On June 15, 1998. I flew to Los Angeles to join the Punjab Senator (of the Reederei F. Laeisz Line) for a freighter cruise to Europe and back. Planning to spend the night in the San Pedro Sheraton Hotel and board the ship the next day. I found that the Sheraton had changed for the worse (try the Raddison, a couple of blocks away). Bought out by a group of Indonesians with no pork for breakfast and a changed policy on transporting passengers to the ship. So it was a taxi to the container port entrance with a taxi driver who could not read a map and took 1.5 hours to find the port, then waiting with a mass of luggage for any transportation to the ship. (Ed note; The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are adjacent and they are huge. Prior to departing for a voyage go to yahoo.com and get a map of the port. Most ports have a web site where a detailed map is avaible. If all else fails, drop me (freighterman) a line email@example.com and I'll get the information for you. There is no charge for this).
Success at last. The Punjab Senator is a very large container ship and was only one year old. My cabin was located on "E" deck with both forward and side facing windows. "E" deck was sufficiency high to allow even forward views, usually unobstructed by containers. It was not actually a cabin but a three-room suite with a very large living room, bedroom and bath. The living room was equipped with a complete set of electronics: TV, hi-fi, video tape player, etc. and Lynn at Freighter World Cruises dropped off about 20 movie videos for my use (Ed note: wonder why they didn't help Mr. Rye find the ship?). Most were uninteresting, but I was able to trade some with the Kiribatian crew for tapes of their islands. All in all it was very plush. Lynn also pointed out that I had perhaps the best Captain, Rainer Ritter, she had experienced. She was right and Capt. Ritter and I have corresponded to this day. Capt. Ritter set me up with a coffee maker, coffee and Danish Butter Cookies in the cabin, and when he found out I needed ice for my iced tea (the ship has no ice maker), had the port agent pick up an insulated bucket and set me up with the Steward for an ice supply. Since the officerís mess was on "A" deck and no elevator, this meant up and down four flights of stairs for each meal, two fights of stairs for every visit to the bridge, and three flights to the laundry. You get a work out on the Punjab Senator. The ship also has an exercise room, sauna, and indoor swimming pool on "C" deck. On "F deck were only the Captainís and Chief Engineerís cabins and a very large amount of both open and covered deck space which required judicious use, considering the wind. Capt. Ritter set me up with lounge chairs stored in the battery room on this deck. Here is Captain Ritter playing with his mouse.
Loading was slow in LA. At one point one of the giant hammerhead cranes jammed a container in the hold and all loading was stopped for five hours since they could not keep the ship level. This gave them time to turn off the shipís power and work on the main power distribution panel with little success and which gave problems through Hong Kong. But it was very interesting watching the loading process. At one point I timed the loading process at one container secured every minute, provided that no loss of time occurred getting the next container ready on the dock. The Capt. later told me that they guarantee 30 containers an hour.
Late on the 18th we left for a quick voyage to San Francisco (actually the port is in Oakland) to pick up a few containers. After all my visits to San Francisco, I must say the views from land are nothing like that from the bay.
The ship's officer were German (all from the former East German shipping company) and Russian, with the cook Estonian, and the steward and crew all Kiribatian. This made for a very interesting mix. Capt. Ritter spent a great deal of time talking in my cabin and every time I visited the bridge, where I spent most of my time. He was very informative: truly interested and interesting. One main problem is that he works for and is paid by Laeisz, but the ship is under long term charter to the Hanjin shipping company. So, he has two bosses with completely counter needs; the shipping company is only concerned with the schedule and the owner with the condition of the ship. (Ed note: This is typical unless the vessel is owned by the shipping company).
Then it was off across the Pacific to Kaohsiung, Taiwan with constant problems in maintaining speed due to problems with the electronic engine controls; being new and computer controlled, it was not possible to run the engine manually. During the voyage I spent most of my time on the bridge talking with Capt. Ritter, or in my cabin reading. The only unusual event was that we passed about 1 mile offshore of Iwo Jima, the site of one of the last island invasions of WW-2. It looks just like all the pictures you see, with out, of course, all the shells, smoke and ships. Today it has been taken back by the Japanese and the only inhabitants are from the Japanese Coast Guard.
