“Kota Nebula” – passenger no. 1 (containership travel)
Day 2,185 since October 10th 2013: 188 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).
Life as a passenger on board a container ship
The good ship “Kota Nebula” became the 21st container ship which I have fared on board as a passenger within the Saga. And I’ve written quite a lot about life on board throughout the years. However since it has been a while and people keep asking…let’s do it again ;)
Let’s continue from where I left you a few weeks ago. We had raced (a considerable distance) against the clock in order to make it to Jakarta on time and apply for the Papua New Guinea (PNG) visa on time. PNG is among the few last countries which require a visa in advance from a Danish, Dane from Denmark. At least of the kind which must be obtained at the embassy. And PNG is another example of why surface travel is harder than flying since PNG offers visa on arrival to those who fly…but not to those who arrive by sea. It is furthermore another example of how the otherwise strong Danish passport is weakened for those who do not fly. I applied on time and picked my visa up four days later. So far so good. While I waited for the visa I had been informed that the good ship “Kota Nebula” (which I think is a super cool name for a vessel), was going to reach Surabaya port a few days later than estimated. container ships follow a fixed schedule which is comparable to how a city bus operates. They go round and round and call the same ports over and over again. For that reason it is in most cases known exactly when the ship will arrive long in advance. And yet delays occur. It may not be possible for a ship to come along side at a port if another ship hasn’t yet left. A storm can cause several types of delay. For one a storm can make it necessary for a ship to reroute, slow down or cast anchor. A storm can also make it impossible for the cranes at a port to operate due to high winds. In my experience the ships themselves are rarely the cause for delay. It is usually something external.
In Jakarta I was fortunate to meet with Chancil Chan (in front) who is a brilliant artist and kind Indonesian, and with Gustav Rosted from Denmark who's been to 126 countries in the past seven years and is chasing them all. Both really interesting people in completely different ways :)
Roughly 215 people have reached every country in the world. They all flew at some point to achieve that goal. At foresee that number rising for several reasons. It is definitely getting easier to reach every country as long as you fly. Reaching every country without flying is getting harder every day and it might become literally impossible in the future. September 11th 2001 changed many things for many lives. The terror attack on New York’s World Trade Center generated a lot of change to security regulations worldwide. Port security at most industrial ports has been lifted to a level where it is no longer possible to enter without a permit. And even if you could enter the port it would not be able to come on board a ship without a valid reason. And even if you could come on board the only person who could give you permission to travel with the ship would be the captain. And while the captain could technically give you permission as the master of the ship, he most certainly would not! He would want such directives to come from the company. So you would need to reach out to the company and now you need to deal with incentive. But we will get back to that later. Now we are taking security and you simply shouldn’t be able to a) get inside the port, b) get on board the ship, or c) get near the captain. Furthermore some ports will not accept a passenger to disembark from a ship. This problem set the Saga back with more than a month in Beirut (2017). If you are a seaman then you have an education, you have the required certificates, training and a seaman’s-book. In this case the ships agent can arrange for you to disembark the ship (often to reach the airport and return home). However immigration police might become suspicious of a passenger arriving on board a container ship. And it is much easier in life to say no than yes, so that is often the outcome when something out of the ordinary happens. And it is definitely out of the ordinary for passengers to travel on board container ships.
Having made the twelve hour train ride from Jakarta to Surabaya I checked into a hostel and got ready for the ship to arrive. I managed to catch a few movies in the cinema which was high quality and low price. The Hollywood blockbusters went for only $2.50 USD. The same movies would have run me six times as much in a cinema in Denmark.
