Malta-Dubai; 23 August 2016 – Day 14, the Arabian Sea

23 August

10.46 (GMT+3)

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.

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Malta-Dubai; 22 August 2016 – Day 13, Bab-al-Mandab

22 August

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.

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Malta-Dubai; 21 August 2016 – Day 12, Towards Bab-al-Mandab

21 August

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.


17.35 (GMT+3)

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.


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Malta-Dubai; 20 August 2016 – Day 11, Jeddah

20 August

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.

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Malta-Dubai; 19 August 2016 – Day 10, Towards Jeddah

19 August

11.50 (GMT +2)

Steaming towards Jidda

Had a couple of very interesting conversations today.

First with Lysandro, the messman/steward whose theory it is that the 9/11 bombings was very bad for Filipino crewmen on cruise-ships. That security went up, salaries went down, and Filipino crewmen were viewed with suspicion. Interestingly, he also attributes the fall in salaries to this increase in security. He apparently trained as a marine engineer, but in order to approach a recruiting agency, he had no contacts. So he worked with his uncle who took him to be a crew/messman on the cruise-ship. He apparently did that until 6 years ago, when he worked for CMA, then left to work for Hapag-Lloyd, and now he is back at CMA. He also mentioned this German couple he had met on the cruise-ship who came to visit his town, went swimming and eating together, and then offered to adopt his youngest daughter, Mutya. Which he refused. He said that he was very poor in Philippines and that his dream was to get a van with which he could make some money at home. He felt that being on the bottom rung of the employment didn’t earn him very much and that he was hoping to become a cook, but felt that at 41, he was too old to do so.

Then I spoke to the Captain up on the Bridge. He was telling me about having had the chief as his cadet in 1991/1992. But then they had not seen each other since then.

He was also telling me about how difficult it was on the east-bound leg of this journey with its short and frequent port visits. He mentioned that Mersin had been added in the last minute, and when usually Turkish cargo was put on a feeder and sent to Beirut, someone at HQ thought it was more profitable for Callisto (owned by Aliza 1994; and operated by CMA Operations) to make a detour this time. We were apparently the biggest and deepest-draught ship in Mersin yet, and the port was not ready for us, with both the breakwater opening being far too narrow and the turning radius too difficult to navigate.

This is particularly hard for the officers, because apparently with these 11,400 TEU ships, there is a design error, where the rudder is 23% shorter than it should be, so if the ship’s speed drops too far, the ship loses steering, which of course makes everything very difficult in coming into port.



18.19 Ship time (GMT +2)

Anticipation of Jeddah is interesting. Preparations that have to be made with all the alcohol and vinegar (!) and pornographic videos and magazines to be hidden somewhere in case inspectors come onboard. And declarations have to be made. And the treacherous reefs that we will have to navigate to come through to the port. The topography of the Red Sea is fascinating. It goes in so deep and it is so covered in reefs and islands. It actually makes me want to read the geological history of the place too. It is like a narrow gash between two continents: the work of a brutal glacier?

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Malta-Dubai; 18 August 2016 – Day 9, Transitting Suez

18 August 2016

07.55 (GMT +2)

Transitting Suez


I was so excited last night I could barely sleep. Woke up several times between 02.00 and 04.30 when I finally got up. Turned out we were already steaming – and were/are the first ship in the convoy. It was rather majestic, that slow stately procession of ships, with the ships snaking through the channels to get in convoy. Since I was sick last time and my good camera had failed, I was really anxious this time to be there for the entry and will continue to be so… Last year, I only woke up –completely virus-ridden– when we were in Lake Temsah. This time, I got to see the sunrise over the Port Said bypass, and even see a little train go by the canal. This bit of the canal – at least on the Africa side is far less militarised than further south. And it is so green…


11.55 (GMT +2)

Great Bitter Lake

The second canal is up and running. As last time the two banks are a study in contrast: Sinai dry and bone-coloured; the African coast lush and green. Baladi dogs; fishermen who take their lives in their hands by moving in front of the massive ships, and a massive construction project that seems to have come off.


Now though, there are two convoys going side-by-side between Km122 and Km52. Reduced anchorage time in the Great Bitter Lake (by 4-6 hours) and deeper channels (up to 66ft) remove the necessity of anchoring in the Lake, and are apparently the advantages of the new canal. A two-way canal system means that the image from Lawrence of Arabia – of a ship traversing the desert can now be observed in two directions and from onboard one ship as well.


As a whole the canal seems to me less militarised than last time, but thus far I have seen the Northern part, which I had missed last time because of both night transit and my illness (and my camera breakdown).

The other striking thing is how few tankers are coming from the other side, and how few chemical carriers there are on our side. I wonder if it is true that tankers are finding it cheaper to go around the Cape of Good Hope instead of paying Suez Canal fees – especially now that oil prices are so low.



18.49 (GMT + 2)

Gulf of Suez

We have steamed past the wind-farm between Ain Sukhna and Ain Daraja. And at Ain Daraja, the most extraordinary yellow plumes of pollution arise out of the sea (and wellheads). The contrast between the wind-farms and the strange barrack-like buildings on the shore and this polluted sky.


The moon is a full moon tonight and it is bright orange. It is such a shame that the bigness of the moon is always so difficult to capture with ordinary cameras.

We are now steaming south at a fairly leisurely pace (around 11 knots) and will probably drop our speed, since we are not expected in Jidda until noon on the 20th (another 40 hours). Other containerships are passing us at a much faster clip. Interestingly, the CMA CGM ship that was northbound, passing us a few minutes ago was even emptier than our ship. I wonder how they make do and if like Maersk they are suffering, but unlike Maersk they are unwilling to admit it.


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Malta-Dubai; 16-17 August 2016 – Days 7&8, Towards Suez

16 August


Steaming through the Mediterranean towards Port Said anchorage


We are going incredibly slowly at 11.4 knots towards Port Said anchorage. The ship is filled with reefers – with even more having been loaded at Mersin. Much of the hazardous chemicals seem to be destined for Jabal Ali. Not sure what is in the reefers, but perhaps fruit and vegetable given that most were loaded at Damietta, Beirut and Mersin and most are intended for Jeddah and Jabal Ali?

It is a very slow day in the wheelhouse today. And it shall be slow all the way to Jeddah, where we are supposed to arrive on Saturday.



Looking at the sea and feeling only boredom today I wonder if I have affectively arrived at the place where seafarers are: looking upon the deep, that vastness, and feeling a longing to go home.


17 August

10.32 (GMT +2)

Steaming towards Port Said anchorage



Land birds circling and flies buzzing

Giant golden dragonflies

Helicopters above

Warships that look tiny, puny, in comparison with the giant commercial ships

Fishing boats

Endless tankers steaming away

Containerships steaming towards the anchorage

The cranes of Port Said in the distance in the haze


Impressionistically speaking, last trip, there were so many more Maersk ships everywhere. I am yet to see any Maersk ships at all or even any big MSC ships (there was a smaller one in Beirut). There are loads of ships from other parts of the world; certainly those which don’t advertise their names in big letters across their hull (except for Arkas). And there are many smaller feeder ships.




Well, those impressions were somewhat faulty. There was a Maersk ship steaming towards Europe; and there are containerships from MSC, NYK Line, Hapag Lloyd, OOCL, China Shipping Line, and a few others at anchor in the deep-draught anchorage. As I stood under the full moon, a Zim ship steamed towards medium-draught anchorage, so it will be in a convoy with us.

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