The good ship “Pontresina” – passenger number one (a containership story)
Day 2,038 since October 10th 2013: 180 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
The wind, the waves and the way forward
For a while I have been closer to Melbourne in Australia than Copenhagen in Denmark. Both in distance but also in regards to time zones. And yet Denmark feels so much closer. This world of ours is always perception versus reality. They say I’m getting close to the end. They say so much.
Logistics and bureaucrazy (yes, that is how we spell that within the Saga) have always been the two greatest hurdles within this project. Lately neither have been an issue. Reaching Taiwan and getting away could have been a nightmare. At the very least a highly expensive and time consuming affair. However the logistics worked out extraordinary well. A containership brought me from Japan to Taiwan and I am currently writing this while onboard the containership which by the end of this blog will have brought me to Vietnam. Without the kind assistance of SeaLand, a Maersk company, I would have had to apply for another dual entry visa for China. I would have had to spend time and money by returning to China wherefrom I could have taken two ferries from China to Taiwan (one from mainland to an island and the other onward to Taiwan). Then when I was ready to continue I would have had to take the two ferries back from Taiwan to China and have continued a vast distance overland to the border with Vietnam. Thankfully I did not have to do all of that. I was so confident that I would be able to leave Taiwan without returning to China that I didn’t apply for a Chinese visa while in Japan. A bit of a gamble as I would not have been able to apply for a Chinese visa in Taiwan. Fortunately my confidence was placed correctly and last Tuesday (April 30th) I received an email from SeaLand which put my mind at ease: “We are glad to inform you that your upcoming trip from Kaohsiung to Ho Chi Minh on M.V. PONTRESINA has been confirmed by owners”. Two days later I took the high speed train and returned to Kaohsiung from Taipei. And that same evening I boarded the vessel.
Not much left they say. Yeah? But there is a lot of water in between.
No…these days both logistics and bureaucrazy have been gentle affairs. I am concerned about finances as the Saga does not enjoy an overwhelming steady financial income. However generous Saga backers have now pledged an accumulated $510 USD / month through the Sagas Patreon account. That is about $17 USD / day which is not enough to pay back the debt which has accumulated over the years and hardly enough to get us across the finish line…however it is a heck of a lot more than nothing ;) In addition to the Patreon account I have been writing a monthly article for Syre, a Swedish magazine, for nearly a year now. I have been able to invoice Syre €100 EUR / month for that which also adds to the economy. The Saga also benefits from personal contributions which have come in the form of cash in envelopes from people I have met. It is far from a daily occurrence however the generosity is not to be ignored. Finally I often get to spend time with generous hosts who cover my costs as long as I am their guest. Yes…I am not filling my pockets while moving forward within the Saga however I do see all of this as an investment. Hopefully I will return home victoriously and can start writing a book almost immediately. I also hope to build up a life as a motivational speaker which overtime should bring back the expenditure. As such the Saga is an investment much as if I was attending University and paying my way through it. The business model seems sound but offers no guarantees. We will see how that goes…I’m no ex-president so I will not be able to invoice millions of dollars per session ;)
The real obstacle these days and for a while now has been my mental state. I have not been home since 2013. I have constantly been moving forward in that period and living out of a bag. I always feel tired. I cannot recall when I last felt well rested and energized? It seems like it might have been years ago? I thought that I would be able to regain that energy by getting to the bottom of my ‘to do list’ and then do nothing for a few days. I succeeded in that onboard the good ship ‘ALS Vesta” a few weeks ago. However it took less than a day for me to feel exhausted after reaching Taiwan. I feel that the “cure” is to return home and leave the stress behind which is to reach the remaining 24 countries completely without flying. For years I have been aware that if I could not reach or enter a single country across this journey then the overall goal within the Saga would be a failure. For years I have known that I have been fortunate that nobody close to me have fallen seriously ill or have died. 7-9-13 and knock on wood. And while the Saga has been growing longer and longer I have been getting older and older. So have my friends and my family. And that has increased the risk of something horrible happening to someone I care deeply about. Can I go another ten to fifteen months and avoid that risk? You might say that “we are nearly there”. I look across the map and ask: “how the heck are we going to get to all those islands in just ten months?” How many more times must I pack up my bags? How many more times must I say farewell? How much more time will this take before I can sleep for a thousand years in my bed in Denmark? You can say “cheer up” and you can say “remember to enjoy it”. You can even say “you are lucky to have your life”. However you cannot say you know what it is like to have travelled 267,000km (166,000mi) over land and sea, though 179 countries without returning home for five years and six months. That “privilege” is mine alone. And yet: we keep on keeping on…
Planing the Pacific...
