MV ‘Kota Ratna’ – passenger no. 1 (reaching Palau)
Day 3,025 since October 10th 2013: 195 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic!
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).
Back to the Pacific
We would be going nowhere without the kindness, the dedication, the labour, the ingenuity, the interest, the acceptance and the willingness of strangers all around the world. This is not one man’s accomplishment; this is a collaborative effort.
Friends, fans, followers and family: we have successfully reached Palau making it 195 countries in an unbroken journey completely without flying! We are now eight countries from the goal. And I am looking forward to telling you about Palau. However, this entry will be about the voyage from Hong Kong to Palau onboard the good ship ‘Kota Ratna’ together with her brave crew. A journey of approximately 2,857 nautical miles which is about 5,291km (3,282mi). Now keep in mind that Palau was the closest country to Hong Kong of our remaining ones!! It is a heck of a thing we sat out to do with the Saga back in 2013.
First things first. At sea ‘left’ is known as ‘port’ and ‘right’ is called ‘starboard’. If the waves, the swell or the wind has the ship rocking in a motion from port to starboard then it is called ‘rolling’. If the ship is “rolling” from bow (front) to stern (back) then it is known as ‘pitching’. I generally do not suffer from motion sickness onboard 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. And such it was the first few days until we reached Kaohsiung in Taiwan. But first I had to leave Hong Kong so let’s dial it back a bit to January 5th. I had been in touch with Mr. Keith Leung who’s the boarding officer for Pacific International Lines (PIL) in Hong Kong. It made me happy to hear from him because believe it or not Mr. Keith Leung was the very same man who received me from PIL’s good ship ‘Kota Hening’, when I disembarked in Hong Kong on January 28th 2020. Mr. Keith is arguably the very first Hongkonger I met, of the many which were yet to come. Arrangements were made for a driver to collect me at Mariners Club where I had been living. The driver arrived, disinfected the soles of my shoes and both my hands, and away we went – all the way to the other side of the road where the port was. Yes – it was a rather short drive and soon I stood next to the good ship ‘Kota Ratna’.
‘Ratna’ is Sanskrit for ‘jewel’ and all of PIL’s vessels are called ‘Kota’. ‘Kota’ can mean a few different things depending on where you are from. In Malay ‘Kota’ means city. In Japan the meaning of ‘Kota’ is ‘happiness’. But according to an article commemorating PIL’s 55-years anniversary, the meaning of ‘Kota’ is derived from the Dravidian language family found in India, and it means ‘mountain’ or ‘hill’. As such I joined the good ship “Mountain Jewel” and its brave crew of twenty-three. The day before joining the good ship I tested negative for COVID-19. I have been tested many times since the pandemic broke out and I have only ever tested negative. Hong Kong has been good like that and has managed the pandemic well. It is a requirement to test negative prior to joining PIL’s ships and today you must also be vaccinated. I came onboard with proof of my three jabs including the most recent booster of November 11th 2021. It was a warm welcoming as the two deck cadets had created a welcome banner and received me at the gangway along with the 2nd officer :)
It doesn't get better than this! :)
My temperature was taken and I was quickly shown to my cabin on D-deck just below the bridge. The good ship measures 144m (472ft) and is 22.6m (74ft) wide which, believe it or not, makes her a small container vessel. She can carry 777 TEU (twenty-foot containers) and can carry 13,504 ton – which is as much as 2,250 African elephants. Her keel was laid in Japan back in 1997 and she was delivered the following year, which means she has kept seafarers safe for twenty-five-years. ‘Kota Ratna’ is what’s known as a feeder vessel. The large ships will e.g. carry containers from Europe to Hong Kong and then the smaller feeder vessels will “feed” the containers to smaller ports. The service ‘Kota Ratna’ covers, calls six ports: Hong Kong, Kaohsiung (Taiwan), Guam (USA), Saipan (USA), Yap (FSM), and Koror (Palau), before returning to Hong Kong. It takes about fifteen days from Hong Kong to Koror and then another six days to return, so a roundtrip consists of about three weeks. My cabin was relatively spacious and had more than I needed: shower, toilet, chair, sofa-bench, desk, bed, phone, clock, closet and a window. It was also fitted with an immersion suit and a lifejacket in case of emergency. And there was a hand sanitizer dispenser on my desk since these are pandemical times.
My cabin on D deck.
Ten minutes after I was shown to my cabin, I found myself on the bridge making a video together with Captain S. M. Abbas Zaidi, where we announced the good news so I could post it everywhere and share that we would finally be on our way to Palau! When Mr. Keith received me from ‘Kota Hening’ back in January 2020 I was scheduled to join PIL’s good ship ‘Kota Hidayah’ only four days later. Instead, we waited nearly two years. If that is not great persistence and dedication then I don’t know what?! Captain Zaidi’s lovely wife had actually reached out to me on Instagram four days before I joined ‘Kota Ratna’. Word travels fast? And the video Capt. Zaidi and I made was shared several times and ended up being seen by many. We were definitely off to a good start. Hong Kong Immigration did not board the ship as they normally would. Instead, immigration came along side in a small boat and our passports were lowered down to them in a bag via a rope. The pandemic is very much still alive and the shipping industry has had to find a way to cope with it just like everyone else. Once cleared by immigration the pilot came onboard and we left Hong Kong after nightfall. Temperatures were taken of all onboard twice a day as an extra precaution. And for the first three days while onboard I was instructed to wear a mask when not inside my cabin. I was the first to join the ship in twenty-eight days. COVID-19 safe ship!
Hong Kong Immigration receiving the passports for the final formalities.
Apparently, I had lost my sea legs during the nearly two years in Hong Kong. The pitching and rolling between Hong Kong and Taiwan had me feeling somewhat average and I spent most of my time in bed. I did however join the mandatory familiarization of the ship, where newly joined crew/passengers are taken around the superstructure/accommodation of the ship and notified on the various safety features such as lifeboats and assembly stations whereabouts. As passenger I was listed as ‘supernumerary’ and in case of emergency I was to report to the bridge and stand by. In such an event, if the alarm sounded, I would speedily make my way to the bridge carrying my immersion suit and life jacket. Apart from the safety element the familiarization also covered where the gym was, where meals were served, the smoking room, laundry room, engine room and the assortment of waste (metals, plastics, food waste etc). What can I say; it was a real pleasure to be back onboard a great ship returning into the North Pacific Ocean! And my seasickness was gone by the time we reached Taiwan.
It doesn't look to bad and it wasn't. But swell and wind combined can move even a large ship.
I really like seafarers and find them to be pure of heart. The life of a seafarer has changed massively over the years and will continue to do so. However, some things remain the same. Once you are at sea, you are no longer with your family. Contracts typically span from three to ten months depending on rank, and during the pandemic, joining or departing a ship has at time been nightmarish! While we were at sea Hong Kong it was announced that Hong Kong, which is a main hub for crew change, banned several flights during a recent response in the fight against COVID-19. So how will these seafarers now be able to return home after their contracts run out? You will also not be able to leave the ship if your replacement cannot make it to the ship. The uncertainty is a highly stressful factor for many and the future has for years been volatile. In this, seafarers and I relate to each other. They often do not know when they can return home and neither do I. For nearly two years while in Hong Kong my mental state was under severe pressure as we went from days, to weeks, to months to years! Where we differ is of course that I could probably have returned home “simply” by quitting, whereas a seafarer must stay onboard until someone finds a solution. Yet, few seafarers have been stuck for years. Life onboard for the seafarers is mostly work, work, work and routine. But every so often there is time for a BBQ/party. Once a month if time and weather permits. As such we had a party while at sea between Taiwan and Guam. We were hoping for dry weather but we had some rain. We expected the wind to blow about 12 knots but it hit us with 25 knots! Yet: what a party!! :)
Party time on 'Kota Ratna'
You may be familiar with the 'egg-and-spoon race'. How about a: 'lemon-and-spoon race on one leg with the spoon in your mouth' in rain and wind while the ship rolls! :)
You may be familiar with the 'musical chairs' game in which there is 1 more contender than chairs and you need to sit when the music stops? How about at sea with grown-ups! :)
We were out there barbecuing shrimp and meat. The music was playing and the steward, who recently advanced to 2nd Cook, was dancing with a huge smile on his face in front of all the food and snacks he and the Chief Cook had prepared! I’ve experienced parties at sea before but I do not remember dancing? And the dancing was plentiful!! We even had a dance competition which was nothing less than brilliant!! I have included a one-minute MUST WATCH video for you to get a sense of the atmosphere. I wish I could dance like that! But leave that to the Indians and the Indonesians. Modern Vikings are not known for their dance moves ;)
