December 1 2017
A couple of months after arriving back in Auckland I was packing my bag for another trip overseas. This time for a ship delivery from the Netherlands to India. In mid-November I left Auckland in sunshine and arrived in a wet, cold and dark Amsterdam – quite a shock to the system. A taxi ride took me to a hotel in Rotterdam where I joined the rest of the crew, a mixture of Dutch, Belgium and Indonesian nationalities.
The next day we all headed out to join the ship and prepare for the voyage ahead, 7,000 miles to India which will see us spend Christmas at sea, transit the Sue Canal, transit the Arabian Sea pirate area and arrive at our destination before the New Year, all being well. The ship is a new build, fresh out of the shipyard and as usual everywhere was buzzing with technicians doing final installations and testing of systems.
The ships crew started the task of preparing for the upcoming voyage, receiving provisions, preparing the voyage plan, getting familiar with the ship and its systems, safety training and drills and of course the volumes of paperwork and certification that are part of modern seafaring. After two days on board we were ready to sail – but not before a good night’s rest as we were very tired by this time.
The next morning the Pilot boarded, the gangway was sent ashore and we let go the mooring lines. I carefully manoeuvred the ship away from the berth into the Nieuwe Mass River, very aware that a lot of people were watching from the shipyard. Taking a new ship for the first time is always interesting and a steep learning curve to establish quickly how she responds to engines, rudders and thrusters. To screw this up in front of the shipyard with the proud new owners looking on is not an option.
Before reaching the sea we had to pass three bridges in Rotterdam. This involved lengthy waits in the river for bridge opening times – which are coordinated with traffic conditions to avoid more congestion than usual in the city. After an hour wait we passed the Van Brienenoordbrug and then had a lengthy wait in the river for the second bridge, the Koninginnebrug, to open. During this wait we were passed by the old tug the ‘Spanje’ with Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) on board. Zwarte Piet is a traditional Dutch Christmas character – who in recent years has become very controversial with his blacked up face and curly wig.
The next bridge we passed was the Koninginnebrug before entering the Koningshaven. We waited in the confined area of the Koningshaven for half an hour before passing the Erasmusbrug (nicknamed the Swan bridge) and finally being free to head towards the Hoek van Holland and the North Sea.
By late afternoon we dropped the pilot at Maascenter. The weather forecast was not too good for the southern North Sea. After the pilot departed we spent some time securing the anchors, blocking the spurling pipes and double checking all was secure on deck before picking up speed and heading off to start the voyage to India.
ROTTERDAM TO SUEZ
December 15 2017
The trip from Rotterdam down the English Channel was quite nostalgic – we passed the old familiar headlands of North and South Foreland, Dungeness and Beachy Head. Pre GPS, these were significant navigational marks, committed to memory, both visually and the radar signature. Now they are just names on the chart that rarely get a glance for the majority of large commercial ships.
The weather was typical winter channel weather, grey overcast, cold and a decent sea running. There is no heating on this ship as its destined to operate in a warm climate, watches on the bridge are chilly affairs with only a small portable heater to supply warmth to a massive, window surrounded, ballroom of a place. Its cold, the Indonesian watchman seems to be in survival mode.
Passing down the coasts of Spain and Portugal are now longer scenic affairs. The modern traffic routing splits the north bound and south bound ships into lanes and separation schemes. The southbound lane is now so far offshore that land, when you can see it, is just a distant smudge on the horizon.
After a week we reach the Straits of Gibraltar early in the morning for a spectacular sunrise. The weather is a bit warmer now and the sea has calmed down for the first time. At Gibraltar we are sending a service technician, who has been on board for the trip down from Rotterdam, ashore. We close the coast and slow down to rendezvous with a service boat coming out from Gibraltar. The transfer only takes a few minutes and we are back up to speed an on our way again. I look back at Gibraltar slipping astern and wish I could go ashore for a few hours.
The Mediterranean Sea turned on a strong northerly wind. We had a nasty bumpy ride and rolled all the way along the North African coast. People think of the Mediterranean as being sunny and calm – in winter it can be an unpleasant place with a nasty sea.
The evening arrival at Port Said to transit the Suez Canal was the usual chaotic event. Lots of ships calling on the VHF radio and everyone fighting to be first. Luckily, we didn’t have to anchor and joined the early morning convoy. As this ship is new and this is the first Suez transit there is a mountain of paperwork to complete. As we enter the canal the pilot boards. Followed by the agents, boatmen and their boat, canal electrician with his light and security personnel. We also receive additional security equipment for the piracy areas ahead, which must be loaded with the ships crane. A period of very intense activity and high stress before we can settle down to the canal transit.
