Malta-Dubai; 15 August 2016 – Day 6, Towards Mersin

15 August

11.35 ship-time (GMT + 3).

Steaming slowly towards Mersin


I suddenly have access to data and have spent the morning catching up with my emails.

It has been a quiet morning as we have been adrift at anchorage waiting to be told to go towards the pilot station, which we were just commanded to do. So we are slowly –at about 3 knots- going towards the pilot station.

Mersin lies at the coast as far as eye can see, blanched under the sun. The port seems to have a coal and ore harbour and there are in fact more bulk carriers steaming away than there are containerships. The port also doesn’t seem to have as many container cranes as Beirut has.

Our security level has been downgraded from 2 to 1. Along the coast of Egypt and all the way up along Syria, we were at Security Level 2. It is also interesting to see that the Admiralty Charts for Mersin don’t have anything like the number of warnings, or indications of security zones, or allusions to danger as the charts for the area further south have.


13.43 Ship time

Berthed at Mersin

Mersin is a beautiful city, all rooftops shimmering with dozens of satellite dishes, as if the skin of the city is sequined, the whole city white under the sun, green at the shore, and prosperous-looking.


The berth at which we are moored seems to be wholly new. And the cranes I saw, 4 of the really big ones, are only just installed. There are smaller cranes for smaller ships alongside and one of the pilots told our captain that our ship was the biggest yet he had piloted to shore. The area at which we are moored is relatively empty of containers; and on the other side of the jetty, there is a bulk carrier being loaded with bulky white bags (not sure what is in them). The end of the jetty itself is still under construction.


There are two warships and one coast guard ship in port. One of them is quite big and there are men in khaki onboard but I can’t tell what sort of a ship it is. It is berthed in the passenger terminal of the port. The other one is much smaller and it is moored along a jetty near the coal terminal.


A tiny CMA CGM ship, Comet, came alongside for less than an hour, discharged a couple of containers and boarded others. CMA seems to have a good business in feeders throughout the country. Anthony (the Filipino 3rd officer) worked for a long while on a CMA CGM feeder from Jabal Ali to three Indian ports. Bojan’s first ship was a small CMA CGM feeder from Marseille to Algiers.




Mersin seems to be the destination for a lot of feeder services. A little CMA CGM ship passed us by, almost entirely empty, berthed, discharged a couple of containers and picked up a few and it was on its way in less than an hour.

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Malta-Dubai; 14 August 2016 – Day 5, Beirut

14 August 2016

08.30 ship time (GMT+3)

At Beirut port


The city is under a grey haze and standing on deck outside one is assaulted by the smell of the Burj Hammoud garbage mountain just to the east of the port, which Joanne Nucho has written about.


Apparently, we can’t go onshore, or even to the duty-free shop, which sucks, as my phone is failing – I can’t connect to any data services and now can’t even send texts or transfer files. Perhaps at Mersin, I will be able to go to the duty-free shop.

We are leaving Beirut before 11.00 – and apparently the ship’s chandlers will be bringing fresh fruit and vegetables onboard before we go. Marco, the chief officer, was telling me that chandlers often bring in the goods just at the last minute when the ship cannot return them – and the fruit and vegetables are often very near their expiry date. I suppose this is one way chandlers make money. I imagine this must be a universal con.


16.25 ship time

In the end we left Beirut around 13.00. It took until the very last minute for more boxes to be loaded. Interestingly, it seemed that the vast majority of the boxes loaded were reefers. I would be curious as to whether we are shipping fresh agricultural products, and whether these products will be unloaded at Jeddah for example (where a lot of the hazardous material from Fos and Barcelona seem to be destined for).


We are supposed to arrive in Mersin tomorrow morning at 09.00 and leave at 21.00. I am rather astonished by the incredibly quick turnaround times. Not even 24 hours. Thus far, 12 hours in Damietta; 15 hours in Beirut; and probably 12 hours in Mersin.

The number of ports in one trip is an incredible strain on the officers and crew. Today, because of the way our departure straddled lunch-time, the chief, the captain and the rest of the deck officers and crew didn’t get to eat lunch. And it is Sunday also, so it is not exactly a restful day (although the engineers are taking advantage by going swimming).

