Reaching the Ends of the Earth at the End of the World

Hello all! Long time, eh? Well, sorry about that. I was at sea when the world supposedly ended.

Perth is the most isolated big city in the world. To the west, the endless tracts of the Indian Ocean, only interrupted by the bulk of Africa and Madagascar almost 7,000 km away. To the east, north and south lies the forbidding Australian outback.

So arriving in Perth after 10 days at sea felt a bit like landing at a moon colony. (That it’s also a mining town brings to mind science fictions’s fascination with lunar mining.) Regardless, I’ve been getting my feet under me here in Perth since shortly before Christmas. Add to that the holiday hoo-hah, and you have few opportunities to write.

So what follows is a departure from my usual blog posting. It’s basically the journal I kept while onboard the White Sea, and as such might be a little raw, contradictory, or just plain boring — as the trip often was. But, I think it gives a pretty good idea of what traveling solo on a freighter ship is like. Fair warning, though: This is a long post.

On a side note, the fact that the world didn’t end while I was at sea, was, in the (not) end, a trifle disappointing. Not to say I really want an apocalypse, but it would be interesting to see what happened if something did happen. Oh, well. Bloody Mayans.

Dec 12, 12:27 PM

So I’m aboard the White Sea now, and we’ve left port. I assume we’re somewhere south of Singapore and east of Sumatra, en route to Jakarta. Viktor, the chief mate/steward (I’m really not sure yet) from Ukraine, said earlier that we would hit Jakarta tomorrow. That’s amazing to me. It looks so far on the map. (Which I can’t really access at the moment because of no Internet.)

But so far, this is a strange experience. The ship is piled high with shipping containers that I can see from various port holes and windows from the officers’ mess. I’m staying on the 5th deck, in the chief steward’s cabin, a cozy two-room affair with a bed that’s nice, if a little firm. At the moment, there is no electricity in the bedroom and the toilet doesn’t flush. I can’t find Viktor to tell him this.

In fact, I can’t find anyone. The officer corps seems utterly absent. I don’t know if they’re all up in the bridge (which was silent when I knocked on the door), asleep in their cabins (also silent when I knocked on Viktor’s) or have been cast overboard by a mutinous crew. I doubt the latter, as all the Philippine crew-members I’ve met so far, including “Dick” the cook, are quite friendly and easy-going. Perhaps the friendliness is just there to mask their piratical agenda.

I have a perfect unobstructed view out the starboard side from my cabin. I just opened one of the portholes, delighting in loosening the heavy screw-catches that secured the thing shut, to let in some fresh air. It is sublime. The engine drones in a low thrum far beneath me while the sound of the metal hull sluicing through the deep marine blue waters waft in on a breeze so fresh and clean it feels timeless and new at the same time. The White Sea rocks gently as it goes, the gentle waves just tickling our bottom and kissing the hull. It is good sailing and a beautiful day.

The last few days were not so beautiful, however. After three days on the train from Bangkok — an ordeal I would not like to repeat — I arrived in Singapore. The train ride down was tedious and uneventful, which is the nature of most travel, especially on trains. I’ve rarely met the amazing stranger who changes your life while on a train, or a bus and only once did I meet the hot lady who wanted sex on a plane. (That was back in DC some years ago.) The Thai trains are a little shabby and mostly comfortable, while the Malaysian trains are slightly more upscale… but not by much. At least most of the staff on the Malaysian trains speak english, and if they don’t, there’s usually a passenger who does. Bless the British Empire sometimes!

Eventually detraining in Singapore, I finally made my way to the InnCrowd Backpackers’ Hostel in Little India, a neighborhood that at first grated on me with its blaring Bollywood music, its scowling, dark-skinned little men, lack of women on the streets and total monoculture when it came to food. But after four days in Singapore, I had grown weary of its enforced walkways, and other ways of doing things. All for our own good of course! Fuck that. I’ll decide what’s for my own good. Strange how I’m more “republican” and individualist when I’m outside the USA and much more of a democrat, collectivist when I’m in the USA (or in an every man for himself culture). I think I just like moving against the prevailing opinion. I guess I’m a contrarian. Or I’m just turning into a cranky old man. But I do like my individual freedoms.

Phung and I started talking about what I want in life, and I said moderation. I later restated that to say, “Balance,” which I think is a more accurate turn of phrase. I seek balance: Not too much government regulation of everyday life, but not chaos either. Bangkok was too chaotic and crowded. Singapore is too ordered and staid. What’s the middle ground? It’s the same with travel and movement. Not so much discomfort, but enough to make it challenging. Not everyone has to speak English, but it helps if someone speaks at least a little.