At the Bitter Lakes we anchored for a few hours to allow a northbound convoy to pass. The weather is warm at last and its flat calm. A very welcome rest and time to catch up on sleep before we head off again.
A few hours later, in the small hours and pitch dark we reach the pilot station at Suez. Here we disembark our Egyptian visitors and their equipment and pick up a security guy who will be with us as we pass the piracy area. Finally, with a sense of relief the canal is behind us, we can head down the Red Sea with the first 3,400 miles behind us.
Our next stop will be at the southern end of the Red Sea to pick up two more security personnel and their arms. Until then it looks like we will have good weather for a few days with following winds for a change. So nice to be warm again and switch the portable heaters off, everybody on board is happy to be warm again.
SUEZ TO INDIA
December 28 2017
Cruising down the Red Sea, beautiful weather and a gentle following wind. Such a relaxing ride after the bumpy Mediterranean and organised chaos of the Suez Canal. Time to catch breath and take advantage of the weather which is set for a couple of days more.
The crew are also happy to have good weather and are setting about preparing the ship for the upcoming transit of the piracy area. Razor wire is being strung along the ships side and measures are taken to prevent any unwanted persons gaining entry to the ship. Anti-piracy and security drills are carried out and systems tested. All the crew have been through this procedure before many times – a sad element of modern seafaring.
Towards the bottom of the Red Sea we have a rendezvous to collect a couple more security guards and weapons before heading through the Bab el Mandab (Gateway of Tears), the narrow strait between Yemen and Djibouti that leads to the Gulf of Aden. Due to the current conflict in Yemen Bab el Mandeb is now considered a high-risk area. I planned to transit this area in daylight, but adverse winds at the south end of the Red Sea has slowed us, we passed by in during darkness instead. Pirates in their small boats can’t operate during bad weather so a night-time transit didn’t have much risk involved as the sea was choppy. Warships, helicopters and military activity aplenty in this area. In the past I have spent time in Yemen, both on the coast and in Sana, it’s a strikingly beautiful country. It’s very wrong that a few people’s greed and thirst for power is causing so much suffering to the already poor people.
As we headed out into the Gulf of Aden the wind backed around to the West and headed us again, slowing our progress. The headwind and head seas continued all the way to Ras al Hadd in Oman. The windy weather reduced the chance of any pirate attack, but we maintained all anti-piracy measures in place with double lookouts, just in case. In the history of recent piracy in this area no attack against a merchant vessel has been successful when armed security has been on board and no boarding’s have been recorded on any ships that can travel at 18 knots or over.
We continued up the coast of Oman, past Salalah where as a young man I had delivered stores onto the beach for the British Army as local bandits shot ineffectually at us from high ground. Salalah is now a big town with an airport and large container port. Past Masirah Island where we used to drop supplies for a small Royal Air Force contingent who were based there. I remember the anchorage at Masirah for the fantastic fishing, the poop deck of our ship resembled a trawler, we quickly filled the freezers with fresh fish.
Once around Ras al Hadd the wind reduced, thankfully calmer weather remained with us all the way to India. It was interesting for me to go around Ras al Hadd, but disappointing that we couldn’t get close to see the coast in detail as we used to do years ago. The traffic separation scheme around Ras al Hadd now takes the northbound ships out over twelve miles distant – too far to see anything interesting.
Around 1997 Ngozi and I toured Oman by 4WD, we visited Ras al Hadd on our way to a turtle beach to the south, where we camped. During the night we were able to watch the turtles coming ashore and lay their eggs – and by day see the spectacle of hundreds of hatchlings struggling to get to the sea as birds picked off the many unfortunate ones. A memorable experience and we have many fond memories of Oman and the friendly people we met there.
Our voyage continued past Muscat and up to a rendezvous off Fujairah in the UAE where we dropped off our security guards and their equipment. Then it was the final leg to India with just the eight ships crew on board. During the next days we celebrated Christmas and made sure the ship was shining like a new pin for the new owners. Pre-arrival India there was also a mountain of paperwork to complete – multiple forms, frequently requiring duplicate information. The obsession in India for needless and mindless paperwork is mind boggling. India leads the world in mindless paperwork and bureaucracy.
The arrival in India went well and we were securely berthed by mid-morning, engines shut down and formalities underway. Once the formalities were complete it was time for a beer – but – Gujarat state is dry, I had to wait a further two days until Delhi Airport to taste the amber nectar. Everybody on board was happy to have finished the job, 3,600 miles from Suez, and to get home before the New Year.