May 2nd 2019 – Thursday
The train got me to Kaohsiung and I found a café at the railway station with wifi. Then I got the blog online which as often took more time than I hoped. I saw the hours drift away while I worked as hard as I could to meet my timeline. I was due to meet Joey from Maersk between 9:30-8:00pm so he could take me to the vessel. Onboard I would most likely be offline so I had to get it all done. Blog, social media and the most important emails. As it got later and later I began to feel a pain left of the center of my chest. A manifestation of stress? I try so hard to represent the countries I visit and the people I meet as best I can. Would people like the blog? Would I be able to get the most important elements into the blog? What was that chest pain? What time was it? When was Joey going to arrive? Deeeep breath. Just type away and get it online. You can do it. I did it. The blog came online and I scheduled it for release by email to more than 1,000 subscribers as well as posts on Facebook and Instagram to 41,000 followers. Who the heck are all those people? Could I claim to know more than 2,000 of them? Grew up in a village with just 1,200 people and did not know everyone. No matter. I had some time left to schedule posts on Facebook and Instagram so that updates would appear daily while I was at sea. I had a list of ideas for posts. Darn it…it was taking longer than I anticipated!! Should I cut corners? NO!! I will have a solid post to promote the work of the Taiwan Red Cross for the RC Sunday posts. I will promote my sisters fantasy writing (https://tjcedar.com/). I will give a shoutout to Charlie and his unique Pilgrimage (http://walkingforwater.dk/). I will inform the public about the ship. I will make a post about the Sagas Patreon account. I will make a post about Saga Social Media options. I will make the Instagram post for the ‘Awesome Maps’ competition. I will make the post promoting ‘Lifesaver’ as they sent me a “free” Liberty water filter bottle (https://iconlifesaver.com/). And I did. Somehow I managed all of that and then I sent a final message to my fiancée saying that I was leaving for the ship. I never managed to get a reply because Joey had arrived and off we went.
Thank you for the honor guys! Always appreciated :)
Joey is such a professional within shipping and logistics. He has been a Maersk employee for 28 years! In fact I found that a lot of Maersk employees in Taiwan had been around for decades. One at the Taipei office had even celebrated 35 years! Joey had anticipated that I would come back to Kaohsiung and depart from there. How he knew is beyond me? I didn’t know when I arrived. I only learned that several days later. However Joey had prepared a shore pass for me which made it much easier for me to return to the port and embark the vessel. And that shore pass was ready the day I disembarked the good ship “ALS Vesta” a week before this day. 28 years in the business is not nothing. It was good to see him again. He brought me through customs and immigrations with great ease and onboard the ship. Thank you Joey. The 3rd mate (3rd officer) welcomed me and brought me to the Owners Cabin which was to be mine for the voyage. Such an honour. I had a loooong warm shower before crawling into bed. Onboard these ships I can do that and not feel guilty. The ship draws water from the ocean and desalinizes it. And it is heated from the ships energy. I quickly fell into a deep sleep while the ships generator hummed away and to the occasional bump from containers being lifted on to the ship.
May 3rd 2019 – Friday
My alarm went off at 07:20am. We were still alongside in Kaohsiung and cargo operations were still ongoing. I got dressed and headed down to the galley on A-deck where I met the steward and cook. Good guys! I had breakfast and a cup of tea before heading back up to my cabin on E-deck. I could have taken the elevator but the stairs offer a free workout. Then I went back to sleep. My alarm went off again at 11:30 and I once more got dressed. This time for lunch. I got to meet several of the crew members this time including Captain Alexander Sachkov who seemed like a really solid guy. I signed the indemnity report and was told that the 3rd mate would take me around for a familiarization of the ship at 1:00pm. I met 3rd mate John Manzanares in the ships office as agreed and he took me out for the familiarization. John is a really upbeat character and gave me a very thorough familiarization starting on the bridge and working our way down to the engine room. He pointed out every safety feature onboard and every room I needed to know. Safety is so important onboard these ships. It is unlikely that something would go wrong but in case it does then it is incredibly important that everyone knows what to do and where to be. I case of a General Alarm I was appointed to head to the Muster Station on the Boat Deck on the starboard side and wait for instructions. In case of an Abandon Ship alarm I was appointed to Muster Station at the Number 2 lifeboat on the starboard side and wait for instructions.
Best borscht I ever had in my life!!!
John began his life as a seaman in 1984 and has frequently sailed onboard the good ship “Pontresina”. And so have several of the other seamen. John explained that it all depends on which company you work for. Some companies rotate people so they hardly ever work with the same person twice and rarely (if ever) work on the same ship twice. I immediately thought it was a benefit to be attached to the same vessel again and again. As such you would feel more at home and be familiar with the ship? While that is true John also pointed out that you do not advance your skill set as rapidly if you are always on the same ship. If you rotate between ships then you are exposed to various types of equipment while on the same ship it is always the same equipment.
In the afternoon I created a ‘to do list’ for the voyage and went to work on it. I updated my lists over location and distance. I sorted all the files I had accumulated over the week and took care of a few additional administrative choirs. Then I finally began reading “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. A great book which I read a hundred pages in a long time ago but had to start over as it has been so long. And one of you gave it to me. However I cannot remember who I’m afraid. Sorry about that. But I’m grateful :)
On the bridge.
May 4th 2019 – Saturday
Happy StarWars day! My alarm went off at 07:20, I got dressed and headed down for breakfast. We were still at sea but due to reach Yantian in China, near Hong Kong, around midday. The cook was looking forward to reaching Hong Kong as he would receive new provisions there. For a while he had to make do with what was left. I wasn’t complaining and generally thought the food was pretty good and plentiful. Back in my cabin I continued reading in “Why Nations Fail”. It is such an interesting book and now that I have been to all the many countries the book references I find it even more interesting to read. Being StarWars day and all I decided to see “The Clone Wars” which is an animated StarWars story from recent years. I love the StarWars universe but wasn’t too keen on this StarWars story. I thought that both “Rogue One” and “Solo” were much better. Then thirty minutes before lunch I headed up to the bridge and observed as we approached Yantian. China is such a beautiful country. The coastline was green and mountainous with lots of small pointy islands sticking out of the ocean. I watched as the pilot boat approached us and the pilot climbed onboard. Then I headed down for lunch.
Still rocking my Bahrain Red Crescent fitness tee.
In the afternoon I managed to get on the treadmill for 25 minutes and ran a tenth of a marathon. That sounds like a whole lot more than what it is. Numbers are arbitrary like that. I doubt that most of you would be able to run a full marathon (42.2km / 26.28mi)? However you should hopefully be capable of running 10%. In any case…if you can’t run a full marathon and want to then you can eat right, sleep right, train for it and do it. Very few people know there limits and most people have never come close to them. After a shower I read a little more and then organized my usb flash keys. It turns out that I have 14!! And I had no idea what was on most of them. Various files. Some of them going back five years. At lunch I realized that the crew might have thought I was a superintendent. That probably had something to do with that when I signed onboard to the ship I wrote my name and in the blank space next to it for my position I wrote: “superintendent” :) It is highly uncommon for these ships to carry passengers and on more than one occasion I have been noted in the system as “superintendent” or “supernumerary” instead of passenger. Generally I believe it has been to please immigration officers and port officials. So I didn’t think much about it when I wrote “superintendent”. However that tittle made some of the officers slightly uneasy as they thought I was there to check on them. The chief officer joked that he thought I was a spy.
"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."
That night before going to bed I watched “The Last Jedi” from 2017. Oh I wish I was a Jedi!! May The Forth Be With You! ;)
May 5th 2019 – Sunday
My alarm went off at 07:20, I got dressed and headed down for breakfast. During the night the ship had reached Hong Kong. I could have left the ship for a few hours if I wanted too but why should I? In 2011 I spent a weekend in Hong Kong. It is a great little place which has a lot to offer but a few hours ashore didn’t seem like it was worth it. It is considered a semi-autonomous part of China and has been given the prefix: Special Administrative Region (SAR). Hong Kong was British territory for a hundred years and was handed over to China in 1999. These days I hear that the Chinese government is expanding its influence over the SAR. Some even say that Hong Kong might be fully integrated into China in the future. Nobody seems to believe that Hong Kong will ever be considered a sovereign nation. The cook had received his provisions and there was a can of Sprite on the table for everyone at lunch. A bowl full of bananas was also available along with ice cream in the fridge. Early afternoon as we were departing I went up to the bridge and looked out across the port. Very impressive! I remember passing the port in 2011 and thinking it was the largest port I had ever seen. These days I have seen larger ports. Hong Kong port is still large by any standards though.
Around 4pm the captain announced over the intercom that we were about to disembark. I cannot remember that any of the previous eighteen ships I have been onboard have had that service. I rather liked it except for when it briefly interrupted my sleep in the night. There was however an on/off switch so it was up to me. While on the bridge I briefly spoke with the captain. He’s a really pleasant guy and he too had been onboard the good ship “Pontresina” more than ten times. The mood onboard the ship was really good and I wonder if it might have been because so many of the seamen knew each other well and the vessel as well…sometimes a good mood onboard is generated by having a good captain. So maybe it was both. It was very windy when we left Hong Kong. Our next port was set to be Ho Chi Minh City three days later.
May 6th 2019 – Monday
My alarm went off at 07:20, I got dressed and headed down for breakfast. Routine is a major part of life onboard a working ship so why shouldn’t it be for me too. Well…I’m the only one onboard with no obligations so I could technically sleep until noon. But I prefer to follow the ships rhythm. The good ship “Pontresina” is very likable. The seamen onboard certainly seem to care her. “If we take good care of her then she takes good care of us”. This beautiful lady measures 213m x 32.3m (699ft x 106ft) and can carry 28.270 tons of cargo. She has room for 2,646 twenty foot containers so picture 1,323 trucks on the road. I bet you can’t! ;) If you could then they would cover the distance of more than 21km (13mi) if parked front to back. As a liner vessel she operates somewhat like a bus within a regular route on a fixed schedule. Round and round calling the same ports. A full round takes about 28 days and there are three other ships on the same route so each port gets a call once a week. We are actually following the same path as the good ship “ALS Vesta” which got me from Japan to Taiwan.
When I see the word 'retard'...I still giggle ;)
The good ship “Pontresina” was built in Singapore in 2008 but calls Liberia in West Africa for home. Over the past days she has become my home along with already being the home of 22 seamen of three nationalities: Russian, Filipino and Estonian. It is a really good crew. Everyone seems to be getting along and there is karaoke almost every evening as you might expect with fifteen Filipinos onboard. SeaLand is the charterer and therefore responsible for the cargo onboard. The owner of the ship is a German ship management company called Reederei F. Laeisz GmbH and I am absolutely grateful to both SeaLand and F. Laeisz for accepting my passage onboard for this vital leg of the Saga. This particular day was spent entirely at sea with no sight of land in any direction. At 5:45pm we all met on the bridge for a group photo.
Surrounded by great men! The crew of the good ship "Pontresina".
May 7th 2019 – Tuesday
My alarm went off at 07:20, I got dressed and headed down for breakfast. Apparently we were making good time because we were moving ahead really slow. If the ship moves ahead at slow pace for a prolonged period then it can stress the engine. At the same time the faster you go the more bunker (fuel) you consume. So the economical and environmentally friendly thing to do is to move forward at a speed in between. However we went super environmentally friendly. We shut the engine off and drifted for a while. Just imagine that. All that metal carrying all that weight just moving about on the deep blue sea. That is truly something. And so are the seamen onboard. I’ve heard amazing stories. The Chief Engineer was once along side in Aden, Yemen, when war broke out in the early 90s!! Suddenly the ship became safe passage for all sorts of people as they hastily sought refuge at sea. I was also listening to stories from the Electrical Engineer who used to be stationed on Antarctica for a full fourteen months! Stories are plentiful at sea. And lots of good men onboard the good ship. After a while of drifting the engines were started up again and we began to make our way towards the location where the pilot would come onboard (Pilot Station).
The day went on and Vietnam’s coastline appeared on the starboard side (right). Raul who is the ships messman asked if I would come and join a few of them for an evening beer. Of course I would! Four of us sat down and talked about the Saga, about life at sea, about family and about the Philippines. Apart from Raul we were joined by Richard (2nd engineer), Andreas (deck cadet) and Kim who’s an OS (Ordinary Seaman). After enough experience an OS becomes an AB (Able-bodied Seaman). A good ship often comes down to having a good captain onboard. I have not had a lot of opportunity to speak to the captain but I like him and so does the crew. The crew onboard has had a distinct family feel to it which I have not experienced for a very long time Onboard the good ship “Pontresina” the seamen do not only get to work together on several occasions…they even get to have the same cabins when they return (when possible). And as such the ship truly becomes a second home.
May 8th 2019 – Wednesday
My alarm went off at 07:20, I got dressed and headed down for breakfast. The pilot was originally scheduled to come onboard at 06:00am but that was pushed until around 2pm. And the crew told me that it would take about four hours from the point where the pilot came onboard until we would reach Ho Chi Minh City. I had decided to make a timelaps video of coming through the relatively narrow canal which was flanked by green mangrove forest and finally reaching the port. It was quite a sight! While I was very excited about going through the Suez Canal last year the voyage leading up to Ho Chi Minh City was far more interesting with its small fishing boats coming along side and the large cargo vessels passing us in the opposite direction. And in addition the endless green, flat forest on either side. Eventually the weather turned from dry to wet and the hot air outside was soon accompanied by thunder and lightning. We reached Ho Chi Minh City as the sun was setting and were instructed to moor the ship in the canal and wait for further instructions. I felt bad for the crew of which many had already paid for their shore pass. They spoke so fondly of the lively streets which lay just across the road from the port. The shore passes would expire at midnight.
Approaching Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City.
I had packed in anticipation that I would disembark on this day. However it was beginning to look unlikely. Kim (the OS) had supplied me with around fifty movies so my evening went with a few of them as I waited. It got late. At around 11:30pm I went on the bridge and found the Captain and 3rd mate of there. It had been a long day for them and it wasn’t over. I asked if there was news and one of them mumbled: “we are standing by”. I said goodnight and decided to get some sleep. However around midnight the Captain announced over the speakers that the crew should stand by. And eventually the engine came on and the ship began shaking. Another late night for a crew at sea. Business as usual. I tried to sleep.
I'm pretty happy with this one. It is a snapshot from timelapse video I did. Hope to release it soonish...
May 9th 2019 – Thursday
I woke up at 06:33am as the phone rang! It was John, the 3rd officer, calling to say that the agent was onboard and ready to take me. That was a short night! I woke up several times during cargo operations. No breakfast for me. I told John I’d be down with my luggage after ten minutes. And I was. John and the agent greeted me. Five minutes later I was saying farewell to Captain Alexander Sachkov for safely bringing me across the deep blue. A highly competent captain with a competent crew. As I was fairly tired I accidentally called John “Paul” with full confidence. He did not correct me and I only realized my mistake when I was heading down the gangway. Sorry John. But in my defense I love the Beatles ;) And this is where my entry will come to an end. We reached Vietnam in an implausible fashion within a highly implausible journey. And yet here we are. I first visited Vietnam as a backpacker in fifteen years ago and am happy to be back. However even more happy about the kind and gracious support offered to the Saga for this voyage. Thank you Reederei F. Laeisz, thank you SeaLand and thank you Maersk. Let’s keep on keeping on!
And as always I wish the crew: Fair winds and following seas!
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - always tired. However tired and accomplished ;)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga