MV “Kota Hakim” – passenger no. 1 (reaching Marshall Islands the hard way)
Day 2,272 since October 10th 2013: 193 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).
Heading into open sea – again
The Saga benefits greatly from the support of some of the world’s largest companies and organizations. One of them is Pacific International Lines Pte Ltd (PIL), whom we made friends with in Singapore earlier this year. The good ship “Kota Hakim” became our 24th voyage onboard a containership and the second in PIL’s large fleet.
Day ONE onboard – Dec. 21st 2019
I was close to my breaking point the night before boarding this fine ship. The day I boarded was not much better. The Saga was after six years of perpetual movement down to its final eleven countries with an estimated six months left. Planning had begun in regards to reaching the final country, press conference, press release, reunion, accommodation at W luxury resort and much, much more. I could almost see my friends and family welcoming me home. I could almost see the bed in which I would be waking up in next to my fiancée. In 2013 when I left home, the Saga was estimated to be completed within three and a half to four years. On October 10th 2019 we had already reached six years in the world. Much of it rather miserable, stressful and lonely. However undoubtedly sprinkled with unique accounts, new friendships and experiences you couldn’t pay for even if you wanted to. On the evening of December 20th I received an email with updated sailing schedules, vessel names, ports of call and the timeline. It was a devastating read. Instead of reaching the Maldives around May/June 2020 I was looking at returning to Fiji on August 9th 2020 with another five countries left to visit (Tuvalu, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka and Maldives). When would this perennial journey come to an end? When would enough be enough? Which straw would break the camel’s back?
The good ship "Kota Hakim" at Suva, Fiji.
Although I do not fill the Saga’s social media with beautiful temples, sunsets and half naked photos it is still a rather upbeat media which doesn’t completely picture reality. Reality is moreover available here in the blog. And yet the blogs are not even as gloomy as reality can be within this project. The social media mostly features smiles and positive stories which could easily mislead people to think that I am having the time of my life and do not portray the reality, in which I identify much with Bilbo Baggin’s (J.R.R. Tolkien’s) great quote: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” For years there hasn’t been a day where the thought of packing up and heading home did not enter my mind (some days more than others). There is no doubt that having come this far, in a historical attempt to reach every country completely without flying, has been exceedingly fruitful in many ways. I have developed enormously on a personal level and a great number of people around the world have felt joy, enlightenment, been motivated and inspired. However who would truly notice if I packed up and went home? That is the battle within: achieve or cave in? What is the price and is it worth it? All too often I hear people say “don’t give up you are almost there”. It is true in many ways however a lot easier said than done. Imagine a prisoner on his sixth year behind bars getting ready to enjoy freedom. Now imagine him being told he needs to do another six months. Would that “just be another six months” to him? Surely not. But less dramatically you could also imagine a student having studied hard for four years getting ready for the final exam. Unfortunately regulations change and the student is told that another year of studying is required in order to pass. Just another year? I think not. Or the worker who has been looking forward to the weekend and has made plans with family…do I really need to finish this one or did you get the point? I’m sure you did.
I would much rather be back home in Denmark with a 9-5 job, paying bills and sleeping in my bed than doing what I am doing. And what I am doing is not as glamorous as it apparently seems to be for many. So what was I to do? Suck it up and keep on keeping on…or say enough is enough. We got this far and that is as far as we got? Well nobody ever achieved anything by quitting so the Saga obviously has to continue and so it does. On December 21st we managed to shave a few months off the new timeline placing me back in Fiji by May 10th instead of August 9th (but with a built in sacrifice). So why the delay to begin with? Well we have always known that the Pacific is a gigantic area and that we would have to cross great distances. The new element is first of all that the vessels that serve the small island nations are smaller, have smaller engines and sail slower. Furthermore the frequency that the vessels call the countries is lower than anticipated. Finally the route is rarely A to B. In many cases I will be forced to travel A to B to C to D to E to F which is far more time consuming. The sacrifice I will suffer by saving time is on one hand that I will spend little more than 24 hours in several upcoming countries. And on the other hand I will be spending considerably more time on ships than on land all together. Now look at those two hands, slowly lead them towards your face and close your eyes.
I was given the Pilot cabin. And that is worth a smile.
