The story: MV Bahia Blanca

July 24, 2012 § 12 Comments

Last week, I took a container ship from Auckland to Sydney.

These are the pictures. And this is the story:


Did you spew?

THIS is what everyone always wants to know. Yeah, okay, I spewed. Once. And I have really good excuses:

  1. It was after lunch on day two, when we had lost the shelter of the NZ east coast and entered the swell in the Tasman Sea.
  2. I had just eaten lunch (garlic rice, carrots, green beans, bread).
  3. It was during a tour of the ship’s innards – stairways, corridors, lift, laundry, gymnasium, hospital – while listening to instructions about FIRE! and CAPSIZE! and other stomach-churning possibilities. My guide was the 3rd Mate, Saldie. I was really hoping his surname was Rushman but it wasn’t.

So anyway, after a somewhat nauseating two-thirds, he had just got to the bit about abandoning ship (When the ship is 3-4 metres underwater, this life raft will automatically…Pull this toggle and then release the strap…FIRST put on the immersion suit and THEN the life jacket…) and I wasn’t really taking it in because I was just about ready to turf it out. So I finally announced that I was going to be sick and he took me inside, which was stupid of him, and went to get something.

At first, I was very ladylike, using first one cupped hand and then the other. When Saldie returned, there I was, standing forlornly with two cupped handfuls of vomit dripping through my fingers. Then, since I was all out of receptacles, I spewed a torrent of garlic rice, carrots and beans onto the floor. (Right outside the hospital, actually. I knew that from the tour.) My final thought, as I was led away from my mess like a suspect being taken into custody, was God, would it kill you to chew each mouthful a hundred times?

I briefly fantasized about getting away with it but everyone I saw the next day, including some crew I had never seen before, asked me if I was “feeling better”. Who cleaned up my spew? I don’t know. For the rest of the trip I felt how a man feels after a minor (but unconscious) testicular procedure when he knows that every woman in the place has seen his penis comically taped to his stomach and his balls shaved.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The previous day I presented myself at Tinley Gate, entrance to Ports of Auckland. There was a short delay as the NZ Customs officer called for backup paperwork. The technical term for this is “making sure everything is Tikkity-Boo.” Once everything was TB, my bag was searched and I was driven out to the ship. No one is allowed to walk anywhere on the port because of the high probability of fatal squashing.

And what a ship. Fully loaded, Bahia Blanca is 53,000 tonnes, 254m long and 32m wide, bright orange, very spacious, only five years old but can speak many languages. A “full container” ship, meaning she doesn’t carry anything else. Her current job is to connect the east coast of the USA with New Zealand and Australia via the Panama Canal. I climbed up the stairway to the deck called Upper, which is actually the lower, and met the Captain and the Chief Mate.

The Steward, who is the crew member officially assigned to chaperone passengers in the event of an actual emergency or just general confusion, was called Tedy. I thought this seemed marvelously appropriate. Where’s my Tedy?

Everyone has a rank. So there’s the Captain (who is also the Master), and there’s the Chief Mate, 2nd Mate and 3rd Mate; the Chief Engineer, 2nd Engineer and 3rd Engineer; the Chief Electrician and so on. Crew are divided according to whether they have above deck (like navigation) or below deck (like engine room) responsibilities and also into the officers (senior) and the able seamen (junior). Altogether there were about 25 crew.

Crew were sometimes called chief something even when there was only one of them, like the Chief Cook, Roy. I figured this made me the Chief Passenger. Or maybe just Passenger. I was the only one.

How even does the boat

Bahia Blanca can carry something like 2,000 containers, six deep below the decks and six high above them. The containers interlock at each corner with a sort of curved bolt. The bottom two containers of each stack are secured to the deck using “lashing bars” but the other four just sit on top, and there’s no horizontal bracing whatsoever. I found this endlessly fascinating and expected containers to topple overboard at any slight tilt.

(I never saw the clinometer roll past 10 or 15 degrees, to my enormous relief and slight disappointment. The 2nd Mate, Lumevar, told me that he was in a 25 degree roll once and I asked about the containers and he made a “Poof! Gone!” gesture. Then I asked if they floated and could be retrieved and he made an “Of course not, fool, they sink immediately” gesture.)

The crew don’t know (and don’t care) what’s in the containers unless they are classed as “Dangerous Goods” and listed on the DAGOS manifest. So I don’t know what our non-dangerous goods were but our dangerous ones included heaps of ammonium nitrate, paint, adhesives, perfume, aerosols, engines, batteries, fire extinguishers and 10 containers of “alcoholic beverages” loaded in Savannah, Georgia. The refrigerated containers, or “reefers”, were individually plugged into gigantic power boards in a mass of cables and sockets that looks just like the back of your entertainment unit.

