09.25 (GMT +4)
Steaming towards Hormuz Straits
The only thing that lightened the monotony yesterday was the alarm at around 10 last night. And the ridiculous conversations between the Iranian ship’s captains on channel 16 (which is supposed to be reserved for emergencies).
22.00 (GMT +4)
The air outside is at last bearable. Just warm, not furnace hot. It was at some stage 41 degrees outside and the water temperature was 33 degrees!
The port-side horizon is red with light pollution and the lights of Ras al Khayma and Sharjah twinkle in the distance as we make our way towards the pilot station of Jabal Ali, where we are to be met at 23.00. I have stayed up as we are apparently going to steam through the harbour to the back of Jabal Ali (a different terminal than before) which is very exciting. The captain said something about a private berth, but I am not sure what that means.
The Milky Way is glorious, once your eyes get used to the dark. The Indian Ocean was too grey and overcast and hazy for a nighttime perusal of the sky, and before that, I was too ensconced in my routines of going to sleep at 9 to actually think about going out there to look at the sky.
Strange how much more jaded I am this time around. I have just looked at my notes from last year and Corte Real and I was so much more attentive to all the details. I suppose my writing time this trip was spent on love-emails and book proposals, so a slightly different experience.
Steaming in the Indian Ocean
The “rough seas” promised by the weather bulletin appeared somewhere close to 21.00 last night. It really wasn’t all that rough in any case and the rolling was more like being in a hammock. Strangely the vibrations and the rolling bring on dreams and I dream of things so intensely.
It is southwest monsoon and there is a tropical depression to the east of us. The wind is blowing from our stern and the waves are 2-3 metres high. But the ship seems quite steady as it goes.
One of the things that I have noticed on this trip is that the seafarers all have access to internet now on their phones. I think they pay something for this, but now, can have instantaneous contact via their mobile and laptops which is different than what I remember from Corte Real (where I think their emails were sent home once a day via a satellite link). I wonder if this access to mobile phone is why the Filipino crew seem not o do karaoke parties anymore.
11.15 (GMT +4)
Steaming past Masirah Islands towards Ras al-Hadd
Sunny outside and the sea still covered with white horses, but the ship not rolling as much as before. It is still hazy outside, but not grey and the visibility further than yesterday.
Utter monotony as we steam towards Ras al-Hadd, and Hormuz Strait (where we will arrive, I think, tomorrow at 7).
Steaming through the southern Arabian Seas – somewhere between Aden and Mukalla
What a surprise this morning when the Filipino A/B, Alexander said to me “khasteh nabashid”. Turns out he was for two years between 2009 and 2011 working on a bulker belong to IRISLN – Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line. The bulker went between Bandar Abbas, Bushehr and Bandar Imam Khomeini in Iran and either India or China and carried ingredients of fertilisers, especially, sulphur apparently. Alexander seemed quite sweet and mentioned how he liked the Iranian food, the chapatti-like bread, the “yellow rice”, the kababs –and here he made the motion of shaping a kubideh around the skewer. He also mentioned that the seafarers on the ship ate pork during Ramadan, and the oiler told him about discos and drinking in Tehran. The ships were mothballed at port in 2011 when the sanctions hit and Alexander moved on from Iran. But he seemed quite affectionate and not particularly complaining – except about the heat and humidity in the Iranian ports.
As for us, we are steaming through an empty sea. No fish (although Alexander said he saw dolphins at 8 this morning), no ships, no land. Not too unlike the Mediterranean, except for the fact that there are even fewer distant ships on the AIS, although the Zim ship I saw going through the Canal, Zim Qingdao, seems to appear on the AIS, though at a long distance away from us. Looking at the map of Bab al-Mandab again, I was so struck by the imperial division of territory around the strait: with Britain controlling the Asian landmass at Aden/Yemen, while the French held onto Djibouti, a sliver of land carved out of the “natural” geography/polity that surrounds it and made into a new political entity with its own control of the sea-space adjacent to it.
This morning, Lysandro was telling me about how the medical exams for seafarers are getting harder and harder and how they are measure for blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, diabetes and all sorts of other things. He mentioned that four months before going home, he would begin a diet in which he would stop eating rice and bread and other carbs so that he could lose weight. I wonder if these medical exams are indeed getting harder, or it is that Lysandro is getting older and finds it more difficult to meet their demands. Of course this in itself is also a hardship – that you have to be so young to do this job and no amount of demand on the job cancels the need to keep fit while on board.