In Mersin, I hope I will get to go to the duty free shop on site, as apparently I needed a shore pass for that in Beirut. My phone is failing, but I really don’t want to do a factory reset until I have had a chance to connect to wifi and download messages and other things.


17.35 ship time

We are going at a little bit over 11 knots. Rather amazing considering Corte Real was steaming at 23 knots through the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula. This, I suppose is the slow movement of cargo upon the deep.

The other surprising thing has been the sparseness of warships. A couple of little ones in Beirut harbour, but none others really. Perhaps when we get to the mouth of Suez or the Red Sea, things will differ. Certainly, a war now ranges in Yemen and I would be curious as to the complexion of things in the Gulf of Aden. Last year, there were loads of small ships engaged in coastal trade. And dhows everywhere. I suspect that won’t be the case now.

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Malta-Dubai; 13 August 2016 – Day 4, steaming towards Beirut

13 August

06.00 ship time (GMT+2); 07.00 GPS time (my phone)

Steaming towards Beirut

The ship left Damietta sometime after midnight, having spent only twelve hours there. The officers must be absolutely shattered, since we will be arriving in Beirut this evening sometime.

The area between here and Beirut is apparently full of warships without AIS designation. Israelis in particular seem to have marked much of their coast (well, actually Gazan coast) as closed or prohibited security areas. There are also apparently UN ships wandering about. We are supposed to arrive at Beirut pilot station at 19.00 (and this should take into account the time change which will happen at 13.00 – going to GMT + 3).


I am still utterly beguiled by the way the bodies of the seafarers becomes accustomed to, no, skilled at, reading the ship and the sea. The able seamen who stand watch in the wheelhouse have an extraordinary ability to see things in the far distance that simply defies explanation: they can distinguish objects from the haze, stationary things from moving vessels, and the size of these things. Bojan the cadet was telling me about a chief mate who could stand in his cabin and by the way in which his head aligned to the cabin’s ceiling, could tell whether or not the ship’s ballast was in balance on the two sides. The captain on my previous ship could tell when there was something wrong with the engine when his sleeping quarters were above the engine-room. Even I can tell the difference between the stillness of an engine that is turned off and the vibrations that now send me to sleep when the engine is running.

22:05 ship time and Beirut time (GMT +3)

Earlier, I went swimming in the Mediterranean. Well, Mediterranean water anyway, pumped into the pool for my pleasure. The pool is 5m x 5m and 3m or so deep. It is tiny, but floating on the salty warm (27 degrees!) water felt heavenly and I splashed about for 45 happy minutes.


It is immensely thrilling to arrive in Beirut. The glitter of the city on the hills; the dinghies and fishing boats lit in the harbour beyond the port’s breakwater; the garish new buildings marring the vision and view of Ain al-Mraisseh; the hazy hills blinking in the light; the coastal lights that disappear both northward and southward. The pilot is so much more chilled than in Egypt. The place is so familiar. This is magic. My next project will have to do with the port or shipping in Beirut. I have to come back and work here again.


Apparently the crew and officers can’t really leave the port and even if they did, they would have to be back by 8 pm, which is a bit of a bummer given the nightlife in this place. Jeddah will be interesting, as I heard the pilot apparently didn’t want to have a woman on the bridge!

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Malta-Dubai; 12 August 2016 – Day 3, Damietta

Friday 12 August

12.15 (GMT +2)

Arriving in Damietta

You can tell you are approaching port by a number of signs. First is the arrival of the land creatures: swifts, green flies, storks (or something else long-necked and ungainly). Next, you see the number of fishing boats –without an AIS and cutting through the wake of big ships– proliferating. Then, you get a message from the mobile company –which charges you exorbitant fees for tiny bits of data: 5MBs for £5. Then the captain and the bridge officers change from shorts and t-shirts into their uniforms. And finally you see the vast numbers of ships at anchor (all seem to be bulk carriers waiting to load grain surely or tankers) and the conversation between Callisto and Damietta port control and Damietta pilots. We seem to have 4042 boxes onboard – when the ship capacity is 11388 TEU (with 800 reefers) and most of the boxes seem to contain chemicals again (including perfumery basics; and hexane; and chemical waste to be disposed in the East perhaps). And we will be discharging 290 boxes at Damietta.


