Allison Swaim has almost completed her year at sea; traveling around the world via cargo ship. She sent us this ship’s log from her time on a container ship back in March. We’ll have another update from her soon. Last we heard, she was just leaving Shanghai.
Friday, March 16. We finish cargo operation at the Maersk-owned Suez Canal Container Terminal. At 0200 hours Saturday morning, the Suez pilots come on board. We maneuver from port and join the southbound convoy of ships to begin transiting the Suez Canal. I don’t get to bed until after 3 a.m. so the sun is already high when I wake up in the morning. We reach the Great Bitter Lake and drop anchor for one hour to wait as the northbound convoy passes by. Then we proceed south. At 1300 we pass out of the canal and the pilots leave, each with a carton of cigarettes stuffed into his bag. We sail on through the Red Sea, red desert mountains in the distance on both sides–Upper Egypt to the right, Sinai to the left.
Saturday evening after dinner, I plop on the sofa in the crew mess to join some of the guys who are watching a comedy show taped from TV in the Philippines in the spring of 2010. After the show ends, we switch on the karaoke machine and flip through the song list, choosing tunes and passing around the microphone. I never cease to be amazed at the universality of American rock songs. Whether I’m sailing in the Atlantic with guys from Singapore, at a Couchsurfing gathering in Cairo, or in the Red Sea with Filipinos, everybody always seems to know the lyrics to Hotel California.
Sunday, March 18. Smooth sailing through the Red Sea, which is actually a sparkling deep blue. Sunday means ice cream and a half-day of work for the crew who are ‘day men’ and work 8 to 6 (this doesn’t count officers who are on a rotating watch of 12-4, 4-8, 8-12). Steward Brian, Able Seaman Junno, and Ordinary Seaman Oliver team up against Communication Officer Rene and two of the engine crew for their weekly basketball match. Sunday is the only day they have free time and can coordinate their usually overlapping work schedules. They’ve rigged a basketball goal up on the main deck in the narrow strip between the accommodations and the first stack of containers in the cargo hold. They string a net up above the starboard side railing to keep the ball from going overboard.
Sunday night I join some of the Romanian engineers for ping pong in the rec room. I’m rusty at first, but after a few hours my skills from playing on my last ship are starting to come back. At night it’s hot inside, and pingpong has us sweating. I open my cabin window to let some air in while I sleep. Already the temperature is changing as we plod southward.
Monday, March 19, 10:30 a.m. I wake up to thick fog outside my window. It’s mid-morning already, and bright sun gleams off the containers stacked a few meters from my window. But beyond that, thick grey haze. I step outside expecting to feel the cool air that usually comes with foggy weather. Instead, I’m hit by a heat wave.
I go up to the bridge–the top of the ship where navigation happens–to get the update. We’re drifting 20 miles outside our next port: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Port Control has given orders to stand by instead of proceeding to berth as scheduled. There’s a sandstorm on shore, and all port operations have shut down until the weather clears.
We continue drifting all day, no news from port control. At night, oiler Jefferson rigs up a light at the aft of the ship (the back part of the ship) and lowers it 5 meters down to hang a few feet above the sea water. He brings out a fishing line and bait for squid and teaches me his technique for squid fishing. Pretty soon, we can see red squid swimming a few meters below the water, attracted to the light. In two hours, we’ve caught ten. Well, Jefferson caught ten. I pulled the hooks out of their tentacles, though. We’ll give our catch to Chief Cook. Maybe tomorrow we’ll eat fresh squid for lunch.
Tuesday, March 20. Still drifting outside Jeddah. Foggy haze from the sandstorm at shore makes for poor visibility. Still no news from port control about when we can “go inside” to berth. For lunch, Chief Cook slices up the squid we caught the night before. He sautés them “adobo style,” with garlic, onions, tomato, and a little soy sauce, using the squid’s ink for flavor. It’s rare to have fresh fish on board. Provisions arrive every couple of months and are stowed in a massive walk-in freezer. So, this fresh-caught squid tastes especially delicious.
Finally, at 5 p.m., I feel the engine rumbling. We’ve just received news from port to prepare for berthing. All crew proceed to their stations for maneuvering. The captain, 2nd mate and helmsman go up to the bridge to steer the ship and keep an eye on traffic. Engineers go down to the engine room to prepare the engine. The rest go out on deck to handle the ropes and secure the ship to shore. Night is falling as we pull slowly into Jeddah. The air is still hazy with sand, and lights from port turn the sky bright orange. Soon after maneuvering is complete and the ship is tied up alongside, unloading begins. Two huge gantry arms from shore reach into the ship and lift out containers one by one. Eighteen-wheeler trucks line up beside our ship, ready to be loaded.
Wednesday, March 21. The cargo operation continues all night and into the morning. I wake at 3 a.m. to metal banging as the gantry stacks containers right outside my window. When the offload is finished, loading begins. We load all day. At 5 p.m., the last containers are secured and we maneuver away from port. Dusk is falling. The water is bright blue-green. Unnatural-looking; like the pond water at an amusement park.
Once the ship is sailing, the crew has a chance to relax. Karaoke in the crew mess: Mariah Carey, Queen; the same old songs. I fumble around on the guitar I got in Egypt to bring on board.
Thursday, March 22. We sail towards the southern mouth of the Red Sea, approaching the High Risk zone for pirate attacks. In the morning, the deck crew rigs up barbed wire at the aft to protect from pirate boarding attempts. The sides of the ship are lower at the aft, so this is the place where pirates could try to climb on board. Bosun and deck fitter fasten fire hoses on both sides of the deck, ready to switch on to deter attacks.
In the afternoon, all crew report to the bridge for a drill to discuss safety precautions in the High Risk area. Switch off all lights at night, draw the curtains on the windows. All doors locked, nobody on deck without a walkie-talkie. In case a suspicious craft is spotted, the engine must be ready to accelerate to full speed. And if pirates make it on board, all crew will go down to the engine room to a room called the “citadel,” ready with 3 days supply of food, water, and medical supplies.
We enter the pirate risk area at dusk. Visibility is poor, two nautical miles at most. On the bridge, extra officers are on watch–more eyes to keep lookout. Binoculars to look out ahead, at sides, behind. Eyes glued to the radar to look for any small ship without an AIS tracking device.
Ship traffic gets heavier as we approach the narrow mouth of the Red Sea-Bab El Mandeb. Beyond this strait is the Gulf of Aden. 2nd mate Joe spots a dot on the radar. Is it a ship, or a wave? We go outside to look around and see if we can spot a tiny craft. Nope. Nothing. The wind is so strong it almost blows my headphones off. Because of the wind, the sea is rough and swells are high. Our ship is big, so we barely feel the waves. This is bad weather for pirates in small boats, though, so it’s good for us.
Friday, March 23. I wake at dawn and join the pirate watch in the bridge. We’ve passed out of the Red Sea and into the Gulf of Aden. So far no suspicious ships spotted. Visibility is still poor and the sea is choppy. The VHF radio is quiet.
At 9:30, we enter the IRTC-the International Recommended Transit Corridor. NATO warships guard the corridor to keep pirate attacks to a minimum. We hear them on the VHF. “This is NATO warship 5071. Report any suspicious activity to UK MTNO at this number… I repeat…Over and out.” It’s definitely an American guy–I recognize the accent. It’s the first time all year I’ve heard an American accent on the VHF radio!
At dusk I notice clouds overhead. I ask Able Seaman Junno, “How are there clouds out here? I thought clouds meant there was land nearby.” He reminds me that Somalia is less than 100 km to the left, and Yemen is on the right. Darkness falls. At captain’s orders, all lights are off. I can just make out our radar detector at the front of the ship, dimly glowing.
Able Seamen and officers change watch at 8 p.m. I go down with Junno to join him for dinner. He takes the plastic wrap off the plate he saved: spaghetti. “I’ll be honest: I miss my sister’s carbonera.” He’s been on board for four months now. Five more to go.
Allison Swaim caught the radio bug during a month-long stint as a reporter at Radio Victoria in rural El Salvador. She learned how to tell stories with sound at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the fall of 2008. Discovering radio was like getting her license. Holding a microphone gives Allison an excuse to do what she loves: talk to people, hear their stories, learn their perspectives. Allison grew up in Salisbury, NC and is proud of her Southern roots. The Midwest became a second home in her five years in Oberlin, OH. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010.