This video makes me happy EVERYTIME!! :)
Great crew on 'Kota Ratna'! :)
We were four nationalities onboard including my own. The majority (14) from India, 7 from Indonesia and 2 Chinese (Chief Engineer and 2nd Engineer). Together they accounted for twenty-three amazing people and during the party it was hard to tell that most of these seafarers had never met before and were not life long friends. Since December I have been forty-three years of age which made me the 4th oldest person onboard ‘Kota Ratna’. And only two days younger than one of the seamen. Many things play into what makes a ship good: the ships design, the food onboard, the air-conditioning, the crewmembers, management, and social engagement just to mention some. I have been on ships where nobody seemed to speak to each other and all the cabin doors were always closed. And I have been on ships teeming with life with most cabin doors open and music and laughter sounding across the decks. You can never be sure if you’ll be joining a ship which sits stable in the ocean or one which moves and rolls easily. You never quite know if the food will be to your tasting or not? I was really lucky as the kitchen was just restoked in Hong Kong so nothing was amiss.
Chief Officer Biswas teaching Deck Cadet Singh. There were three cadets onboard: Deck Cadet Singh, Deck Cadet Bajpai and Electrical Engineer Cadet Kamal. The future generation of PIL's fleet in training.
We reached Guam which looked like a really interesting place worth a visit. Some 160,000 beating hearts have their daily life on Guam which is a lot for a small Pacific Island. I was fortunate to meet PIL’s agent (at a safe distance) in the ships office and he was a really nice guy. While along side we would all wear masks until back at sea. The agent had spent quite some time dealing with immigration on my behalf. The CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) had found it suspicious that I was traveling onboard a containership and there was internal division amongst immigration regarding letting me onboard ‘Kota Ratna’ within Guam’s territorial waters (even as I held a U.S. B1-B2 visa). The kind agent could tell me that the final decision was actually made in Washington (!) and I’m glad they made the right one. I wonder how thick my file might now be within the NSA, the FBI or the CIA’s archives? ;) The agent expressed what a shame it was with the pandemic as he would happily have brought me to the other side of the island and shown me some of the sights, which included waterfalls and bomb craters which have since WWII become ocean water pools near the seaside. Great stuff! Adventures for another time. I had to make do with a local sim card and gained access to the internet for a while. In Taiwan I also had a sim card and the one from Guam also worked at our next port call which was Saipan. At sea we were offline.
The engine room. I know next to nothing about engines. But this one has six cylinders and can technically push 'Kota Ratna' to a max speed of 18 knots at 136 rpm. But we were mostly moving forward at an economical speed of about 11-12 knots which is also better for the environment.
While I don't know much about engines I do know something about people. And the guys in the engine room were simply outstanding! :)
Saipan was a short voyage from Guam and we arrived the next day. Before reaching each port, a pilot would come onboard to help guide ‘Kota Ratna’ safely alongside. The entry to Saipan was particularly exotic with a smallish island across from the port with white sand and turquoise water around it. We even saw a whale at a distance which is quite rare for most voyages. I have been fortunate to see my share of whales, but from very few of the twenty-six containerships I have been lucky to take passage onboard. In my experience, when at sea, you see nothing but water and sky. No fish, no whales, no dolphins, no ships, no garbage, no mermaids, no aliens, no nothing. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it doesn’t. Occasionally you might see a few birds. But usually there’s a lot of emptiness out there. And that within itself can be more than enough. The open vastness of the ocean is a reminder to how small we all are, and to how large the world in fact is. We heard news of the volcanic eruption in Tonga and the tsunami which followed. Many have since contacted me to ask if we felt anything? The reality was that we were 1/8th of our planets circumference away from Tonga and did not feel a thing. That is far more than the width of USA from coast to coast. But what an immense show of power that was from Mother Earth!? I feel for those who have been harmed by this disaster and I feel positively encouraged by all the help which is already being directed to Tonga, often in collaboration with the Red Cross.
Safety is a huge part of life at sea. Safety drills are therefore regularly held and in this photo you see a demonstration on how to put the immersion suit on. After a completed fire drill, an abandon ship drill and an oil pollution drill.
Ah yes, an entry from a fifteen-day voyage could go on forever and I could easily type up fifteen pages for you. However, I’ll do my best to wrap it up now. I have had many interesting conversations while onboard the good ship and I felt truly welcome during the entire voyage. I was free to walk about on ‘Kota Ratna’ and all I had to do before heading outside was report it to the bridge. As such I decided to get some distance into my legs after the first week and worked out that thirty rounds of the good ship would amount to 10km (6.2mi). There was even a 300m (984ft) elevation gain (and loss as well) in the staircases at the bow and stern along with the overall angle of the ship from bow to stern. I did it four times while onboard, each time listening to podcasts and observing the sea. My days also went by with reading and watching movies. I slept much more than normal and I generally sleep really well onboard these ships. There is a constant vibration throughout the ship from the massive engine, which drives the propeller. Even when the engine is off there’s a weaker vibration from the generator. ‘Kota Ratna’ would roll more and more as we unloaded full containers, loaded more and more empties, and became lighter. The rolling just becomes a part of life and you quickly forget about both the vibrations and any light rolling. When a ship begins to roll more than 15 degrees, stuff might fall off the table. We had a few 25-degree rolls and during one night I had to get up and secure all which had landed on the floor. It becomes challenging to do simple stuff like putting on trousers or shoes. But as mentioned, you quickly adjust and it becomes a part of life. The hallways of the various decks, deck A, B, C and D, would sometimes smell of sweat or soap depending on who walked by. The temperatures kept crawling up from Hong Kong all the way down to Palau where it was warm and humid. Around 30 degrees Celsius (86F) and a relative humidity of 89%.
The view from the bridge on a clear day with near mirrorlike conditions.
May I present to you: the brave seafarers of 'Kota Ratna'.
For me a good ship needs to have a good Captain. You cannot place it all on the Captain, but a good Captain takes good care of the ship and the crew. And ‘Kota Ratna’ certainly had a good Captain along with good officers, engineers and seafarers. I had many good conversations with Captain Zaidi, who is fond of moon risings. Initially I thought to myself that I of course had seen a moon rising. But eventually it dawned on me that I might never have? I have seen the moon hanging low over the horizon on a number of occasions. I may never have seen the moon rise up from the horizon? Some seafarers are at sea because there was no other choice. Others are at sea for the passion within the life. Captain Zaidi is certainly competent, knowledgeable, attentive and kind. And he seemed to be well-liked onboard. Personally, I never had to ask for anything twice and I rarely had to ask for anything to begin with. I got the royal treatment onboard. The food was good, I dined in the Chief Officers seat next between the Captain and Chief Officer, all my meals were served for me, and I had a good time with the crew. After reaching Yap we were on our way to Palau. We followed the schedule as clockwork and even arrived early, although couldn’t come along side until January 19th as originally scheduled. There was only one shipping company which could have brought the Saga to Palau. And they managed to do it in the midst of a pandemic! I am grateful to Pacific International Lines, the employees in Singapore, the agents at the ports and all involved. Too the brave crew on the good ship ‘Kota Ratna’ there is only one thing to say: Fair Winds and Following Seas!
Nearing Palau beside Captain Zaidi. Thank you!
If you enjoyed this blog or think I am doing a good job then you can support here below. The Saga still needs funding. Thank you :)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - eight countries from home
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga