessel (31.8%), machinery failure and loss of hull integrity (28.5%), stranding (17%), and explosion and fire (11.5%).
A collision will probably not cause fatality but it could jeopardise the career of a master. In a recent incident, Philip Deruy, the master of CMA CGM’s Laperhouse, committed suicide following his ‘landing’ by the company after Laperhouse’s collision with a coaster ship. Deruy, who was off-duty at the time of the collision, had written in an email, “I have no future. It is intolerable.” We escape that fate today. Xi-Rong never responds but manages to swing towards port at the last minute. The master gives us his trademark wolverine grin.
The green hills and skyscrapers of Hong Kong begin filling up the horizon. The master walks over to us, “This is a beautiful port. Though, I will consider the Brazilian ports as my favourites. There is so much greenery there and after weeks in the ocean, your eyes crave for some vegetation.” Even he can’t escape mentioning property in Hong Kong, “Look at that lighthouse, there is a residential bungalow next to it. I don’t know if it is worth one hundred million or five hundred.”
We sail in through the narrow channel lined with panoply of containers in their strong colours. Tug boats that have just guided other ships give out puffs of black smoke to announce their achievement. I spot the gantry cranes warming up in our anticipation. Finally, we dock, and the pilot gives the master a heavy pat on the back and says to him, “Well done, but remember that you may be a master, but once I come on-board, I have the right to scold you.” The captain introduces us to the pilot as his son and daughter. The pilot, a jovial Hong Kong native, was a captain once, but has now managed to become a pilot. “It is more stressful,” he says, “On a day we have to steer three or four large ships. But then, I get to stay with my family.” To become a pilot is to reach the pinnacle of a shipping career, unless one can be Gianluigi Aponte, the founder and owner of MSC, the second largest container carrier company in the world. Aponte was once a captain, but together with his wife, he bought a small cargo ship for five thousand dollars of borrowed money in 1970; through astute ship buying and deal making, MSC became one of the top ten shipping companies within a mere decade. Today MSC boldly proclaims, “Land covers a third of the earth – we cover the rest.”
It is time to leave the sea. I feel especially sad at leaving behind the ABs, Gunduz, Ismael, Simu, Pipa, the Indians, who bid us farewell as if we were soulmates. Simu puts our heavy suitcases inside one large gunny sack and asks for one of the cranes outside to bring it down from the deck. He makes us an offer to go down the same way but we take the stairs. Once on land, I watch our luggage slowly make its descent in style. I look up and shout to the master, “By the way, how do you get a haircut on the ship?” He shouts, “One of the Romanians always has a machine. But I don’t trust them with my hair.” That explains the wolverine hair-coat; his last port of call was over fifty days ago.
As we walk through the streets of Hong Kong, Lobo says, “Finally, I see girls and women. I had almost forgotten how they looked like.” The reality that our sea-borne journey is over finally strikes me when I enter the shoebox apartment that we are going to stay in. Within its confines, I yearn for the blue vastness.
We come back to Singapore by air. To fly seems pointless now; it is too fast a way to reach a destination. And when Lobo asks me what I want to have for dinner, I answer instinctively, “Omelettes.”
I don’t sleep well anymore; I need the sea’s cradle. As I toss and turn in my bed, I recall our visits to the bridge at night when the moment I opened its door, everything would be dark, pitch black, my pupils dilated in a flash and then nothingness. Slowly, my eyes would adjust, the faint green markings on the radar monitors, Venus, a handful of stars, then a million, the spray of the Milky Way. Then, a faint yellow spot. It will grow into one giant moon, reflected by the dark oil-like sea, a luminous highway. Against the moon, the smoke from the ship would form something that looks like The Pillars of Creation. The universe is playing this trick on me, bundling up and containing into these black boxy silhouettes all that forever marching forward, unstoppable economic growth, in search of excellence, just-in-time inventory management, blue ocean strategies; the material end-result of all these, smartphones, toys, apparels, processed meat, neon lights, and fireworks. The universe is hiding them from my eyes, luring me into a provocation to imagine a world without everything. I keep turning my head around, soaking in this primitive eternity. One night at the bridge, Ismael, had walked up to me and said softly, “I don’t want to be a seaman in my next life. It feels too lonely. How can I be away from my family when I am already so old? But sometimes, I see the moon, just like this, it’s beautiful.”
Shivaji Das hails from India, and presently based in Singapore. He has published two books titled ‘Journeys with the caterpillar: Travelling through the islands of Flores and Sumba, Indonesia’ and ‘Sacred Love: Erotic art in the temples of Nepal’. His writings have been published in magazines such as TIME, Asian Geographic, Jakarta Post, Freethinker, etc. His photographs have been exhibited in USA, Malaysia, and Singapore. He is the conceptualizer and curator for the Migrant Worker Poetry Contests in Singapore and Malaysia.