All in all I spent three months in New Zealand, seeing friends, family and reinforcing memories. I found the experience, although unplanned, grounding. As a person in transition it was helpful to look back and see the schools and the university I attended, plus workplaces where I’d wielded rakes and scythes, mixed mercury into lead for fillings and shelved books into the evening. I was a passenger in buses, private cars and taxis, ferries and I drove my own 15 ton digger. Still digesting my Kiwi experience, it was time to head back to Australia to see my son in his native habitat. And, OF COURSE, I would not be flying!
I have found it’s never straightforward to buy a passenger ticket on a container ship. There are several agencies as discussed in my first planning post. When I found Freighter Travel NZ I discovered passenger shipping from NZ to Oz was limited to none at that time. We had to wait to see if a particular company would resign their contract. On December 16th 2019, they did. Five days on board a container ship in the Super Cargo cabin would cost NZ$1,650. That’s $330 a day. About the same as a pretty good hotel. MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE THAN FLYING. MUCH, MUCH, MORE TIME THAN A FOUR HOUR FLIGHT. BUT, I was able to book my ticket and rest assured I could get back to Australia CARBON NEUTRAL – ish?
As usual I had to get the fitness certificate and sundry other paper work in hand – and accept that the dates for travel may or may not be on that day or thereabouts. But there’s one thing I had in spades. I had time. Plenty of time to wander up North and get myself ready.
It was wonderful coming down through NZ, from Auckland to Stewart Island, visiting ancestors, elders and representatives of the next two generations. I swam in the sea, heard more live music than I heard in all my three years in Spain and worried about the lack of butterflies. By the time I arrived back up North in Tauranga to catch the Ontario II, I had covered a great deal of NZ but not all by any stretch of the imagination. Even three months of travel is not enough to ‘do’ Aotearoa!
Tauranga turned out to be another wide-spread, low-buildings town based on a broad spread of waterways. As a bonus, the cafes here also provided a lot of vegan options. Cinema within easy walk so my three days stay turned into a daily film catch-up; Parasite, Emma and Helen Kelly; Together. All of great interest and completely different. I also found the farmers’ market, the Organic shop and climbed up Mount Maunganui which they’re trying to pretend is a separate town but it’s just the rich, beachy, part of Tauranga. Two cruise ships in. My first good look at the port. Ontario not in yet but she turned up in the next few days.
Day one – Monday February 17th 2020 – report to security gate – Sulphur Point, Port of Tauranga 1000 hrs
We met so early (she would leave at 2000 that night) because Immigration was coming on board at 1100.
Security is a real issue at the wharf. Stowaways are a constant threat at any port. We certainly noticed as we approached the ship that no-one demanded anything from us. When we boarded no one asked to see our passports. Unlike the Coral, the Captain did not keep my passport or take the paperwork. The gentleman from Immigration took a cursory look at my NZ passport and we were dismissed to go about our business. Unpacking didn’t take long. Then what?
From a passenger’s point of view the similarities between Ontario II and CC Coral greatly outweigh the differences. Ontario II was 275 metres long while CC Coral was 280. As far as cabin space goes the decorations were much the same, teal fabric/wood furnishings but where I had the Owner’s cabin and two starboard windows in Coral, here I only look forward onto the containers. We could use the officers’ rec room on the floor below – there was a handy library offering books in English, German and French. I had a day room in my cabin but felt wistful for the opportunity to have my own separate place to go, an office, as I did in CC Coral where I could drink coffee and get on with my notes in private!
I had the impression Ontario was thinner than Coral but actually Coral was 32 metres wide (ten containers) and Ontario was 35 m, with eleven containers. There was a great deal of empty space on board Ontario.
You may well ask what happened between 1100 and 2000. Although we didn’t meet the Captain on the first day, we were introduced to some of the crew, Jude the First Officer, Second Officer, Guyan, Tisulu the Messman and Cansun the Third Officer. And of course, I met fellow passenger, Andrew, a financial whizz, who was going to Singapore for 19 days at sea. He’s travelling and testing the water, so to speak, where he might choose to live in the world. I hope he’s come to rest safely tucked up for the social isolation process. (Update for worriers: he’s back at home in NZ.)
The crew were from Sri Lanka, except for the First Engineer who hailed from Ukraine. ‘Thank you’ in Sinhala (one Sri Lankan language) is Bohomma Stuti.
On first meeting Messman Tisulu, I mentioned I was vegan. At lunch I found a veggie soup for first course, then a heaped plate of mashed spud, carrots, pappadum, coleslaw and, to finish, a healthy handful of fresh grapes. Surprisingly Andrew from finance turned out to be vegan as well but as he was just about to leave on his voyage he’d decided to adopt a ‘Wait and See’ or ‘Whatever’ attitude which left him looking at a whopping great hunk of dead flesh on his plate. I didn’t check to see if he ate it all, turning away in distaste. I don’t think he noticed, did you, Andrew? Or did that tiny moan of disgust give me away?
After lunch we met Third Officer Cansun for Familiaristion at the Muster Station (ping pong room.) We had to bring our immersion suits and our life jackets. These were normally stored in our own cupboards. We were encouraged to try these on in the privacy of our own cabins.
Third Officer Cansun supposed there wouldn’t be a drill until after Brisbane which left me off the hook. (He was wrong.) It was particularly cool going into the lifeboat.
Each seat was numbered and as we were number 24 and 25 in the entire crew we were relieved to see there was room for us. We clicked our seat belts on and hoped like heck we wouldn’t have a real emergency. It was nerve wracking enough imagining having to cram into this plastic container. There were two lifeboats on board so best case scenario would be a dozen men (and the one lady – me) in each craft. There were also life-rafts as well.
Although this familiarisation bordered on being a fun adventure, it’s difficult to get away from the very real fear of being lost at sea, especially after reading No Friend But the Mountains, with those dreadful images of hours of bailing out a tiny broken boat. Survival. I felt incredibly lucky.
Cansun also showed us how to swing the lifeboat out and away from the ship. If it comes to the passengers (remember, 24 and 25 in the crew hierarchy) having to do these tasks then things will have come to a pretty pass … I asked if we should wait for the Captain to board before we got too involved in driving off into the stormy sea. Cansun grinned and agreed that was probably best.
We left Tauranga very quickly. The tugs were only on for a matter of moments, it seemed.
While I was waiting for things to happen some fish swam by. i could only tell because of the mad seagulls who held a conference on top of the fish. When there was a swirl or a splash (I could see them) from a fish a bird would come and sit on it. There was a great deal of delighted cackling. I wasn’t sure if they were trying to stop the terns from dive-bombing the fish – the terns did still make attempts – the seagulls inexplicably sitting and chortling. I saw no-one catch a fish. Unless the seagulls were attacking with their feet they made no attempt at all. Why would they try to protect the fish?
I watched the crew ready the gangplank to be stowed away. It took ages to disentangle the net that hangs beneath the steps – one assumes things get dropped.
When we were in open water NZ became a faint line of lights on the horizon. There was the mereest hint of rolling and I enjoyed a delicious cup of ginger tea just in case.
Day two – Tuesday 18th February – off the coast of Whangarei – 15.6 knots
We were capable of greater speed but legally required to protect environment by travelling with dignity.
‘Good morning’ in Sinhala sounds like Suber-oo-dar-san-na.
According to our First Officer, Ontario II was built by a German banking company, NSB. It was then purchased by ZIM who are now selling their ships. Apparently it’s currently under charter by none other than CMA CGM (my last shipping encounter). Andrew and I were both thoroughly confused by the provenance of the ship. The paper work we received from our agent was from Hamburg Sud and, onboard, we’re informed they’ve never had anything to do with this ship! So long as we’re dry and fed and heading to Brissie that’s all that concerns us.
First Officer told us Ontario II is a thin ship, built for the Panama canal. Now the canal has been widened it, and presumably the Coral as well, is not in demand. It’s too big for small ports and too small for big ones. Perfect for Australia and NZ because they’re only small. The only thing NZ exports is meat and dairy – in the reevers – kept at -20˚. The only other thing NZ exports, added Jude, is people. NZ educates them, they go overseas to work and then they retire back to their motherland. NZ is crying out for secondary industries – some kind of computer manufacturing? Something to add value to the endless logs pouring out of her.
First Officer Jude told us most of the containers onboard were empty.
The coronavirus had shut China for the moment and perhaps this company and this ship would be in demand again. But it was too small to be economically viable in Asia when China was open.
First Officer Jude told us the forecastle (fo’c’sle) – pointy bit – of this ship is enclosed because she is thin. She tends to drive her nose down in high seas so the cover prevents her from taking on too much water. It feels very safe and cosy there, I must say, although it is not the quiet sunny spot of the Coral. He also told us of the poopdeck in the stern – completely empty now. He has full ballast tanks to balance the containers to the front of the ship. He told us the top of the ship, the monkey island – as in sailing ships – where the monkey would be the lookout on the highest point of the craft.
Starboard is the side where the stars would be observed for navigation and port is beside the land. Why have I never heard that before?
Not sure who rang my phone (!) to tell me to come and watch the whales but I ran upstairs to the bridge and (wonderful!) found two, curving sinuously to port. They twisted lazily in the water right beside the ship. They were long and thin and it was possible to make out the pale pleats under their necks which made me think they were baby humpbacks.
Over to the distance, towards NZ, we could see more puffs from blowholes – perhaps their elders? We went north while the pod apparently headed south as we neared the tip of Northland. And then there were dolphins! Gleaming, frolicking and leaping away from us. Again, I could not help but think any self-respecting sea dweller would want nothing to do with such a stinky, smelly, hefty chunk of metal such as this ship.
Captain Narlekka wanted to know my plans in Brisbane. He could offer me the use of the ship’s phone if I wanted to contact someone, but could do nothing about the Wifi. He also gave me updates on the coronavirus. Here we were safe, at sea, from people. Airports would be a different story.
We were promised a tour of the engine room at 10:30 the next morning but I was already confused about the time. Each day an hour slipped away and because I had no internet and because I couldn’t work out how to change the time on my phone manually I had to do mental arithmetic. Aaaaaaargh … Normally I was almost correct. Luckily I had Andrew from finance to help! I suspected breakfast would be at 0800 – on my clock.
Andrew went for a 5km bike ride (over the sea) in the ping pong room.
Day three – Wednesday 19th February – Grey skies – 13.2 knots
The sea beneath is 1700 metres deep. Looking at the screen we are pointing a direct line to Brisbane. There’s nothing between us and our objective. No paper charts used here, just the screens. Two radar – failsafe.
Captain still worried what I’ll be doing in Brisbane on arrival. I intended to rely on the Seafarers Mission, catching the security van there and working it out as I go. He gave me Version 5 of the Novel Corona information dated 3 February 2020.
My old friends the brown boobies are floating around the forecastle, keeping their distance but showing off to their friends – glad to see they’ve got the one-wing-tip-nearly-in-the-water-and-glide-sideways trick down. A pair of dark-back, white front birds, chirping constantly like giggling schoolgirls, flying always in close pair formation.
Ravinoo, Engineer Cadet, took us on a loud tour of the engine room. There are only seven cylinders (eight in Coral) in the enormous engine although there are four huge diesel generators (compared to three in Coral). Big dirty things they are. The engine room was generally clean, a lot dependant on the covers of the machines.
We had to sign safety letters saying any injury resulting from our tour would be our responsibility. Luckily we did not slip or touch anything burning.
Had a safety drill oganised by Third Officer Cansun. All assembled in the gym (ping pong room) BEFORE the alarm went off. Everyone disciplined and ready to obey, perhaps with the hint of a smile. The light on my life jacket had disappeared so poor Cansun had to run and fetch a replacement. We all numbered off, left our immersion suits around the ping pong table and half of us trooped off to clamber into the lifeboat once more.
While inside the compact lifeboat, we examined the pyrotechnics. I realised how annoying it would be to have to read the instructions by way of the little emergency light on the lifejacket. Especially if I didn’t have my glasses. There were hand-held flares, rockets and one large one to stand on the deck. And the fish hooks. Cansun asked if I’d like to start the engine this time but I figured out half our crew would probably like to get back to work so I turned down his kind offer and we all trooped off to study the outside of the life-rafts. There were four of them for the crew and passengers. 24 of us, plus the Captain. Cansun unlocked the top one and prepared to tip it overboard. I think you have to hang on to a long string and then tug something to make it inflate. He said a lot of things into the wind and roaring engines. The crew were very respectful. They have a drill every month. I guess having passengers there means it gets taken seriously but then again, for the crew, it would have to be serious. There are a lot of things on board, hazmats/chems, stuff that off-gasses, slips, fumes … I was looking forward to dry land in two days!
Day four – Thursday 20th February – NW 294˚ – 12.6 knots – cloudy
Just below Lord Howe Rise – 1,100 m deep – 574 nautical miles away from Brisbane.
‘Please’ in Sinhala sounds like karoona karala.
First thing to note outside the window, the beginning and end of a rainbow, like vibrant stumps on either side of the sea.
Bloody Andrew from finance. With an innocent smile after breakfast he invited me, happy fellow passenger, to join him for a game of ping pong. Off we went, starting well, patting the ball here and there and gleefully searching for it under the treadmill when it ran away. I was starting to feel quite cheery, my lost ancient powers not entirely faded when he, Andrew the WOLF, decided it was time to play a proper game. Scoring with numbers. He began to WIN BIG. Finally, at the height of my mashing, I asked him, ‘Do you have a table at home or something?’ And he smiled when he said, ‘Not in our house but my mother is the Treasurer of the Masterton Table Tennis Club.’ Oh, Andrew. And I thought we were friends.
On the bridge, the Deadman Alarm is high-pitched, loud and will continue until a Live Officer on duty comes to switch it off. If a certain amount of time elapses it is assumed the Duty Officer must be dead and a major alarm will sound to alert the ship there’s no one on the bridge and there is danger of imminent collision or something equally bad. Luckily there was always someone alive on the bridge when I was onboard Ontario II.
Day five – Friday 21st February – 13.5 knots – beautiful day – 200 miles from Brisbane
Chief Engineer at breakfast told me the propeller was seven metres wide. I remarked, in a fit of numerical whimsy, you know how these things are, how fortuitous the propeller was seven metres wide and there were seven cylinders to the engine. The Chief was not impressed and stated, as a matter of fact, there was no correlation between the two.
I asked him if he had a preference as to the size of ship he worked and he thought carefully for a moment. He said, before the crisis of 2009 he could have had a choice. Not only on size of engine but also on working contracts back to back or whichever route he preferred, through Asia, North America or NZ, where ever he liked. ‘But after 2009, many ships were scrapped, scrap, scrap, scrap, and now, not so many jobs. If you have a family, you need to work.’ He’s an engineer, he takes whatever work he can find. And I suppose that answers the question why a Ukrainian is on board a ship otherwise entirely crewed by Sri Lankans.
We’re picking up the pilot off Mooloolooba tonight. The sparkies were running all the lights – checking bulbs – so everything on deck was on. Last day on board.
I saw two albatross dancing, swirling around the prow. I watched from my cabin for a long time, admiring their grace. I wanted desperately to see them close up. By the time I made it to the bridge to ask leave to walk on deck, then get out to the forecastle, they’d gone.
My last Sinhala word was ‘Hello’ – ko-hom-ed-dah.
Day six – Saturday 22nd February – Brisbane
Representatives from Immigration (sorry, Border Force) soon on board. The crew’s passports were all kept in the Captain’s office. They were individually selected by First Officer as each man came to the door. The crew lined up while the gentleman from Border Force looked carefully at each photograph. Vague interest in myself and Andrew’s reasons for being a passenger – I repeated the line from Australian Immigration again – it was an emission thing.
With a clearance from Biosecurity, who took a quick look at the tramping boots I was wearing, we were allowed to leave unchaperoned. Too early for the Seafarers Mission, I shared a taxi to the nearest train station with Andrew from finance and wished him well as he went off to do some shopping close by and I caught a train into Brisbane central.
Back in Oz once more. I was reconnecting. Now all I had to do was get to Melbourne. Sure. I’d catch a train. No worries. See you next post!