Ship’s Log: Day Ten (Melbourne to Tilbury)

Tenth day of the voyage; third day of the Pacific crossing.

The rhythm of one’s day while at sea. It turns around the meals and what one does with the time in between: breakfast 7:30 to 8:30, lunch 12:00 to 13:00, dinner 18:00 to 19:00. Unless there was a talker (he had gone in Napier!) or the captain felt like a chat, as he did today, the meal usually took half an hour. The great excitement was reading the menu for the day (apart from breakfast, it was always new) or the news print-out – the 2010 World Cup results, or Tour-de-France, or, for some reason that was beyond me since there was no-one on the ship from that part of the world, ‘Britain today’. Between meals, the times in the morning and afternoon were roughly the same, give or take half an hour, and I made an effort to get up well before breakfast and spend a quiet half hour on the bridge, pondering the ocean over a cup of tea. The four-hour stretches were spent writing, putting together a book in morning, writing an article in the afternoon, photo processing, working on myDanish and reading in the evening. The only other piece of the day was the hour in the crew gym: I used the rowing machine and simple but effective weight machine, inventing ever new exercises to amuse myself, as well as a game of table tennis on a rolling ship after a big meal.

A quiet captain opens up over lunch, even though we sit at different tables. Surprisingly … shipping is the topic. I discover that he has a university degree from the Maritime University in Montenegro – a four year course that one must take to become a master – although it also requires experience, for he has been at sea for well over a decade. But there are even maritime high-schools (also four years) for those who wish to follow the tradition. His own father is a professor at such a high school after having been a master himself. And the Russians, I ask? Yes, they come there to train, as do Ukrainians and Romanians and Turks and so on. What about work in the economic downturn? No problems, he says, since CMA-CGM has kept up its routes. In fact, there is a severe shortage of officers worldwide, in the vicinity of 1500. So the push is to reduce the requirements to become an officer. And also to reduce the pay – hence the Filipino officers.

He also made the point that they all fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest but that is hardly possible in port). On the Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama), Korea (Pusan), China (Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Hong Kong etc) run, it is perhaps two hours between ports, so in a week you may get one or two hours sleep a night. Then accidents happen. As also with the smaller feeder ships (from small ports to large), which at times do not have harbour pilots coming on board, or have skeleton crews of four or five. Even on this ship 14 is the minimum – they will lose a cook in Rotterdam – although new requirements push the number up (such as the need to have someone on security watch the whole time in port). Everywhere they can cut costs they do: food allocation was recently dropped from $9.00 per person per day to $7.50, so he has to be very careful where and what he requisitions.

Crew combinations? I mentioned Kiribati crews, Chinese crews, Papuan crews, Koreans – the ones I had encountered. He had worked also with Indonesian, Japanese and Indian crews. Some combinations work; some don’t, but it is a matter for anthropological study. CMA-CGM finds that a few senior European officers work well with Filipino crews, but that Indian and Filipino do not (caste systems from India), or that European and Indonesian is not a good mix. So they are careful about organising crews, since they spend a long time together in restricted conditions.

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