17.35 (GMT +3)
After a dry spell, I have now seen an EU warship (F803) with a helicopter onboard off the coast from Mukalla. The helicopter made a circle behind the ship and landed on the deck again less than a minute later. A strange performance.
Then, a few miles further, both flying fish and dolphins playing the water. Of the latter there were so many. And a fishing boat moving –at 4 knots, a long way –40 nautical miles– from the shore. Like the guys last year, Danilo (the A/B) and Anthony (the third officer) were trying to scare me into thinking this was going to be a pirate attack. No such chance, although Anthony did say that last November, in the Red Sea, the ship he was on was approached by two skiffs at speed on both sides and that there were 9 people altogether on the skiffs. When they approached, everyone was called to the muster stations and all but the captain and the chief hid in the citadel. Thankfully, the weather was bad and the skiffs could not catch up with the large containership Anthony was on.
10.49 Ship time (GMT +3)
Steaming towards Bab al-Mandab
The Red Sea is such a wondrous sea. Volcanic activities around the Zubayr Islands. So many reefs and shoals and atolls, such depth and such harsh jagged mountains on the edges, a gash through the earth, the seam of movement of the continents perhaps, magnetic anomalies, and a kind of harsh stark beauty.
I visited the engine room today and was given a tour by the chief engineer himself. It is a kind of inferno down there, and in the oil purifying room, where the heavy engine oil and lube oil are heated to 135 degrees (diesel does not require heating), sweated away.
The engine itself with its twelve cylinders and the engine shaft driving the propeller is a thing of awesome beauty, with that sound of beating heart again, and the massive exhaust pipes which are then used to heat water and who knows what. So much is purified: sewage, water, oil, fuel, lube oil, bilge and on and on. So much is moved, heated or cooled. There is a formidable efficiency in the way it all works – and with so few people. Most seem to be engaged in maintenance –regular or reparative.
There is also a kind of quaint beauty to the maintenance room with its ordinary tool and ordinary scale. When one looks at the spare parts, enormous flanges and valves, massive pieces of machinery, oiled and hot, it is rather amazing.
19.15 (GMT +3)
Steaming away from Bab al-Mandab
We passed Bab al Mandab at around 18.30 and are now in security zone 2 and in the pirate area. The windows of the decks have been blacked out and a red security barrier has been erected around the poop deck which is the deck closest to water at about 10 metres.
The Red Sea topography is just amazing. All these conical little islands strewn everywhere, bursting forth from the seam of the continents in the sea. Islands on both sides and the strait is so narrow that you can see both sides despite the haze and the heat. Even I with my terrible eyesight can see both sides.
Passing through the strait, my phone has been handed over from Yemeni Saba to Djibouti networks. I am amazed that the former works and welcomes me in two languages. The latter is the most expensive, with phone calls at £2.50 per minute (£1 per minute more than elsewhere) and texts at double the usual price, at £1 per text. I wonder why Djibouti is so expensive.
At 16.00 this afternoon went to watch the ping pong tournament. The chief mate, dressed all in blue and looking like a pirate with a bandana won in the end against the boson. It was rather interesting that the Croatians rooted for their own when playing the Chinese or Filipinos, but when playing against other Croatians, it was deck versus engine room. The captain came to watch, as did a number of others. Danilo (whose cousin apparently goes to SOAS) was called in to play and arrived with red puffy eyes and proceeded to lose. When I asked him just now whether he had been sleeping, he said no he always cries when he listens to sad music.
Then at 17.30 we went off to the BBQ on D-Deck, which has a wrap-around outside wing. Massive oil-drums burning wood with pork, hotdogs, beef and chicken plus garlic bread and fried rice and melons and watermelon for dessert. No alcohol. What was lovely was the absence of separation between crew and officers, though obviously people of the same language were sitting together more often than not. But everyone was barbecuing their own meat and having a good chat. Turned out that the cook had worked as a waiter in Riyadh for a couple of years and in Qatar also; in the former at the Harvey Nichols’ restaurant, and the latter at Regis Hotel. He then became a messman on a CMA ship five years ago and eventually made it to chief cook. The party ended at 19.15 – what with the requirement to keep the ship dark. I now smell like smoke and sweat. It was 31 degrees outside and very humid as we go further south for a bit more. I think we are now only 10 degrees north of the equator. The captain said the ship may be rolling tomorrow… So something to anticipate as we steam fairly close to Yemen up towards the Gulf of Oman.