It is worthwhile to notice that this would not at all be possible without all the support we are seeing from great shipping companies such as Pacific International Lines (PIL), Swire/CNCo, Neptune Pacific Lines, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) and Maersk. I’m especially grateful to Captain R.S. Minhas at PIL in Singapore and his fabulous team: Harold Zhang, Tracy Gao, Zaki Ibrahim and everyone at Team 4!! Without their support I would still be in Fiji. On this day, December 21st, I had a lot of support from the Saga’s social media which boasts a very loyal community. I received lots of love from family and friends with whom I managed to do video calls with. PIL’s agent in Suva picked me up at the Colonial Hostel and brought me to the ship, where I was greeted welcome by the officers, provided with dinner and then got settled in the Pilot cabin. I managed to talk about opportunities and logistics with the Captain and 1st mate and we agreed it would be good if I stayed on board all the way to Hong Kong. Did he just write Hong Kong?!? Yes I did! Because ‘Kota Hakim” would first call Lautoka (Fiji), then Marshall Islands (country no 193), then Micronesia (country no 194), then Nansha (China) and finally reach Hong Kong from where I could catch another vessel to Palau (195). Furthermore the officers confirmed that the layover time in both Marshall Islands and Micronesia would be more than 24 hours. So we had a plan. Cargo operations continued throughout the night as I adjusted to the idea of getting home much later…
Day TWO onboard – Dec. 22nd 2019
The day started at 07:00am when my alarm rang. I washed my face, got dressed and headed down for breakfast which I had alone. We had left Suva at 06:00am as per schedule and everyone was busy at work. As a Danish logistician I must say I like that kind of accuracy. Heading up and down the staircase I noticed that my knee was finally fine. No insecurity, no strange feeling and no pain. Full support. Good stuff! That took its time! I had my tumble in Nauru on December 5th and figured I would have been back to normal after only a few days – but it took 17 days. The air conditioning was effective on board the good ship “Kota Hakim”. That is not the case for all ships and a delight when you are in a tropical climate. However it did mean I had to put on my fleece. We were close enough to land for me to have a signal and thus 4G internet. Such amazing support across social media! At noon I had lunch which coincided with Captain Xianggang Xu who was Chinese and mastered his chopsticks to perfection. I was fitted with a knife and fork. He told me that we would have to cast anchor at Lautoka as the berth was not available. In my experience delays within transportation are rarely caused due to the ships but mainly because of surrounding factors. How long would we be waiting at anchorage? There were two ships ahead of us.
We spent all night at anchorage and with my 4G network I could do video calls with people back home. It was good to see and talk with them. The entire “extra six months in the world” prospects were not agreeing with me at all. And yet my mind was already settling upon it…slowly. Adaptability has always been a strong suit for me but there are certainly limitations. Although it probably doesn’t make any sense I felt like that I could deal with a delay as long as it did not mean yet another birthday, Christmas and New Year within the Saga. So ten more months were manageable in my head but twelve were not. The twelve hour time distance between Fiji and Denmark meant that my last video call ended very late at night…
Day TREE onboard – Dec. 23rd 2019
As the alarm rang at 07:00am I switched it off and went back to sleep…
I woke up around 10:00am. We were still at anchorage. I had lunch at noon and got some online work done. I still had plenty of data. Fiji is great like that! The endless stream of emails, WhatsApp messages, coordination and planning requires internet and a high speed internet connection at low costs is not to be underestimated when it comes to getting stuff done. Around 4:00pm we were alongside at Lautoka port and the gangway had been installed. I walked down it along with the pilot who helped me with directions to the nearest shop. Soon I was walking past port security and made a left turn on the main road. Ten minutes later I was deep inside “the sugar capital of Fiji”. Sugarcane fields took place of the cotton plantations in Fiji, which Americans and Australian settlers had planted in the mid 18-hundreds. Did you know that measles originally spread from Sydney to Fiji? The measles epidemic of 1875 killed over 40,000 Fijians during British control in Fiji.
"Kota Hakim" was born in Japan back in 2001 and meassures 159.53m (523ft). Her home is in Singapore where you'll also find the HQ of PIL.
Well…the world keeps changing. Lautoka looked like a ‘happening place’ and was all set for Christmas. Lots of people were shopping and laud music was playing in the streets. I stocked up on peanuts as I have been craving such on the last voyage without being able to get any. I also bought three cans of SolTuna chilli tuna, a deodorant, 8 x AAA batteries for the GPS transmitter and two disposable razor blades. Then I was all set and returned to the ship. Throughout the day I had had some interesting conversations with 2nd officer Kalpesh Choudhary and 3rd officer Bhavesh Pratab Singh who were both from India. Incredible India. Cargo operations continued late into the night. I thought they were coming to an end around midnight and did my best to use up the remaining internet data through more calls with friends back home. At 03:00am my eye lids were so heavy that I had to cave in and go to sleep.
Day FOUR onboard – Dec. 24th 2019
Around 05:00am there was a call. I got out of bed to answer it and someone was saying something and I didn’t really understand the message. But soon it became clear that the person was trying to reach the deck cadet who used to have the Pilot’s cabin. I went back to sleep.
My phone had run out of battery so there was nothing to wake me up. My cabin was dark from the curtains which blocked out the sun. The ship was rolling from side to side so we had to be at sea? I turned on the lights and looked at the clock on my wall: 12:30pm. Hmmm…
We had left Lautoka at 07:00am. I washed my face and made my way down to the galley where a smiling Chief cook (India) and steward (Indonesia) served me lunch. Then I headed up to the bridge where I found Captain Xu and 2nd mate Choudhary at work. Somehow we ended up talking about whether Tom Cruise (USA) or Sharuk Kahn (India) was the more famous actor in the world. The ship was rolling quite a bit. Much more than any other ship I had been on during calm sea. Every ship has its own “personality”. While “Kota Hakim” offered a pleasing temperature on board and very little vibration she did have a design which made her roll easily. 4-5 degrees to each side is nothing but Choudhary could tell me that between Solomon Islands and Fiji they had been rolling 20-25 degrees to each side. That is quite considerable and makes life on board difficult. Apparently seamen do get seasick? I sort of thought that they were all hard-core Neptunian warriors but both Captain Xu and Choudhary could tell me that it was far from the case. It all depends on the individual and how the ship is moving. I personally know that I am very little bothered by rolling (side to side) and pitching (front to back). However the combination of the two can be devastating for most – even a seaman. If I’m dehydrated, physically tired, sleepy and hungry then it is a disaster waiting to happen so I always ensure that I am well fed, well hydrated and get enough sleep while on board.
The excellent Captain Xu is seen on the far right and the kind 3rd mate Singh to the left :)
December 24th is considered Christmas in Denmark. The 25th is generally just the day after. On the 24th families will get together for a special home cooked meal, the fine service has been set on the table and colourful gift wrapped presents glitter in the light beneath the beautifully decorated tree. After the meal the evening continues at the tree. Everyone will hold hands and form a circle around the tree while dancing and singing. Nothing strange at all about that. Why would you not cut down a perfectly healthy tree, bring it inside, decorate it, light candles on it and dance around it at night? That is almost the definition of sanity ;) The tradition originated in Germany some 200 years ago and spread like wildfire. After the dancing and singing the gifts are pulled out from under the tree and handed out (ideally) to everyone’s joy. I shared this evening with 24 brave seamen from five different nations: 8 Indians, 7 Indonesians, 5 Burmese, 3 Chinese and 1 Ukrainian. Amazing people but not the kind that celebrate Christmas. Well except for the Ukrainian and I :) The Chief Officer, Volodymyr Zheleznyak, was from Odessa in Ukraine. They celebrate Christmas on January 7th.
Day FIVE onboard – Dec. 25th 2019
The alarm rang at 07:00am and I got up, did 35 push-ups, washed my face and headed down for breakfast. Before coming on board I had created a new set of rules for myself while on board. No movies or series before noon and stick to a 07:00am wakeup and 11pm bedtime. The idea was to spend the morning hours on reading, working, exercise and preparation. Some vessels from the past have been regular “movie festivals” for me in order to pass time. I’m fine with that except that I would really like to do more reading and have set sleeping hours.
The morning offered some cultural exchange between the Captain, the 3rd mate, the deck cadet and I. Tea!! As Captain Xu found out that I like tea he decided to share his own stash with us. He had three small bowls for drinking along with a small pot. A travellers set I suppose. In a very casual manner he followed the traditional way of pouring boiling water into the teapot which contained the tea leaves. He then immediately poured the water/tea into the three small bowls. An act of rinsing them. Next step was to refill the teapot once more with hot water and leave it for a few minutes. When the tea was ready he poured it into the three small bowls (shot glass size), which would perpetually be refilled by the Captain every time we finished them.
Even todays modern officers know how to use a sextant although its function has been replaced by technology.
It frequently happens that people assume I simply go from one country to the next based on opportunity. In reality the order we have visited all of these countries was planned back in 2013 and there has overall been very little deviation. I’d say that roughly 90% of the countries we have been to have been visited in the order laid out before leaving home. The Pacific is however a completely different animal. After embarking on a collaboration with PIL and Swire Shipping in Singapore the order changed. With their expertise on the shipping routes, frequencies and general availability a plan formed. It was then changed and formed two or three times more to what we have today. We aim to reach the remaining eleven countries in this order: 193) Marshall Islands, 194) Micronesia, 195) Palau, 196) Vanuatu, 197) Tonga, 198) Samoa, 199) Tuvalu, 200) New Zealand, 201) Australia, 202) Sri Lanka, 203) Maldives. However there are several of those countries which we cannot reach directly so we will be returning to Taiwan and Singapore and we will be paying visits to Hong Kong and New Caledonia along the way. Between Micronesia and Palau the plan begged that I would head to Hong Kong and transfer to another ship from there. However given recent history of demonstrations in Hong Kong, Captain Xu could inform me that PIL in Singapore were checking with the agent to see if I could disembark the ship there or had to disembark earlier (Marshall Islands or Micronesia). There is never a dull moment.
Creative minds on board. An old sea chart put into good use :)
December 25th is Christmas for a number of countries, At least in the UK and USA which in turn must have spread it to all the former colonies. So on this evening a room was decorated and the BBQ was fired up. Funny in its own right as Christmas for a Dane was the day before, for a Ukrainian it would be in January and for everyone else on board it would not usually be celebrated at all (culture/religion). Who cares?! It was an opportunity to get together and have a small party! And a party it was. The rain poured down and the swell got bigger but beers and Coca Cola were handed out, chicken, lamb and shrimp went on the BBQ, snacks were set on the table, the music was playing and games followed. Such games as the one where you walk in circles around some chairs and need to sit down when the music stops but there are less chairs than people and each round a chair gets removed until only two people are walking around one chair. Who would have thought I’d be celebrating Christmas like that this year :)
Christmas BBQ in the rain. Nothing stops a true seaman!!
A solid deep sea Christmas Party :)
Day SIX onboard – Dec. 26th 2019
Really not much to say. Routine kicks in fast. The weather acted up a bit but nothing out of the usual for the seamen. On some occasions the good ship would roll as much as twenty degrees to one side. Enough for me to pack everything from my desk into the drawer or it would end up on the floor (again). It rained.
Day SEVEN onboard – Dec. 27th 2019
Woke up with the alarm at 07:00am. Set it for 07:30am. Got up at 08:00am, washed my face, got dressed, opened the door, turned right down the hallway, reached the staircase leading up to the bridge and realized for the millionth time that I still wasn’t on board the last vessel. The door to the downward staircase is just opposite from my cabin door and yet I have now turned right and walked to the end of the hallway a countless amount of times. I was on board the last vessel for nearly a month and apparently still thought that I was…at least when my brain was running on autopilot. In my defence being on board various container ships can be a very similar experience. Like traveling by train or by bus. One bus doesn’t differ much from the next. The good ship “Kota Hakim” was still being thrown around a bit. At one point I returned to my cabin and found the phone on the floor along with the chair and my relatively heavy day bag on the far side of the room. I felt more tired than normally although I theoretically had eight hours of sleep the past few nights. However the sleep might not have been good due to the rolling of the vessel. Yet I did not remember waking up because of it? Fortunately I was not dealing with seasickness. The last time I had been seasick was in Papua New Guinea on John’s small boat when we went snorkelling/diving. While writing this my right side was facing the direction the vessel was moving in. I was facing port side (the left of the ship) and had my back to starboard. Every once in a while the vessel would roll so much that my chair along with me would be pushed across the room. Seconds later I would be pushed back to my laptop and continue writing…
Have a look at the horizon.
On this day the ship received an email from PIL in Singapore asking to confirm my plans for moving ahead. The plan was to reach Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Hong Kong on board “Kota Hakim”, then reach Palau from there on board “Kota Hidayah” and reach Taiwan from Palau on board “Kota Harum”. The issue was that “Kota Hidayah” would call two US territories on its way to Palau. Would the Americans accept the vessel arriving with me on board even if I did not leave the ship? Hard to know when you are dealing with the USA. Also “Kota Harum” would call a port in the Philippines before heading to Taiwan. However I felt confident that it would not be an issue for the Philippines as long as I did not disembark. In other news “Kota Hakim’s” eta for Marshall Islands had been pushed to December 29th in the morning instead of December 28th afternoon meaning that cargo operations could run shorter than 24 hrs and be completed within a day. If they did, then I would not have spent the required amount of time within the country, which would lead to considerations of disembarking and waiting TWO WEEKS for the next vessel (“Kota Hening”). Hopefully it would not come to that.
But…oh yes the famous but…in the late afternoon another email ticked in and the kind Captain Xu called me to the bridge. Are dear friends at the USA cannot accept anyone entering US territorial waters without a US visa. In other words I would not be able to board the good ship “Kota Hidayah” without first obtaining the visa. Now what? While in Fiji I submitted an Online Nonimmigrant Visa application (DS-160) and selected the US Embassy in Majuro (Marshall Islands). This was to comply with US regulations for disembarking in Guam when this was still the plan. For traveling through US territory by ship without disembarking the vessel I would be able to get by on a C-1-D visa. Sooo…get off “Kota Hakim” in Marshall Islands and hope for the best with the DS-160 visa while encountering a three week delay, or somehow try to apply for the C-1-D visa before reaching Hong Kong and have the application directed to the US Embassy in Hong Kong?
Captain Xu's noodles. The first time ever a Captain cooked for me :)
For anyone who has been following the Saga closely from the very beginning or perhaps just the past few years it should no longer be a surprise why some 215 people have reached every country in the world but nobody in history has done it completely without flying: it is downright unnecessary complicated and nearly impossible. In times like these I can’t help wonder if I should just head to the nearest airport and find a flight home? Almost everyone who hears about me traveling to every country in the world without flying seems to think that I am on some kind of nonsense vacation or gap year. But tell me this…if we can complete this goal; then which goal could you or anyone else possibly have which cannot be reached? This evening we crossed the equator once more.
Day EIGHT onboard – Dec. 28th 2019
I have been trying out a new function on my phone which gives me a set amount of hours for sleep each night. It tells me when it’s almost 11pm and it gently wakes me up at 07:00am. So far so good. On this day I found it that it is only activated during weekdays and as this day was a Saturday I there was no alarm. I missed breakfast. My day started around 09:00am when I did my 38 push-ups and headed up to the bridge. During the first eight days on board the good ship I had already had countless interesting, amusing, serious, heart-warming, educational and any other type of conversation you could imagine. “Kota Hakim” certainly has a good crew and as I always say: that comes down to having a good captain. Pacific International Lines (PIL) is among the top ten largest shipping companies world wide. Their fleet of more than 160 ships connects the world on a daily basis and provides workplaces for thousands. PIL has great focus on providing a healthy and safe work environment for their employees as well as being at the forefront of environmental requirements. Specifically that is something which is on everybody’s lips now that we are reaching the end of the year. IMO (International Maritime Organization) is imposing new sulphur regulations starting from the beginning of 2020. From January 1st the sulphur content in fuel must be less than 0.5% compared to the previous 3.5%. So that is good news for the environment as this is globally enforced! The regulations for sulphur content have been reduced year by year and the dream would naturally be to get it to a flat zero. However that may be technically difficult.
Left: Chief Officer Zheleznyak - good guy! Right: Deck Cadet Chopra - will make an excellent officer.
A key question which I often receive within the Saga is: how do you pay for all of this? Well, the finances of Once Upon A Saga have been quite a ride and the depths of it all take a while to explain. However in short there have been three main sources of income over the years: 1) Ross DK (financial partner), 2) my personal funds, and 3) donations and contributions. I have been able to write a few articles over the years which has generated a bit of income and the “Saga shop” (which Bob in Uganda runs) also theoretically offers a little income. But it is really the three mentioned sources that keep us afloat. Ross DK is by far the largest financial contributor to the Saga. On a side note Ross DK is on the forefront of developing a market for green and sustainable energy in the form of geothermal activities. And green energy is always welcome. I have depleted my personal funds and taken two loans setting me back some $25,000 USD. However I have recovered about $8,000 USD of that over the years. Your generous contributions come in on a third place within the Saga’s budget and I am grateful for every coin which roles this way. Finally there is a silent kind of “income” which I rarely mention. All these kind shipping companies which make exceptions and go out of their way to accommodate Once Upon A Saga do not do it without a cost to themselves. Sure enough having a passenger on board is no great cost in the big picture of their enormous economy however it is not free for e.g. PIL to have me on board. Apart from the time spent on making arrangements and the food I eat while on board there are also costs to agents in some ports which need to be covered. And I’ve heard that such costs can run as high as $1,000 USD for a single person signing off a vessel! So yeah, when I say this project is a $20/day budget then that is true for four elements: transport, accommodation, meals and visas. However by a recent calculation the overall costs for me have so far been around $26/day. One can only guess what the real costs have been once all the kind gestures and hand-outs are incorporated into the costs?
Day NINE onboard – Dec. 29th 2019
The pilot was on board at 07:00am and the agent swiftly informed that we were expected to finish cargo operations early turning a scheduled 27 hour port stay into just 11 hours. Devastating news for me!! The Saga’s cardinal rules are in place for a reason and the 24 hour minimum would now pose a two week delay to the Saga as I got “stuck” on a Pacific island waiting for the next ship. As such Marshall Islands became the final country of 2019. I don’t know if there is any way I can truly relate to you what an additional two weeks in this project means to me. However I suppose if you got this far then you already read something in the beginning which should give you some idea. Majuro offered 29 degrees Celsius (84 F) and 81% humidity. The forecast for the upcoming nine days showed cloudy/rain. It is typhoon season. There’s a measles outbreak too. I DID NOT WANT TO LEAVE THE SHIP!! However the alternative option would be to leave Marshall Islands behind with a visit less than 24 hours meaning that I had to return at a later point. There was no good reason to stay on board other than that I wanted to. Good Captain, good crew, good ship. I am grateful. However disembarking would offer the required 24 hours along with a good opportunity to get the US visa I had already applied for. This project brings determination and stubbornness to a completely new level. However…happy thoughts…happy thoughts…keep smiling boys. PIL’s next available ship is the good ship “Kota Hening” which will carry us onward and have the plan back on schedule…with a two week delay of course. However that is good news: there is a plan – there is a solution. I’m healthy, no real damage has been done.
I'm overwhelmed by the good character of Captain Xu, his entire crew and the ship itself. I wish them all fair winds and following seas! :)
As this is the last entry of 2019 I thought I would just briefly mention all of that and sum it up in two words: THANK YOU! :)
Now let’s keep on keeping on!!
2013: 36 new countries (2 months)
2014: 30 new countries
2015: 29 new countries
2016: 24 new countries
2017: 20 new countries
2018: 25 new countries
2019: 25 new countries:
176: North Korea
177: South Korea
188: Papua New Guinea
189: Solomon Islands
193: Marshall Islands
(in 2019 we also had to revisit four countries at least twice to make the logistics work).
2020: remaining 10:
200: New Zealand
202: Sri Lanka
203: Maldives (October 2020?)
And we are naturally keeping a close eye on Bougainville in case they go ahead and become the world’s newest country.
Thank you for all your love, support, donations, likes, shares, comments, connections, kindness and anything else has made YOU a part of Once Upon A Saga! Let’s keep on keeping on!! :)
Fair winds and following seas.
If you enjoyed this blog or think I am doing a good job then you can support here below. The Saga needs funding. Thank you :)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - if it was easy then anyone could do it.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga