Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pirates MV Jakarta style...


On February 15th, we exited the Red Sea and entered the waters between Yemen and Somalia - pirate territory. We knew that this was a risk when we booked passage. The reality of the situation was brought home when the Captain announced that all outside doors would be locked overnight, and that extra crew members would be assigned to "lookout" duty on the bridge. Then he gathered the passengers together to discuss the subject of pirates.
Should the ship be boarded we would offer no resistance. The locked doors would slow the pirates down, but not stop them. He explained that their countries were very poor and that they would take everything that wasn't nailed down. The Chief Engineer had been on a ship boarded by pirates, and they took all the bedding, including the mattresses, leaving the crew in only their underwear. Fortunately high jacking has not been successful fort hem. On one ship that they commandeered they demanded a ransom of $ 1million. The price was eventually reduced to $250,000. This was no bargain,however, because the pirates had already inflicted millions of dollars of damage to the ship. On another ship the crew fought off the pirates,killing some in the fray. Two years later, in spite of the fact that thes hip had been sold and traveled with a different crew, the ship was attacked again. This time, everyone in the crew was murdered. "This", the Captain explained, "is why we offer no resistance. The commercial shipping world has no desire to enter armed warfare with the pirates. Everybody would lose."
Interesting fact: Israeli and Russian ships are never attacked!
After all these "war stories," and an uncomfortable rise in my adrenalin level, the Captain then assured us the we are an unlikely candidate for attack. We have a very high freeboard, travel comparatively fast, 18-19knots, and don't have an attractive cargo.
Still - I was happy to enter the Indian Ocean.

The Suez Canal and the Red Sea

The Suez Canal is full of surprises. It joins two large bodies of water and so I assumed that there would be a lock. Wrong! There is just over one meter difference between both ends.
Second surprise, it is a one way system, a consequence of increasingly larger cargo vessels. At a speed of 5 to 6 knots it takes about 12 hours to transit the full length of the canal. This is broken into two six hour passages. Northbound and southbound traffic start at the same time and meetin the middle of the canal where there is a series of small lakes. Both convoys stop here and regroup before proceeding with their journey. There are two convoys each way twice daily.
At 5:30 A.M. on Thursday 11th. February Mal and I found ourselves on the bridge listening to Port Said traffic controllers communicating, in English,with ships at anchor waiting to transit the canal. We had watched the Jakarta glide to a halt and drop anchor earlier. At 6:30 A.M. we we redirected to pass buoy 8 behind the container ship Ym Tianjin and in front of the bulk carrier Daewoo Ace and thus we became part of the long convoy traveling south along the canal. Daewoo Ace was in such a hurry to join the queue that he set off our "imminent collision" alarm causing a little early morning cardiac exercise. I wondered if he perhaps thought he was in New York harbor where I understand that right of way belongs to the helmsman with the most guts! So began our long trek south.
We followed a long seawall into Port Said harbor where we were met with frenzy of activity. Ferries of all shapes and sizes traversed the harbor,at seemingly reckless speeds, with little regard for the freighters in their midst. It was at this point that Mal and I became spectators to a strange custom. It happens to every ship that passes through the canal. A small motor boat with three men pulled along side our ship. A line was thrown from the ship which was tied off to the boat. This line was gradually played out until the boat was opposite the poop deck and traveling at the exact same speed as our ship. The hook of our aft crane was then lifted out of its cradle and lowered until it hovered just over the boat. A loop from the boat was passed over the hook. The crane then lifted the boat out of the water to the level of the poop deck. Three men with large sacks disembarked from the boat. We had instant bazaar, everything from plastic pyramids to cheap perfume. These boatmen, as they are known as, stayed with us for the entire duration of our trip through the canal.
Eventually we passed out of Port Said and into the canal. The East bank quickly gave way to an undulating dessert which remained with us for almost the entire journey. A deserted dirt road separated it from the canal.Occasionally we would spot army personnel in fatigues and helmets, carrying very serious looking guns. I suspect that the canal is under surveillance at all times. Think for a moment how important it is to global commerce.The west bank of the canal was much livelier. Here a super highway with toll booths paralleled us. Had the bill boards not been written in Egyptian we could have been anywhere in the civilized world. We passed green cultivated fields, shanty towns, houses beautifully landscaped and even towns and cities. Finally we reached....a bridge! This is surprise number three. There are only two bridges that cross the canal in its entire length, and one is a railway bridge. At the end of the first leg we passed under the Japan-Egypt Friendship Bridge, the only road connection between the African and Asian continents. This helps to explain the frenzy of harbor traffic at Port Said.
Shortly after passing the bridge the canal divided. Here the convoy stopped. Linesmen in boats took our lines and tied us off to the port side embankment. It was 2:00 P.M., six hours after we entered the canal. The northbound convoy now proceeded to enter the canal. There were a lot of ships and it was 8:30 PM before we cast off and continued our journey south through the lakes and back into the canal. Again there was desert to the east, but the west bank also became less populated. At 3:00 A.M. we reached Suez. Our boatmen left us, no doubt to hitch a lift north on the next convoy. Finally we passed into the Red sea.
What can I say about the Red Sea. It's not red, it's very wide and it's very long. The shipping lane is in the middle so we only caught occasional glimpses of land and suddenly we were in the Gulf of Aden, pirate territory.

About the MV Jakarta....

MV Jakarta
This is a happy boat. Everybody smiles. The crew is a mixture of Romanian(Captain and Chief Officer as well as ship's carpenter), Sri Lankan(Cadets, training for eventual positions as ship's officers, who alternate between crew duties on deck and classroom training with the Chief Officer)and Filipinos, who serve as Mates and crew. The Filipinos, especially, are a happy lot. The have a great sense of humor and a sense of fun as well.They love to party and to sing. Parties on board the ship are usually on a Saturday, held in the Blue bar, and are open to everyone. Good food, beer,booze, music and singing are the order of the night.
The ship itself is one of nine, the Pearl String, owned by Rickmers LinieGmb & De KG that continuously circles the globe. It is 600 feet long (two football fields) and 86 feet wide. Equipped with four Superflex heavy duty cranes it is built to handle heavy, out-of-gauge cargo. The two middle cranes lift 320 metric tons each and, when combined, can lift more than the weight of a fully loaded 747. Cargo can be stored above or below deck, but the below deck area is ventilated and dehumidified. This allows us to carry extraordinary cargo not suited to container ships or roll on/roll offs.
As you might expect, maintenance is an ongoing chore for the crew. Saltwater + Metal = Rust. The noise of wire brushes and the smell of fresh paint are constant companions.
The aft section of the ship, known as the bridge house, has eight decks:main, poop, A,B,C and D decks (the living quarters), pilot deck (home of the Blue bar), and the bridge. The Blue bar is furnished as a bar but is really only used when there is a party. There is no elevator. We were well warned, prior to booking our passage, that we would need to be comfortable ascending and descending at least five flights of stairs regularly. We are housed in the owner's suite in the middle of D deck. The Officers Mess is on the A deck. At this point I can safely say that Mal and I are developing"buns of steel"!!
The food is excellent. Our chef worked on a large cruise ship prior to joining us. Breakfasts are cooked to order, anything from Eggs Benedict to cereal. Lunch and dinner consist of soup, salad, main course and dessert.The cuisine is best described as eclectic. It includes food from all nations, is always delicious and is beautifully presented. Dessert today was Crepes Suzettes.
The working bridge takes up the entire top story of the bridge house. It contains all the charts and instruments, a bathroom and a small kitchen.Bridge policy is left to the individual captain of each ship. Our captain allows us on the bridge at any time as long as we don't interfere with the operation of the ship. This is a wonderful privilege. The instruments are similar in concept to those on a small boat so Mal and I have no difficulty reading and understanding them. An exciting moment was watching the latitude drop to 00.00.
Our days pass quickly here, even when in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Our fellow passengers are interesting and entertaining and so far our adventure is proving to be very successful.

X marks our room - Third porthole from the Left top row below green stripe 2-10-2008 3-21-27 PM

More Boat Pics

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Genoa the city of Small Cars....

It was still dark when we pulled into Genoa on the morning of February the6th. Mal and I looked out of our porthole and were greeted by a beautifulcrescent of dazzling lights. The city rises up out of the Mediterranean Seaand is guarded by a semicircular ridge of mountains which sweep down to thesea on either side. Development is limited to a crescent on the foothills.The original port is nestled to the east of the bay, close to the center oftown. Eventually Genoa needed a larger port to accommodate commercialshipping. They expanded in the only direction that they could, into the bay.The new port is built on reclaimed land and land fill and sits to the westof the original port. The Jakarta was quietly coasting into the bay towardthe commercial port.
Never let it be said that Mal or I ever our confused our priorities. We hada limited amount of time to shop in Antwerp before boarding the ship and soour liquor supply consisted of a bottle of brandy, a bottle of whiskey and afew bottles of wine. The house wines on the boat are Inglenook and GreatWall of China whites and reds. The Inglenooks leave a lot to be desiredand, in all honesty, we didn't even try the Chinese wine. Our first orderof business was to hail a taxi and request that he take us to the nearestliquor store. As we approached the center of town I realized why the carsare so small. All the streets are narrow and cobbled and follow no geometricpattern. Most of them are two way because to try to impose one way systemswould be very difficult. None of the streets run parallel, wonderful toshop in, difficult to negotiate by car. Fortunately none of the oldbuildings have been razed to make room for modern high rises and so itremains charming. The people we met were equally charming.
We brought Paul, a fellow traveling companion, with us. By the time wefinished our shopping we had purchased 53 bottles and Paul had purchased 36.It is a long way to Jakarta, our next stop. Our cabin is 6 levels up fromthe main deck, which, in turn, is a long gangway climb from the dock. Thereis no elevator so getting our wine to our cabin was quite a challenge!Needless to say we are enjoying every hard earned drop.
We left Genoa in the evening and were rewarded with the same dazzlingdisplay of lights. I would love to return when we have more time to explorethe city.

The Storm

We left Genoa in the evening and made our way down the west coast of Italy.At approximately 7:30 P.M. the next evening Mal and I noticed scatteredlights to starboard. We went up to the pilot deck to investigate and wererewarded by the sight of Mount Vesuvius erupting into the night sky. Twohours later we were negotiating the straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily. The lights of the towns on either side were so bright that they litup the night sky. The passage is narrow and full of boat traffic so we hada pilot aboard to help us navigate.
Later that night I was rudely awakened out of a deep sleep by theshuddering and pitching of the boat. We were in a storm. Very soon theboat was rolling from side to side. We are 600 feet long, two footballfields, so we were able to ride the waves but occasionally we pitch poledinto a large trough caused by an extra large wave. The impact of the boatsinking into the water caused the whole boat to shudder. There was verylittle sleep the rest of the night.
The next day the storm abated. It was fun to watch it from the shelter ofour room. I tried to imagine what it might be like in a 40 foot sail boat.Let me just say that Mal and I have no plans to sail around the world.
By night fall the storm ramped up again. It looked like another restlessnight. We had some respite for a couple of hours as our course took ussouth of Crete and into the shelter of the island. By the next morning thestorm had finally run its course and we were able to enjoy the beautifulMediterranean weather we had anticipated. The entry in the ships log wasforce 10 winds on the Beaufort scale for both nights (winds 55 to 63 milesper hour) Force 12 is a hurricane.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The inevitable lifeboat drill

This "out of space" looking life raft holds 36 people, 3 more than thenumber of people aboard. As you can see it is stowed on an incline.In order for everybody to be in a sitting position when afloat, wemust lie on our backs prior to launch. Each seat is numbered. Maland I are 10 and 11. The launch of the life raft can be quiteballistic so, during the drill, a crew member adjusted our seat belts. They will remain this way for the rest of the trip. I'm afraidpeople who are claustrophobic would find this drill very challenging:there is approximately a 26" clearance between seat itself and themolded support for the seat ahead.
The raft has propulsion and steering capabilities. The last man toenter the pod is the helmsman. One has to wonder. If the boat issinking in the middle of nowhere where exactly would he be taking us?The thought crossed my mind that it might be easier to don one's lifejacket and jump overboard!

Pics from the Singermans at Sea

For those of you interested, here are some pictures from the ship....

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Update on the Adventure...

Our adventure started sooner than expected. Mal’s briefcase was stolen in
Brussels airport. Gone were our passports, boarding tickets, visas for
China and Vietnam, money, jewelry, telephone, which doubled as Mal’s phone
book, camera, and saddest of all, our faithful cribbage board, a gift from
Jerry and Joyce Tully, that has traveled the world with us. It happened at
the baggage carousel while were distracted by our suitcases. The police were
familiar the modus operendi of the thieves, gave us their condolences and
wrote up a comprehensive report. This happened on a Sunday and so there was
nothing to do but find a centrally located hotel from which to launch our
recovery plan. Sunday was a bleak day.

Our good friend, Bert Willitt, once counseled that the difference between
disaster and adventure was attitude – and yes, the word attitude arose on
several occasions, but by the time we retired on Monday night, we had:
Two brand new U.S. passports
Two new Chinese visas in our brand new passports
Copies of our yellow fever vaccinations, a must have to enter China, in the
Fed. Ex. system winging their way to Brussels
Money also on its way, courtesy of American Express
A promise by the port agents that we could board without our

The Vietnamese embassy was closed on Tuesday so we spent the day picking up
the wired money, getting our suitcases aboard the Jakarta in Antwerp, and
returning to Brussels to beat a path to the suburb of Ganshorn, where our
good friends Francis and Deirdre, who were in Edinburgh, put their flat at
our disposal.

Wednesday morning we were issued our Vietnamese visas and at 3.00 P.M. we
boarded the Jakarta with an E.T.D. of midnight. Miraculously we had replaced
all the documents needed for our trip except our proof of vaccination
certificates. They were scheduled to arrive at Francis’s flat on Thursday.
Mal and I stayed up to watch the crew cast off. At 1.00 A.M., in the
absence of any activity on the boat, we retired for the night expecting to
awaken in the English Channel. Not so. We awoke still docked! The fuel
company had filled us with the wrong fuel. It took most of the day to
correct the problem. Meanwhile our vaccination certificates arrived in
Brussels. Francis, who had returned from Edinburgh on Wednesday afternoon,
hopped in his car sans shower or breakfast and drove all the way to Antwerp
to deliver our certificates in person. What a friend! By the time we
sailed, we had managed to replace all of the documentation necessary to our

We cast off Thursday evening at 7:30 P.M. The port of Antwerp is one of the
largest in Europe. It is on a river which stretches from the city of
Antwerp to the Netherlands. It takes 6 to 8 hours to navigate through the
river and estuary to reach the English Channel. At approximately 1:00 A.M.
Mal and I were rudely awakened by the thumps of moving objects in our
cabin. We had just cleared land and were heading out into a storm in the
channel. It took some tidying of loose objects before we were able to get
back to sleep. The pilot who guided us out of Antwerp was still onboard.
Several attempts to get him into the pilot boat that same night failed
because of the storm. Scuttlebutt was that he was planning to disembark at

Friday morning found us running along the English coast. We had just
finished lunch (food is great)when a crew member invited us outside to see a
helicopter hovering very close to the ship. There was a man dressed in an
orange suit suspended from the helicopter. He had a microphone strapped to
his chest but he appeared to indicate his wishes using hand signals.
Imagine our surprise when he gently swung toward us as if to land on our

Could the man in the orange suit have anything to do with our pilot?

We watched with interest as he made several more failed attempts to land on
our boat. Suddenly the helicopter withdrew reeling up our man in the orange
suit. As they prepared to take off they waved us all a hearty good bye.
The British coast guard was carrying out a training mission and chose our
boat as their target vessel.

We are two of six passengers, two Canadians, one Brit and one German, all
men, and all very companionable. The Officers and crew held a welcoming
party for us on Saturday night. I will let the photos speak for
themselves. So far Mal and I are having a wonderful time. As I write this
we have passed Gibraltar and are heading through the Mediterranean sea
toward Genoa.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The difference between a disaster and an adventure is attitude...

Well, our trip got off to a rather "adventurous" start. While retrieving our luggage in the airport in Brussels, our briefcase containing our passports, visas, camera and cash was stolen from our luggage cart. Upon reporting this to the authorities, we were met with a lot of solemn head shaking...apparently this sort of thing is quite common in that airport. Sunday was a bleak day....We had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to spend several days in Brussels, and fly to Genoa to meet our ship in the next port; however we were determined not to let this incident get us down.

Early Monday morning, we were at the doors of the American Consulate. They were so helpful, we were actually able to replace everything in a day and a half, and I am happy to report that I am dictating this to our daughter, Jennifer, (from the one cellular phone that wasn't stolen) from the taxi on the way to board the Rikmans Jakarta here in Brussels! In true Singerman fashion, we were also able to fit in some fabulous Flemish meals in between visits to the consulate and the American Express office.

Bye for now!

Anne Marie and Mal