Monday 6th April, Delaware River, Pennsylvania, USA
We bid farewell to Philadelphia, ‘City of Brotherly Love’. I don’t know about brothers but the part of town through which we humped our massive packs in order to reach the Tioga Marine Terminal didn’t show a lot of love on its grim, rain-streaked streets. A kindly local called a taxi for us, fearing we might get ‘sticked‘.
Down at the docks we finally reached her - the Rickmers Singapore, our home for the next eight days.
She was anchored at rather dilapidated berth, where we negotiated our way through puddles, broken crates and piles of discarded strapping lines in order to reach her ladder.
I made way for a burly man who was descending the gangway brandishing a chainsaw before I climbed up the slippery steps. A smiling Sri Lankan chap checked our IDs at the top before a tall thin Romanian fellow – the Second Officer - showed us to our quarters.
We’ve a modest-sized cabin with en-suite bathroom, complete with writing desk, TV and DVD, sofa and the bible in High German. Not bad for a week’s voyage, and a welcome rest stop after months of constant travel.
The Singapore is significantly smaller than the Hugo (our vessel across the Pacific), 194 metres long, 28 metres wide and weighing in at 30,000 tdw. This is enough however to propel her right around the world, calling in at ports across the globe.
She doesn’t seem very heavily laden at present; perhaps it’s the global recession. Indeed her decks seem rather empty with cargo strapped down almost hap-hazardly on top of the holds in front of us.
Four large cranes stare down onto these decks whilst to the stern sit crew’s living quarters and the bridge piled up on top of each other.
We use the afternoon to explore our new surroundings, discovering a laundry, galley and a lounge, Tea’s Maid on the side, Wilbur Smiths on the shelves, framed jigsaws (windmills and ocelots) on the wall.
Dinner, as seems customary on cargo ships, is early: 5.30. There are other passengers – quite a nice change, after having the Hugo to ourselves. They make an interesting bunch, rather like a cast of misfits from a Miss Marple novel.
There’s a jovial Dutchman called Henk who’s sporting a Bob Monkhouse tan and bushy eyebrows, and Christoph, your archetypal stolid German, not saying much and watching you keenly through shiny eyes. Both have been on board since December - a fact I find hard to grasp - happily pootling around the world and ship-spotting en route.
We’re also joined by two ladies: Martha is an Alaskan who’s flown back to her birthplace of Philadelphia purely to catch this ship, before flying home immediately on reaching Antwerp; and Sylvia hails from Chicago, grey-haired and very chatty she’s also just joining us for the Atlantic crossing.
Somewhat fatigued by the exertions of recent weeks I’m content to listen to their adventures as we eat solid East European fare from the Lazy Suzie in the middle of the table.
Later we take to the deck outside and watch the crew cast off as we head out into the Delaware River. We pass dilapidated old ships, disused power stations and overgrown berths where fishermen gather. It’s an abject scene of decay and past splendours. Hong Kong this ain’t.
Accompanied by our pilot like a faithful little lapdog we head purposefully downriver, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to starboard, Camden, New Jersey to port (Camden: all this way and I still haven’t escaped).
Philadelphia slips away against a deep red sunset and we bid farewell to Uncle Sam. Thanks America; you’ve been fun.
Tuesday 7th April 2009, 38°26’N, 71°21W Heading 89°
We’re now on the open seas once more. The Delaware took ten hours to navigate to the mouth of the ocean; we entered the Atlantic at 3am, awoken by the increased swell.
They say it takes a few days to find your sealegs; for Lara’s sake I hope it’s quicker than that - she has spent the day looking decidedly green around the gills as the Singapore rocks ceaselessly in the swell.
It’s only three metres but, given the Singapore’s size and cargo this is still enough to through us around a bit, whether rolling about in bed (steady now…) or sliding back and forth on one’s chair in the mess.
Mess - it’s a strange name for a dining room, but it seemed rather appropriate today as our food slid around on our plates, particular when Simon, the steward, produced a large steaming tureen of asparagus soup.
Sylvia, joining us on board back in Philly, is also feeling under the weather. She entered the mess room somewhat unsteadily and soon hastily returned to her room having only nibbled the edges of her ham and spuds.
We tried to right ourselves with an invigorating blast of Atlantic air, stepping out onto the deck just below the bridge. The sea looked restless and impatient, white caps all around.
We wrapped ourselves up against the cool wind and reminded ourselves of previous seafarers. This wouldn’t have troubled our ancestors, sailing in their little wooden boats in the opposite direction. Time to stiffen one’s upper lip.
They were soon a-quivering however as we were given a brief tour of the ship’s safety facilities. The third officer - a Filopino - and a deckhand in a boiler suit and a rather fetching Beckham-esque hair band showed us around in a disturbingly lacksidasical manner.
They brushed over Lara’s questions but brought our immersion suits - enormous orange rubber outfits which, stretched out on the floor liked like gingerbread men. Would we really fancy a dip in one of those?
Our other option seems to be the ‘freefall’ lifeboat, an small, antiquarian vessel rusting away outside our porthole. It sits perched at an angle, at the top of a short set of rails, rather like an aquatic rocket, ready for action.
The crewmen were kind enough to show us inside and I immediately wished they hadn’t, with rows of tiny seats set for bracing oneself at the impact of hitting the water from on high.
Things weren’t much more reassuring on the bridge, where the dead-eyed Second Officer dispassionately surveyed the rows of instruments around him and pointed to a nearby storm causing all the swell.
Lara nervously eyed a button above the charts: ‘dead man push button’. Was this a Bond movie?
He told us about the cargo aboard: machine tools, steel plates, trucks and perhaps the odd luxury yacht, bound for Dubai. Looking down from the bridge it didn’t look exactly overcrowded - was this the impact of the global economic downtown? Sure, he replied, going on to tell us that larger container ships had been hit harder, unable to sail for lack of business.
Maersk, the largest line in the world, has apparently sixty such vessels currently idling, whilst the Singapore itself has been affected, missing stops in Kobe and Yokohama where there simply isn‘t anything to transport.
I thought back to our friends on the Hugo and wondered whether they were affected. An awful lot seems to have changed since we sailed with them four months ago, laden down with 6,500 containers.
Wednesday 8th April, 38°27’N, 63°13’W Heading 90°
The clocks went forward over the night - one hour less sleep, one hour closer to home. We hardly slept much anyway, thrown around as we were all night by the heavy motion of the boat.
It’s still choppy outside, lending our surroundings a strange air, as if we are sharing our cabin with a family of poltergeists. Cupboard doors opened and closed during the night, the shower curtain kept opening and closing as I washed and we are constantly having to catch items sliding off the table and desk.
Whilst this constant rocking motion might be interesting for a while - rather like weightlessness might to an astronaut in space - it is starting to turn to discomfort and irritation. Lara spent most of the day groaning and staring at the horizon, willing her seasickness to disappear.
The amount of half-eaten food that Simon is collecting from our plates is increasing as well, though perhaps that’s to do with the quality of the meals. What is it with shipping lines and the vast quantity of meat and stodge they seem to feed their crew? Is there some warehouse somewhere churning out this stuff, like a kind of maritime equivalent of school meals?
I took my heavy copy of Moby Dick up on deck and sought out a dusty old deckchair from the neglected bar. Soon a little bird came and settled nearby - a swallow-like creature I’d observed before flitting between the ship’s cranes.
A passing migrant or a ship’s pet, it probably one of a whole menagerie of creatures these ships unwittingly carry between nations, both up above and in the ballast tanks below.
Our course has changed - bad weather south of Nova Scotia has compelled the captain to steer a course which will pass just north of the Azores - another isolated group of islands we didn’t expect to see during the course of our global circumnavigation.
America is now far behind; looking at the charts the closest land is now Bermuda, though thankfully I think we’re still quite some way from the infamous Bermuda Triangle. Or perhaps that’s where that bird is from…
Thursday 9th April, 38°43’N, 54°33’W Heading 90°
Maunday Thursday. I know idea what Maundy means but it looks pretty Maundy outside: foggy and wet, with drizzle drenching the decks and confining us indoors all door.