16.17 (GMT +2)

In port


What an interesting port. I can entirely see why there are talks of Damietta becoming a major grain port, perhaps the most major agricultural port in the Middle East. It already has vast agricultural cargo infrastructure: silos, grain berths and general cargo berths. But there is also a canal connecting the port to the river Nile which can accommodate barges. The shores of the mouth of the Nile in the distance are so verdant, and the canal looks well-kept and functional, though I didn’t see any barges, and was hesitant to photograph it, given the stories I have heard of paranoid Egyptian pilots detaining ships because someone was photographing infrastructure they considered sensitive (this is particularly true of the Suez canal).


The port also has a tanker and LNG-loading terminal and just outside its western breakwater is a beached ship, forlorn and abandoned. I will have to look it up once I have access to internet. There was also a teeny little combat ship moored at port, with the number 647 on it. Interestingly, this trip, I have not seen many war ships – but perhaps they linger around Port Said and the mouth of Suez, rather than around the agricultural ports where most of the ships at anchor are rusty grain- and bulk-carriers.


Watching the workers work the port is hilarious and alarming though. The trucks are constantly honking their horns (like the streets of Cairo), and there are loads of port workers on board the ship without safety gear, helmets or overalls. The foreman on the ground is yelling at the workers on the ship (rather than use a radio) and the whole thing has an ad hoc quality that is so different than the other ports I have seen. Granted, the other ports where I have seen loading and unloading have been either in the UAE, or in Oman or in Europe. The difference is striking and it really makes me want to actually visit other ports that are not efficient “machines” like Khor Fakkan and Jabal Ali seem to be. And here there are also a few alarming things: there are frayed cables hanging from the cranes, and the crane operators are moving far too fast – so much so that the cables make whipping noises in the air. There are ropes and cables hanging from the cranes, and the windows of the crane cabins are dusty. The port-workers –who incidentally are incredibly attractive– wander about under the containers bare-headed. They push the containers into position seemingly without fear of the crane operator accidentally moving the container and mowing them down. The truck drivers move across the crane tracks as the crane is moving along the tracks. The foremen are running around amidst the moving trucks and cranes. It all seems astonishingly unsafe.

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Malta-Dubai; 11 August 2016 – Day 2, at sea in the Mediterranean

11 August 2016

10.35 (Ship time. My phone’s GPS says it is actually 11.35)

The Mediterranean; steaming towards Damietta

The Mediterranean is such a lonely sea. Its vastness is such that one doesn’t really see ships passing except in the far distance and the AIS screen shows ships so far that they do not appear on the horizon at all. Bojan the deck cadet talks about how the air and light in the Mediterranean so exceed in their pleasure and beauty the pollution of the sea and the air in China. And Marco the second mate talks about the difficulty of port visits with all the demand of manoeuvering the ship. It seems that the proliferation of ports is what makes the work difficult – as it requires attentiveness, presence, difficulty. And apparently there is a hierarchy of access to port passes. And the second mate is far low on the totem pole.

This hierarchy is also present at meals. The officers’ table is different than the cadets’ table. And I get to eat on my own beyond a partition. There is an interesting difference though between Callisto and Corte Real: Corte Real had a far more formal dining culture. The master sat at the head of the table; his wife to his right and the chief mate to his left and then the chief engineer, and then the officers in descending order of rank. Here, everyone just grabs a seat and sits next to one another. The captain is sometimes in the middle of the table and sometimes at the end of it. This may have something to do with how the chef dictates the culture of dining on board this ship. With the captain being new to the ship, the ethics of eating must have been established by the chef, who also does not serve the officers by plate, but rather provides the foot buffet style and everyone gets to serve themselves (which frankly, I prefer, as I get to serve myself as much or as little as I desire). If this is the case, then it is interesting that a crew member gets to determine the shape and rigidity of the shipboard hierarchy, at least at mealtimes.

I have also told Lysandro (the messman) that I wouldn’t mind trying some of the crew’s food. The officers’ food –like last time- is a bit inconsistent. The roast chicken and the goulash were delicious, but the fish was absolutely terrible. I am hoping to try Filipino adobo or chicken curry instead. We shall see.

Nice coffee is abundant on the ship too, thankfully, and I have a little box of Danish cookies in my cabin for when I feel peckish. I have not asked about booze and shall refrain, but interestingly Lysandro was telling me that the Filipino crew do not really do karaoke like the crew on Corte Real did almost every night. Also interestingly, the Filipino crew here is into working out with weighs and playing table-tennis, which is also different than the men of Corte Real. On Corte Real, the Balkan officers were into weight-lifting, but the Croatian men on Callisto seem far less into having those enormous muscly arms and have far more ordinary bodies.

Being so familiar with shipboard life means that already, two days into being at sea, I have settled into an iron routine: coffee for breakfast, a run on the treadmill, a couple of hours of sunbathing and reading on my deck, an hour of hanging out in the wheelhouse, lunch, a nap, some reading and writing, and perhaps a walk along the deck, although there seems to be a lot more ceremony involved with walking around the deck on Callisto. The third mate even wanted me to wear overalls, which thankfully turned out not to be necessary. But I did wear a helmet and carried a radio –the latter of which I didn’t have to do on Corte Real. The layout of the deck is also different on this ship – and you can glance on the lower-deck aft, where the previous captain has laid some Astroturf, apparently for twice-weekly football games (according to Bojan). But the current captain doesn’t seem too much into playing football. After the walk, more reading and writing until dinner at 6, and still more writing and reading and perhaps a visit to the wheelhouse. The last two nights, I have been so shattered that I have fallen asleep at 9 or 9.30. I shall definitely get a lot of rest while onboard the ship.


As we steam through the Mediterranean further and further towards its southeast corner, the air is becoming more humid and there is a haze on the horizon. The sea is still lonely, but as the sea narrows in its eastern reaches, I suddenly find that my phone is picking up Greek mobile networks. To be handed in this way from network to network is strange – as if there is no way to escape the reach of those webs of communication and transport so central to our lives today. Below us, on the floor of the sea, lie the vast flows of communication cables, pipelines, and wreckage. Layer upon layer of history. Above us, in “the ether”, the microwave emissions, the mobile signals, satellite signals. My phone has already located itself via GPS, and although the ship time is officially GMT+2, my phone is already in the time-zone of North Africa, at GMT+3. So I move in two time zones simultaneously, connected to Greek networks intermittently, and steaming towards Egypt. This anchoring of our time – and also our eastward movement through space- to Greenwich immediately makes me think of the extraordinary reach of the British empire; its insistence on setting the standards of motion and defining the parameters of long-distance shipping. Greenwich as the point zero of ships moving upon the deep.

Later in the evening:

The adobo at dinner was utterly delicious. If I can from here on out avoid the officers’ food and eat the crew’s meals I shall be in clover!

Fascinatingly, a note arrived today from the UK P&I Club (whatever that is), speaking about a new scam at Suez. Apparently some guys board ships at Suez anchorage, claiming to be from United Mediterranean Shipping and conduct “health checks” including taking blood, supposedly on behalf of Suez Canal Company. Then after finishing, they demand a payment from the master. Turns out of course that they are wholly fraudulent. It is fascinating to see the hostility voiced by the officers against the scammers in Suez.

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Malta-Dubai again; 10 August 2016 – Day 1, Setting Off from Malta

In August 2016, I once again boarded a ship in Malta to travel to Jabal Ali.  I had recorded the previous occasion with giddy excitement, all things seeming new and unfamiliar.  Perhaps the familiarity of the trip, or the fact that I was writing my book proposals (rather than focusing on my diary entries and on reading and reflection) made 2016’s entries quite anaemic in comparison with the previous time. And perhaps that is why it has taken me so long to post these. For more reflexive, more literary deliberations on the nature of containership travel, perhaps it is best to return to my entries from 2015 (the first is here: . They fall under Travels category!