I had not intended to leave the ship in Kaohsiung since at most we would have had only an afternoon, but Capt. Ritter had to visit a Chinese dentist to have a cap re-cemented and invited me to go along with the car and driver arranged by the port agent. While Rinner visited the dentist I just walked around downtown Kaohsiung. Then we made use of the driver to visit the local fruit market where I picked up some absolutely delicious big black grapes and Chinese Litchi fruit. After a meal in a hole-in-the-wall place we returned to the ship. We picked up three Korean Engineers and replacement parts in Kaohsiung, to work on the main power distribution panel, while the ship continued its voyage. They planned to leave in Singapore.
Next stops were Hong Kong followed by Singapore with only short voyages between each. In both ports, Capt. Ritter faxed ahead to the port agent to arrange a personal tour guide. Hong Kong is very convenient with the Seamanís Club where I met the German expatriate guide, Hans Peter, being only a short walk from the ship. The Seamanís Club is very interesting and helpful with barbers, meals, a bar and various forms of recreation. Hans took me on a full day tour by taxi, subway and walking of both Hong Kong Island and parts of Kowlong, all in the rain. We saw most of the major tourist attractions, Victoria Peak followed, by a double decker bus trip back down; a Taoist Temple, shopping streets and the Star Ferry. We ended up in the shopping district where I replenished my book supply. A very full day that totaled only $85, including the Tour Guides fee. All this happened on the same day that President Clinton was visiting Hong Kong and they moved an Aircraft Carrier in at the same time. The only effect I saw was that we were held up for a short time on the bus ride by one of his motorcades
We left early in the afternoon of the next day, but not to go to sea. Because of the problems with the power panel we simply moved to the outer harbor and anchored. All except emergency power was shut off for the next 8 hours while the Korean engineers replaced the power panel. No lights, no air conditioning (remember Hong Kong is in the tropical regions) so I just opened all the windows, and when it got dark I just took a cold shower and went to bed early.
Between Hong Kong and Singapore there is an intense traffic of ships, both commercial and fishing, which gets more intense the closer you get to Singapore and the Straits of Malacca, the busiest sea lanes in the world. At one point Capt. Ritter called me up to the bridge to see Vietnam which was about 40 miles off to the west; only tops of mountains were visible. We arrived in Singapore at 17:00, so I left the ship and walked to the port entrance and across the street to the Singapore train station where I changed money into Straits dollars. Then a relatively short taxi ride to Orchard Road the main shopping street for an evening meal and shopping. Mainly looking for books of local interest. Since departure was delayed, Capt. Ritter arranged for a tour the next day with a car and driver (120 SD or $75). Singapore is a very clean, straight laced town that is safe and ordered everywhere. The Singaporean's probably queue at taxi stands worse than the English. I understand that the President does not even allow chewing gum to be imported. There is a strong mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European (mainly English); my guide was Chinese but he spent about half the time taking me to an Indian quarter for shopping and an authentic Indian meal. All this, as with Hong Kong, took place again in the rain. Both are in the tropics where it rains a lot. The driver had a mobile phone that he used to keep constant check on the ships sailing. We arrived back at 12:45 for 1300 sailing, but the ship did not leave until 13:40. We fueled in Singapore with 3,100 metric tons of the lowest grade of bunker fuel, only $90-100 a ton. It is so low grade that the fuel has to be heated to about 100 C before it will flow and the ship uses about 140 tons a day. (Ed note: This is called bunker 380 and is high in sulfur content; essentially it is asphalt and turns into a solid if not heated).
