Stranded at Sea

IMG_0500

By John Linnemeier

When former Bloomington mayoral candidate and Ryder editor-at-large John Linnemeier and his wife Gail set sail aboard a cargo ship, they thought they were embarking on what would be a relaxing, uneventful sea cruise. Instead, the found themselves stranded, adrift and on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The article in the Wall Street Journal was good but these excerpts from John’s journal are even better. Happy sailing.

 

As I think back on it, everything was moving ahead so smoothly and with such a sense of efficient inevitability that I couldn’t have imagined anything disrupting it.   Who would have guessed that in two short weeks, the plight of our ship and all aboard her would land us on the front page of the Wall Street Journal….

 

From the bridge I could take it all in.  Out over the tops of thousands of containers stacked like Legos on the deck of our monstrous ship, stretched the sheltering sky with only a few puffy clouds on the horizon.  How many crab legs or door jams or dildos or dog toys could you fit into one forty-foot-long steel box, let alone five thousand nine hundred and seventy-two of them?  But in this almost forgotten space, the middle of the Pacific, halfway to Tokyo, our home, this mighty leviathan, is no more than a speck of pollen on the rippled skin of the largest ocean on Earth.

 

Out here for all intents and purposes we’re incommunicado.  That’s okay by me.  I’ve brought along about ten pounds of books to read and hope to do some writing as well.  We’re traveling in the owner’s cabin on deck F, a couple of floors beneath the bridge.  Tastefully carpeted and simply but elegantly furnished, the stateroom is battened down with heavy steel doors that close with authority and thick wooden cabinets that click tightly shut with strong little magnets.  Everything looks shipshape, spacious and far larger than a typical cabin on a cruise ship.  On the bookshelf, along with other reading material was a glossy in-house magazine with a story that might have alerted me to the possibility of what was to come.  The article mentioned “challenges” the company had been going through recently.  My only gripe at this point was that what looked like it was going to be an expansive view got blocked by a wall of containers stacked three feet directly in front of our portholes.

 

Booking passage on a freighter seems like a throwback to an earlier era.  I can scarcely believe it’s still allowed in a corporate world obsessed with liability.  I’m not sure what role we’re expected to play.  We can’t bring in much revenue.  Mere pocket lint in an operation this size.  Maybe we’re meant to be a break from the monotony of life at sea for the ship’s officers, or maybe it’s just a naval tradition and slow to change.  But for whatever reason, if you’re willing to sign the indemnity release form, buy the required insurance, and get inoculated for yellow fever, you can go almost anywhere on a working ship.  They rarely take on more than ten passengers, and often far fewer, since more than ten legally requires a doctor on board.  It’s considerably cheaper than traveling on a cruise ship, and your fellow travelers will likely be more interesting.

We joined our ship, the Hanjin Geneva, in Seattle.   Our taxi driver left us off just outside the gates of the terminal where we waited excitedly at security for the shuttle van.  After showing our passports, we donned hard hats and reflective vests.  Then after a brief wait, my wife, Gail, and I were driven out to our boat.  What a sight!  A hundred feet tall and over the length of three football fields.  A smiling young Filipino sailor quickly descended from the ship, grabbed our heavy bags and wrestled them up the gangway with me and Gail following close behind.

How peculiar it felt to find ourselves adrift halfway around the world while the suits in executive suites in Hamburg and Seoul decided our fate – along with the fate of mountains of frozen salmon, shoelaces and ping pong tables. 

Forty years ago I’d attempted to stow away on a luxurious Italian liner bound for Genoa.  I didn’t make it.  This time everything was legit, but my heart was still pounding with excitement from the thrill of coming aboard a great ship.

On the way up the elevator to our stateroom we bumped into a great friendly bear of a man, with rapidly moving, dark, keen, intelligent eyes, short inky black beard, and a head of hair like an uncontrolled squall…our captain, Robert Kuschmirz.  As we ascended, his massive girth seemed to occupy half the tiny elevator’s space.  He spoke quickly with a thick German accent that made it hard for me to understand him at first, though as the trip went on my ears gradually adjusted.  I never adjusted to his laugh though…the loudest I’ve ever heard.  We’d be eating in the officers’ mess and it would suddenly go off like a detonating hand grenade.  He was in a bustling hurry, but more than congenial.  I almost felt as if he might give us a hug.   He assured us we were welcome in the wheelhouse anytime cargo wasn’t being loaded or we were navigating in or out of port.

 

Food in the officers’ mess is solid German seaman’s chow…pot roast, bratwurst, sauerkraut, goulash, pork knuckle soup… If that’s too heavy, veggies are an option.  Our Filipino steward, James, is the smilingest, most obliging guy imaginable.  He serves all our meals and cleans the stateroom once a week.

 

The ship is manned by 22 souls…five European officers (four Germans and one Pole) and 18 crewmen (16 Filipino and two very popular Filipina).  Everybody speaks serviceable English, the lingua franca of cargo ships.

 

Many years ago in Goa I became friends with a group of retired sea captains…salty dogs with lots of stories.  One thing they all agreed on was that they’d lived in the golden age of seafaring.  Loading and unloading a ship today is so efficient that it scarcely leaves time for anyone to go ashore.  “Sailors these days are like prisoners,” said one.  That’s not to say that the men and women on our boat aren’t proud of their skill, but it can be a lonely life.

 

It’s fascinating to watch a container ship being loaded.  The monstrous, smoothly efficient machines look like kinetic sculpture, and the ballet of perfectly coordinated work has its own beauty.  You occasionally see people, but only occasionally, and when you do, they seem tiny and inconsequential.  Trains pull up to the dock where mobile cranes pick the individual containers up one by one and stack them in well-ordered piles along numbered lanes where a series of other gigantic insect-like mechanisms pick them up again and load them onto trucks that sequentially husband them through a labyrinth of colorful container stacks to a spot immediately beneath the mother of all overhead loading cranes, ten or fifteen stories tall.  The crane clasps each succeeding container, then effortlessly plucks it up, lifts it over the gunnels of the vessel and deposits it with a satisfying crunch into its designated slot.   Everything is dictated by dense, continuously evolving algorithms.  Every year more stuff gets moved around, and every year it requires fewer and fewer human beings to keep this relentless juggernaut of intentionality in motion.  In ports like Rotterdam, virtually all work is done by robots who don’t require healthcare and never ask for a raise.

Container ships have re-made our world.  Like the Internet they’ve leveled the playing field between nations and knit us into a global interdependent community with an economic stake in peaceful cooperation as well as a world where wealthy countries with well-paid workers have to compete with poorer countries over the production all things tradable.  Globalization has made a lot of manufactured goods incredibly cheap.  The fact that you can buy a watch that keeps near-perfect time at the Dollar Store continues to amaze me.  Naturally there have been negative effects as well, but my point is not to get into a discussion of the pros and cons of globalization, but rather to emphasize the fact that even though the uniform treatment of containerized goods that can be moved virtually anywhere on earth by ship, train or truck has revolutionized commerce, the process, especially the crucial sea link, takes place out of sight from most of us.

IMG_0010

 

Initially Gail and I thought we’d be the only passengers, but in Vancouver we were joined by Rebecca, a six-foot-tall young woman from London, bursting with ruddy health and enthusiasm…an art student with long dark brown hair, lively, intelligent eyes that look you straight on, and what my untutored ear takes to be a faintly upper-class accent.  She has a bit of the manner of a giant puppy who’s always tripping over its feet.  She’s very dear.

Her job will be to shoot a video project about freighters.  It won’t be a run-of-the-mill documentary though, but rather something more creative that will be exhibited in an art museum in Vancouver along with the work of four other “emergent artists” traveling on similar container ships.  She has no clear idea what form her project might take, though she’s packed a few props and costumes.  She plans to shoot hours and hours of video, then try to make sense of it in the editing process.  I asked her about previous projects and she mentioned one in which she dressed up as a frog and hopped around on a pogo stick, periodically falling off, then climbing back on!

 

We awoke on our second day out to a gentle swaying motion.  Our cabin is located amid ship, which minimizes the roll.  On the outside stairs the sway was substantially more pronounced.  The stacked containers buttressed with a spider net of high-tension metal lashings creaked and groaned ominously as I made my way down to the main deck that encircles the ship.  When I reached the bottom of the staircase, things got wilder.  I found myself clumsily making my way along the slippery main deck, clutching onto the railing in a stiff wind as the bow of our ship splintered each succeeding twenty-foot swell with the crashing sound of WOW! WOW! WOW!  I’ve yet to acquire my sea legs.

 

The crew is fine, but all three of us passengers are feeling a bit queasy.  For me, what helps is climbing up to the bridge where I can see the horizon and have a sense of how the ship is attacking the waves.  Even several hours later back in our cabin I seem to carry with me a sense of being aboard a ship ponderously making its way through choppy seas rather than a person confined to a room that drunkenly, sickeningly lurches about in unexpected, seemingly random ways.  If things get worse, I have seasickness patches prescribed by my buddy, Rick Owens.

 

We’re well beyond the 200-mile limit so the ship is permitted to switch from relatively clean

burning diesel fuel with low sulfur content to less clean but cheaper bunker oil.  You’d only notice it if it was brought to your attention, but the exhaust coming from the stack is no longer transparent.  There’s some grayness to it, and you can see a bit more soot on the outside floors and railings.  Up on the bridge is a chart showing the year-by-year, progressively more restrictive environmental laws that ships must adhere to.  The days of lawlessness, when you could dump anything out on the open sea, are coming to an end.  Today only garbage can be thrown overboard, and then only beyond the twelve-mile limit.  At least on our boat, glass, plastic and metal are carefully segregated for disposal back ashore.  Theoretically that means no messages in bottles, though that is one rule I hope to break at least once.

 

Life aboard ship is by turns fascinating and monotonous.  Our next landfall after Vancouver is Tokyo, 4,200 nautical miles away.  We’ll cross eight time zones and lose a day when we pass over the international date line, a crooked imaginary ribbon that starts at the North Pole along the 180th parallel, zigs just west of the archipelago of the Aleutian Islands, then drops straight down into the South Pacific where it zags east between Fiji and Samoa, clears New Zealand, then zigs back to the 180th parallel on its way to a final rendezvous at the South Pole with all the other lines of longitude.

It always seems a little counterintuitive that a straight line drawn on a Mercator Projection is not the shortest distance between two points on a sphere.  Our voyage will take us on a great northern arc that breaches the Aleutians through Unimak Pass, briefly crossing into the Bering Sea before arching back south passing just east of the Attu Islands.  Then on to Japan.

 

One evening at dinner I mentioned to the captain that I’d heard that occasionally people have tried to make it to the US locked in a shipping container.  He said it would be plenty difficult while admitting that, other than knowing which containers require refrigeration (reefers) and which contain hazardous materials, no one aboard has any idea what the individual forty-foot boxes contain.  Only a small percentage of shipping containers are x-rayed, which frankly seems like a gaping hole in anti-terrorism security.

The conversation moved on to piracy…a very real problem in places like the Horn of Africa, the Straits of Malacca and the northern Indian Ocean.  He said he’d encountered pirates once several years back but was able to evade them simply by speeding up.  He reassured me that for our passage to China there was little to no danger of either pirates or icebergs.

 

For virtually the whole trip we’ll be operating on automatic pilot.  The captain resets our course and speed from time to time and the automatic pilot does the rest, continually altering our heading to compensate for wind and current.  There’s a “Deadman’s Button” that starts blinking every once in a while.  If whoever is on watch doesn’t quickly punch it back in response, an alarm goes off in the captain’s quarters and there’ll be hell to pay.

 

A lot of time on the bridge is spent filling out copious paperwork, and month after month of it can get tedious.  When I make my way up to the bridge, I’m always met with a smile.  It’s one of the many reasons I love traveling on a working ship.  There’s always something going on, and whoever is on watch seems happy to answer my incessant torrent of questions.

Typically, I take a look at the large chart on the table near the big window facing the stern to check our course and location, see if we’re around something cool like a buoy anchored out in the middle of nowhere for detecting tsunamis, or maybe crossing some great eight-mile-deep trench.  Another chart I like to examine is printed out daily and shows the direction and wind speed along our projected course with a series of tiny flag-shaped lines.  There’s an instrument that continually draws a line on a scrolling piece of paper indicating whether the barometric pressure is rising or falling.  Then there are electronic read-outs on the huge dashboard showing dozens of things like current speed and direction, distance from our last port, and what’s going on in the engine room.  One elaborate display shows all the ballast tanks, their locations, how much water each contains, and buttons that allow you to operate pumps that redistribute water between them to keep the ship stable.  A couple of dimly lit dials a full meter in diameter, set just beneath the great panoramic windows at the front of the wheelhouse, show weather and the location and identification of nearby ships.  There’s even a secret hidden button warning that pirates are aboard.  God, I love all that shit!

 

It’s the fourth day into the voyage and we’re entering Unimak Passage.  Rebecca, Gail and I were up on the bridge this afternoon with the third mate hoping to catch a glimpse of the islands we could see all around us on the radar screen.  This time of year up in the North Pacific clouds and fog predominate.  As we looked out into the enveloping whiteness there wasn’t a hinge between sea and sky.  Suddenly the fog lifted, and there directly across from us was a perfect conical volcano totally sheathed in snow, floating gracefully on a sea of clouds.  For the five minutes it lasted we whooped around the deck like idiots mugging and striking silly poses in the foreground of this magical apparition.

 

Much of the life aboard a container ship is repetitious to the point of tedium.  I can scarcely imagine what twenty years of nine-month contracts with virtually no time ashore must be like…long hours of uneventful labor, beneath the water line, amidst the continual roar of a monstrous engine with cylinders large enough for a man to crawl into.  That’s been the life of Gunnar, our chief engineer.  A sensitive man, he has a world-weary manner, tall and lanky with gentle blue eyes below bushy dark eyebrows, his disheveled gray hair tied back into a short ponytail.  If anything breaks down on the ship, it’s his job to fix it.  Up on the bridge the captain is the brain of our vessel, below decks the chief engineer is its heart.

Before we descend into the immense engine room, Gunnar explains succinctly that the engine is like a living organism and requires three things in order to operate efficiently…fuel, air, and water.  His job is to see that this monstrous creature and its many organs are healthy and properly fed.  After a short briefing, Rebecca and I (not Gail’s idea of a fun thing to do) put on headphones to protect our ears from the din and follow Gunnar through a heavy, tightly sealed door, down a set of steel steps and into the bowels of the vessel.

We emerge onto a platform overlooking the cavernous room that houses the great beating heart of our ship.  Below us is the immense ten-cylinder engine with a thick driveshaft emerging from its rear.  The burdensome shaft, roughly the girth of a telephone pole, and about forty meters long, spins at only about sixty rpm but with unimaginable power.  It connects to the propeller that ultimately drives us through the water.  I mouth the words, “How big?” and Gunnar shows 25 fingers, then points to his foot, at which point we all laugh.

There’s virtually nothing living, neither plant nor animal, aboard this vessel.  The flower arrangements in our cabin and the officers’ mess, where we take our meals based on a posted schedule, are all plastic.  A pair of small nondescript brown birds must have flown onto the ship in Vancouver.  We sometimes see them about the afterdeck.  They look forlorn but may survive till Tokyo by foraging a few chickpeas that have fallen onto the deck from some container.

 

One of the problems inherent in moving cargo from one place to another is the opportunity it affords for unwanted creatures to stow away on a ship.  Released into some new habitat where they have no natural predators they can wreak havoc on the local ecosystem.  In the early days of sailing, rats that escaped from sailing ships devastated the bird populations of small islands.  Small plants and animals can cause problems as well.  For that reason, ballast water picked up somewhere else, which might contain snails or clam spore or something equally problematic, is never discharged in port.

 

When we leave Korea a special crew of inspectors paid for by Hanjin will scour the boat searching for eggs or adults of the Asian Gypsy Moth.  When the ship reaches North America, authorities will fine Hanjin $1,000 for every egg cluster they find, even if it’s encapsulated in paint.

Speaking of painting, it’s a major and literally never-ending activity for the crew.  All day, every day, three or four sailors continuously scrape and paint the vessel with an epoxy paint that requires a noxious hardener to be mixed in each new batch.  Tough nasty work done by hardworking Filipinos.

The Filipinos onboard seem to prefer to hang out together.  Even Mark, the third mate and Alyssa, the adorable 22-year-old officer-in-training, who technically could eat with the ship’s officers, eat with the crew and hang out in the crews’ day room after hours.  The Filipinos on board are a jolly bunch for the most part and always glad to talk.  Everyone seems grateful to have a good-paying job, and they’re proud of what they do, but man do they miss being home with their families…and when it’s karaoke night, you’ll hear nothing but sappy, mournful love songs sung with real feeling.

 

Rebecca has been spending hours every day sitting on a small perch on the very tip of the bow, her favorite place on the ship.  A couple of days ago she spotted dolphins and three orcas, one of which crossed right in front of her.  Shortly afterward, the chief officer, Adam, reported seeing blood trailing in the water behind us, so perhaps the unfortunate creature ran afoul of our propeller.  A sad thought.

 

No hard liquor is allowed on board, but most of the crew enjoy having a beer or two when they get off work.  There’s not much going on out here, so any excuse for a party is welcome.  Last night was Alyssa’s birthday, and everyone was invited.  I’m not keen on karaoke, but in the spirit of the moment I thought I’d give Yellow Submarine a shot.  My initial verse was frankly embarrassing, but then came the refrain, “We all live in a yellow submarine,” … everyone joined in big time!  It was the hit of the evening.

 

We awoke this morning to shocking news.  Hanjin Shipping has gone bankrupt and cannot or will not pay for either the pilot’s fee to guide us into Tokyo harbor or the port fees that would allow us to dock. The scuttlebutt is that the captain’s orders are to anchor off the coast of Japan in international waters and await further orders.  We’re presently three days’ distance from Tokyo. We’ve been advised by the captain to conserve food and water. What a mess! We’ve got around a hundred million dollars’ worth of cargo aboard including a fair amount of perishables, so that ought to light a fire under people ashore. A message on the whiteboard outside the officers’ mess just announced a meeting for all crew members in the ship’s office at 9:00 tomorrow.

Next morning all available spaces in the tiny office were filled, but as we entered the room, two crew members jumped up and graciously offered their chairs.  There was electricity in the air.  Even though recent developments could mean that the captain and the entire crew would soon be out of a job, everyone seemed strangely and unreasonably larky, like it was a snow day.  The captain was excited to finally have a chance to do captain things like inventory our provisions and determine where we were going to drop anchor.  Everyone else seemed exhilarated just to have a break from the day to day monotony of life at sea.  And for three stranded passengers, how peculiar it felt to find ourselves adrift halfway around the world from home while the suits in executive suites in Hamburg and Seoul decided our fate – along with the fate of mountains of frozen salmon, shoelaces and ping pong tables.

 

Watched a glorious pink and golden sunset this evening. Tonight, we cross our eighth time zone since departing from Seattle. My body has been slow to make adjustments, but for a night owl like me that just means turning in early and waking around seven in the morning. No big deal. It’s been tougher on my early bird wife, who now rolls out of bed in the middle of the night. She also has had an irritation behind her right ear which has added to her discomfort. She’s had enough of freighter travel for the time being.

As I’d anticipated, the trip has been an excellent opportunity for reading.  I started off with Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind. Well written, with lots of thought-provoking ideas and quirky insights from an anthropological point of view. When Red is Black is a mystery story set in Shanghai in the 90’s.  A great read…very atmospheric.  Ready Player One, a sci-fi novel about a young man who immerses himself in a world of virtual reality to escape the dreary world of 2045 where earth has run through most of its fossil fuel…Barely able to finish it. Chasing Venus, the Race to Measure the Heavens.  In 1761 and again in 1769 the transit of Venus measured from many viewing positions around the world gave an international community of scientists the opportunity to calculate the earth’s distance from the sun.  The story of the brilliant, intrepid men who prevailed over wars and innumerable hardships to accomplish that goal is the subject of the book. Great stuff!

The captain cranked up the engines a little and we started to make 19 knots instead of our normal 14 Top speed is 27 knots. [editor’s note: a nautical mile is based on the circumference of the earth.  If you cut the earth in half at the equator, you could pick up one of the halves and look at the equator as a circle.  If you divided that circle into 360 degrees, then divided each of those degrees into 60 minutes that minute of arc on the earth is one nautical mile.  It’s about the same as 1.15 miles or 6076 feet. If you’re traveling at a speed of one nautical mile per hour you’re traveling at one knot. ] The captain is trying to get us just beyond the reach of the typhoon and into an area of calm seas and balmy weather. Yesterday Rebecca and I spent several hours dangling our legs off the front of the bow, chatting while spotting the occasional dolphin or shark who nimbly shot off, avoiding us as our boat quietly plied its way in a southwesterly direction towards the Japanese coast.

 

This bankruptcy is actually a pretty big deal, the largest ever in the shipping industry. We’re the third largest shipping company on earth by tonnage. That’s a hell of a lot of cargo. We’re (I’m beginning to feel like I’m part of the enterprise I guess) especially important between China/Korea and America and Canada’s west coast, and our collapse could conceivably affect America’s Christmas. The whole imbroglio has made me realize just how complicated the corporate structure of international trade is. Maris, the company who originally booked our trip, arranged it through NSB, a German company (which is reflagging to some other country with looser rules) who provide the crew for Hanjin Shipping, which falls under its parent, Hanjin Group, that in turn owns dozens of other entities like Korean Airlines.

The company makes its money from fees for container transport, and pays for things like canal passage and docking fees. Those fees have recently dropped from $2,000, to a scarcely believable $600 from Shanghai to Seattle.  To add another layer of complexity, Hanjin doesn’t even own the boats; they only lease them.  A German company named Conti contracted for construction of the ship from a Korean shipyard.  Not sure what relationship they have with the “owner.”  But at any rate, it’s this “owner,” whatever human or byzantine corporate entity that might be, who tells the captain what to do and when to do it.

 

The sea has turned from dark green and the sky from steel grey in the Bering Sea a few days ago to a deep lapis lazuli with towering white clouds today. The air has been made fresh, sweet and balmy by the greatest immensity of water on the face of the Earth. I was able to strip down to a T shirt as I sat on the front of the bow with Rebecca this afternoon. We talked about a million things and scanned the horizon for ships, perched comfortably ten meters above the soft sound of water slushing beneath our bare feet.

We’re within a day of Tokyo harbor and still awaiting guidance from the mysterious “owner.” We might anchor off the coast of Japan in international waters, or we might proceed around the southern tip of Honshu and on to Busan in Korea.  To complicate things, a typhoon is approaching from the south. We’ll skirt it but it will still mean heavy seas before long.

 

By the standards of freighter travel, yesterday was pretty exciting. About noon we got our first glimpse of the coast of Japan. Despite the captain’s request that we proceed directly to Korea to offload cargo and passengers, the “owner” instructed us to drop anchor 12 miles off the coast, near the entrance to Tokyo harbor.

After carefully looking through the charts the captain selected a spot far from wrecks, cables and pipelines with a depth of around fifty meters (our draft is 14). Up on the bridge, the fore and aft depth indicators suddenly became crucial, though I’m told that veteran seamen can sense ocean depth by the feel of a boat passing over a shallow spot.

The monstrous anchor, attached by a chain with individual links three feet long made of steel as thick as your thigh, was made ready. The engine was idled.  We slowly came to a stop and the word was given.  The bosun up near the bow, turned the wheel that released the chain and it began to fly out of the hold with a violence that rattled the whole ship.

 

This evening, for the first time since we left Vancouver there are ships around us everywhere.  All of a sudden the watch on my phone has adjusted to local time and we can see that our airbnb hosts in Shanghai have been desperately trying to get ahold of us by email. After two weeks of peaceful solitude we’re connected with the world again.

Gail’s ear is better and she’s feeling more cheerful today… a great relief.  In many ways the quiet routine with plenty of time for reading suits her, so I feel good about that. This morning I inadvertently violated ship etiquette by sitting at breakfast in the normal seat of Adam, the ship’s chief officer. It bothered him far more than I would have expected and afterwards I found myself searching all over the ship to apologize.  He graciously accepted, and thank goodness everything is patched up again.  I’m grateful that we have such amiable shipmates for this trip.  Any friction between us in such a confined situation would be hard on everybody.

Rebecca continues to work on her video project which will apparently be more slapstick than esthetic. She’s asked me not to give anything away till her art exhibit opens next October, so mums the word on her shenanigans until then.  It’s somehow comforting to know that the world provides food, clothing, shelter and maybe a lot more for someone whose job it is to live this life. The other day she was sitting outside on the bow chatting on the phone with her boyfriend back in London who was using the app Marine Traffic, when he said something about the two boats coming up behind her.  She turned around and there they were.  I’d used the same app to track the progress of our ship as it crossed back and forth across the Pacific when I was back in Indiana. For five dollars anyone can buy something that allows you to locate and track on your phone, any ship in the world 24/7.  Not surprisingly it’s SOP to turn the function off in areas infested with pirates.

Rebecca was just down in the ship’s office checking her Facebook account when a woman with four containers of frozen french fries on our boat noticed her posts and contacted her and inquired if Rebecca had any idea why we weren’t proceeding to Busan to offload our cargo. The woman, apparently a titan in the world of Asian french fries, says that Hanjin owns the dock so she doesn’t understand what gives.

Seas are choppy today with strong winds and scudding clouds overhead.  No real news.  Rebecca, with her keen social media skills, has lined up interviews with such notables as the BBC World Service, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.  Who would have guessed that out here in the middle of nowhere we’d be of interest to anyone, let alone such media heavyweights?

 

Gail’s ear is much the same. She’s feeling well enough to work out on the step machine down on C deck.  There’s a 15-foot by 15-foot swimming pool filled with sea water, and a sauna in the gym that I might get around to using one of these days.

 

Still no news from the big shots back on land who’ll eventually decide our fate.  This afternoon, up in the wheelhouse I watched a powerful storm front coming in, both on radar and out on the exposed wing of the bridge.  When it hit, it hit hard.  Raindrops began to sting my face.  The wind would have carried my hat off if I hadn’t quickly grabbed it.  Back inside, ensconced in the captain’s chair I watched the dial on the anemometer show the wind outside gusting up to 50 knots. Pretty cool!

By evening the weather had quieted down.  After dinner in the officer’s mess, Taras the second engineer, enthusiastically invited me to go fishing off the back of the boat and I accepted.  He quickly grabbed a fish back in the galley to cut up for bait.  Then we swiftly made our way down the elevator and out the door to A deck, and from there down some more stairs to the poop deck and a railing overlooking the sea five meters below us.  Somebody had already lowered a light a couple of meters above the water to attract the fish.  All we had to do was throw our lead-weighted lines over the side, feed out 20 meters of thick, 50-pound-test monofilament into the ocean, then slowly pull it in.

There was a knot in the line at around 10 meters where Taras estimated there might be a school of fish.  Sure enough, when my bait reached that level I felt a strong tug followed by the unmistakable feel of a fish on the line.  I hauled it up, and a minute later there was a 12-inch, half-pound mackerel flapping madly on the deck…eat’n size.  Over the next hour I hauled in a dozen near identical fish, and every time Taras would exclaim enthusiastically in a thick German accent, “Good one! Big one!”

Finished, How Not to be Wrong, The Power of Mathematical Thinking.  Clever, well written and convincing. I can see why it was on Bill Gates’s reading list.

This morning the captain briefed us on the situation. Hanjin ships are being offloaded in Busan, and we’re in the queue, though we don’t know how many ships there are or where we are in the queue.  We’ve got 28 days of provisions, so we’re in no immediate danger there, though our all-seeing captain has noticed my profligate use of Nutella and has put me on short rations of chocolate till we reach port.  It’s been my sole hardship on the voyage so far.

 

Gail’s condition is slightly improved, though the swollen protuberance behind her ear makes it stick out a bit, giving her face a slightly asymmetrical elfin look.  Skimmed through The Vital Question, Energy, Evolution and the Origin of Complex Life…Pretty tough sledding.  I’m now out of reading material.

A full-scale typhoon is heading straight for us and will arrive sometime around the 18th, nine days from now, but for today at least it was balmy out on the bow with very calm seas. The captain stripped off his shirt and joined me and Rebecca up there while Gail industriously walked around the forward deck increasing the step count on her phone for the day.  Sad to say the fuel band on my wrist which monitors my daily activity hasn’t shown me achieving my goal since we stepped on board.

Had the bright idea of borrowing DVDs from the crew’s day room.  There were literally hundreds of them, but practically all were either action or porn.  Finally came up with a Nicholas Cage flick called Two Minutes Ahead, which wasn’t too bad.  Unlikely as it might seem, the gunfight in the denouement was shot aboard a container ship!

 

Awoke to gloomy weather and bad news. Rebecca brought her camera over to our room to record our reactions for possible use in her film project.  Then she announced that the British Foreign Office has told her that if/when our ship finally reaches Busan the Korean government won’t let us disembark.  As an artist interested in the absurdities of modern life she seems to have hit the jackpot.

Forgot to mention that Kim Jong-un, the possibly insane leader of North Korea, has exploded a nuclear device with twice the strength of his previous weapons.  In Seoul, they could feel the tremor of the underground test that registered 4.5 on the Richter scale, the force of a small earthquake.

There’s a lottery going on down in the ship’s office predicting the date we lift anchor. The range goes from our optimistic chief officer’s one day to our pessimistic 2nd engineer’s bet on the end of the month.  I’m guessing four days.

Rebecca informs us that there’s now a movement on Twitter with the hash tag “Save Rebecca” dedicated to getting her off the ship.  She’s now receiving hundreds of tweets from people she’s never heard of.  I can’t help but think of a refugee camp in Kurdistan (one of hundreds in the Middle East) I visited last year where large families were living in tents smaller than our stateroom with slim hope of ever returning to their homeland.

As I was beavering along compiling this journal, I got an excited call from the captain up on the bridge.  He says that NSB had just notified him that sometime within the next few days he’ll be ordered to proceed to Tokyo to discharge all passengers, who will then be allowed to pass through Immigration unmolested.  Hot Shit!!  Not getting our hopes up too much, but get me on dry land with an entry stamp in my passport and I promise I’ll never complain about anything again, ever.

 

Spent a couple of hours this afternoon walking around the forecastle up by the bow, listening to my iPod and singing my heart out without fear of another soul hearing.  I was wailing on “Gentle on My Mind.” “It’s knowing that the world will not be cursed or forgiven when I walk along some railroad tracks and find, that you’re moving on the backroads by the rivers of my memory and for hours you’re just gentle on my mind,” and “Treetop Flyer,” “People been asking me where’d you learn to fly that way? Was over in Vietnam chasing NVA.  The government taught me, and they taught me right, stay down under the tree line, you might be alright. ..I’m a treetop flyer…Born survivor… Usually work alone.”

There’s talk on the Internet of crowdfunding a boat to come and “rescue” us.  Rebecca has been contacted by an attorney who suggests that she might want to sue someone.  Friggin’ Nuts!  I think we’re getting our 15 minutes of celebrity.

The captain just advised me that the word from NSB is that our ETA for Tokyo is the 17th at 19:00.  That’s just two days from now.  He says he’s 99% sure it’s happening.  Sounds great but it’s not over till it’s over.

They were running an anti-terrorist drill onboard today. It was not unlike an Easter egg hunt.  The captain hid a box labeled “bomb” somewhere on the boat and it was up to the crew to find, and properly dispose of it.

It’s 100% now! We just got confirmed hotel reservations in Tokyo for two nights and an e-ticket to Shanghai for Monday.  I can’t help but wonder if Rebecca’s social media blitz may have played some role in getting us off the ship earlier than expected. I think the powers that be will be glad to get her off the ship and out of their hair.

The big day finally arrived.  We hoisted anchor and steamed into Tokyo harbor.  The captain, who’s normal attire often verged on slovenly was all decked out in full regalia, replete with epaulets and starched shirt.  If the boat was going to be arrested (a curious term invariably used by the owner), he wanted to be looking good, I guess.  As the pilot boat came along side we had no idea what to expect, but for whatever reason everything proceeded normally.

An hour later he’d cautiously steered us alongside our designated slip.  Ropes, fore and aft were tossed onto the quay, then carefully slipped over the bollards and ever so slowly our monstrous ship winched itself into its birth, eerily illuminated by banks of high pressure sodium lights that turned night into orange-tinted day.

The order was given to disembark…We’d been packed for hours.  Several of our Filipino shipmate pals helped us make it down the gangway with all our stuff, I leaned down and kissed dry land, then we all mugged for everyone’s camera phone.

A polite middle-aged Japanese gentleman hired by NSB met us at the dock and shepherded the three of us to a nice new van and offered us bottles of lychee flavored water.  Somebody way up the bureaucratic ladder must have taken an interest in our case, since customs and immigration were kept open after hours especially for us.  We got the full VIP treatment.  A half hour taxi trip to a ritzy hotel out by the airport and it was over.

Would I take another freighter somewhere?  Heck yes, travel on a working ship beats airplanes any day, and our problems were a black swan event.

 

Epilogue

Sitting here at my computer on a perfect Fall afternoon looking out the window at my pond, I just checked on the whereabouts of our ship on the Marine Traffic app.  Our ship is 7952 nautical miles from my present position.  She left Busan Korea 30 Sept at 05:39 and is now at anchor in the Laccadive Sea off the coast of Sri Lanka. It’s evening.  The wind is 12 knots coming out of the WSW at 250 degrees and the temperature is 28 degrees centigrade.  She must be unloaded since she’s only got a 9-meter draught.  A mile off her starboard bow whoever’s up on the bridge should be able to make out the Santa Fiorenza steaming into harbor.  Back on the poop deck the crew are most likely yucking it up and dreaming of home.  I wish them all well and hope the fish are biting.

 

Postscript

A month after submitting this story to The Ryder, I checked on our ship again.  Ominously, this time it showed she was anchored just off the coast of Pakistan near Gadani, one of those post-apocalyptic looking cities where they dismember boats. When I checked again the following week, no trace of a ship named Hanjin Geneva could be found.