I also had lunch with Nan the day before I left. Attractive, driven, Singaporean. I mentioned that my struggle is to reconcile the two kinds of writing/living that I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. For the last decade, I’ve been covering conflict and living in high-stress/low-security environments. Now, I’m traveling, which is still a bit of a high-stress/low-security thing, although the threat to personal safety might be lower. I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing with myself, but I kind of envisioned it as if I had climbed a mountain and was now going down the other side. The mountain was the whole, integral, and the same. It wasn’t two different lives, but the same life I was just entering a new phase. I’m not sure that really makes sense now, and it probably didn’t then, either. But it sounded pretty good to me at the time.

Dec 12, 4 p.m.

The White Sea isn’t a modern-day Mary Celeste after all. After hours of seeing no one around except for Dick the cook, I finally wandered up to the bridge. There, I met Arly, the 2nd mate, from Boracay, Philippines. He was surprised and then glad to see me, as working the bridge was pretty dull work. I, however, found it fascinating.

The bridge itself is expansive, taking up the entire front of the superstructure on the top deck. And the view! An almost 180 degree sweep of the horizon through massive — and spotless — planes of clear glass that look over the bow of the ship. The containers looked like children’s building blocks while the prow jutted forward, aimed right at the horizon. I felt awe and power and free all at once. Awe at the scale of the horizon and the sea around me. There was nothing to break the cool, blue-gray perfection of the line where the sky met the sea. I felt power standing in the bridge at the helm of the White Star. The dials and controls looked like those of a starship. And I felt freedom because of that potential power. Here was the means and controls to head out, almost anywhere. To set my own course, master my own destiny. It was here, standing at the midpoint of the bridge, with the prow jutting up before me like a giant phallus in the distance, that I realize the call of the sea and the desire to captain a ship. I was infused both with a sense of my own smallness and of my own potential. I may be one man, but I can still have a destiny and call it my own.

But back to the bridge and 2nd mate Arly. He was fresh to the White Sea, like Viktor, and told me a bit about the voyage and the crew.

We had taken an east-north-east course out of Singapore and would eventually turn south east to loop around the small Indonesian island of Palau Belitung, which lay opposite the bigger Palau Bangka. In between the two was the Selat Gelasa, and Arly explained we would be avoiding that strait because of the danger of pirates.

“But I went through the strait on my last ship and it was fine,” he said with a shrug. He didn’t seem to fussed about the warnings of pirates.

On the bridge of the White Sea

The charts section of the bridge was like returning to a grade school with pencils and clear plastic rulers, protectors, and triangles littering the desk. He would pull one chart from a draw, slide two plastic triangles together in a geometrical theorem he left unsaid, mark the chart, and then the time. We were right on course.

He invited me to have a cup of coffee and offered me the other chair at the con. We sat quietly for a little while, me drinking the bad instant coffee and staring out to sea while he looked over a book on the safety regulations of the White Sea. I asked him why he became a sailor.

“The money was better than what I saw other people earning,” he said. “So I joined after I got my degree from university.”

Arly is young, 33, but has been at sea for 13 years. His optimism was in stark contrast to the captain, who I met on my way down from the bridge.

David, the captain, is older, I’m not sure how old, but late 40s or early 50s. He has thinning white hair and sharp sea-blue eyes and is from Croatia. He has a weary expression, as if he’s just been woken up and needs more sleep. He greeted me in the passageway as he leaned against the doorway, with his forearm pressed to his forehead as if he was recovering from a hangover.

“You have visa for Australia, yes?” He growled by way of greeting.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m Chris.” I stuck out my hand. He unfolded himself from his standing convalescence and shook my hand wanly.

“Good,” he said. “You have insurance and all that?”

I had the paperwork with me proving it, as I had left the cabin earlier to seek someone out to get the process going. “Sure. I have medical, travel, cancellation — “

“Fine, fine,” he said wearily and pulled back from the door. He gestured for me to follow him to his cabin.

“Do you need to see it?” I said, as I toddled behind him, pulling the papers from the folder.

“No, I believe you,” he said absently. Then he muttered: “The White Star, is not a good ship. Australians.”

I had no idea what he meant, and he sounded as tired as a man could be. I imagine he had been up all night with the loading of the cargo, which had gone on for several hours longer than it was scheduled.

We sat down in his cabin, which contained a computer, a girlie calendar, a printer, a couple of couches, lots of magazines, the Steve Jobs biography and a flatscreen TV. He offered me a Heineken, apologizing that it wasn’t cold. I assured him that was fine. I liked David, the Croatian captain.

We chatted. I told him about my round-the-world plans. He complained about the Australian penchant for rules and regulations, how the White Sea isn’t quite up to official Australian standards for loading and unloading cargo. He liked New Zealand, and said the port officials were less worried about the size of the space between cargo containers and other rules he obviously considered just silly time-wasters.

“Once before, in Australia, loading, unloading cargo, problems,” he said. He really spoke like that, chewing on each vowel like it was a piece of beef jerky. “This time? I hope not.”

He complained about the state of the shipping industry, and said Europeans like himself were being forced out by Filipinos. It’s the way of the world, I said. Someone will always find a way to do it cheaper than you. He wearily agreed.

“The shipping industry, it’s not as good as it was. Is not a good time to be a captain.”

I asked him about a safety briefing. That brought a rueful grin to his lips for the first time. To be fair, however, David, for all his world-weariness, always seems to be holding one those grins in reserve just for dumb questions like mine.

“Safety briefing. Hah. If you hear alarm like this three times” — He knocked in the table and pointed up to a loudspeaker — “put on your life vest and come to the bridge.”

“That’s it?” I said.

“That’s it. Too many other alarms. Just come to bridge.”

Someone should tell him about all the safety precautions laid out by Globoship.

We chatted some more. I finished my beer and retuned to my cabin to await some minor repairs from the engineering team I had told the captain about, much to his chagrin.

I like David. He seems like a decent sort overall. And while he seems worn out by the business and by captaining a ship like this, I suspect he wouldn’t change it. It’s a heady feeling to be in command of a large vessel like this, with 20 men under your command.

Dec 14, 12:03 a.m.

Finally tracked down Viktor. He told me we had stopped because we were ahead of schedule and the pilots in Jakarta wouldn’t be ready if we showed up early. Fair enough. We’ve been under steam again for hours now, and Arly says we should pull into port tomorrow morning around 6 or 7 a.m. He’s promised to ring so I can come up to the bridge and see how the ship comes into port. He’s a very nice guy.

Arly also managed to track down the chief cook, who hooked me up with some Snickers. The Filipino crew were all piled on sofas, chilling out in the crew recreation room watching some Filipino movie. Hey, they gotta get their entertainment somehow. The room itself was cheerily disheveled, with a drum kit in one corner and a girlie calendar in another. It was very much a guys’ room.

After two days on the White Sea and I’m already anxious for shore leave in Jakarta. The days are downright boring. There’s rarely anyone to talk to, and I’m usually by myself. I come down to the mess and I find a plate, covered in tin foil, that Dick has conscientiously left out for me, but there’s never anyone else eating at the same time. My dining company consists of my books. That’s fine, I guess, but I can see how a month of this would be very, very dreary, and I can only hope there will be other passengers on that voyage (to Panama from Australia). Otherwise, it’s going to be a long month at sea.

I do know that if for some reason I can’t go ashore, I’ll be very disappointed. I could really do with some human contact and to find out what’s going on in the world.

Dec 14, 9:13 a.m.

Friday dawned wet and gray as we pulled into the port of Jakarta. I awoke to the sight of warships off of starboard, seemingly suspended in the early morning mist. They were strangely beautiful.

The night before had been spectacular. Lightning raced across the sky, often waking me, the light through the bedroom porthole flashing and sparking. I would wake up, count and await the thunder that followed. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, rumble… Ah, I rolled back to sleep. The storm is a ways off.

On the next flash. I counted again; and I made it to eight again. I returned to sleep.

The third flash woke me, and before I could begin to count, thunder banged against the window. We were in the storm. But despite the sound and flash, the White Sea didn’t rock more than usual and I was soon back asleep.

This morning, I couldn’t stay in bed and jumped out like a kid on Christmas morning. I raced through my breakfast and I’m now waiting for immigration — which is alongside us, Viktor told me as we passed — to clear me for shore leave. Once that is done, I will make my way into town somehow and find a coffee shop where I can park myself for a while and get some Internet work done.

Dec 14, 10:48 a.m.

The damn immigration officer wouldn’t clear me, so it’s unclear (hah) if I’ll be able to leave the ship or not. The captain was in the office arguing to let me off the boat, but the kid didn’t understand English well and David can be a bit impatient and blustery. I tried to explain to the immigration officer that I was happy to pay the fee for a visa (it’s supposed to be about $25) if he would check with his superiors and get back to me. I doubt I’ll be allowed to leave. I do hope that someone can at least get me an XL SIM card with some data on it, so I could at least send and receive some emails.

(In the end, I wasn’t allowed to leave the boat. — CA)

Dec 15, 4:55 p.m. (8º 36’48” S, 106º  41’58” E)

The boredom is becoming visceral, affecting all of us. I spoke with David again, popping in unannounced to his cabin after a lunch of stewed beans, beef and sausage. Lunch is always hearty.

He was reading the Steve Jobs biography, and said he was an interesting guy but “a real bastard.” I laughed and agreed. He got me a beer. We were settling into a rhythm.

I asked him about pirates, and what the protocol was for handling them. “Pirates?” he said, somewhat incredulous. “We give them what they want, they take the cargo and the crew and — hopefully — the shipping company pays the ransom.”

“You don’t fight back?”

He waved his hand dismissively. It is, I’ve grown to learn, his favorite gesture.

“But don’t worry. No pirates here.”

I told him about Arly’s course warnings a couple of days ago. He again waved.

“Sure, maybe near Singapore and Jakarta, pirates,” David said. “But not here. Now around Africa and Somalia, that’s international mafia.”

He went into some detail about the economics of piracy against major container ships or oil tankers. He also told me about how some Greek owner of a tanker had conspired with the captain of a ship back in the 1980s to deliver the oil from the Persian Gulf to South Africa and then scuttle ship after taking on ballast. It took 10-15 years, but authorities finally figured out the scheme. David seems a wealth of information on the shipping industry, but he hates the job these days. He’s bored. He said he has maybe 10 hours of paperwork a month to do and after that, there’s not much for him to do.

Adding to his misery, the ships now take on minimum crew. When he was younger, there would be 35 men on board. Now it’s only 20. But the amount of work is the same, so after dinner, the crew retreats to their cabins to sleep or a few remain up to watch movies.

“There are no parties, no one to talk to,” he says sadly.

So he sits in his cabin reading biographies waiting for someone like me to provide him some distraction. I resolve to do more to keep him company.

The good news: I’ll arrive in Perth on the 19th, he said, not the 22nd.

Dec 15, 6:13 p.m.

Almost forgot to mention this bit of nautical lore that David told me: The captain’s quarters are always on the starboard side of the ship. Why? It’s a very practical and interesting reason:

Ships’ running lights are red and green, and they are on the port and starboard (left and right, if facing the bow), respectively. The captain can see out his cabin to the front and to the starboard side, which means if he sees red running lights, a ship is passing in front of them and he must take action to avoid a collision.

By maritime rules, if you see red lights, you have to correct your course. If you see green lights, the other guy does.

So that means, if he looks out and sees green lights, the ship is coming from a direction that he doesn’t have to worry as much.

Dec 16, 2:06 p.m. (13º 46’25” S, 108º 41’31” E, bearing 169º S at 17 nm/h. Approx. 1,159 nm to Perth)

I have a bit of a problem. I have run out of ropinerole, the medicine I use for my RLS. I discovered this last night as I prepared for bed, and instead used a couple of sleeping pills to knock myself out. I can do that until Perth, but after that, I’ll need to get a new prescription from a doctor there.

But before that, the singing. I was pulled into a Philippine karaoke song-fest last night in the crew rec room. I was just looking for the chief cook, in a bid for four or five more snickers, but instead ended up staying for a couple of beers and some good natured singing. Dick, the cook, especially, has a good voice: rich and uninhibited. Unfortunately, the choice of songs was the usual Philippine menu of sappy, sad love songs from the late 1980s and ’90s. The accompanying video either computer generated Powerpuff cuteness, or naked models on the beach. I much preferred the latter.

We should be arriving in Fremantle almost three days early, on the 19th, according to Viktor — who spends much of his free time in the officers’ rec room watching Russian mafia series. If that’s the case, I’ll be arriving well before I told my Couchsurfing colleagues and I’ll need to find a hostel/hotel.

My home while at sea…

Dec 18, 7:56 a.m.

Terrible night last night. Had to two take two sleeping pills and a Valium just to knock myself out. The lack of my RLS medication is a major quality of life stumble. I must get new drugs as soon as I get to Perth.

The boredom is bad, although bearable. I have lots to read and a lot of movies. Plus, I have this journal. I feel somewhat productive with it, and may even have gotten into the habit on this sojourn.

Still not sure what I’m going to be doing in Australia other than passing though. It seems now that South America has taken on mythic proportions in my mind as my next “real” destination. I should really listen to those spanish podcasts.

Dec 18, 2:21 p.m.

Just saw my first bird. We’re close to land. Tomorrow night, I’ll be off this boat, hopefully.

Dec 18, 5 p.m. (23º 45’54” S, 111º 28’28” E)

I can no longer trust the compass on my iPhone. It says we’re going 351ºN, which is absurd, since we’re obviously bearing south-southeast. No matter. We’re due in Fremantle port at approximate 1730 tomorrow. And not a minute too soon.

Arly expects us to actually be able to disembark by 1900 or so. I can only hope the immigration people are speedy. I long to be back on dry land again. I enjoy the sea, but the boredom of the ship is oppressive. If only there were some other passengers to talk to. Alas, my only company has been my own for the most part.

I could have taken part in a karaoke party last night the crew put on for Boff, one of the senior crew members. But I had slept so poorly then night before that I just didn’t feel up to it. A couple of sleeping pills and a valium were my only method of sleeping. As such, I lounged in bed until noon, having strange dreams that always seemed to end with a Thatcher-esque figure crying out, “And this is tyranny!” I have no idea what that means. Perhaps she died while I’ve been at sea? That would be interesting.

One more day, one more day. It’s a mantra that I’ve become fond of telling myself.

Dec 18, 8:09 p.m.

I find it amusing and appropriate that the clock on the wall of my cabin never changed. It was perpetually 5:45, reflecting the sense of timelessness on board.

Dec 19, 8:43 p.m.

Crushing disappointment. We’ve finally arrived at Perth — I can see the port from the ship — and I can’t get off the damn boat. I’m stuck here until 2-3 pm tomorrow when the immigration agent comes on board. At the moment, we’re just stuck a few miles off the coast. I feel I could almost swim it, I am so desperate to get off of this ship. I’ve already packed and I’m ready to go. But I have to spend another night on board, uselessly. I can only hope they’re on schedule tomorrow.

The beach at Freemantle, near Perth

At least I don’t have it as bad as Linisito, the chief engineer. He hasn’t been off the ship in seven months. That’s incredible to me. He told me over dinner that the ship often doesn’t stay in port long enough for him to take shore leave because he’s always needed on board in case something goes wrong. He hasn’t been ashore since May 20, he said. I felt intensely sorry for him. As he put it: “I have a good job, good salary, but I am a slave on this ship.”

He is able to call his family when in port thanks to the SIM card salesmen, but still. He has a psychologically brutal job. I don’t think I could do it.

“The seaman’s life,” he said. “It’s very bad.”

Dec 20, 4:55 p.m. FREMANTLE HABOR (32º 00’33” S, 115º 40’13” E)

I feel like I’m being held prisoner on this ship. For 24 hours now we’ve been sitting off the coast. Just sitting. No berthing, no immigration, nothing. And I keep being told “tomorrow” I’ll be allowed on land. Just now the captain told me 8:30 a.m., or maybe 9 a.m. tomorrow. Who knows? Arly told me it would be at 1:30 a.m. So I’m getting a lot of conflicting information and it’s infuriating. I hate this. I hate this waiting around while nothing happens. While I don’t mind the actual ocean-going part of the trip, no one tells you about the interminable wait when you get to port, when seemingly nothing happens and we end up waiting for … what, exactly? The captain said there are other ships in the berth we are scheduled for, but what happens if they are delayed?

“Sometimes it takes seven days!” David said with an impish and apologetic smile. I sincerely hope that’s not he case with us. I’m really, really ready to get off this ship.

Dec 21, 8:33 a.m.

I have made it! I’m on dry land, finally! Aussie customs have cleared me and now I’m waiting for a ride to the gate of the port.

Just had a good chat with Eddie, a security guard from Brazil who works the port and gave me a ride from the White Sea to the office. He suggested I go to Florinesis (sp?) when I’m there next year. Now, I just have to get into town. He suggested the backpackers inn on Pakenham Street in downtown Fremantle.

Anyway, I’m now past the gate. Welcome to Australia.

Images courtesy of Chris Allbritton and Christopher Allbritton

4 Comments on “Reaching the Ends of the Earth at the End of the World

  1. Very inspiring journey I must say. But sure I could not do it without other passengers!

  2. Hi Chris. What a dreadful trip! Our ship, the CMA CGM Tosca had 3 other passengers, a French chef and we loved it.Hope you get a better ship next time. cheers tony

    • Tony- just read your trip report. Could not have been more different from mine. The inclusion of other passengers makes a huge difference, I think, and a French chef and wine at dinner certainly doesn’t hurt. My food was decent, but hardly write-home-worthy. And there was certainly no wine.

      After a while I just kind of gave into the boredom. For instance, I never toured the engine room because it didn’t seem there would be anyone to talk to about it. It was just easier to take long naps in between meals.

      Maybe the Pacific crossing to Panama will be better.