It made us pretty lethargic as a result, where we just seemed to sit and stuff ourselves with meat (every meal seems to be heavily meat-based), read or watch pirated DVDs.
On the way to lunch the Chief Officer stopped us in the gangway. He looked more dishevelled than usual, sporting just a crumpled t-shirt and boxer shorts, and wore a bemused expressed on his face.
“Pliz”, he said, “How is do you say greeting in English at Easter?”
“Happy Easter”, Lara replied.
“Sank you”, he smiled, and wandered off, tucking his t-shirt into his boxer shorts. Was he making cards?
Sylvia hasn’t been seen now for 2½ days, confined to her room apparently by seasickness. Perhaps she’ll improve tomorrow - the seas seem to have calmed down a bit.
Friday 10th April, 39° 12’N, 45° 25’W Heading 90°
Good Friday, and a number of denominations to cater to amongst the Singapore multinational occupants. Being good Catholics those Filipinos amongst the crew who can have taken the day off, confining themselves to their cabins.
The Romanian officers, on the other hand, have to wait: following the Orthodox Church they celebrate a week later than Christians, a few days after we’ve disembarked in Antwerp. That leaves the passengers, nominally Christians, who have been promised a special meal on Sunday and even champagne.
Religion and food aside I wanted to see what lay below the waters we were traversing. Up on the bridge I consulted the charts to find that apparently we’ve just crossed the New England Seamounts (whatever they are) and are now passing over the somewhat eerie sounding Sohm Abyssal Plain. I also noticed that we are on the edge of the Gulf Stream - perhaps that’ll speed us up a bit.
I also discovered our route has been altered again; we’re now heading right for the Portuguese coast, before turning north up past Cape Finistere and crossing the Bay of Biscay. The Second Officer made a long face at the mention of this notorious stretch of water.
Resolving then to make the most of the calm weather whilst we can we walked up to the bow, stepping carefully over piles of rusted chains and heaps of half-empty paint pots en route. I admired the vessel’s livery as we walked - a handsome combination of green and yellow, with red trim painted around moving parts.
Reaching the bow we entered another world, away from the constant throb of the engine. I leant against a capstan and adjusted my senses: brilliant sunshine, warm air and just the sound of the wind in whistling around the forecastle above us and the waves breaking on the sides below.
After all the hussle and bussle of the US, I lost myself momentarily as I gazed out ahead of us at the endless succession of deep blue waves, their peaks sprinkled with white spray. It felt as if I were entering a new, unexplored world, like my forefathers before me.
At dinner the missing passenger, Sylvia, reappeared after 3½ days of absence. Gently nibbling on a piece of bread she explained that she’d been laid low by a stomach bug, surviving on packets of chicken soup and reading a number of books. The current one is a Jeffrey Archer novel. No wonder she felt rough.
Yet another hour forward on the clocks today and we‘ve noticed how much later the sun is setting into the sea. It‘s the third clock change in as many days; we‘re now only two hours behind the UK time-wise, yet still thousands of miles away.
Saturday 11th April, 39° 40’N, 36° 25’W Heading 90°
We had an emergency drill today and thanks to the Captain forewarning us at breakfast Lara had everything ready an hour before the bell sounded. With our lifejackets, immersion bags and safety helmets already at hand we were up on the bridge, our muster station, before you could say ‘abandon ship’.
No so our fellow passengers however, who’d chosen to lie in rather than make breakfast. The Captain looked unduly concerned, casually smoking a cigarette, the smoke masking his heavy eyelids as Christoph tottered along, his twinkling eyes wearing a vacant expression beneath a plastic helmet.
Sylvia then puffed up the stairs, all of a fluster “h..h…how do I get this on” she asked, smothered beneath her thick, bright orange lifejacket. The crew set about helping her when finally Henk arrived, equally bewildered, brandishing a lifejacket but no helmet or immersion suit.
It was like a scene from Dad’s Army, as they fussed around and the Captain resignedly dismissed them. He later told Lara what a pain he found taking passengers on board.
Back down outside our cabin on Deck C, the crew and officers played about with the lifeboat, a grimy orange craft with a passing resemblance to Thunderbird 4.
Rather like the legendary lifesaver this craft perched on a ramp pointing at an angle into the sea behind us, as our very own marionettes tried to get its engine to work. At last the poor beast let out a protesting splutter, a puff of blue smoke and then a rattling whine, like a horse on its last legs.
Suitably reassured that this escape pod was primed and ready for action its tormentors turn it off, shut its doors and wandered away.
Let’s hope we don’t have to use it. There’s a big storm brewing in the Bay of Biscay and we’re having to sit and wait it out off the Portuguese coast - even this crew don’t want to risk six metre swell.
The worst food yet at dinner - some kind of rolled meat, of possibly bovine origin, combined with ham and a gherkin in the middle and slopping around in an orangey-brown sauce. Never had the stale bread looked more tempting.
Never mind; things should look up on the gastronomic side tomorrow, with the promise of an Easter barbeque.
Sunday 12th April, 40°00’N, 28°13’W Heading 90°
Easter Sunday. Party Time in the ‘Singapore Bar’ on the pilot deck.
The Captain had pulled out all the stops, laying out the works: tablecloths were neatly laid out, hand painted eggs in each person‘s place; the fridge was filled to capacity with beer, wine and champagne and the barbeque was fired up out on deck.
In the absence of a lift someone had set up a long rope and pulley which led down directly to the back door of the galley, a Heath Robinson style affair with which Simon, the steward gamely struggled, trying to haul up all the food.
It took him several loads to raise this banquet to the pilot deck but soon enough meat was being thrown onto the barbeque to sustain the whole of the Texas: lamb chops, chicken wings, fatty hunks of pork and a fish the size of a killer whale.
Officers, crew and passengers soon set to work devouring this carnicopia, along with garlic bread, a massive cauldron of rice and some Filipino speciality fish.
As the Azores passed by to the south we entered the European sphere for the first time in eight months. It seemed an appropriate moment to raise a glass of champagne. Then one of beer. Then one of wine. Happy Easter.
Soon the crew fired up the karaoke machine and the golden oldies started pouring out, just like back on the Hugo. What is it with Filipino sailors and ancient, soppy love songs?
After the eighty-ninth rendition of an Engelbert Humperdinck classic I was driven to change the CD yet, searching in vain, all I could find was Phil Collins.
There was nothing for it and soon Phil and his mulleted chums were booming out in the background, playing live to an enraptured German audience circa 1991 as back in the present passengers and crew emptied the fridge of Tsingtao, a Chinese lager which tasted suspiciously watery.
They were charming company. There was a Chinese fellow - a cadet who couldn’t tell us why he’d taken to the high seas - along with two shy Sri Lankan cadets who scuttled off at the first opportunity, and a whole gaggle of jolly Filipinos.
They were able seamen, oilers, electricians, the cook, the steward and the bosun, the latter of whom presented me with my latest ‘local’ hat - a Rickmers Line baseball cap.
It was, I’m sure you’ll appreciate, a great meeting of cultures from which we all emerged greatly enriched and enlightened as to the workings of other nations.
Well I did learn one thing at least: Tsingtao, according to one of the crew, stands for This Stuff Is No Good Try Another One. I couldn’t agree more.
Monday 13th April, 41°31’N, 19°35’W Heading 70°
Another disturbed night’s sleep, thanks to the big swell outside. At times it seemed so big and pronounced it felt like there were sea monsters outside playing keepy-uppy with the ship.
We rolled backwards and forth in time with the waves, the ship rattling around us like an old man with bronchitis. Things slipped along the table and the desk, cupboard doors groaned and so did we.
As daylight broke I looked out of our porthole to take a look for myself. Huge waves were rolling in from the North West, lifting us up as they rolled underneath us and dropping us abruptly as they headed on towards Africa.
We were like a cork in a bathtub, Henk said; the Captain just laughed. He seems to take a mischievous pleasure in our discomfort.
Sylvia showed us her secret weapon against sea sickness, rolling up her sleeve to reveal a rather whizzy watch-like gadget which looked like it had come straight out of The Goonies. “It gives me a small electric shock every few seconds”, she said, going on to explain that somehow it helped to nullify the motion sickness.
It’s hard to do much in our wobbly world; you cannot stare at a screen for more than an hour at best; we’re constantly catching food and glasses of water slipping off the table and even trying to walk around makes you look like an old drunk negotiating his way though the park.
Part of the reason for all this movement is the lack of cargo on board - the ship’s only 35% full (though that’s not unusual for the US-Europe leg of its route) and what scrap iron, machine parts and other assortments are being carried do not weigh enough to counteract the strength of the waves.
We’re all looking forward to reaching dry land now. Cape Finisterre should appear on the horizon tomorrow, and with it the first sight of land - and European soil. Not a moment too soon.
Tuesday 14th April, 43°32’N, 11°00’W Heading 70°
We finally saw another boat today, after a week of solitary sailing. Civilisation was close! As the day wore on and we approached Cape Finistere we saw more ships, oil tankers and cargo vessels heading for Spain or north up to Biscay. Even a light aircraft passed overhead.
After the rather bare void of the last few days the charts are suddenly crammed with features once more, coastlines and rocks, lighthouses and loose buoys and those squiggly lines denoted underwater cables.
The swell was still lively as we rounded the Cape and gathered for dinner. Spaghetti Bolognese and spring rolls; an interesting combination but a wise idea in these conditions?
The sun was still shining as we returned to the deck, our higher latitude is beginning to show. I’m beginning to look forward to the long sunny evenings back home.
England’s getting closer still - we’re back on GMT time and I now no longer have to open my battered old map more than one time. She sits there up above us, warm and welcoming.
We returned to the bridge and surveyed our next moves, all mapped out ahead of us out into the Bay of Biscay. The Captain’s decided on a series of long, drawn-out zig zag manoeuvres - an effort to counteract the rolling leviathans coming in from the West.
Soon the ship was swung around towards them, the waves breaking near the bow, and we started pitching rather than rolling, rocking up and down like a slowly nodding donkey.
Up three metres, down three metres, my stomach following a couple of seconds later. It’s going to make for an interesting night.
Wednesday 15th April, 047°55’N, 006°30’W
Awoke from the usual rolling pin slumber just as we sailed past Britanny. Another clear fine day - perhaps we’ll spot the coast of England today.
The Captain didn’t share our enthusiasm, or our optimism, the heavy brown rings under his eyes spoke of a sleepless night spent traversing the Atlantic rollers now thankfully behind us. He growled as we approached the charts so we made our excuses and quickly left.
It didn’t dent our excitement though - Lara was in a particular chippy mood as she tried to find English radio stations on the small stereo in our cabin. There was nothing but static on the airwaves but outside the activity was starting to crank up as the horizon started to fill with boats of all kinds: oil tankers, cargo ships, fishing boats and even a warship.
‘One of yours’ the Second Officer said nodding his head towards it ‘HMS Brocklesby’. I looked at the screen of boat recognition thingy and so it was. The first sign that we were on the edge of entering our homeland.
Gulls swung by to take a peek at our cargo and a massive cruise ship appeared on the horizon, bound for Southampton no doubt, bringing Terry and June back from the Caribbean.
We had entered the English Channel now and I walked up to the bow to stretch my legs, bumping into one of the crew, all splattered in paint. They always seem to be painting, though it seems to be a losing battle, like tackling some kind of maritime Forth Bridge.
The air had become colder and I could now see my own breath as I leaned against the bow and admired the long smooth waves. Should get a decent night’s kip at last tonight.
Five strange shapes appeared on the horizon through the low cloud: sharp masts piercing the sky, gunmetal grey bodies, moving in single file with great purpose. More navy vessels. Were we at war with France?
The fog was starting to fall as we gathered for dinner; England was running true to the stereotype, much to the amusement of our fellow diners. Another greasy fish platter later we returned to the deck and found ourselves in the middle of a real pea souper, visibility down to twenty metres at best.
Up on the bridge the navigator stared nervously at the radar screen, watching the yellow dots move slowly along the shipping lanes. A colleague peered out of the window and voices from other boats crackled over the airwaves in broken English. No-one wants a prang in the middle of the Channel.
The radar screen had also shown Jersey and Guernsey, just a few miles to starboard. Our first sight of Blighty. We hurried to our cabin and tried the radio again: we were met by a cacophony of southern English.
I scrolled through FM: ‘You’re listening to Duncan Warren on BBC Radio Devon…an RSPB reserve on the Isle of Sheppey to try to record a curlew….of the people that you’ve worked with on this record, Keith Richards must have stood out for many…we remember the man in the red fez, Tommy Cooper…it’s Handel week here on Radio Three…’
I finally settled on Radio Four and the soothing background natter of Midweek. I could imagine the scene back home, kettle on, budgie chirping, neighbour at the door to see if we’d like some of their potatoes…Mmmm Home - I could almost smell.
My reverie was broken by the Ten O’Clock pips, followed by the news. French fishermen were protesting again, apparently and blocking channel ports. Maybe we won’t be home so soon after all…
Thursday 16th April, 51°22’N, 02° 30’W
Awoke to the sight of France to starboard, or at least a vague blueish blur on the horizon. No England though, despite the fog finally lifting.
At last, after breakfast we gained the first peek of our homeland - the white cliffs of Kent sat above the glassy calm waters. Lara leaped excitedly about the bridge: “Look! It’s Dover!” Well Dungeness to be precise. Not quite to exciting.
We continued along the busy northbound channel, staying alert to the cross-channel ferries plying their way through the traffic.
It was starting to drizzle and it was all feeling too much like home. There was only one thing left to do and I rummaged around in my pocket to find a piece of equipment I’d hardly touched since leaving home- my mobile. Time to call the family.
“Hello Dad, I’m in the middle of the Channel”
“Clement Freud’s died!” he said.
“Right OK, well we’ll see you in a few days”
The phone reception - and England - soon disappeared behind a bank of fog and we carried on up towards Belgium and Holland.
We partook in luncheon, all excited about the pending arrival in Antwerp. Henk and Christoph had been at sea for four and a hour months, Sylvia had somehow survived the sharks, rocks, hurricanes she had feared and Martha was itching to try out one of the bikes rumoured to be stashed aboard.
We didn’t have long to wait. Soon the engines dropped and a pilot came aboard, our first of the day (one for the sea, one for the river and one for the harbour). We were heading into the River Schelde, gateway to Antwerp.
Soon the Belgium coastline appeared, first a faint grey outline, then a long dirty smudge before finally turning into a solid dark silhouette. It was like walking past a series of those indeterminate Flemish paintings, blimey those painters must have been bored.
A while longer and the sea pilot left us to be replaced by the river pilot. We could see both sides of the River Schelde now - houses, factories, gaggles of wind turbines, a cluster of dock cranes - and not a hillock between them. Flat as the proverbial Dutch pancake (for this was Holland now, not Belgium).
Henk proudly pointed out the landmarks of his motherland but it was difficult to get excited: aluminium smelting plants, chemical refineries, nuclear power stations lined up along the waterfront under a grey, miserable sky.
We passed the Dow chemical plant and the starboard side changed from Holland to Belgium. Tankers streamed past us on their way out to sea, leaving slug trails in the churned up water behind them.
Ever the accommodating host, Henk poured a wee aperitif as a jolly little tug boat ran up alongside us and we headed down to dinner.
Perhaps it was the cold chips and mushy prawns but we were all eager to get back on deck as the Singapore neared the massive docklands ahead of us
We watched the tugs slowly and delicately guide the Singapore through a set of locks and drank in the view: cranes and gantries presided over an enormous industrial landscape: oil refineries, rail yards, warehouses, mountains of containers and quaysides the length of several football fields.
Most stood empty, perhaps a reflection of the global downturn in trade. Certainly Antwerp has felt it, with business down 20% at the moment. A gigantic container ship stood empty, its waterline well above the murky waters of the dock.
We were being gently coaxed into a berth next to it. Many feet beneath us little men in yellow hats ran about catching ropes and securing them to the quayside, whilst forklifts chugged about, their lights flashing.
There was a faint bump.