I stayed on the bridge for sailing. After dropping the pilot and working up to full speed in to the Strait of Malacca, there was all of a sudden a great excitement on the bridge. Not knowing what was going on I quietly moved to a back corner until I understood that there was a man overboard. One of the Karibitian sailors had fallen over board while trying to secure the gangway. The Capt. immediately went into a Williamson turn, reported to the Coast Guard, and all deck officers reported to the bridge to try and locate him. I just quietly watched and took photos of everything. The plan established was for the second mate and second engineer to lower the small outboard boat to pick him up when located. Here they are on their way out. The third mate finally spotted him and the small boat was directed by radio to his position. Spotting him was lucky given the distances all you see is a speck. Here he is on his way back. I learned later that he had shed his steel toed shoes and all his work cloths. But even with that he was nearly exhausted and had to be dragged into the boat. While seeming longer the Capt. said the whole rescue only took 23 minutes. After that, the Strait of Malacca was quite even though, we had to go into a lock down mode because of potential pirates.
We then settled into a long trip to Europe by way of the Suez Canal. The Indian Ocean turned out to be very rough because of the Southwest monsoons. The rough weather ended very abruptly within about 10 miles as we passed the Horn of Africa. The rough weather left the ship coated with salt and on the second day in the Red Sea we ran into a dust storm at sea. This, with the soot from the main engine exhaust, left the ship very dirty and needing a fresh water wash down. Fresh water is no problem since the ship made 40 tons a day and only 7 tons are usually needed (Ed note: There is really no reason these larger ships don't wash down the decks more often. I took this same voyage, though on another of Hanjin's ships, and the decks were washed once in the 42 day voyage; water certainly wasn't the problem). The Red Sea area must be the most desolate place on earth with no sign of life or vegetation, only barren hills.
As soon as we reached the quiet of the Red Sea, Capt. Ritter decided to slow the ship until dead in the water and have a life boat drill. We had plenty of time since we were very early for the Suez convey (Ed Note: On this voyage drills are usually held in either the Indian Ocean or the Red Sea). The plan was to lower both boats with the German second mate in one and the Russian third mate in the other. Both were to contain a motor man and several seamen. The plan was to just motor around for a while, return to the lowered gang way and transfer excess seaman back to the ship and then lift the boats back on board. Fine afternoon but it turned out to be a comedy of errors. The problem was that the third mate could not control the boat and never was able to reach the gang way. They finally had to have him stop the boat in mid ocean, transfer all excess people to the second mate's boat for transfer to the ship, and then raise the boats. The problems didn't end there. In attempting to reattach the boat to the life boat falls for lifting back to the deck, the third mate could not get the boat positioned under the falls, a seaman became unbalanced and grabbed the life boat falls instead of the boat and swing wide over the sea. Here is a photo. They were able to grab him on the next swing back or he would have been left dangling over the sea and he would have probably dropped in. Capt. Ritter was not pleased with the full set of photos I gave him.
Suez had to be one of the high points of the voyage. We anchored late at night off Suez to wait for the morning convey. One convey of ships a day leaves from the south. The canal is one way with passing in the middle at only one place. As a way of making money the Egyptians require two pilots and a line crew with their own boat. The canal is their third largest money maker; our fee was about $200,000. What the line crew mainly does is carry on board an array of souvenirs to sell to crew and passengers. I spent the entire day on the bridge (Ed Note: When I passed through the Canal in 1998, the sand flies were so bad that the bridge was the place to be). There is something grand about sailing through Egypt about ten stories in the air at a leisurely pace of only 5 kts. The East bank is barren but the West Bank is lush with all the irrigation water carried from the Nile with several large cities. Capt. Ritter was constantly pointing out sites from the Egyptian president's summer home to the oldest church in Africa.
After dropping the Suez Pilot at about 18:00, we set off on the long trip to La Havre by way of Gibraltar. Except for Gibraltar which we passed so early in the morning so that nothing was visible, we were out of sight of land most of the way. I was able to pick up Italian, Tunisian and Algerian TV on the set in my cabin. In the Bay of Biscay we did sight whales and large sailing ships, the first being a two masted schooner. It turns out that there was a tall ship sailing race from Falmouth, England to Lisbon, Portugal. The Capt. showed me a message to be on the look out for a German Ketch reported missing, later found safe, but with a broken radio.
Arrived at La Havre in the afternoon of the 23rd of July. My plans were to leave the ship for six days in England while the ship went on to Rotterdam and Hamburg. I packed one small bag and left everything on the ship. Capt. Ritter arranged a taxi for me to the afternoon ferry to Portsmouth. This meant that I arrived cold in Portsmouth on the weekend, needing to clear customs and get my feet on the ground. No problem in that: I just asked the taxi driver in Portsmouth who took me to a nice hotel. Just arriving after a month and a half at sea, the first thing I did of course was tour the old ships such as the Victory docked at the Portsmouth Naval Base as well as arranging a rental car. I wanted to just drive around the country side with the only concrete plans being to get together with two people in England researching Rye Genealogy. One was located near Sheffield in the midlands and the second near the Port of Felixstowe where I was to rejoin the ship. The first major discovery when I drove to Wales was that driving 200 miles in England was not the same as 200 miles in the western part of the United States. Two hundred miles in the Western US is an afternoon drive, but a major expedition in England. This required a drastic change in plans to concentrate only on the visits, but I did stumble on several of the grand homes to visit. I find such trips much more informative and interesting than getting lost in the depths of London, for example. Both contacts had me out to their house for supper and discussions, and I got a much better understanding of the English.
All to soon I had to turn the car in at Ipswich and take a taxi to Felixstowe. Luckily, the taxi driver was a former pilot on the local river and was able to get me too the container port with relatively little trouble. But at the Felixstowe Seamanís Club I had to call the ships port agent to get a ride to the ship. Much to my interest I now found that we had a full complement of fellow passengers and a very congenial lot: a German who had been living in Venezuela for 30 years as the Siemans representative, a German teacher and lawyer from the former East Germany, and a recently retired Dane. It turned out to be a very good group who traveled well together and who maintained in contact for a short period after. In addition, all the officers were new, including the ships electrician who brought his wife along for the trip to Hong Kong. So I had to unlock my cabin, get settled again and had to become familiar with a whole new group.
We were soon at sea settled into my normal sea routine except that now I shared it with a group of people for the first time. Most did not spend the time on the bridge that I did so I didn't have to worry about the new Capt. becoming irritated with so many people on the bridge, but even with all there, there was not great crowding. The problems with the electronic engine controls were finally solved and we were now making a steady 23 kts.
A new port, Gioia Tauro, Italy, was added to our return trip. It is located very near the "toe" of Italy and the Capt. told me that just 5 years before it was only a fishing village. Since we did not dock until 19:00 and were scheduled to leave early the next morning, I decided to stay on board. Two of the passengers went downtown and reported that there was not very much to see. The trip out was through the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the toe of Italy with great views of both.
Then it was on to the Suez Canal again. This time we were the first ship of the second convey. There are actually two conveys south bound and one north bound, with the second convey to be avoided if possible. We had to tie up in a side passing canal for four hours for the north bound to clear. For once the Egyptian Suez crew had to earn their keep. There are mooring points all up and down the canal for emergency use. Unlike our bound, where I spent the passage on the bridge, on this second trip all the passengers got together in deck chairs on the large open deck space on "F" deck with beer and soft drinks. No air conditioning, but the conversation was much better
The trip from Suez to Colombo, Sri Lanka was relatively uneventful. At one point in the Red Sea I found the Capt. and second mate on the bridge huddled around the radio. There was a 90-meter general cargo ship taking water in the engine room and drifting, a serious situation. But we would not reach their position until 22:00 and there were other ships standing by, so we never had to become involved. The sea in the Indian Ocean were much calmer than on the way out and I was able to see a number of flying fish.
We were scheduled in Colombo early in the morning of August 14 and the Capt. sent a message ahead to arrange a tour guide for the passengers and the electricianís wife. It turned out to be a van with driver and guide for $20 apiece from 09:30 till 15:00. We spent most of the time driving around with stops at a one-hour photo shop, Hindu and Buddhist Temples and a jewelry production shop. The latter, I think, because the guide got a kickback. You know you are in the exotic east when you see elephants moving free in the central zoo with only their keeper. We had hoped to have a meal of typical Sri Lankan food, but could not get that across to the guide; he first took us to a nice Chinese place and then to a nice sea food place. We finally gave up and had a nice sea food lunch. General impressions: there were soldiers with guns and watchtowers everywhere. You could not drive three blocks with out running into a sand bag emplacement with a squad of soldiers. No one ever stopped us and there were no problems in being tourists, but they were ubiquitous, especially in the port area. The problem is the Tamal Rebels who are mainly located in the north but have generated many terrorists attacks in Colombo. Then back to the ship for an 03:00 sailing for the next port of call, Port Kelang, Malaysia.
At Port Kelang, it was interesting in that the port is located up river a short way and we sailed in through a large coconut plantation to a very new isolated container port. The docks themselves are located on barges or pilings in the river and connected to the shore storage lots by causeways. The railroad connecting the port to Kelang was still under construction. The Capt. had arranged a van and driver who was supposed to appear at 09:30 with a planned sailing at 14:00. Since the driver never showed up until 10:15, we had very little time. As a result we just mainly drove about the area getting a local feeling with only one major stop at a Kelang Shopping Center. My general impression from shopping in England, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc., is that the world is becoming homogenized. If you were dropped in a Malaysian Shopping Center it would take a little time to discover that you were not in Albuquerque, NM. That is not true for the architecture. From Colombo to Malaysia, Singapore to China, the businesses are composed of blocks of 2-3 buildings with open-to-the-air businesses on the ground floor.
From Port Kelang it was off to a second stop in Hong Kong by way of the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Singapore and the South China Sea. Rain nearly the entire way. The rain let up just enough so that we could at least get a view of Singapore about 10:00 one morning. I had arranged again with Hans Peter for a tour of Hong Kong, this time for a car and driver for $330 US, to be split between three passengers. One passenger decided to stay on the ship. We were a little late in getting started since the German/Venezuelan passenger was leaving in Hong Kong for a trip through China and had to be taken down town to have his pass port stamped for entry into China. Hans Peter arranged him a much cheaper hotel. The ship was due in at 02:30 and scheduled to leave at 23:00 the following day. We had a nice tour of Kowloon and the New Territories, including a very large Buddhist Temple complex, a large mountain and nature preserve, and an overlook into China where we could see Shenzhen, China. Shenzhen has been built by the Chinese in the last ten years pretty much as a duplicate of Hong Kong. We broke for lunch in the only Chinese restaurant in Kowloon where you could dine outdoors with a great view, and arrived, of course, in a driving rainstorm. The food was good. At the end of the day Hans dropped us downtown in Kowloon by Victoria Harbor to shop and look around while he dropped the one passenger off at his hotel. By luck I ran into the Captain on the street and he informed me that we should be back on board at 16:00 for a sailing at 19:00. We finally got back to the Seamanís Club at 17:00 where Hans had arranged with Rev. Martina Platt, who runs the club, to have us dropped off at ship side. According to Hans Peter and the people at the Seamanís Club, there has been little or no effect following the takeover of Hong Kong by the Chinese.
We finally sailed at 20:00 and leaving was the high light of the visit to Hong Kong and probably the whole trip. We left just as it was getting dark, and the trip out through the East Lamma Channel carried us just off-shore of Kowloon and all around the south side of Hong Kong Island on a beautiful clear night with only the very tops of the peaks being obscured by clouds. The lights of Hong Kong must be one of the most beautiful sights in the world. We just sat up on "F" deck and took the whole thing in for the rest of the night.
Then through the Straits of Formosa and on to Pusan, Korea through fog, mist and rain and thousands of fishing boats. We had arranged again in Pusan for a van, driver and guide all for $160 US. They first took us out in the countryside to a Buddhist Temple complex that was at least a 1,000 years old. I say complex because it was truly large with residence halls for both Nuns and Priests and temples ranging from the very oldest to new ones just under construction, all set high in the mountains along a small rocky stream which the Koreans used very much as a family picnic area. The whole excursion was a very nice drive through the countryside and the nice modern city of Pusan. Then back to Pusan and the cities fish market, for what reason I am still not clear, the guide did not speak English very well. It was, however, close to the internal market area where there are many blocks of small shops with stalls set up in the middle of the street. Apparently, each block or segment is devoted to a different product, with many individual shops. This is the only place on the whole trip where any of us made purchases; one of the German passengers bought a very nice leather coat for $200 US.
A total of two days where spent in Pusan, Hanjinís home port. The second day everyone just stayed on the ship and watched the loading. Since Hanjin has the ship under charter, part of this was the unloading of badly damaged containers being returned for repair. But also, there was a great deal of activity on the dock about five tracked missile launchers from a previous ship. These were massive and waiting for special Low Boy trailers to carry them out of the port. Since US and Korean soldiers and Korean and Westerners (probably American) were involved, these were US weapon systems, being turned over to the Koreans.
On leaving Pusan, we received a Typhoon warning; Typhoon Rex was some 400 miles south of us, tracking up the East Coast of Japan, and for our next two ports, Osaka and Tokyo, we had to run south to pass the southern tip of Kyushu, the southern island of Japan, before turning north again. We spent the rest of the voyage running just ahead of Rex. We put into Osaka and Rex gained on us, then we gained on Rex between Osaka and Tokyo. The same occurred in Tokyo. All the time just far enough ahead of Rex so that we encountered no heavy seas. Both Osaka and Tokyo occurred on the weekend and because of the currency situation we did not plan to leave the ship. Japan was the only place on the entire trip where visiting was a problem. At all other ports US dollars could be used directly, or could be easily exchanged on nearly any street corner. Even the ships officers, German, Russian, etc., usually carried dollars when they left the ship. In Japan, money could only be exchanged at selective banks and merchants would not take US dollars or credit cards from non-Japanese banks. Then there is the problem of expense. We picked up a Swiss passenger in Tokyo who paid $200 US for a taxi from his hotel to the ship and the driver wanted to charge him more after they got started! The high light of the stop in Osaka was two containers on the dock from a previous ship containing four elephants! These were canvas topped containers, which were rolled back to allow the elephants to look and sniff around as they waited for transportation. Animals can be also carried in containers as long as a keeper is also along to take care of feeding and mucking out the containers. My only wonder is what they do with the elephant dung generated on the voyage.
In Tokyo Stig Baungaard and I went off the ship. Stig had thought to bring 20,000 Yen with him so we could not expect to do much. The container port is built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, and our excursion consisted of walking 10 blocks in the rain to the Telecon Center Bldg. There we were able to catch an elevated tram to the Shinbashi station of the JNR after much effort in trying to figure out the system. Shinbashi is only one or two stations away from where I was stationed with the Army in the late 1950ís, but nothing was familiar. With such limited funds all we could do was just walk around the area and take in the sights. I did at least look through a Japanese grocery store and buy a Bento Box of Sushi for my evening meal on the ship. Japan was the only port on the whole trip that was not only visitor unfriendly, but seemed to actively discourage visitors.
I donít know if it was the effect of Typhoon Rex, but the remainder of the trip was in fog, drizzle and heavy seas, especially when we were on the great circle route to Los Angeles.. At one point on the great circle route, the Capt. advised everyone to use the inside stairs and to stay away from outside decks and stairs, especially on the lower decks. And at other points it was hard to see the bow from the bridge and all navigation was by radar. Only when we were about three days out of Los Angeles did the weather let up. But because of the great circle route we came into LA through the Santa Barbara Channel, a great way to enter the Los Angeles area. For ĺ of a day we had the California coast to port and the Channel Islands to starboard; and thousands of dolphins and numerous whales all the way. Despite it being cool we spent the entire time on "F" deck in our lawn chairs.
We finally arrived back in Los Angeles on Sept. 4, and instead of just flying directly back to Albuquerque, I rented a car and drove my fellow passengers around the city for the day. They were so enjoyable on the trip that I could not pass up this last chance to show them "tinsel town".
Total voyage: 84 days, 32,382 NM from Long Beach/Los Angeles, and uncounted memories.