Thirty-third day of the voyage; third day of the Atlantic crossing.
In the port of Philadelphia three days ago it was pushing midnight and I could not sleep. By the port window were too many lights, too much excitement for the little boy within. So I kneeled on my bed and looked out. I watched the last container loader scurrying to get the job done, for he was late.
The massive machine moved smoothly back and forth, pulling out container after container and then slipping in their replacements. Fifty meters above ground, with a glass floor to see what he was doing, the driver deftly lined up the massive container latch, dangling on the end of cables that could easily tangle, clamped it shut and hauled it out or in. If out, it was gently lowered onto a waiting truck – those curious semi-trailers used only in ports – while men scurried about beneath (there were too confident for me); if in, he would pick one up from the truck and lower it into the grooves designed for it.
First deep into the ship, out of sight for me; later the final layers. Midway, the massive metal separating plate – the deck, really – would be raised and dropped carefully into place. The containers below were now sealed, the ones above still to come.
As the containers swung out and in, I noticed figures on the deck, wharfies and seamen, ducking out of the way when a 40 tonne container came in, jumping out as soon as it settled into place to secure it with the braces and connect the cords if a reefer. Mesmerising stuff.
Almost before the last container was in place and before the ship’s crane was swung back and nestled back into its nest (the seaman had been waiting in the cockpit, cigarette glowing), the engines rumbled and I was on the bridge. Half an hour it took for a 200 metre ship to manage a turn in a river that seemed 201 metres wide. Tugs puffing and churning, bow thruster pushing, rudder hard to port, engine astern, walkie talkies crackling, pilot and captain hanging out over the fly bridge. Bow down the river and the tugs were gone, along with the harbour pilot. Now it was the quiet river pilot and 8-hour run to the ocean.