The day had finally arrived, I was about to board my cargo ship from Brisbane to Singapore. Excited about my trip but also a little bit anxious to be alone for 12 days on a freighter ship, I started my day with some shopping: sea-sickness tablets, sun-screen and six books. Yes I was prepared to be really bored! I jumped in a taxi, “Brisbane Harbour, Patrick’s terminals please”. I could see the surprise on the driver’s face, I don’t think many backpackers ask to go to the commercial part of Brisbane’s harbour…
And indeed, it didn’t look at all like a tourist area once I arrived. The place was covered with containers and huge cranes were loading them on a ship. The security person looked at me: “oh you must be the passenger!”. After a signature he brought me to the ship. It was unbelievably huge! I was greeted by a worker on the ship who brought me onboard. He introduced me to a Russian crew member, Aleksander, who showed me the way to my cabin. It was much better than I expected: it had an ensuite bathroom, a tv and dvd player, a couch and a nice double bed. Still I could tell that this journey was certainly not made for passengers, the atmosphere and decoration on board is rather that of a big factory.
My vessel, the MSC Basel, was a monster: 51 000 tons, 216 meters long and 32 meters wide (known as Panamax, the maximum width allowed through the Panama Canal). It can carry up to 2700 containers.
Everyday, breakfast is served at 7.30, lunch at 11.30 and dinner at 17.30. On sundays and Tuesdays, ice-cream is served as dessert and cake at three o’clock. This routine reminded me a little of my time at the boarding school. I had to eat in the Mess room, the canteen for the captain and the officers and was assigned a fixed seat. There were no native English-speaking people on board. The captain was german, and the other officers were German, Russian and Estonian. There was also Mr. Singh, a trainee Nautical Officer from India.
During my first dinner, I met most of them and also the other passenger, Ulrich a friendly German in his fifties. His English wasn’t the best but we still managed to communicate with a mix of simple words and gestures. A good training for my upcoming travels in Asia I suppose!
The crew consisted of 25 men, the rest of the crew (non-officers) were all from the Kiribati Islands in the Pacific, and ate in a separate room. It’s interesting to note that these brave men were on twelve months contracts, meaning they are on the boat for twelve months, working eight hours a day, seven days a week. As a comparison, the captain and Chief Engineer from Germany are on permament contracts and get 13 days of holidays for every month on the ship. The Russians were mostly on 4 months contracts.
The time I had on the boat is probably the most relaxing time in my life. There is not much to do or to worry about, except arriving on time for the meals… The ship goes very slowly, at a speed of 16 nods, which is approximately 30km/h. This can be challenging at times, but I ended up enjoying it a lot. The constant sound of the engine and the slight movement of the waves are very relaxing and guarantee you very good sleep at night. I slept like never before!
When I wasn’t reading, eating or sleeping, I spent most of my time around the ‘swimming pool‘ often in the company of Ulrich. Other things I enjoyed were to just watch the view from the front of the ship were the vibrations of the engine were absent and the only sound were the waves crashing against the boat. The crew were also really friendly and explained me the life on the sea at lenght. As a passenger you are allowed everywhere on the ship, so I visited every corner of it!
During my stay I was able to manoeuvre the ship myself, I visited the engine room, had countless interesting discussions, spotted dolphins, active volcanoes and deserted islands with long white sand beaches. I waved back at the enthusiastic indonesians passing by on small fishing boats, cleaned the swimming pool entirely (ok well yes I was a bit bored then…), and participated in a fire drill exercise. During certain legs we had to lock all doors of the ships at night against pirates, and there was a person crew watching for them all night with a huge torch lamp. In more secure areas an unforgetable experience was swimming at night in the swimming pool under the stars in the middle of the ocean.
Ecologically these ships are a bit of a disaster though. The MSC basel requires 45 to 60 metric tons of heavy fuel a day to run! And Im’ told this is actually an eco-friendly vessel, the more recent and faster ships need up to 300 tons a day. The captain also acknowledged that they were one of the worst sources of pollution.
The crew’s lack of respect for the marine environment also surprised me. They basically throw everything overboard except plastic. So every time they finish a bottle of beer or a can of soft drink: they throw it in the sea. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t keep them to recycle them. The Chief officer explained it: “It’s too expensive, at the harbour they charge us for our waste so we prefer to get rid of it before that”. “Do you also have to pay to for the recyclable waste in Europe”, I asked. “No, not in Europe, it’s included in the harbour tax”. “And do you still throw everything overboard there or not?” I asked with a glimpse of hope. “Hum… yes we still do”, he admitted. I wasn’t surprised but asked him to urge the crew not to do so the next time he sails in European waters, let’s hope he listened!
That being said, I had a great time and would encourage anybody to try the experience. It’s a great opportunity to witness the life on board such a vessel! You really feel like part of the crew. I was called “Mister de Halleux”, and had to call all the officers by their titles! “Chief officer, could you pass me the salt?” A big difference as well after the relaxed attitude of the Australians.
Now I’m finally in Singapore and am planning to head very soon to Indonesia for some more adventures!
Check the photo gallery for more pictures!