I love Indonesia. South East Asia in general is home to several of my favorite countries. However Indonesia can also drive you mad. Much which should be possible is not…and much which should not be possible is. In order to make things run smooth the word “candy” comes up now and again. If you offer “candy” then everything is possible. I’m proud to say that we have reached 187 countries within Once Upon A Saga without indulging in any form of corruption. Not a single bribe has been paid out at any point. The day after I applied for the PNG visa, while my passport was still at the embassy, I received notice that I might not be let on board the ship if I did not have the type 211 visa for Indonesia. With my Danish passport I am offered a cost free ‘visa exemption” stamp when I enter the country. A type 211 visa must be specifically applied for. The preliminary information was that immigration would not allow me to embark the ship without that visa. Something which I have found peculiar since I first came across it. I can to some degree understand how immigration would want to prevent a passenger from disembarking a ship and entering a country…but why the heck would they try to prevent me from leaving the country? Shouldn’t immigration be happy to see foreigners leave? Isn’t it pretty much their job to process exactly that? It becomes even more perplexing to me why immigration would prevent anyone from boarding a ship, on which the passenger is welcome? Now what if I wanted to swim home from Indonesia? Or if I wanted to paddle back to Denmark from Indonesia? Wouldn’t immigration need to process my papers and stamp me out of Indonesia before I did so? Is how I leave a country not my choice? Well, bureaucrazy has been on the menu for many years and bureaucrats can get away with anything in this world as long as they make use of one little word: safety.
My entry stamp (Indonesia).
Now, as if in a Christopher Nolan movie, let’s jump back in time to when the Saga had reached another of my favorite countries: Singapore. That means June 2019 which isn’t all that long ago. However back then I decided to prolong my stay with an additional week in order to set up a few additional meetings. One of those meetings was with the general manager of Pacific International Line’s fleet division, Captain RS Minhas. He’s a good guy and we soon got talking about how Pacific International Line (PIL) could help the Saga get around in the pacific. PIL is the world’s 10th largest container ship operator and one of the largest ship-owners in South East Asia. As such they own and operate around 160 vessels and offers services in more than 500 locations in 100 countries around the world. I had a good time in Singapore with Captain Minhas, his staff and everyone whom I met while there. “Kota Nebula” is owned and operated by PIL and it did not take the fleet division long to coordinate with PIL’s local agent in Surabaya. I soon received an email with information regarding my visa issue being solved and that I was expected on board. The motto of PIL is by the way: “Our Promise, Your Satisfaction”. Yes indeed it is :)
Amazing welcome by Captain Zay Maung Maung Aung (right) and Chief Officer Zaw Zaw Han who made the welcome sign (left).
I was warmly welcomed on board the ship as the Captain and Chief Officer both greeted me with a huge welcome sign, handshakes and a photo session. Wow! That was a first. And shortly thereafter I was shown to my cabin which was on F deck just below the bridge and on the same deck as the Captain. A week does not pass without someone asking me if they can travel on board a container ship, if I can help them or how I get to do it? And frankly I have long ago written down a reply which I copy/paste and it is not very encouraging. As I promised earlier I would get back to the topic of incentive. Now first of all I should mention that a few shipping companies offer that passengers can buy a ticket and schedule themselves to travel on board a container ship. I have no experience with this but from what I understand it is for certain routes during certain times of the year and it costs a lot more than it would to fly. It is truly only a few companies that offer this service in comparison to the many ship operators which would do no such thing. In most cases I am told by seamen that they have never before experienced having a passenger on board. In the few cases where someone has experienced it, it has been an officer’s wife, an office trainee or perhaps a journalist. My official tittle or label on board is ‘supernumerary’ and I do not work on board. I don’t even think I am permitted to work on board as I do not have the required training, insurance, certificates etc. I am strictly the only one on board who does not play any role on the ship. In other words I’m not necessary.
So how does a passenger get to come on board? Well I believe it comes down to incentive. Here are some reasons why the company would turn your request down: it’s extra paperwork, insurance, lack of cabin space, you could be sick on board, you could bring a decease on board, you could be annoying, you could be demanding, you could break something, you could fall overboard etc. If the ship calls a port where the immigration police somehow sees a passenger as a threat (or inconvenience) then that can also cause difficulties or problems for the ship. Now see if you can think of any reason why the company should allow you to come on board? What can you offer the company which they want or need? If your answer to that is “nothing” then you are in line with 99.99% of everyone else who wants to board a container ship as a passenger. There is hardly any incentive which you can offer a company. Think of it as walking into an office in the middle of a city and ask if you can sleep there for a few days. That is basically what you are doing when you request traveling on board a container ship. If you think you could offer money then consider that the shipping industry is big business and the fee for a midsize ship to pass through the Suez Canal is around $500,000 USD. So how much money do you think you would need to offer a shipping company before it generates enough incentive? And on top of all of this I can once again say that it is a lot easier to say no than yes. Everyone is busy. Your request to travel on board a container ship is just more work for whoever receives the request.
The staircase is a vivid memory from any container ship I have been on board. There were 85 steps between my cabin on F deck and the the laundry room on upper deck. 70 steps between my cabin and the dinning room on A deck and an additional 14 steps from my cabin to the bridge. I know. I've counted ;)
What kind of incentive can I bring since I’ve done it so often? Well there are numerous answers to that and they are not always the same. First of all I have taken an enormous challenge upon myself in trying to reach every country in the world, in an unbroken journey, completely without flying, for the first time in history. I’m not on a holiday, a gap year or anything of the sort. Taking part in Once Upon A Saga is taking part of the creation of history. That does sound quite grandiose but it is nonetheless incentive. In addition to that there are the values of the Saga which within themselves can motivate a collaboration (inspiration, education, entertainment). Social media plays a role too, however I’m not by any means convinced that the social media of the Saga is large enough to make any real difference. However it should be clear to most people that if you have 200 followers on Facebook then nobody cares and if you have 200 million followers then you have a bargaining chip. Now it cannot be ruled out that my status as a goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross has weighed in on the decision of some companies to let me on board as a passenger. However it is not something I use to bargain my way on board. I do not proclaim that by having me on board the ship a company is helping the Red Cross. In fact I refrain from mentioning my affiliation with the Red Cross as I want to protect the movements name and not tarnish it for “favors”. Yet the information on what I do and have done to further the visibility of the humanitarian work is publicly available and can easily have influenced the decision to grant me access once or twice. Finally I have a lot of reference. First of all I have throughout the Saga been able to generate an enormous network within several shipping companies. Moreover I can today say that I have experience as a passenger from more than twenty ships, I can reference companies which have assisted in the past and prove that I know how to behave on board. Incentive.
The ships adhere to a mountain of regulations, laws and guidelines. Safety has a very high priority and the environment is protected. In fact the industry is striving towards delivering a carbon neutral future. I've never observed a seaman throwing anything into the ocean. There are bins for every type of waste. Both safety and the protection of environment is taken seriously.
Life on board a container ship is often far from the romantic notions people they carry. Life on board for the seamen boils down to routine: work, meals, sleep, recreation, repeat. These guys are not on board for the sake of fun. They work under conditions which most people would do their best to avoid. Not only are you away from home for long periods at a time but you are also bound to a highly restricted area. The ship spends most its time at sea at which point there is obviously no leaving it. And the days of having a woman in every port is also mostly a thing of the past. There simply often isn’t any time to leave the ship while alongside. Being alongside at a port is super expensive so the name of the game is to get in and out as fast as possible. And the activity is at its greatest: maneuvering in and out, pilot comes on board, pilot disembarks, customs, immigration, police, stevedores, offloading, loading, cranes, spare parts, all sorts of paperwork, coordinating with the agent, crew change…cargo operations rarely take more than 24 hours in most ports and most hands are needed. And most ports today are located far from the city so even if you could leave for a few hours then you might need to go far to make it worthwhile. So life on board is sometimes referenced as “the blue cage” which can be a hard life born out of necessity, while for others it is the best possible life and a dream come true. Blessing or a curse? There are those who were simply born to live a life at sea :)
There is rarely anything to see at sea. Water and the horizon is mostly it. It is beautiful though but doesn't keep my attention for long.
Now, unfortunately there is something, which life at sea affects…no matter who you are. As you are away from home for months at the time without the possibility of returning home, you are definitely going to lose out on many aspects of life. You may try to plan being home for the holidays or other important family events – but a ship can easily get delayed and you may miss out. Lots of seamen have missed out on being there when their wife gave birth, lots of first steps and first words have been missed, lots of friends in need have been let down, huge chunks of those moments in life which matter the most have been lost to the sea. That is the life and what can you do about it. I myself can relate to losing out and not being there for those of my friends who need a hug and not a skype conversation. I lost out last week. My father got married…and I was not there. The Saga was never supposed to have taken this long. I was supposed to have been home years ago. However there are still countries left and the Saga has not been completed. It is with great regret that I was not there to celebrate my father get married. Within my forty years on this planet it has never happened before and will never happen again. I am very happy for my father and his wife. I am very happy that so many people were there to celebrate them and share that special moment with them. Who am I to complain about missing out when I am on board a ship full of men who have a life where they miss out over and over again. And yet…it hurts. How much must it hurt not to be there for….well fill in the gap. The men at sea have experienced loss of every kind.
The beautiful bride and my father the groom. They have been living together for 25 years. Now husband and wife! :)
Some are on board for 3-4 months while others are on board for 10+ months. It all depends on rank, contracts and companies. “Kota Nebula” had 24 men on board including myself. We were a melting pot of five nationalities: Chinese, Indian, Myanmar, Indonesian and Danish. A good crew on board a good ship which was built in China in 2010. Among seamen ships built in Europe seem to be favored while Korean built ships are second followed by the rest. It seems to be a matter of quality. The good ship “Kota Nebula” measures 179.7 meters (589.6 feet) and is capable of carrying 1,810 twenty foot containers. So she is actually a small lady all things considered given that there are plenty of ships out there which carry 10,000+ containers! And yet small becomes relative when you consider that she has the capacity to carry 25,985 ton – or the equivalent of 4,331 African elephants.
Of course I watched Aquaman while on board. What else?!? ;)
Life on board for me is always a welcome “vacation” from the 24/7/365 project we call Once Upon A Saga. The Saga has been all consuming for nearly six years now and is hard to escape. And yet when I embark a container ship everything changes. Especially if I have no internet access. These days more and more ships have wifi on board which the seamen can connect to. Often the internet speed is rather slow but with some patience it is possible to access social media and receive/send emails. A while back I was on board a ship which was in the process of installing 4G. It may seem like a necessity in today’s world but it certainly has its downsides too. I will return to that in a bit. This ship did (thankfully) not have wifi on board, which meant that as soon as we left the coast I became disconnected from the world…and the world disconnected from me. I have sometimes been able to keep myself occupied with work for the first 3-4 days: offline emails, editing video, laundry, fixing equipment, cleaning equipment, organizing files, updating lists, offline research etc. But then when there is nothing more I can do, I become free of any obligation and am effectively on “vacation”. I do not play a role on board the ship and nothing is expected of me. I can sleep all day if I want. I can shower when I want to. I can watch as many movies as I please, read a book, stare at the ocean, go to the gym, have a cup of coffee/tea on the bridge, take pictures and occasionally speak with the crew if they have time.
I thought the food on board was great. This was my very first meal (notice the milk).
Meals are served three times a day like clockwork. With several nationalities on board it can be hard to please everyone but I for one found the food to be very good! And I got to drink milk with every meal which was amazing!! Breakfast starts at 7:30am and dinner ends at 6:30pm. If you are hungry outside of the predetermined hours then there is always some bread or soup available. The cook and steward on board were both Indonesian so I got to say thank you after every meal in their local tongue, which is one of the few words I remember in bahasa (terimah kasih). As I’m provided with accommodation on board, three meals a day and the knowledge of that I am moving in the direction I need to go, no matter what I do, I can relax. Everyone on board was super kind to me and I truly felt welcome on board. During my first day and a half on board I mostly slept. I slept so much during the daytime that I worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night – but it was no problem at all. I got into the rhythm of having breakfast at 8am, lunch at midday and dinner at 6pm. That brought stability and a fixed routine into my life and my body quickly adjusted to it. After a few days on board I began to feel less tired. I didn’t have much work I could do offline so my time was mostly spent watching movies, series and reading. The bridge is my favorite place to be on board a ship. It is calm, there’s usually a great view and it’s a centre of information. There is always an officer present on the bridge and if he has time then there is often a foundation for a good conversation. I write ‘he’ as I have yet to come across a female officer and in general I rarely see any women on board while it has happened once or twice. Life at sea is still a man’s world.
The amazing crew of the good ship "Kota Nebula"!! :)
Let’s get a few terms right. At sea ‘left’ is known as ‘port’ and ‘right’ is known as ‘starboard’. If the waves, swell or wind has the ship rocking in a motion from port to starboard then it is called ‘rolling’. If the ship is “rolling” from front to back then it is known as ‘pitching’. I generally do not suffer from motion sickness on board these large vessels and the weather is furthermore usually calm. However if the ship is both rolling and pitching at the same time then I may become slightly uncomfortable and go to bed. For the ten days I spent on board the ocean was mostly flat as a pancake apart from the last night which had me walking into the wall a few times as I lost my footing :)
DB Schenker in Denmark has done it again!! Over the years they have successfully help out with several courier shipments. The latest is this of my brand new OUAS phone cover from the OUAS shop to Port Moresby, PNG. If you haven't seen the shop yet then you can find it HERE or by clicking on the image :)
Life on board is not what it once was. With my forty years of age 2/3 of the seamen on board were younger than me and might not have known anything else than what life on board is like today. However when you speak to the older guys then you will find them singing the same song: life on board used to be far more social than what it is today. In my opinion the great disruption in social life on board was when laptops became cheap enough for anyone to own one. So probably around the late 90s. From what I’ve been told, back in the day seamen used to sit down together, play games, have a drink and talk about family, life, work or anything else which came to mind. Or they would hang out in the recreation room and watch a movie together. Alcohol is now banned from most ships and with the introduction of the affordable laptop everyone retreats to their cabin, closes the door and the recreation rooms are deserted. Coming back to the subject of wifi on board ships it is evident that the social life will suffer further. When the seamen have wifi they end up looking into their devices just like any other zombie on earth. I think it is a shame. But before you judge think about yourself and those around you. What does an evening look like in your family? Board games or tablets? Fortunately “Kota Nebula” did not have wifi on board so I was not distracted by that. It seems to me that there are still people out there who think I’m online all the time? The “secret” is that I’m able to schedule posts on both Facebook and Instagram so that there is new content everyday ;)
Approaching Darwin Port in Northern Australia.
The good ship had a stop on route in Darwin, Australia. We were alongside long enough for me to leave the ship and pay a visit to the seaman’s club (seafarers centre) which is located inside the port area. It was Sunday so there was no staff present but the doors are always open, the air-condition was on and there was access to a good wifi connection. The place was completely overrun by Australian soldiers who were either sleeping or on their devices. Outside some 35-40 military vehicles were neatly parked and waiting to be shipped out. I wonder where those boys are off to? While I was definitely in Australia for several hours I do not count that as a visit within the Saga for two simple reasons: 1) I did not spend 24 hours in Australia and 2) I was not attempting to spend 24 hours in Australia. Australia is set to become country number 201 early next year. This was pure transit. And yet I had a huge smile on my face walking about in the port knowing that it was Australia. There was great satisfaction knowing that we have come this far.
Darwin Port was quiet apart from us. It was Sunday.
And yet the crane operator and everyone else worked through the night. Being along side is expensive and time is money.
What’s on board a container ship? Well…I’m not sleeping inside a container as a journalist once suggested. Everyone has their own cabin with a window, bed, table, toilet and bathroom. I even had a sofa and a closet. I’ve been on the topic of showering on board container ships before. I’ve said that I felt it was the only place where I could have an hour long shower without feeling any guilt towards the environment. The ship desalinates water from the ocean and heats it up. However I’ve been corrected somewhat in regards to how neutral it is. What I can say for sure is that the ship desalinates water from the ocean so the water is not being drawn from the freshwater sources which already exists on our planet. And the water is being heated by a boiler which is being heated by excess heat living the stack (as the chimney is called on a ship). So the heat is there any way as long as the ship is moving and the water is plentiful as the ocean is huge. Have you ever heard about the seven seas? Well there is in fact only one ;) Right, so a great deal of energy obviously goes into desalinating water so that is not neutral to the environment. However I’d still argue that it’s pretty good. Okay – so the ship has accommodation for everyone on board, a crew’s recreation room and an officer’s recreation room, a hospital (clinic), a crews dining room and an officers dining room, a galley (kitchen), a ships office, a laundry room and a gym. The separation of crew and officers seems to be a remnant of the past but ships are still built with it. Since both recreational rooms are often empty a ship might be able to do with one and many new ships have combined the dining space. Some argue that the separation is due to the different levels of cleanliness due to separate jobs (officers stay clean while crew gets oil, rust, paint etc. on their boiler suits. Many ships have a pool but they are often not in use. Some ships even have a sauna on board.
My cabin was simple but good. And had everything I needed.
As I have been on a great deal of container ships I’m no longer interested in a full tour. I have long ago worked out that I feel more comfortable on the bridge where it’s clean, quiet and full of navigational equipment, than being in the engine room where there’s oil, it’s noisy, hot and I hardly know what I’m looking at. I do not have a great understanding for mechanics and doubt that it will ever change. I barely understand how a car works – but I can drive one. For the same reason I mostly got to speak to the chief officer (Myanmar), 2nd officer (India), 3rd officer (Myanmar) and deck cadet (India). And I didn’t mingle much with the engineers or crew apart from kind greetings in passing. Captain Zay Maung Maung Aung (Myanmar) was very kind and welcoming. Unfortunately I did not have the pleasure of getting into any deep conversations with him and to be fair I did spend a lot of time in my cabin on my own. There is a blessing in being offline. While reading and watching movies/series I stumbled upon several English words of which I did not understand the meaning: semaphore, paragon, syllabus, perennially, self-flagellate, antithetical and despondent were some of them. In 2019 you can often just google the stuff you do not know and have an answer immediately. However when offline you get to write stuff down or train your memory.
Looking forward from the bridge.
I really enjoyed the kindness from everyone on board. While I spent most time speaking to the officers on watch I did have several memorable encounters with many others on board and in my humble opinion the seamen on board seemed to be thriving and in harmony. The weather was calm until the very last night. The sea is almost always calm and whatever little wind or small waves I’ve ever encountered have been no match for the huge ships I’ve been honored to be a part of for a brief moment. However on the last night the winds picked up and reached speeds of up to 35 knots which categorizes as gale. In comparison 22-27 knots categorizes as strong breeze while 48-55 is storm. It wasn’t very rough but at times I would lose foothold and run into a wall. And I did feel a pressure developing behind my eyes which are among my first symptoms of seasickness. I was however fine and went to bed. Once I fell asleep I didn’t wake up again until the alarm went off.
First glimpse of PNG! What a beautiful country!!
It was with some degree of sadness that I had to leave the ship in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. I’m thankful to PIL, the Captain and the brave seamen for having me on board and treating me so well. Alas everything must come to an end at I was of course also very happy to have reached PNG which as of October 4th 2019 became country number 188 in an unbroken journey completely without flying. That leaves us with fifteen more countries to go. But first let’s see what PNG is all about.
I wish all the seamen on board the good ship “Kota Nebula” fair winds and following seas.
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Thankful to more than I can mention.
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Once Upon A Saga