Wednesday 10 August


Having sailed from Marsaxlokk

It is strange to be on a cargo ship once again. The differences come to the fore at every turn.

First and foremost, I am far more familiar with the workings of the ship, its layout, and even one of the engineers –who had been on Corte Real in January 2015. I am a bit more jaded, a bit less overwhelmed by the sublime vastness of this whole thing, a lot more comfortable wandering about, and asking for things. It really also helps that I am the only passenger, and this time, unlike last time, the only woman onboard. I am not sure how this will affect everything – but thus far everyone has been lovely, although the messman, Lysandro is seating me on my own and beyond a barrier. I feel a bit like I am in a harem. The officers chat with me though (especially if there are no others around) and are friendly and warm.


But there are also other stuff that will distinguish Callisto from Corte Real. There are so many more port visits than last time: Damietta, then Beirut, then Mersin, then through Suez to Jidda, then Jabal Ali. Navigating past Lebanon and Cyprus should be a treat.

The second thing that is different probably has something to do with this abundance of port visits: the ship is relatively empty of boxes. My window is not obscured by containers. I can see the sea; and light pours into my cabin, which is wonderful. I wonder how long this will last though. The officers were telling me that most of the containers are empty in any case, and they thought that the containers we would pick up in the ports on the way would similarly be empty. It is a bit strange to see all these container racks aboard the ship which are devoid of boxes, and to be able to see the massive (33 tonnes!) cover of the under-deck holds.


What is interesting about this relative paucity of boxes is the way they are loaded on deck. There are entire rows that are completely free of boxes, save for the edges. Two containers on top of each other on the very furthest margin of the decks on both port and starboard. Is this for aesthetics’ sake or balance? Does the particular needs of loading ballast dictate the placement of the boxes? The loading of the boxes in each row is fascinating: some are loaded six levels high and then entirely empty rows. On some rows, boxes are bunched towards the centre (with a couple of boxes loaded at the edges again) and for a handful of rows, boxes go all the way across. I am not sure that the box storage spaces in the holds are actually full either. The rows in the aft are all completely full however. Will have to ask the captain about this.

The other major difference is that unlike last time, the residence decks and the wheelhouse are all located atop the engine room. Although I am far above, I can still feel the thrum of the engine, the ship’s beating heart, in my cabin in a way I couldn’t before. This is quite exciting actually.

The other differences are minor: the gym is huge and well appointed. The layout of the wheelhouse differs from Corte Real. There are only 27 officers and crew on board not 35 like last time.

Danilo – one of the crew – actually likes the new Filipino president because he is cleaning up Manila. Lysandro, the messman, used to work on a cruiseship and finds both workplaces as difficult as one another. There are two Chinese engineering trainees on board. And like last time, there is one Filipino officer, but he is a third mate this time, not second mate, like last time. There are also fewer officers altogether. One second mate (not two) and two third mates. And far fewer cadets.

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Walter Benjamin also traveled on freighters

In 1925, Walter Benjamin travelled on a freighter from Hamburg to ports in the Mediterranean. In their Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings recount the trip (pp. 240-241):

“On August 19 the ship [a freighter] sailed from Hamburg, with Benjamin in unusually high spirits.  Although he was worried about the possible lack of comfort afforded by this least expensive mode of travel, he was soon not just reassured by delighted: ‘This journey with the so-called freighter is one long aria of the most comfortable situations in life. In every foreign town you bring along your own room, indeed, your own little… vagabond household –; you have nothing to do with hotels, rooms, and fellow guests. Now I am lying on the deck, the evening in Genoa before me, and the sounds of unloading freighters all around me as the modernized “music of the world”’ [Gessamelte Briefe, 3:81]

He enjoyed traveling by freighter so much that he did it again in 1932 (p. 370):

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As Marcus Rediker says, it is amazing to realise that the conversations Benjamin had with seafarers inspired his luminous “The Storyteller”.

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