Her top speed is about 20 knots but wind and swell slow the ship down considerably. At sea, the ship operates on auto pilot, which is called Nautopilot. The bridge is NEVER vacant though; at least one person during the day and two all night long. On my first morning at sea (we left Auckland at night) I was impressed to learn that every 3 minutes an alarm went off on the navigation panel. Nothing was wrong; the alarm’s sole purpose was to have someone turn it off, confirming to the Captain that someone was up there. It was like the alarm clock from hell with an unstoppable 3-minute sleep button. I was in awe of this safety feature until I realized later in the day that it wasn’t beeping and Saldie said someone had probably switched it off.

What Leonie did all day

I had a lot of suicidal and/or murderous thoughts while on board. I don’t mean that I was planning to off myself or anyone else in the deep blue sea. I wasn’t. It’s just that when you are all alone, holding the rail in a swell and staring down into cold, inky water, you allow thoughts of the infinitesimal (but nonetheless real) chance that you will somehow be left behind. It’s an unspeakable horror; there is nothing out there to save you if you fall off. And when you nod and pass a crew member – and it’s just the two of you – you say a little prayer that neither of you will toss the other over the side. Because that would be the perfect crime.

I read. I lurked. I have a remarkable tolerance for staring into space, possibly the world’s finest ability to go blank. I spent hours on the bridge. I followed the crew around asking hundreds of questions. Some of my questions made me sound like an idiot, or possibly a security risk. (How thick is the hull, approximately? What does this button do? So how would you know if one of the containers was opened?)

I spent a lot of time thinking about Paul Hanson. Paul Hanson got off the ship just hours before I got on. I moved into the cabin he vacated; his name was on my door for the first 24 hours. Paul Hanson, handsome (I assume) Canadian, who had been with the ship all the way from Philadelphia to Auckland. Paul Hanson, whose birthday was just 4 days after mine! (4 days and 10 years.) We shared a bed, just not at the same time. I began to feel he had dumped me. Fuck you, Paul Hanson. Etc.

It was almost always meal time. The food on board was unadventurous but tasty and plentiful. Lunch and dinner were always a meat-and-three-veg idea. There was only one dessert the entire time, and it was at lunch, and it was scoops of chocolate ice cream. If you wanted, you could fix yourself a ploughman’s feast 24 hours a day – bread, cheese, cold cuts, salad, condiments. If I could capture the ship nosh in one word, it would be “condiments”. There seemed to be hundreds of them. Tray fulls of sauces, jams, dressings and pickles. Unrecognizable, multicoloured foodstuffs that were presumably the staple garnish of every nation the ship had ever docked in and every crew member it had ever employed.

Where dinner would just be called Goulash (there was a set menu stuck on the wall daily), breakfast often had slightly grand and mysterious names such as Hawaiian Toast. I didn’t order Hawaiian Toast, thinking that SPAM and pineapple might be core ingredients. My final meal on board was called Cowboy Breakfast. I started to ask Tedy what Cowboy Breakfast was (after starting with “potatoes…” he wrinkled his brow trying to think, but he was definite on the potatoes) and then I remembered I’d spent the last three days riding the open waves with the wind in my hair.

“I’ll have it,” I said.

In case you were wondering, no potatoes at all.

Roughed up

For a long time the nautical miles were ground out against a 30-40 knot wind that never let up. Our route took us across the stretched ear lobe of a low pressure system. In the space of an hour, the wind swung 180 degrees around from north to south, starboard to port. All night long and the next day we were jerked and shoved, pushed down and sideways, only to rock back the other way and repeat. Deck walking was forbidden. Our speed dwindled to 16 knots and the ETA on the ship’s computer stretched out.

But then, just a few hours and 68 nautical miles off the Australian coast, the sun dipped below the cloud and into a thin strip of open sky on the horizon. There was a magical sunset. I noticed a sea bird – one, then two, then four, then suddenly forty darting low over our churning wake.

Things that NEVER got old

The ship stays in port just long enough to load containers. The whole logistical masterpiece resembles a giant, grown up Meccano set in high-vis red and yellow: Thousands of 40-foot long Lego blocks plucked out of one stack and slotted into another. Gargantuan machinery that looked like beasts from Star Wars (they’re called “straddles”) scurrying around, rolling over containers and eating them up. Towering gantry cranes that do the heavy lifting but with perfect precision. There is the constant hum of massive engines, the protest of movement alarms and the clunk and grind of metal on metal.

One day I spent ages trying to match container numbers I could see on the deck (each one has a unique 11-digit code) with those listed in the Dangerous Goods. I only managed three (engine parts, mostly) and when I informed the Chief Mate of my sleuth-like discoveries he looked at me like I was insane. The thing is, we weren’t just carrying engine parts. The way I saw it, we were carrying ambition. Someone, somewhere, gave a shit about our cargo. They had either sold it, or were hoping to sell it, or were keen to be reunited with it. This was international trade, live in concert. And here we were, in the middle of nowhere, slowly hauling it to market.

Finally, I never ceased being amazed by the darkness of the sea – and therefore the bridge – at night. Not that I expected streetlights or headlights, but ships are pretty blind and fairly invisible. To give themselves every chance to see anything that may be out there, the bridge is plunged into darkness all night long. Thick curtains are drawn across the part of the wheelhouse that has the charts and communication equipment. The radar and other instrumentation are dimmed to a point where it’s so dark that you can literally bump into someone before you see them. At least two crew are on duty, standing and watching. Every night I turned out my light knowing that, two floors above, there were guardian angels staring out to sea.

The whole experience was just enormously interesting to me. Throw in a love of high-up and wide-open spaces and some lifelong wanderlust and it was just about the perfect trip. Just about. Next time I’ll try to spew over the rail.


§ 12 Responses to The story: MV Bahia Blanca

  • Wes Mountain says:

    This is a fantastic post. Hugely interesting, and it makes me want to find my way onto a container ship. What an awesome experience.
    How did you find yourself aboard the ship?

  • John & Adrienne Read says:

    Once agian i am impressed at your ability to tell it like it is!
    Life on board a container ship as a passenger sounded fascinating, but I must take up one issue – about your descriptive abilities concerning the minute details you shared with your readers about being ill.
    Most of us I am sure would have got a good enough mental picture with a simple statement that you were ‘sea-sick’ at first!
    But ‘No!’
    I used to call myself a ‘good-sailor’, ibut I have never felt so ill as when I sat at my computer, at my desk, at home, on dry land, reading minute details of your experience. I too had just had lunch, but I was NOT at sea, I was NOT in the bowels of a ship, nor was someone explaining stomach churning things like life boats etc – AND YET sea-sick I really felt!
    Thank you!
    I too have oft wondered the sort of questions you asked of the crew that have now been answered. Well mostly they were. The answers to some of the questions that were answered were somewhat disturbing and i was glad I had nothing in any of the containers that might have been ‘lost’ with no-one really caring. As for it ‘being-a-good-way-to-get-rid-of-someone’ by tipping them overboard, that only bears thinking about after one is safely back on shore.
    Congratulations on your sucessful completion of your ‘adventure’, but more particularly on your recounting of it. It makes fascinating reading, humorous, descriptive and informative.
    John R

  • Martin says:

    As one who can chunder in a bath tub, thank you for answering all my questions about such adventures. That means I have no reason to ever try it in reality!


  • John in Seattle says:

    Found your blog entry because I was looking for pictures of container lashing to show to friends. I am a longshore worker in Seattle. I thought I’d let you know that there is more holding the containers together than just the lashing rods. Between all containers above deck there are “cones” in the attachpoints at all four corners of the container. They connect the top and bottom container in the stack.

    Cool blog; I enjoyed your writing. I’ve been on plenty of ships but only in port and have wondered at the experience. I recall one lashing job where I could smell the ship’s galley and wonder what the crew (German officers and mostly Phillipino workers) ate and if they did that together.

  • Good read! I am due to jump on Bahia Blanca in Auckland in 2 months time to cross the Pacific! I can’t wait

  • Euro plug! Two round pins.

  • Peter & Mariana says:

    We were on the same Panama-Auckland leg with your unseen departed bed-mate Paul. He is a young,handsome university prof. with Canadian and Kiwi passports. Tough luck, hey? We had the Owner’s Cabin being two of us, and had a great voyage. We sold our yacht in Panama and had a pile of luggage to haul to NZ – no problem for the crew, all the same guys you had on your trip, as you must have boarded hours after we left and no crew change was scheduled until Oz. Being yacht cruisers of over 8 years, we did not feel at all sick and found the slower roll and pitch quite comforting after our bucking bronco experiences in a 42 foot, 9 tonne sailboat!
    Well written
    Regards, Peter & Mariana

  • Cayne Hampton says:

    What is loaded in Philadelphia?

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