“When the alarm goes you grab this,” Officer Cadet Dusan said as he pointed to my lifejacket. “And this.” An orange survival suit. “We muster on C Deck, starboard side.” I didn’t know if it was a good or bad thing that my welcome was bringing up Titanic-like thoughts.
I had just boarded the ANL Bindaree, a Liberian-flagged freighter that was slowly pulling out into the Hauraki Gulf laden with 30,000 tones of freight, 24 crew and 1 other passenger. I was following a little-known tradition of passengers on cargo ships, harking back to the days when cabins were set aside for owners and VIPs. Today they’re taken by people looking for a slow alternative to air travel, who are independent, have time to spare, and who – like me – just want to do something a little different.
I’d chosen a rather circuitous route as was pointed out by Adrian, the bemused Chief Engineer. “OK, so you’re leaving here to come back here to go nowhere?” “Uh huh,” I replied. From Auckland around Cape Reinga across the Tasman to Melbourne, up the Australian Coast to Sydney and then into the South Pacific to disembark at Tauranga. The journey would take two weeks. “You are very strange,” he chuckled.
Adrian was one of the Bindaree’s band of officers from Croatia, Romania, and Montenegro; the crew were all Filipino. As is maritime tradition there was strict segregation between the officers and the crew including socialising, eating and sleeping. This irked my fellow passenger, Naomi, a Canadian environmental educator, who was telling me so when we were interrupted.
“Attention all crew. Attention all crew,” boomed the PA system. “Clocks go back one hour tonight. One hour.” That marked us entering international waters and that meant the Slop Chest was open. The Slop Chest (official name: Bonded Store) was a duty free treasure trove of alcohol, treats and cigarettes. You pick what you want from the checklist, hand a slip to the officer, it gets delivered to your door, and you pay in $US before disembarking. I made the landlubber’s mistake of thinking I was paying US$18 for a dozen Becks beer. 24 bottles turned up.
No matter, there was more than enough room in my quarters. Officially the “Owner’s cabin”, I had a dayroom (two couches, table, writing desk and chair, fridge, LG mini-system, DVD player and TV) as well as a bedroom plus shower and toilet. My porthole (ticket note: “View may be restricted by containers”) looked all the way to the bow.
As the days went by the low rumble of the engines was occasionally punctuated by the creaking of container lashes. I spent as much time as possible on the Bridge. Being allowed in the Wheelhouse is one of the perks of being a passenger on a merchant ship, but it definitely wasn’t what I expected. Sure, I’d done my research – if watching Captain Phillips counts – but I hadn’t reckoned on was how automated it all was. There is no grand wheel any more; this one was the size of a PlayStation racing control.
“Surprised huh?” Third Officer Paul called out with a grin on his face. “Everything is automatic now, see”. He pointed to the navigation console. “Of course, we still do things manually. Every two hours we plot our exact position on the charts behind you. Don’t want anything to go wrong,” he said understatedly, still smiling. As Officer on Watch he wasn’t actually steering the ship; he was checking it was on track. Just to humour me though he opened a small hatch on the bulkhead – out popped a Morse code machine.
The following day I joined Chief Officer Aleksandar on the outer Bridge – him with cigarette and coffee in hand, me with sunglasses, both of us looking out to the horizon. “People don’t understand,” he said passionately. “We are the life blood of the world economy!” He jokingly jabbed his finger to his forearm. “No planes, no trains, ever carry as much as economically as us. This is why shipping will never die.” I nodded in agreement. We were heading west at a majestic 14 knots.
He opened a small hatch on the bulkhead – out popped a Morse code machine.
Seven decks below the powerhouse of the ship thundered on. In the engine room nine turbines pumped out 720RPM of raw power. “140°” said the engineer, “That’s how hot these pipes are. Don’t touch them.” I didn’t need to be told twice. As awesome as all that power was it was a relief to be topside again.
My favourite place was at the bow with 250m of container ship behind me, the hypnotic sound of the swell and the gentle rocking of a massive ship. The mornings were fresh and tingly; the afternoon’s hot and tan-worthy.
It wasn’t until Day 6 that we saw land again – Australia. The mood on the Bridge noticeably changed and focus replaced humour. It was as if the ship had been given a talking to at half time and came out with guns blazing.
In Melbourne I saw first-hand the life-blood of the world economy. Every container was positioned on the deck according to its declared weight, need for power, displacement of cargo and final destination. Massive cranes, hoists and lights worked 24 hours to keep the infrastructure pumping.
After ‘shore leave’ I was back up the gangway in time for dinner. Meals were at set times (7-8am, Noon-1pm, 5-6pm) and eating in the Officers’ Mess was a chance to get to know the men onboard. On freighters the meals are dependent on how good a cook you have and ours was good. Chef Leonardo and Messman Rodel invited me into the galley to proudly show off their honey-glazed chicken, Thai-inspired beef and ice-cream sundaes.
Evenings were spent chilling. There was time to read, watch DVDs, work out in the gym or just stare out to sea. More than once I caught up with the ship’s Master, Danko Grgurevic, a typically friendly Croatian who was usually dressed in shorts, a company t-shirt and tennis shoes.
We arrived in Botany Bay under a full moon. By then I’d learnt that you’re not supposed to take your passport off the vessel when entering another country (oops) and you have to sit at your allocated place at the dining table even when you’re the only person there (oops again). But despite all those idiosyncrasies there was one great benefit: being “off the grid”. No cellphone, no Facebook, no hashtags, no selfies.
After another five days we arrived in Tauranga. I left the crew with a few magazines and beers, and descended the gangway one last time. It had been a privileged insight into a rarefied ecosystem, one with rules and norms that could be daunting to the uninitiated. Luckily, I had the best hosts I could have asked for. And I was rather pleased that I never had to put on that orange survival suit.