10.19 (GMT +3)
Steaming towards Bab al-Mandab
The ship left earlier again than anticipated. We had been scheduled for 09.00, but I could feel the engine coming on at 05.00 and then we were off at 06.00 and we are now steaming at 17 knots towards Bab al-Mandab which we are supposed to pass in the early evening tomorrow. I don’t remember the Red Sea being so vast and so long but I guess it is.
There are now boxes in front of my porthole. I still have good light, but now, my view of the sea is restricted.
There is a strong wind blowing against the side of the ship and the ship lists and the metal containers groan as they lean and rub against each other. The feeling of the movement of the ship from side to side is lovely. The sea itself is hot and so humid that a layer of watery haze, clear and hot, hangs over the surface of the sea.
Had a brilliant conversation with the chief officer about ballast water; loading bays; and weather.
With ballast water, if they load at a dirty industrial port (like Ningbo) and they have to unload at a clean port (like Sydney), they have to pump out the water in the ocean and pump in new water. They can also chlorinate the ballast water to kill organisms. The problem is when the fuel pipes that pass through the ballast tanks leak because of torsion in bad weather or bad maintenance. Then, they have to figure out a way to pump out the water (which is below the oil) and leave the oil inside the tank.
As for loading – he showed me the MACS3 system, which tracks the loading of all the bays and measures their safety in case of rolling, or torsion or head-on winds. We seem to be carrying a HUGE number of empty containers intended for China. We are at 76% weight, with around 6000 containers. We seem to be unloading most of our reefers in Jabal Ali and proceeding with only 50 or so more.
He also showed me the Octopus system which both simulates and measures the extent to which the ship rolls or moves because of the wind.
In the logbook, the opening page lists all the names for the weather. We go from haze to mist and to fog. We seem to have a visibility of less than 1000m right now which is categorised as mist. Anthony (the Filipino 3rd officer) was saying that in China, it is often full fog with no visibility at all, and they can only use the radar –completely covered in fishing boats) to navigate, rather than sight.
09:05 (GMT +3)
Steaming towards Jidda
Can’t really see all the reefs that the Admiralty charts say are there and which make approach to Jidda such a treacherous and difficult thing. It is hot and humid out there and when I went out there the lens of my camera just fogged up. All along the coast there seems to be construction at hand, and there is a lovely green bit – some sort of park or some such by the Corniche, and an enormous flag waving. Loads of ships at anchor, barges being tugged across the sea, and the NYK Line ship that passed us by yesterday berthed and being unloaded.
14.07 Jidda time
So the water outside Jidda is the most gorgeous iridescent blue-green, and you *can* actually see the reefs, which is a surge of muddier water in little splotches all along the approach channel. The city itself is far more low-slung than its Northern Peninsula cousins and it is white and shimmering in the hot sun (around 40 degrees maybe) with lovely modernist buildings (including the port control building) just up against the port itself.
Just to the south of us is the Naval base, with what looks like several naval ships berthed – from what I can see in the distance. The whole of the port has all sorts of terminals bunched up against each other: grain loading; cattle terminal; ro-ro terminal, several container terminals all around; and tanker loading terminals just offshore.
18.47 Jidda Time
Have been looking at the crane operators here and they seem to be either South Asian or Filipino. The same with most of the men I see on the ground. More research here is needed. The port operator here is Mua’assassat al-‘Amm al-Mawani, and the terminal operator seems to be Gulftainer. The place seems pretty well-organised, though the captain and all the officers claim that everything –including arrival and departure times- are a bit arbitrary. But today we were told 12.00 noon for pilot boarding and that is what happened. The captain talks about the Saudis being superior, but it seems to me some massive misapprehension of the unknown going on here: they have even collected the vinegar off our tables because they say it is fermented. I am not 100 per cent sure this is true. They also had a notice about collecting all the alcohol and the porn and hiding it. But then I and a couple of the cadets were given the option of having pork chops instead of (the overcooked and dry) lamb.
There was a weather bulletin – and it looks like there are rough seas in the Arabian Seas between Yemen and Oman. Should be interesting to see whether we will experience them. We are supposed to steam pretty close to the coast and I also really want to see the effect of the Monsoon on the mountains of Oman, if any.